Infant Rulers

Infant rulers are infants formally exercising supreme power, political or spiritual. Infant rulers have appeared in many cultures and civilizations. Their role and influence can be very different according to religious, political and social traditions. Infant rulers commonly appear in stable, hereditary power structures with generally recognized political and legal principles, but can also be found in elective political or spiritual systems. Special procedures are connected with Tibetan Buddhism, where future lamas are found among male infants believed to be reincarnations of late predecessors. In medieval and modern Europe the term infant ruler normally describes a royal child recognized as the legitimate head of state. Very often the political power is transferred to a regency or a supreme council governing in the name of the infant. This does not mean that the royal infant is a puppet in the hands of powerful adults. Being the focus of all attention infant rulers often dominate their surroundings socially and psychologically.

In later centuries infant rulers have been rarer, probably as a consequence of a rising average life expectancy. In principle, infant rulers are still a possibility in hereditary constitutional monarchies, where the monarch's role is primarily of symbolic and representative character. An infant as elective head of a modern state, as a president for example, seems not to be a serious possibility within the existing political and social order.

The function of an infant ruler is normally to be the representative of continuity, the visible symbol of the state and to legitimate power. In early medieval Europe, where a combination of elective and hereditary principles were characteristic of most Germanic states, insurgent groups very often legitimated rebellions by making an infant member of the ruling family the symbol of their cause. Rebellious parties exploited the commonly accepted view that every member of the royal family had a right to the throne and the crown land, a perception associated with the idea of kinship.

A state with an infant ruler might be regarded as weak and could be put under pressure by internal and external enemies. The infant ruler and his advisors might be dependent upon support from influential individuals and groups. In the period from 1163 to 1164, the party behind the seven-year-old Norwegian King Magnus Erlingsson achieved the support of the Church by granting it huge privileges. Ecclesiastical support could be expressed in coronations and anointments of an infant ruler or infant heir to the throne. One example is the coronation of the seven-year-old Knut VI as King of Denmark in 1170. Such ceremonies demonstrated that the infant was under divine protection and rebellion thus an act of insurgence against God. On the other hand the coronation of the nineteen-year-old Christian IV (1577–1648) in 1596 marked the end of his infancy and the regency.

The education of infant rulers did not differ much from the tutoring of heirs to the throne or from the upbringing of princely and aristocratic children in general. It normally reflected dominant social and cultural ideas and values of the contemporary society. In medieval Europe military qualifications were essential. The moral and Christian values in the upbringing of royal infants are reflected in the chivalric literature and in educational treaties such as the Norwegian Speculum Regale (The mirror of the king) from the thirteenth century which deals with the deeds and qualities of a Christian prince illustrated by historical and biblical ideals combined with reflections concerning other matters, such as the duties of court servants, military tactics, and chivalrous behaviour. Furthermore, the Speculum Regale presents common knowledge concerning the earth, the sun and the planets, the climate and geography of the Northern hemisphere.

The Christian and chivalrous ideas laid down in the Speculum Regale were in principle the ideological basis of European monarchies until the eighteenth century, but from the sixteenth century onward they were supplemented by humanism. The reading of classical literature and philosophy was an integral part of the education of the children of Henry VIII of England, including the boy king Edward VI, and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who succeeded to the throne at the age of sixteen.

In the case of Christian IV of Denmark, nominally king in 1588 at the age of eleven, the aristocratic government excluded the Queen Dowager from the regency and from any influence on the education of the boy king. The purpose undoubtedly was to ensure that the infant ruler was brought up in the national tradition of the Danish aristocracy and to prevent him from being influenced by absolutist ideas. Apart from this, the education followed directions laid down by his father in instructions for his tutors. In most respects, Christian IV's education represented a traditional combination of Christian, chivalrous, and humanistic ideas. The moral and ideological basis was the writings of DESIDERIUS ERASMUS OFROTTERDAM and Martin Luther. Pedagogically his chief tutor was inspired by the ideas of Johan Sturm. According to Sturm's ideas, great importance was attached to developing his written style both in Danish and Latin. From November 1591 to May 1593, he wrote more than 190 Latin letters as exercises. More than three thousand handwritten letters in Danish and German show that he could express even complicated matters with clarity. Mathematical and technical skills also played an important role in his education and he received training in shipbuilding as well as the building of fortresses.

