On The Nature of Monarchy

In 1957, Ernst Kantorowicz published The King’s Two Bodies (KTB), a deep and penetrating analysis of the relationship between monarchy and the public realm. In this magisterial work, Kantorowicz explained with unmatched clarity the language of the medieval theologians and jurists, from dignitas to fisc to corpus mysticum, all of which have passed out of the bounds of our quite technocratic political language, but have, in many ways, shaped and laid the foundations for its articulation. The corpus mysticum, for instance, made the very notion of ‘popular sovereignty’ even thinkable, not merely conceivable. This article is an attempt to distill my research into Kantorowicz’s theory of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’, of the corporeal function that kingship played, in both the continuity of a people and in the question of the acting body, to show what the nature of monarchy actually is, beyond a simple constitutional component. 

In Kantorowicz’s analysis, there are three consistent themes: first, the synecdochical relationship assumed between the physical body of the king and the unphysical ‘body’ of the people over whom he ruled; second, the important function of continuity that the office performed; and third, the normative relationship between ruler and ruled. However, before turning to these three themes, it is important to note that Kantorowicz’s analysis revolves around two significant observations: first, that there was an awareness of the difference between ‘the King’, meaning of the office of monarch, and ‘the king’, meaning the actual person who occupied that office. This is the origin of Kantorowicz’s chosen title: ‘that by the Common Law no Act which the King does as King, shall be defeated by his Nonage. For the King has in him two bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic’, a juridical fiction which, logically, ‘conveys “immortality” to the individual king as King, that is, with regard to his superbody’ in such a way that, in one court case, loyalty to King Henry VIII could be demanded as if he were ‘still “alive” though Henry Tudor had been dead for ten years’ (KTB:: 7, 13-14).

The second significant observation is that of the role played by Christian theology in the creation of a language of organic unity between ruler and ruled. It was St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 12, verses 12 and 27) that affirmed the image of the Church as a single body, with Christ as the head, with whom the laity enjoyed unity, but the systematic expression of such a unity was St. Augustine’s to make. He referred only ever to the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’, or in his native Latin, Corpus Christi – though interestingly, the phrase the ‘mystical body of Christ’ was not St. Augustine’s but was coined much later. Regardless, Corpus Christi refers to the idea that Christ ‘is to be taken no longer as an individual, but in His fullness, that is, with the whole Church, with all of the members, of whom He is the Head, as constituting one unit, one whole, one person’ (Grabowski, 1946: 73-75). It is important, however, to bear in mind how one individual person might join the body of the Church: through confirmation, and communion; in other words, through express desire, and continual affirmation of membership. Such an act ‘constitutes a spiritual entity which is [Christ’s] Body here on earth’ that results in ‘the incorporation into the Body of Christ’ (Grabowski, 1946: 84-85). As Kantorowicz shows, such doctrine was used as the basis for the relationship between people and k/King. Though Pope Boniface VIII intended to reassert the Papacy above secular powers, and remind them of their ‘purely functional character within the world community of the corpus mysticum Christi’ [the spiritual body of Christ],  it was the implication of ‘the Lord’s two bodies’ that would inform the emergent doctrine of the k/King’s two bodies, to such an extent that Kantorowicz considered it to mold ‘most significantly and decisively the political thinking in the high and late Middle Ages’ (KTB, 194-206):

To summarize, the notion of corpus mysticum, designating originally the Sacrament of the Altar, served after the twelfth century to describe the body politic, or corpus iuridicum, of the Church, which does not exclude the lingering on of some of the earlier connotations. Moreover, the classical christological distinction of the Two Natures in Christ… has been replaced by the corporational, non-christological concept of the Two Bodies of Christ. 

It was in the wake of this theoretical shift that the secular powers, competing with the Church for supremacy, were able to adopt the language of the state as a body, with such phrases as corpus Reipublicae mysticum, which allowed the jurists to arrive ‘like the theologians, at a distinction between corpus verum – the tangible body of an individual person – and corpus fictum, the corporate collective which was intangible and existed only as a fiction of jurisprudence (KTB: 207-209). It is important to note here that the unique transformation brought about by the turn to the Christological terminology is specifically the idea of the body politic as a mystical body, not merely a body coterminous with the physical individuals that composed a political community. With this theoretical and theological background informing both the emergence of the doctrine of the k/King’s two bodies, and the internal relationship between them, this creates much of the intellectual condition for the emergence of ‘the people’ as a mystical body abstracted from its component parts.

