Doctrine of capacities

Doctrine of capacities

The doctrine of capacities is a concept in the political theory of medieval England, making a distinction between the person of the King and the institution of the Crown.[1] The roots of this political theory can be traced back to the years shortly after the Norman Conquest. Here the distinction was made between the ecclesiastics in their temporal and spiritual capacities. When William the Conqueror brought a case against his brother Odo of Bayeux, Odo defended himself by claiming that as a bishop he could not be prosecuted by lay authorities. William replied that he was not being prosecuted in his capacity as bishop, but in his temporal capacity as Earl of Kent.[2][3] In the reign of Edward I, the principle was applied to the chancellor, to distinguish between his official capacities.[4] Even more significantly, Edward I himself tied the doctrine to the institution of the monarchy, when he tried to revoke a grant he had made as prince after he became king, claiming that he was to be considered a different person then.[5]

In April 1308, in a document presented in parliament, certain barons used the doctrine of capacities to justify opposition against King Edward II. The specific case revolved around King Edward's favourite Piers Gaveston, whom the opposition wanted exiled. This Declaration of 1308 argued that it was the subjects' duty to protect the dignity of the Crown, even if that meant opposition to the King – an act that would normally signify treason.[6] In 1321, however, the opposition against Edward II took the opposite position when they accused Hugh Despenser the Younger of his participation in the Declaration of 1308.[3] By this accusation the doctrine was largely discredited, and rarely used again in the medieval period.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Valente 2003, p. 30
  2. ^ Maitland 1967, pp. 523–4
  3. ^ a b Davies 1967, p. 22
  4. ^ Davies 1967, p. 23
  5. ^ Chrimes 1967, p. 34
  6. ^ Maddicot 1970, pp. 73–4
  7. ^ Maitland 1967, p. 35


  • Chrimes, S. B. (1936). English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Davies, James Conway (1967) [1918]. The Baronial Opposition to Edward II: Its Character and Policy, a Study in Administrative History. London: Cass. 
  • Maddicot, J.R. (1970). Thomas of Lancaster, 1307–1322. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198218370. OCLC 132766. 
  • Maitland, Frederic William; Frederick Pollock (1996) [1898]. The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1886363226. 
  • Valente, Claire (2003). The Theory and Practice of Revolt in Medieval England. Ashgate: Aldershot. ISBN 0754609014. 

Further reading

  • Haines, Roy Martin (2003). King Edward II: Edward of Caernarfon, His Life, His Reign, and Its Aftermath, 1284–1330. Montreal, London: McGill-Queens University Press. pp. 59–60. ISBN 9780773524323. 
  • Kantorowicz, Ernst (1957). The King's Two Bodies: A Study in mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 362–8. 
  • Keen, Maurice (1973). England in the Late Middle Ages. London: Mathuen. p. 70. ISBN 0416759904. 
  • Tuck, Anthony (1985). Crown and Nobility 1272-1461: Political Conflict in Late Medieval England. London: Fontana. pp. 39–40. ISBN 0006860842. 

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