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.