Focusing, however, on the k/King’s two bodies, the synecdochical relationship between the King and the people was a fiction well-theorised in medieval theology. In the mid-fifteenth century, it was generally acknowledged that ‘an attack against the king’s natural [physical] person was, at the same time, an attack against the body corporate of the realm’, with a qualifying difference of ‘“one [body] descending from nature, the other from the polity”’ (KTB: 15, 46). Drawing on Anthony Black’s comments that legality relied on a certain conception of a people as both a trans-temporal entity that those laws applied to, as well as the source of the authority of laws, the relevance of a people’s corporality makes sense when we observe that ‘“Laws, and not the person, make the king”… a statement well known to Canonists; and according to the lex Digna itself the emperors confess: “On authority of the Law our authority depends”’ (KTB: 150). 

If the King is a part committed to the whole of ‘the people’ as a single entity, then it must be remembered the authority of the King is derived from – whilst also being somewhat concurrent with – that entity’s will. After all, as one French jurist claimed, ‘the French king, like the Roman emperor, “had all the rights, especially the right pertaining to his kingdom, shut in his breast”’ (KTB: 153). Of course, this manifested differently across peoples: famously, in England, ‘the people’ was present in specifically in the King in Parliament; just as ‘the comitatus or county took visible form in the comitatus or county court, so the realm took visible form in a parliament’ (Maitland, 1901: 133). This held, however, for the English jurist Henry de Bracton (1210-1268) a paradox: ‘either the king is sovereign or no; if he be sovereign then he is not legally below the law, his obligation to obey the law is at most a moral obligation; on the other hand if he is below the law, then he is not sovereign, he is below some man or some body of men’ (cited in Maitland, 2015: 101). Although this was mostly resolved by the juridical separation between king-as-person and King-as-office, as noted above, it did eventually lead to the question of where sovereignty lay.

Of course, all of this relies on the recognition that there is an entity of ‘the people’ that is physically separate from the king, but ‘the king’s body politic could be the realm as a body politic – with the king as the head and the subjects as the members – or it could be the office of kingship – the dignity’ (Fortin, 2021: 5), . Joseph Canning has also noted the rise in medieval political thought of the distinction between the king and the people over whom he ruled: ‘notions according the kingdom an existence distinct from that of its king, organological views of society organised into a corporate body, and views of rulership as public office’ created the capacity to think that ‘the concept of a royal office, whose purpose was to serve the common good, involved the notion that the regnum or populus had a separate existence from that of its monarch’ (Canning, 2009: 64-65). This especially became emphasised in the later Middle Ages when (KTB: 193):

the centre of gravity shifted, as it were, from the ruling personages to the ruled collectivities, the new national monarchies, and the other political aggregates of human society. In other words, the exchanges between Church and State continued; but in the field of mutual influence, expanding from individual dignitaries to compact communities, henceforth was determined by legal and constitutional problems concerning the structure and interpretation of the bodies politic.

This is a significant development, as it coincided ‘with that moment in the history of Western thought when the doctrines of corporational and organic structure of society began to pervade anew the political theories of the West and to mold most significantly and decisively the political thinking in the high and late Middle Ages’, a change capitalised on by Baldus de Ubaldis in his definition of a ‘populus, the people, as a mystical body. He held that a populus was not simply the sum of individuals of a community, but “men assembled into one mystical body” … a body or corporation to be grasped only intellectually, since it was not a real or material body’ (KTB: 199-210). Despite the emergence, however, of the body politic as an ‘intellectual body’, the k/King remained the physical representation of that body politic in the world, as ‘the polity itself, or the mystical body of the realm, could not exist without its head’ (KTB: 227); hence, whilst the trend developing was to admit that ‘a people’ was a real entity separate from the physical body of the king, it was not thought to be capable of existing or, importantly, acting without something or someone through which it can be embodied. 

