New Worlds: Royal Dignity

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Are kings and queens different from ordinary people?

The answer, of course, is “no.” Outside of perhaps a narrow subset of fantasy novels, monarchs don’t stop being human when they’re crowned. They still have to breathe and eat and sleep; they still get angry and afraid; they still have whims and desires (just with a lot more scope to act on those things, perhaps).

But at the same time . . .

There’s a sense in which monarchs have to be different, because that’s part of the ideology behind monarchy itself. Modern vestigial examples aside, sovereignty is about personifying the government and the state in a single individual. European monarchs used to refer to themselves and each other as their realms: if you said “France has found a new wife,” you didn’t mean the country of France; you meant the French king. And when you are not merely the representative of your state but its personification, that makes your life very different from an ordinary person’s.

The form that difference takes will depend on your ideas of sovereignty. If you’re a warlord in a “might makes right” kind of society, then being king means convincing everybody around you that you’re the biggest badass in the room — that you can personally kill any challengers, or else rally enough people to your side to do it for you. In your personal life you can have as many crass foibles as you like; the important thing is that you remain credibly strong and violent.

In most societies, though, the performance of sovereignty takes a different form. There’s a certain type of fantasy that loves the idea of the “down to earth” monarch: the king or queen who wears plain or even patched clothing, who doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty through manual labor, who hangs out with the common folk and doesn’t stand on ceremony. In reality, that kind of thing is vanishingly rare — and not merely because people with wealth and privilege usually like enjoying the benefits of those things. Maintaining sovereign power relies, at least in part, on creating a separation between the king and the common folk.

After all, if the king looks and acts like an ordinary guy, it’s easy to wonder why exactly you should listen to him. If he’s no different from you, then maybe you could do his job just as well — or even better. Thoughts like that lead to rebellions, which lead right back to a world where the king is the guy who can and will kill you with his own two hands. All the pomp and circumstance that surround the throne are a way of reinforcing the power of the person who sits on it. If you feel a sense of awe when you come into the presence of your sovereign, you’re more likely to believe in and obey their authority . . . and less likely to see a path from where you stand to that chair.

But what about those crass human foibles? Interesting (and very weird) things happen when royal power starts to rest on a foundation of awe rather than violence, because you wind up investing ordinary activities with as much grandeur and elegance as you can. The absolute pinnacle of this process may have been the court of Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” who famously made elaborate ritual performance out of the process of rising and getting dressed at the beginning of the day, then getting ready for bed at the end. Having the opportunity to do something like put the king’s shoes on his feet was a great honor, because it meant you had a few moments of being close to him, in a semi-private context.

Only semi-private, though — because people like this are almost never alone. So many novels wildly underestimate just how ubiquitous servants, guards, and attending nobles would be in a monarch’s life. A truly secret love affair is the next best thing to impossible, because how can they slip away for any length of time? The best they can manage would be an affair that only a handful of people know about . . . and since we all know how many people can keep a secret, such things often rapidly become common knowledge, just of the sort nobody talks about openly.

Sovereigns may not even be alone in the privy — and when they’re done with their business there, a servant will probably take the results to the royal physician for examination, because the health of the monarch is a matter of state. Queens can expect their menstrual cycle to be a topic of regular conversation, too, especially if they haven’t yet borne an heir. The specific dynamics of modern paparazzi are different from courtly life of old, but the sense that certain people have no right to privacy and the most sordid details of their existence are fair game for discussion is nothing new.

Growing up into this bizarre life must have been incredibly strange. But to me, one of the most surprising things is how often princes and princesses were taught all the customs and rituals and intricacies of courtly life . . . with absolutely no instruction in governance itself. While some countries or some families did emphasize reading works of philosophy or political thought, or made a point of bringing at least the heir to council meetings and other places where decisions got made, just as often the focus was on the performance of sovereignty rather than the work of ruling.

Sometimes that worked out fine. Elizabeth I was given an excellent education, none of which was about how to be a queen regnant — she was never supposed to come to the throne anyway — but she developed into a savvy and effective politician despite that. Other times, you wound up with a king who made stupid decisions because he didn’t understand that Q would lead to XYZ consequences, or who got turned into a sock puppet by his own advisers because they did understand how to run the country. (Or at least how to manipulate things to their own benefit.) But even a king with no idea of how to rule could stay on the throne for quite a long time, because the framework around him had invested him with the numinous dignity of his station. People didn’t have to respect him personally, much less fear the strength of his arm, for his power to hold.

When that breaks . . . that’s when you get revolutions.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Royal Dignity — 12 Comments

  1. One of the reasons Mary Queen of Scots remained a prisoner of Elizabeth I for so long was that sense of royal divine right. By executing a monarch–ANY monarch–Elizabeth was opening the door for others to execute _her_. And there were many who wanted that Protestant upstart female out of the way.

