Its good to be king
That is a famous quote that is associated with what the life of a medieval King must have been like. It came from a comedy movie made by Mel Brookes called “The History of the World Part I”. The context was a lighthearted spoof that focused on how Kings of medieval times lived like virtual gods enjoyed unimaginable wealth and power that was virtually limitless.
While that movie and others like it exaggerate what life of a medieval king must have been like, they are not too far off. In terms of power, wealth and privilege, the only social tier that rivaled the rank of the King existed at the top levels of the Catholic Church during the late middle ages. Tradition of the times gave the King great authority because it was said that God granted the King the seat of power. And since the medieval period was one where the rule of religious authority was much more pervasive than today, if God picked the King, then the people obeyed him without question.
The best term to describe the power that medieval Kings had is “absolute”. It is almost pointless to talk about the wealth that a medieval King had because for all intents and purposes, the entire kingdom was the possession of the King. Their power was absolute so whatever the King determined was the right thing for the people to do or for him to do became the law of the land instantly.
In fact, the King had the right to go into any house in his Kingdom, take anything that was in that house, enjoy the favors of any female in that house and stay at the owner’s expense as long as he wished. Small wonder that in the literature that is relevant to medieval times, the King is often seen as a tyrannical figure to be resented.
The classic image of a medieval king that has such tremendous wealth and power comes from the period after the beginning of The Crusades when kingdoms grew large and the stability of kingdoms was somewhat stable. From 400-1000 A.D. society was in significant turmoil so kingdoms and kings rose and fell quickly and the primary goal of a medieval king of this time frame was to survive, to defend his small kingdom from neighboring enemies or to subdue and take over neighboring kingdoms so his kingdom would grow larger.
That image of debauchery that the phrase, “it’s good to be King” projects is not a complete picture of what the life of a King during medieval times was all about. Like those in power in modern times, the job of the King was a busy one. Even during times of relative stability, there were constant threats to the kingdom from without and from within. There were economic issues to be dealt with as well as the many internal political struggles that life at court naturally fostered.
Many Kings of medieval times concerned themselves with loftier goals than the gratification of their base desires. The Catholic Church was a powerful political force and the struggle for power between the King and the local church authorities was ongoing. At the same time, this was at time of deep and unified religious devotion. So many Kings of medieval times devoted themselves to grand religious quests such as the crusades.
Other medieval Kings were passionate about the arts, culture and other noble aspects of society which they felt called upon to nurture and develop during their time in power. The very fact that the most well known translation of the Bible is called the “King James edition” tells you that many Kings of medieval times had grand agendas and accomplished important things for their kingdoms and for society in general.
We can thank these good Kings because the coming of the Renaissance at the end of the middle ages no doubt can be attributed to the good work these Kings did to raise the standard of education and the standard of living for their people and leave a lasting legacy for the future as well.