Interestingly, Marie-France Fortin has recently shown that Kantorowicz’s analysis reveals that, whilst the power of dignity, dignitas, conferred upon the prince by an ‘immortal polity’ (KTB: 397), was concurrent with the office of kingship, it was ‘the Crown, on the other hand, [that] connoted a more general, public and communal sphere’ and was ‘incomplete without the other members of society’ (Fortin, 2021: 2). We can turn here to the second theme of Kantorowicz’s analysis, that of continuity and the problem that the physicality of ‘the king’s two bodies’ created; as Kantorowicz noted, ‘the concept of the “king’s two bodies” camouflaged a problem of continuity’ and it would be a ‘mistake to assume that the new philosophic tenet produced, caused or created a new belief in the perpetual continuity of political bodies’ (KTB: 273) – this was a perennial issue in political thought, and the continuity of the king’s two bodies is more of a product, than a cause, of such an issue. 

Indeed, ‘the practical needs of kingdoms and communities led to the fiction of a quasi-infinite continuity of public institutions’ and that ‘practical needs produced institutional changes presupposing, as it were, the fiction of an endless continuity of the bodies politic’ (KTB: 284, 291). This is not to say the k/King was the only source of continuity: as with above, the law was seen a particularly reliable mechanism by which ‘every plurality of men collected in one body’ could be treated as a ‘juristic person, of distinguishing that juristic person clearly from every natural person endowed with body and soul, and yet of treating a plurality of individuals juristically as one person’ (KTB: 306). 

On the topic of the relationship between law and custom as methods of continuity for a body politic, St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings are particularly revealing. He claims, for instance, that ‘when a thing is done again and again, it seems to proceed from a deliberate judgement of reason. Accordingly, custom has the force of law, abolishes the law, and is the interpreter of law’ (1988: 80). As conservatives, I think we ought to be particularly sensitive to St. Thomas’ writings on this topic, especially as our modern world often forces us to see the law and tradition in conflict. Nonetheless, in the medieval era, the law increasingly became the source of legitimacy for public actions, be they of the King or any other public office.

However, the law could not resolve the issue of action and decision in and of itself, especially as there were increasing attempts to incorporate the ‘ruler’s will’ in the legal system, to the extent that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tussled with this will when compared to the ‘rights of the community’, with the kingship as an office ‘established with the specific purpose of securing the preservation and well-being of the communities which the ruler served’ (Canning, 2009: 162-166). Whilst I turn to the normative relationship between ruler and ruled shortly, here we can focus on Kantorowicz’s important observation that, as a product of the belief in the continuity of the people ‘as an universitas “which never dies”’ (KTB: 314), there arose the significant question of whether the corporate realm existed between the death of one king and the coronation of another. Whilst the earlier Middle Ages imagined that, due to the intertwining between Church and State, ‘the continuity of a realm during an interregnum had been sometimes preserved by a fiction: Christ stepped into the gap as interrex and secured, through his own eternity, the continuity of kingship’, the increasing tendency of Popes to claim authority as interrex made the fiction politically dangerous. Instead, the fiction arose of the sempiternity of the Crown (KTB: 334-335, 341-342): 

In the phrase “head and Crown” the word Crown served to add something to the purely physical body of the king and to emphasise that more than the king’s “body natural” was meant; and in the phrase “realm and Crown” the word Crown served to eliminate the purely geographic-territorial aspect of regnum and to emphasise unambiguously the political character of regnum… briefly, as opposed to pure physis of the king and the pure physis of the territory, the word “Crown,” when added, indicated the political metaphysis in which both rex and regnum shared, or the body politic (to which both belonged) in its sovereign rights.

As Fortin observes, the melding of the two symbols of King and Crown allowed elements of that perpetual community that the King ought to have embodied – the people – to pass into the Crown, such as the eternity of the office, and the corporate realm of the body politic (2021: 8). As a result, ‘in the later Middle Ages the idea was current that in the Crown the whole body politic was present… in this respect indeed the Crown and the “mystical body of the realm” were comparable entities. Neither one nor the other existed all by itself “in the abstract” and separate from the constituents’ (KTB: 363). We see here, then, a similarity to the Aristotelian notion of the polis as an embodied corporeal people, as well as a comparison to John Ma’s analogy of the polis as ‘social memory’; a reliance on a physical presence, be it king, king-in-parliament, or so on, meant the continuity of a people’s acting body had to be reflected in an equally continuous physical presence. In this respect, this was part of the conflation of Crown and King that Fortin analyses, in that each symbol acted complementary to the other: whilst the Crown was the eternal symbol, the King could be embodied in the king. This theoretical move was reflected most clearly in the emergence of the phrase ‘The king is dead! Long live the king!’ which, whilst deceptively simple, ‘powerfully demonstrated the perpetuity of kingship’ by suggesting an unbroken embodiment of the King that did not ‘end’ with one king’s death (or, ‘demise’) and another king’s accession (KTB: 412). Regardless, ‘the Crown… could hardly be severed from the king as King…. It remained possible, for example, to personify the Crown which, representing something that touched all, stood in many respects for the whole body politic’ (KTB: 372, 383). 