Military leadership was the foundation of monarchy. As a consequence, men normally inherited before females. In 1632, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was killed in military action leaving his six-year-old daughter Christina as the only heir to the throne. It was therefore decided that she should be educated just like a male infant. This was the only way to overcome the prejudices in society concerning female inferiority. She was trained in classical and modern languages, politics, history, mathematics, philosophy, and theology. "God knows what delight it is to me that her Majesty is not like a female, but a courageous person with a supreme intellect" wrote the chancellor Axel Oxenstierna later.

While there were some differences in the upbringing of royal infants between Protestant and Catholic parts of Europe these should not be overestimated. In general the education of the Catholic Louis XIV of France was based on the same combination of military, chivalrous, Christian, and humanistic ideas as the training of the Lutheran Christian IV some sixty years earlier. The reading of classical authors and lessons in modern languages, drawing, music, politics and history as well as the training of technical and engineering skills were in both cases the foundation of the infant ruler's instruction.

The health of infant rulers was always under strict surveillance. The diaries of the physicians of Louis XIV give a vivid impression not only of the medical treatment of symptoms of disease but also of the medical and psychological interpretation of the way in which the infant ruler reacted.

As a field of research the subject infant rulers is still uncultivated land. While much literature deals with individual infant rulers such as Louis XIV of France or Queen Christina of Sweden, the starting point in most of these cases is the political or social consequences of the regency or attempts to explain the political and social behavior of the adult monarch from influences and impressions received in the childhood. Few attempts have been made to introduce modern behavioral and pedagogical theories into the study of the bringing-up of infant rulers. In most cases the conclusions are based on general reflections made by historians without special insight into psychological and pedagogical disciplines. Comparative studies with examples from societies with different cultural and social values might prove to be useful, but comparisons between Western and non-European societies require considerable insight in ethnological and anthropological sciences. A typical eurocentric perception can be found in Bernardo Bertolucci's epic film The Last Emperor. Bertolucci interprets the life of Henry Pu Yi (1906–1967), the child who became emperor of China at the age of three, in a Freudian context and stresses the negative consequences of his growing-up in the huge palaces of the Forbidden City in Beijing for the development of his personality. Henry Pu Yi's personal inabilities are seen as the fruits of a feudal system that would inevitably be overruled by social revolution. Bertolucci is not a historian, but his portrait of the Chinese infant ruler follows the main tendencies in Western historiography.

The study of infant rulers in non-European societies can be complicated because of the difficulties in interpreting the sources themselves and the conceptions they reflect. This could be illustrated by supposed Egyptian infant rulers such as Thutmosis III and Tutankhamen. In much twentieth century historiography it was believed that the co-regency between Queen Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III might be explained in the light of the minority of Thutmosis. The infancy reign of Tutankhamen seems to be an assumption based on a combination of evidence. His mummy belongs to a young person, and it is known that he reigned for about ten years. Unfortunately, his exact age at the hour of death is uncertain. The statements vary from eighteen to twenty-seven.

The bulk of literature concerning infant rulers is related to specific individuals in a certain political and social context. As a result it is a field of study which lacks a firm concept of itself and still has to develop a theoretical and methodological framework to understand and explain the psychological and mental impact of the role on the ruler.

See also: Aristocratic Education in Europe; Infancy of Louis XIII.


Duneton, Claude. 1985. Petit Louis dit Quatorzième: L'Enfance de roisoleil. Paris: Éditions Seuil.

Foisil, Madeleine, ed. 1989. Journal de Jean Héroard, I–II. Paris: Fayard.

Marvick, Elizabeth Wirth. 1986. Louis XIII: The Making of a King. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.