Imagine a late 16th-Century European Kingdom. The King is obsessed with invading a small neighbouring country for no good reason. He would not profit neither economically nor politically.

However, his problem is that he can't decide on his own to go to war. He needs to put it to some assembly/government/council. And only if they agree, can the war be started. However the members of that assembly are reluctant to do so because it would be costly in financial and human terms, for no real profit.

Now, I am stuck at giving a body and legal status to that assembly. I am not a specialist of neither Magna Carta, nor the constituancy regime that was later implemented in England, but I believe none actually limited the power of the King such that he couldn't decide on going to war.

I can only think of two ways to block the King: economic council. Without money, the King cannot start the war, and he can't get enough money without the council approval. Military head of the army. If the head of the army refuse to go (that would be a first!) to war, the King would be blocked.

Do you think such an economic council could exist in the context? Who would be their members?

I'd appreciate alternatives as well, but it has to be realistic for the mentality of people of that time. Even better if you find historical references.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A feudal system with a weak king could be enough to prevent a war. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 13:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Off with their heads!!!! <- Medieval strategy to cut through the thick of things until one's own head is offed. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 13:34
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ FWIW, most late 16th-Century European kingdoms didn't really have a standing peacetime military capable of invading anything. The position of "head of the army" is likely to mean, "the person that the King put in charge of the army he just raised, and could replace in a heartbeat", so I'd count on the economic block if I were you ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 2:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The king might just offend the neighbouring enough to make them declare war on him. This is basically what Prussia did in 1870 when they wanted a war with France without the UK interfering. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 8:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Playing Crusader Kings 2 may help answer your question for the Cassus Belli stuff needed to declare war in medieval Europe. $\endgroup$
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 13:06

8 Answers 8


Power resides where people believe it resides.

Your conditions are met by the history of the House of Commons in England (n.b. distinct from the HoC of Britain or the UK, which formed later). The Parliament was established in the form that has continuity through to today in the 13th century as an advisory body. It was never disbanded, its advice was often taken, and many of its opinions were enforced by semi-official means (i.e. whatever other forms of authority the members possessed).

After such an organization exists, and gets its way, for centuries, people become used to the idea that it can exercise power. Its decrees become legitimate laws because people become used to following them. Parliament started by making complaints about taxation and somewhere along the line people started taking its complaints as having the force of law. It was also used as a rubberstamp to grant a veneer of legitimacy by incoming rulers in extraordinary circumstances, such as the deposition of Edward II. Over the centuries, precedent built up, and it seeped the power to control state finances out of the Crown, eventually gaining enough public support that it could turn on the Crown.

At no point was it ever officially given the authority to do this by a higher state power; it simply overtook the Crown as the source of legal legitimacy in the eyes of the public and the army as more and more of the work passed through it. Being officially granted powers would contribute nothing to its actual ability to enforce its will: if your ability to command the public derives entirely from the King's delegated authority, he can always take that power away again.

England reached this point because the Parliament spent a long time existing in near-irrelevance, gradually building a precedent that laws came through it. There are other ways to arrange a similar situation, e.g. a powerful king might convene a senior board of business leaders and landowners so that they can rapidly make decisions; when the founding king dies, his son isn't invited to board meetings any more. However, the idea that the King gets to a stage where he cannot automatically rely on public support because the authority is no longer seen as his puts the council in the strongest position.

