It’s hard to argue with someone when his power upon this realm was vested to him by the one and only God out there. Even if you knew that he had to murder his father, brother and a whole bunch of other people to get in there, you never know if it wasn’t the Almighty’s will. So, you’d better do as you’re told…
Ramblings of a drunken Bard
Above serfs and free men, above all the knights and all the counts and dukes in every medieval kingdom, stood a King or a Queen, who with a benevolent (or cruel and unyielding) hand commanded the unordained.
A monarch is the sovereign head of state, officially outranking all other individuals in the realm. A monarch may exercise the most and highest authority in the state, or others may wield that power on behalf of the monarch. Typically a monarch either personally inherits the lawful right to exercise authority over the realm (often referred to as the throne or the crown), or is selected by an established process from a family or cohort eligible to provide the nation’s monarch.
Alternatively, an individual may become monarch by conquest, acclamation or a combination of means. A monarch usually reigns for life or until abdication.
Laws and Investiture
A monarch, depending on the state of the kingdom, may rule as the head of a council of nobles (elective monarchy), or by absolute, autocratic power (absolute monarchy). The crown’s fluctuating military, financial and diplomatic power, as well as the liberties granted to the nobles, were factors that kept feudal kingdoms in a state of flux throughout the middle ages. Noble lords of the land, fuelled by ambition, always coveted more liberties; these liberties were vested to them by the laws governing the relationship between nobles and king, and could be changed by royal decree, as long as there was noble support. The only way that a king could control a nation was by walking a fine line between restricting their liberties (by signing kingdom-wide agreements) and, at the same time, bestowing honorary and/or landed titles to his nobles in order to appease them.
In most cases of absolute monarchy the title was hereditary; the Kingship would pass from the father to the firstborn son or, if no first-born son lived, to whoever was closest to the king by blood. However, depending on the kingdom’s type of hereditary rule, on the time of death, or in the case of abdication, other relations or persons would be eligible to take the crown.
Many of history’s moments of bloodshed started with the death of the king who didn’t have, one way or another, an appointed successor or clearly named heir (a good example of that being the War of the Roses [book].
As we have discussed before, each noble lord controlled his holding by right of landed title, which consisted of the demesne which he had direct control over and those who belonged within his holdings. He would also have had indirect control over sub-regions of his demesne, which were in fact classed as demesnes themselves. A Duke would have direct control over his own Duchy (his demesne), but indirect control over a Count’s county which was within the Duchy (the count’s demesne).
The level of control every noble was able to exert over his domain usually equalled the percentage of the profits which would remain in his hand rather than be handed over to his overlord.
This was no different for the King of the land. The King himself usually had a substantial demesne, consisting of a number of duchies and counties, as well as several Baronies within them; from those he would get the largest portion of his personal profits. The higher demesne a King held was the one of the Kingdom. As the bearer of the crown, he was entitled to a portion of the taxation from all duchies and counties of other lords under his direct control, also known as his vassals.
The amount of tax a King would have received was directly influenced by what his vassal was willing to give, and how much the King willing to pressure the vassal for the crown’s “fair share” of the bounty. King William I “the Conqueror” tried to streamline this process by conducting a great survey of all his lands that came to be known as the Doomsday Book or the Book of Winchester. The purpose of this manuscript was to create a proper accounting of all the lands his vassals owned, in order to better understand the taxation he should be receiving from them. By doing so, William was able to keep his vassals accountable for the tax he was due.
Becoming a King, usually an issue of conquest or hereditary investiture, was the easy part. Retaining your title as a King and surviving to die of natural causes proved more challenging. Successful rule was an unending game of chess against ambitious nobles of the land, who were always seeking to hold on to their profits and expand their demesnes and liberties… and that’s not even counting external threats from other realms. In order to survive and possibly thrive, a King was supposed to be a general, a spy-master, a diplomat, an economist and finally, really good in bed, in order to ensure that everything he accomplished could be passed on to his son and thus kept in the family. After all, wealth and power is nice, but the only way to immortality is through your loins.