This brings us to the third theme of Kantorowicz’s work, that of the normative relationship between ruler and ruled. We can see clearly the synecdochical relationship that arose out of the organological, ‘corporate realm’ thought, as well as the use of the office of kingship to reflect a theorisation of the ruled people as a continuous entity, but this has not really answered the question of why an embodiment of that people is necessary. Whereas Aristotle’s theory of the polis as necessary for the bios and therefore the highest expression of the common good, the concomitant principle to the theorisation of a continuous people was one in which ‘the idea of a state existing only for its own sake was foreign… the very belief in a divine Law of Nature as opposed to Positive Law, a belief then shared by every thinker, almost necessitated the ruler’s position both above and below the Law’ (Kantorowicz, 2016: 144). Though the concept of popular sovereignty was historically distant, the awareness of the separability between the ruler and the ruled, at least on a practical level, had to be balanced with the necessity of the people’s capability to act as a political body. The Divine Right of Kings was certainly one answer, as ‘the king acts for the people which has been committed to his care by God and which cannot act for itself’ (Canning, 2009: 21). Just as the idea of Christ as the interrex declined, so too did the religious foundation for kingship, but the organological concept still posited that the King was the head of the body of the people. To justify the capacity for the King to act, not on behalf of the people, but as the people, there arose a particular conception of the universitas, the body corporate, as a legal minor. Largely a product of rediscovered Roman law, the conflation of ‘madmen, children and cities’ under an edict meant that (KTB: 374):

when, in the course of the thirteenth century, the corporational doctrines were developed, the notion of “city”, civitas, was logically transferred to any universitas or any body corporate, and it became a stock-in-trade expression to say that the universitas was ever an infant and under age because it needed a curator. 

Importantly, as this idea matured, it was transferred to the symbolic entity of the Crown, to the effect that ‘as a perpetual minor, the Crown itself had corporational character – with the king as its guardian, though again not with the king alone, but with that composite body of king and magnates’ (KTB: 381). 

What matters here is the relationship given between ruler and ruled that allows for the concentration of political action in the king; the corporeal embodiment of a people in the political world in a single person in such a way that allowed the people to act was due to that people’s inability to act for itself, owing to its legal immaturity as a single corporate body, and not merely because of its physical disaggregation as a multitude of individuals. As a result, ‘the king appeared as the animate instrument of a fictitious, and therefore immortal, person called Dignity’, meaning ‘the dogma of a political Incarnation, a noetic incarnation of the Dignitas or of the Body politic’ (KTB: 445). To compare this to the polis, then, whereas the people could act as a political community through a deliberation with consideration for the common good, under kingship the people were incapable of doing so, under the prevailing legal fiction, resulting in a concentration of decisionist power in the office of King. This was developed into the sleeping sovereign thesis by early theorists of popular sovereignty, but prior to the emergence of popular sovereignty as a concept, the necessity of an acting person required the existence of the office of King and the concept of Crown.

The King, as the office, was the embodiment of the entire body politic; embodied, of course, in the physcal body of the king himself (or queen herself). This is why the political community of the people lived and died with the monarchy – not the specific monarch, because to do so would risk admitting that the people could die. This was the inspiration behind Thomas Hobbes’ famous Leviathan frontispiece, in which an enormous person was composed of the very individuals over whom he governed; Hobbes was not writing and imagining the grand body of the body politic in a vacuum, and did not create the idea from the abstract, but was speaking to a long and fruitful tradition of treating the people as a single entity with a will that would allow that people to actualise its desires. 

This tradition is, as I hope to have shown, the legal fiction that the body of the king, as a temporary and temporally-bound entity, is merely the physical embodiment of the King, which is the eternal and spiritual office of the entire body politic over which a monarch reigns. Our modern ideas of popular sovereignty would never have arisen without this fiction, of the original meaning of the phrase, Rex Est Populus: The King is the People. 

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