Royal Authority in Visigothic Spain


The Visigoth Crown was dependent on the Spanish Church and the Visigoth Nobility for its Authority, a relationship that weakened the Crown and Monarchy.

The Visigoths, at first, used Roman insignia and symbols, because they believed themselves to be the continuation of Roma rule. The Roman idea of public power based on absolute authority was accepted by them in both practice and theory. It was, however, the role and influence of the higher nobility combined with the ever growing influence of the Iberian Church that weakened and diminished the authority of the monarchy.

The King and the Ruling Elite

The Visigoth kingdom was centered, at first, by elite class of nobility, more or less 200 leading families and some lesser nobles who, together, held most of the good land. The remarkable aspect of this class, unlike those from the other kingdoms, was its willingness to draft members from the lower classes to fill its ranks. This process was based on merit, usually through strength, valour, achievements or royal favour. The ruling elite believed themselves to be an important factor, if not an equal partner, in the power and authority of the Crown. They had the power to choose, elect and ratify a new king. This elective monarchy was different from most others of its time in Europe, as it was very rare that a son would succeed to his father; usually the Crown was passed to another elite family. These same elite formed and aula regia, or a royal advisory committee, to help the King in his administration and decision making processes.

First signs of Decline

The links between the ruling elite and the Crown caused serious problems for the monarchy. By the 6th century, the old Roman administration had become impossible to maintain. In order to govern and administer the land, the Crown was forced to divide authority into smaller units of regional and local bases. The regional areas were controlled by duces and the local areas by comes. This new administrative system was to begin a process of proto-feudalism wherein power shifted from the higher to the lower ranks and authority was based on personal service and relationships. In order to pay the high ranking nobility and militia men for their loyal services, the king would often reward them with lands or stipendia, a land based lease. The close link between the two, the Crown and the Nobility, led to internal fighting and strife, to such a point, that many kings were deposed and even assassinated.

A quick list of the monarchs who ruled Iberia, from the 7th century onwards reveals the instability of the institution. Liuva II (601–603), Witteric (603–610), Gundemar (610–612), Sisebut (612–621), Reccared II (621), Suintila (621–631), Reccimer (626–631), Sisenand (631–636), Iudila (632–633), Chintila (636–640), Tulga (640–641), Chindasuinth (641–653), Recceswinth (649–672), Froia (653), rebel, Wamba (672–680), Hilderic (672), rebel, Paul (672–673), rebel, Erwig (680–687), Egica (687–702), Suniefred (693), rebel, Wittiza (694–710), Roderic (710–711). Some monarchs managed to survive and reign a long time, the majority, however, were short lived. Even those who did manage to survive many years were often confronted with rebel kings supported either by the monarchy or by the church.

The King and the Church

The Iberian Church supported the Crown in all matters, as the Crown symbolised authority and needed to be helped in their role. Even the Arian kings were supported by the Church; such was the Church’s belief in proper and legal authority. If the king wasn’t supported then anarchy would rule, and God’s people would be lost. When Reccared renounced his Arian beliefs and converted to Christianity, 587, the symbiosis between the Church and the Crown was complete. Such was the close bond between the two powers, many of the king’s officials were chosen amongst the ecclesiastical class because they were the best educated, that the King often sought their support and authority to protect himself from the nobility.

The councils of Toledo are a good indication of the bond between the two powers to maintain rightful authority. For example, at the fourth council, the nobility’s right to elect and ratify a king was usurped by the council. In the fifth council, those whom plotted, cursed or threatened the king would suffer excommunication. This was also agreed upon in the sixth council. The seventh council called for sanctions against treason. The thirteenth council added stipulations to guarantee the safety of the royal family after the king’s death. The sixteenth was called by the king to deal with those whom had revolted against him and lastly, the seventeenth dealt once more with the protection of the king’s family. The Church tried to maintain the authority of the Crown, but as is noticed by all the calls to support the king and from the list above of monarchs, they were not very successful.

The elective element of the Visigoth kingdom was the major cause of its decline and eventual destruction by the Moors in 711. The continual struggle between the ruling families led to a disjunction of authority and power that not even church sanctions could impede or halt, in spite of their best attempts to protect the Crown, the King and his family.