In other words, it's not a question of who commands the financiers. Anyone can issue commands. It's a question of who they listen to.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I can think of a good example of this for the asker to consult, which directly pertains to economic limitations on the king's war powers: Under Richard II, after the Peasants' Revolts, the House of Commons refused to institute new poll taxes to fund warfare in France. The way the HoC responded to popular sentiment, and the king was forced to listen, may serve as useful inspiration for a fictional parallel. $\endgroup$
    – recognizer
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 18:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The 1215 Magna Carta formally required the royal council's approval for taxation in England. Of course, the Magna Carta was anulled by the Pope after a couple of months, but this is where along the line there started to be a formal legal foundation for that part of parliament's role. I don't know whether the successors to Magna Carta explicitly mentioned it, but in practice after this time the Crown didn't raise taxes other than through parliament. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 2:39
  • $\begingroup$ "[Parliament] was never disbanded" - not so. It was summoned on a temporary basis by the monarch, and dissolved after it had finished its work. King Charles I ruled without Parliament for 11 years, from 1629-40. Even today, a British election campaign is formally started by the dissolution of Parliament; for several weeks, there are no Members of Parliament, only candidates. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 11:23

A feudal structure is like a pyramid when it comes to military power. In order to raise an army - a prerequisite for going to war - your King needs the support of those directly under him (the Dukes, or equivalents). He will likely have some forces that are directly loyal to him, but the majority are actually under his subordinate nobles.

While in theory when he says "jump" the Dukes need to ask "how high", in practice things are going to be a bit murkier. If the Dukes really don't want to go to war, they have tactics they can use to delay things. For example, when he asks them for troops the Dukes can send him a bunch of untrained, poorly equipped farmers. Or they could plead that they need their people for a harvest, and stall, stall, stall. Or they could avoid sending taxes, starving the King of funds, or accidentally misplace the food the King was using to keep his army fed. So while sure, the King can declare war unilaterally, he's not going to have the army or supplies to be effective.

The King's ability to strong arm the Dukes into doing what he wants is limited by the fact that if he really pisses them off, they'll likely rise up and replace him. So he will absolutely need to gather support from at least some of the major nobility if he wants to have an effective and supplied army to invade with.

  • $\begingroup$ Dan I think you missed the main question at the end of the OP $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ I think he answered it perfectly but to sum it up: yes, and his dukes and counts would be the members of the council. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @James: I was going off of the "I'd appreciate alternatives as well". Really though, he could mix the two and have the Dukes basically be the effective economic + military council (as Magic-Mouse mentioned). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ That could work...or you could probably have an alternate world where the merchants have become insanely wealthy and have all the nobles by the short curly's...that's not so hard to conceive. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ @James, as far as I am concerned, this is a perfectly valid answer. Indeed it goes more into the alternative options, but interesting for me anyway. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 20:22

One way to give the council leverage is to have an alternative claimant to the throne. For instance, like in the wars of the roses, or during the early years of Elizabeth's reign. The alternative is living somewhere safe, where the King can't touch him/her and the only reason he stays King is because the majority of the Barons (who make up the council) support his claim instead of the alternative's.

This means that if the King steps too far out of line, the Barons can always switch allegiances, depose the King and bring over the alternative. If the King is already looking over his shoulder due to high taxes, and poor foreign policy, then you have a situation where he can't afford to start a war.

You can tie things up neatly by actually putting the alternative claimant in the neighbouring country that the King wants to attack. If relations are poor, the neighbouring King has plenty of reason to want to offer the claimant asylum and maybe marry them to some daughter he has lying around. It would also offer the King extra incentive to want to attack the neighbour, since he could then get rid of the claimant and cement his hold on the throne.


I think economic reasons are very plausible, it's a little after your time frame but look at the English Civil war. The ability of parliament to control taxation frustrated Charles I and is one of the major root causes of that war. A small group within parliament was able to control/manipulate it to frustrate the kings attempts to raise the funds he needed. This might be a better approach than an easily targeted council that directly opposes the king.

Another reason I don't think you mentioned was religion, something like the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. If the King was trying to side with nations representing the 'wrong' side against a country that shared the majority beliefs. It isn't hard to imagine the lords/barons refusing to levy troops for the war.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, watching a video yesterday, made me realise that I am missing a very important factor, namely the Church. That could also be a good option for me. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ I think the English Civil war is a good model for what you want in general. It was a time where there is a balance in power between monarch and parliament and there were bubbling religious tensions. $\endgroup$
    – Dustybin80
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 9:57

I think there is a fairly simple solution, although details do vary depending on how feudal or autocratic the state is so you'll need to adjust them.

