Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws: Perspectives on the Law of War in the Later Middle Ages

By Theodor Meron | Go to book overview

11
Rebels

Although it remains difficult to characterize a conflict as international or internal, the principal criteria for distinguishing between them have been established.1 In medieval jus gentium, however, the difference between international and internal strife was at best blurred. In areas over which rulers asserted sovereignty, they claimed the right to treat as rebels those who dared oppose them. In the tangled web of feudal relationships which was characterized by hierarchy rather than equality, such assertions, often arbitrary, were common.

This was particularly true in the case of sieges. The decision as to how to treat an adversary was indirectly informed by a geographical and tactical factor: quarter was normally given to those considered equals who were defeated in the field. Quarter was granted because 'the law of arms protected the life of the Christian captive who had given his faith to an enemy.'2 As Keen suggests, accepting a challenge to battle entailed acceptance of God's judgment, but '[t]o refuse the summons of a prince who claimed a town as of right was . . . an insult to his majesty and punishable as such.'3 Life, honour and property were at the mercy of the conqueror.

Apart from the Lollard discontent and the abortive Scrope and Cambridge conspiracy discussed in the play, the historical Henry did not encounter major domestic challenges to his rule and had no qualms about treating as rebels people who dared resist him in that part of France which he claimed as his own. In Henry's era, such a position was virtually unchallenged. Only much later did Renaissance writers question, at first timidly, the morality of treating foreign subjects as rebels. Of course, for Henry, residents of Normandy were his, not Charles's, subjects. Some two

____________________
1
Theodor Meron, ' "on the Inadequate Reach of Humanitarian and Human Rights Law and the Need for a New Instrument"', 77 AJIL 589, 598-600 ( 1983); id., Human Rights in Internal Strife ( 1987), 43-50.
2
LW 124.
3
LW 123-4.

-191-

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