Re-Capitating the Body Politic: The Overthrow of Tyrants in Havelok the Dane
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- Wilkie, R.I. Neophilologus (2010) 94: 139. doi:10.1007/s11061-009-9161-0
The theme of legitimate kingship has informed much recent criticism on Havelok the Dane. Most discussion has centred primarily upon Havelok himself rather than the tyrants Godrich and Godard. This paper, therefore, offers a reading of the overthrow of the two usurpers in the light of medieval English political theory and legal practice, focusing on the means by which each is stripped of power and executed. Godard loses Denmark by a legal process reminiscent of early English jury trials while Godrich is overthrown in a battle whose details suggest the rules for judicial combat as spelled out by Henry of Bracton. The means of execution of the two tyrants is also revealing: just as Godard is stripped of the kingdom by legal process, so is he stripped of his own skin, and just as Godrich loses England in the fires of battle, so is his own body burned. The details of the first execution correspond to Bracton’s proposed penalties for lese majesty while those of the second relate to the function of fire itself as a sign of Havelok’s legitimacy.