  2. It isn’t just royals, but various classes have had special rights. George Washington wasn’t recognized as an officer so that if he lost, he wouldn’t have had the special rights of an officer. Kings get ransomed even if it bankrupts their nations.

    It’s easy to see that enlisted men don’t make the rules.

  3. Medieval theoreticians developed an elaborate political theory/theology around the notion of the “king’s two bodies” — that is, a King possessed both a natural physical body like any ordinary man, which was weak and mortal like anyone else’s, and also a Body Politic, a divinely endowed essence of Kingship that cohabited with the physical body but unlike the physical body was perfect and immortal. When the king’s natural body died the Body Politic generally transferred directly into the new king — this was the significance of the famous proclamation customarily uttered over the corpse: “The King is dead. Long live the King!” Sometimes the transfer of actual kingship from the dead man to his heir involved public performance of the two-bodies concept, e.g. in late medieval & renaissance France the king’s natural corpse would hang around putrefying for some weeks, while a wax effigy representing the immortal King presided over ceremonies, and only with the actual burial of the dead body and the handing over of several symbolic representations of royal authority would the new King be considered fully invested in the kingship. Over time the implied interregnum grew shorter and shorter, and disappeared entirely by the 17c.

    I seem to recall reading that it was also theorized at times that the divine Body Politic might separate itself from the still-living body of a bad king if the bad king’s transgressions were bad enough that he deserved dethroning. This was, obviously, a dangerous theory, and hard to debate on the merits.

    • “I seem to recall reading that it was also theorized at times that the divine Body Politic might separate itself from the still-living body of a bad king if the bad king’s transgressions were bad enough that he deserved dethroning. This was, obviously, a dangerous theory, and hard to debate on the merits.”

      Sounds like a Euro version of the Mandate of Heaven.

  4. To be sure, servants were a limit on just about everyone’s privacy.

    As late as the 19th century, there was a writer who put “hiring servants” as the dividing line being the poor — and the very poor. Poor people hired servants (albeit usually the elderly or young).

  5. Wikip: “As was traditional in the royal family, Anne and her sister were brought up separated from their father in their own establishment at Richmond, London.”

    Really? I knew elites outsourced nursing and tutoring and such, but separate households from birth? Dang. Helps explain all the sons rebelling against their fathers: hard to have filial loyalty to someone who didn’t raise you.

    (Not being raised together could help explain sibling-incest marriages too.)

    Also, Charles II ordered that his brother’s children be raised Protestant, unlike James. Interesting family dynamics there.

    Down-home monarchs from fiction:

    Aragorn “Strider” Telcontar. Probably ruled as a decently high-class monarch, but made a pun out of his reign name because like his friend Bilbo, Aragorn is a troll.

    Various kings of the Twelve Kingdoms. They’re literally chosen by God, via the kirin of the kingdom, including getting un-chosen if they’re sufficiently incompetent, so they can usually get away with being mucky.

    Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, Super Spark Tyrant of Europa. He seemed to deliberately refuse to play legitimacy games, relying on force majeure.

    Torisen Black Lord, Highlord of the Kencyrath, who wears simple black clothes and helps with the hay harvest. Half-raised by barracks soldiers and uncomfortable with his divinely appointed position of superiority, which *is* a divinely appointed position of superiority, would you like to challenge him and risk your neck in the Royal Torc of Decapitation? No?

    Aerin Dragon-slayer. Well, half-foreign and she was just a princess anyway.

    Tolkien elves: “They stood up to greet their guests, after the manner of Elves, even those who were accounted mighty kings.” Well, elves are better than us. Also I feel elven kingship is more like being elected club president, where you’re usually thankful anyone even bothered running to do the job.

    • Separate households were totally common, yeah. I mean, the queen might well have her own household; whether or not she was involved in raising her children could depend on her personal inclinations. But the father, almost never.

      Also, Charles II ordered that his brother’s children be raised Protestant, unlike James. Interesting family dynamics there.

      Probably less family dynamics than political forces at work. Parliament did NOT like the idea of a Catholic monarch (though Charles II himself got accused of being crypto-Catholic) — witness the Glorious Revolution not much later.

      would you like to challenge him and risk your neck in the Royal Torc of Decapitation? No?

      Ahahah — okay, I will grant that if there’s something like that backing your rule, maybe you don’t need all the pomp and circumstance. 🙂

      Also I feel elven kingship is more like being elected club president, where you’re usually thankful anyone even bothered running to do the job.

      Yeah, probably.

  6. I get the politics. Still *weird* for a possibly-Catholic king to have his Catholic brother’s kids raised Protestant…

    “Ahahah — okay, I will grant that if there’s something like that backing your rule, maybe you don’t need all the pomp and circumstance. ?”

    Heh, yeah. The Kencyrath has other things going on, being well outside baseline human envelopes in magic/psychic stuff and almost genetic inability to lie (if a Kencyr claims to be the long-lost heir, he’s probably telling the truth), but snicker-snack was particularly dramatic.

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