Basically, few generations back the king (probably not the same as the current king?) decided to start a war, muster the troops and institute the war taxes. And the feudal lords and the parliament said no. The king let that stand and decided not to start a war after all. That gives a legal precedent for the lords and the parliament to veto the kings wish to declare a war. And legal precedent is really all legitimacy means. You can have written constitution to manufacture that precedent, but that does not really change anything. If it was done before, and it was accepted as legit, it is the law.

Like I said the details vary. The body that has the veto might be a war council of high nobility who are direct vassals of the king, it might be a parliament that has oversight of taxation. But that is essentially flavor. If your setting has an existing body you want to use, do so. If it doesn't an ad hoc war council of nobles that has no legal status other than a veto on declarations of war due to a past incident works just as well. And that right of veto doesn't need to be written anywhere, informal consensus of who is in the council and that it can veto the war is all that is needed.

  • $\begingroup$ A precedent isn't necessarily law. For example, in the united states, scene the presidency of George Washington, it had been a precedent that presidents could serve only two terms, then Roosevelt changed that, and a declared law written down was passed by a trusted power. As long as a power is trusted and has a reputation, they control the power. $\endgroup$
    – Travis
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Wyatt True enough, but the same happens with written laws as well and pretty much the same way. That is, unless someone has a vested interest to retain the precedent or the law, a new and different one can be established exactly the same way as if the previous law or precedent had never existed. But given that I am fairly certain I got your actual point and do not disagree with it, I will not argue the semantics. I'll just point out that any body that had veto to declarations of war by precedent would be very interested in protecting that veto. So it would be the law de facto. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 15:40

All power is essentially boiled down to a question of leverage. That is, how much pressure needs to be applied to create the desired outcome. The less the pressure needed, the more leverage exists. To answer the question:

Do you think such an economic council could exist in the context?

We need to first try to find a leverage point. An economic council could exist in that context if the members of said council had the appropriate leverage. This would mean that they would need to control the economy of the country so completely that the King is prevented from moving without their blessing.

Lets say that many years ago the King's father won a bid for a large collection of independent merchants who agreed to move their industry into the King's country so long as they were consulted on all matters that would directly challenge their bottom line. As a result of their presence in the country, it has prospered and grown, however, the merchants are also now in almost complete control of all industry and trade. Because they don't see themselves as citizens as much as business partners, they are perfectly willing to use their leverage to stop any action on the King's part that would hurt their income.

This principle worked well for the so called "Merchant Princes" between the 14th and 17th century. Because you could not move goods without their consent they held enormous political power. As an illustration, here is a bit on the Medici, probably the best known Merchant Family of that time, as well as the corresponding Wikipedia article for comparison.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you provide a link for those "Merchant Princes" ? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 20:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Added two links about the Medici, probably the best known example of Merchant Princes. Their family ruled for quite some time with no military power. $\endgroup$
    – SRing
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 11:59

You might also look into mercenaries.

In many wars at that time, mercenaries were an important force. But they have to be paid. To some degree they also have to be convinced that they will be on the winning side. Either can be difficult.

They can also add drama later on when they might decide the war is going poorly and threaten to leave.


During feudal times the most important element to wage a war was the gold. Your king will be limited in his capacity to wage war by his stores of gold. Armies can be raised relatively quickly if you have enough gold. Via family connections he can get more troops via his political connections too, by enlisting his dukes, barons etc. Even if most of the nobility is against the war, the king can still force his way via mercenaries. The king is usually the richest noble due to the feudal obligations of the other nobles. Even them, the concept of vassalage forces the nobles to send troops to his king to wage war. The king is the upper noble, all other nobles are his vassals. Magna Carta had more to do with noble's rights about taxes and of not suffering violence etc, it has not much to do with the king's capacity to wage a war.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .