In medieval Europe (c950–1250), the business of kingship was far too important to be left to kings alone. But how could one prevent corrupt and greedy men from seizing power? How could one ensure that the most suitable leader was chosen? And what was the best way to guarantee that leaders worked for the common good, not private or factional gain?


Each generation had to find its own answers, but here are some general pointers on what qualities were valued in medieval kings, plus how a subject might influence their royal…

How to be a king in medieval Europe...


Be powerful (or fake it until you make it)

It was generally assumed that whoever wore the crown would be more powerful than any one of his subjects. Overwhelming might was one reason why the rulers of Poland and Sicily had become kings in 999/1000 and 1130 respectively. In 1199, Hubert Walter of Canterbury purportedly voiced similar sentiments when he explained that John should become king of England because he was preeminent in strength and power within the realm. In order to be king, one ought to have the power of one.


Protect those who cannot protect themselves

Among the chief duties of kings was to protect those who could not protect themselves – notably, widows, orphans and migrants. They would struggle to secure a hearing – let alone a fair one – unless they had the monarch’s backing. Because they could offer little in return, granting them succour was a mark of moral excellence – but it also required that the ruler had the resources to take on powerful men. Those eager for the throne therefore went out of their way to demonstrate concern for these groups. In 1024, the future emperor, Conrad II, halted the procession escorting him to his coronation so that justice could be done to a widow, an orphan and a refugee. He then interrupted the coronation feast to ensure that the grievances raised by a peasant were addressed. Indeed, to Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, King Erik the Good of Denmark (r1095–1103) merited his moniker in part as he was so assiduous in the pursuit of justice that “he became a terror of the upper classes, but was dearly beloved by the lower orders, because he treated the latter with fatherly tenderness, the former with royal severity”.


Delegate royal duties

Even the most powerful king could not rule alone. Some – like Conrad II in 1024 – delegated judgement to his nobles. And when, in 1180, Philipp Augustus of France decreed that any gambler found swearing should be drowned, he explicitly did so at the behest and with the consent of his magnates and clergy. The larger the realm, the more likely it was for rulers to depend on trustworthy agents in the localities to ensure that justice was done, taxes were collected, and disputes resolved. Royal government was inevitably a collaborative enterprise.

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Go rogue

Rogue rulers were no exception. They certainly could make life difficult for others. In Norway, King Sverrir (1178–1202) supposedly turned the skulls of 16 relatives he had murdered into drinking vessels, which were then paraded before those attending his coronation feast.

More commonly, kings might turn against rivals and their allies by denying them an audience, or by backing their opponents in legal disputes, or by dishonouring them in public. Dependents would be forced to seek out more powerful patrons, and opponents might feel encouraged to revive past rivalries. Such were the complaints levelled at Emperor Lothar III (r1125–37) by his Staufen rivals, and at King Stephen (r1136–1154) by Earl Robert of Gloucester. In both cases, the aggrieved eventually sided with claimants. In the latter case, King Stephen and Henry of Anjou (future King Henry II) faced each other, ready for battle. The barons declared that they would not fight for them, thus bringing about the 1153 Treaty of Winchester, in which Henry accepted Stephen as king, and Stephen accepted Henry as his heir.


Keep a close eye on ambitious subjects and rivals – or face consequences

Monarchs like Niels of Denmark (r1104–1134) – described by the medieval Roskilde Chronicle as pious but useless – were unable to restrain ambitious men. The result was the same – bloodshed and the breakdown of order. Worse still, neighbouring kings might seize the opportunity to intervene – all too frequent an occurrence in the history of smaller realms bordering powerful neighbours, as Welsh princes, Hungarian kings and Flemish counts could all too readily testify.


Be righteous

It was also in making kings that the moral obligations of rulers and ruled came together most fully. During the inauguration, kings were reminded of their obligations before both God and the people, and normally enthroned only after they had vowed to uphold those. In fact, in England, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (d988) had reportedly refused to crown the king unless he first swore an oath to be a just and equitable ruler, someone who would fight robbers and thieves, not join them.

Magnates and prelates were also held accountable for their choice of ruler. For much of this period, the succession of father to son rarely happened in practice. Hence it fell to a realm’s elites to pick a king. If they chose the wrong one, they would suffer – both in this life, with unrest and strife the likely result of their actions – and in the next – they would face the wrath of their creator for having failed in one of their most solemn duties. Only immoral men would elect immoral kings.


Who could influence a king?

Those who weren’t monarchs in medieval Europe had both incentive and opportunity to participate in the business of ruling. How they played their part did, however, depend on their status and circumstance...


Inevitably, magnates featured prominently in military matters. In 1153, the various claimants to the English throne were forced to resolve their dispute when the barons refused to go to war on their behalf. A few years later, the German princes forced Frederick Barbarossa to abandon a planned campaign, and to resolve instead the simmering conflict over the inheritance of Bavaria. Nobles also sought to influence the king – for instance, by soliciting grants on behalf of their subordinates, by intervening in support of allies and dependents, and just generally by trying to bend the royal ear if not in their direction, then at least away from opponents, foes and rivals. 

If thwarted or spurned, barons could exert pressure by withholding services, thus undermining the king’s ability to demonstrate power. Most importantly, when acting collectively, barons echoed how the origins of their relationship with the king had frequently been imagined. In 13th-century Hungary, it was claimed that rulers had first emerged when the Hungarians waged campaigns and one of their number was chosen as commander – on condition that he continue to take the counsel of the Barons. Similar tales surface in 13th-century Beirut and 11th-century Sicily. Kings who failed to heed that premise did so at their own grave peril.

Religious leaders

While bishops and abbots might be called upon to provide contingents of armed men, they did not usually engage in fighting (bar a few exceptions). They could, however, serve as spokesmen for the community at large. When, in 1153, the English barons refused to go to war, that decision was conveyed by their clerical peers. Clergy also had a duty of moral oversight. This was rooted in the Old Testament as well as in the writings of figures like Pope Gregory I (d604): bishops were charged with protecting their flock against evil. They were like watchmen, who would be held accountable if they failed to alert the people of danger – in a prelate’s case, by failing to reprimand them for their transgression. A prelate would suffer both for his own sins, and for those of his flock that he had failed to point out and chastise. Of course, not every bishop was willing to challenge a ruler directly – in 1080, Benno of Osnabrück chose to hide inside an altar rather than confront the king in public. Others preferred a quiet word in the royal ear. Yet only true tyrants persecuted clergy who reproved them for their failings

Because the king's office was both public and personal – concerned as much with right moral conduct of his subjects as with warding off foreign foes – criticising the king’s behaviour was both a moral imperative and necessary for the welfare of the realm. In a way, bishops were the keepers of the realm. Hence, when in 1215 King John was forced to issue Magna Carta, copies of the charter were deposited in cathedrals for dissemination and safe-keeping. A few decades later, the bishops of Hungary were even tasked with investigating complaints against the king’s government and to do so on behalf of the community of the realm. In such cases, prelates functioned like modern ethics advisors. Only corrupt gluttons and conceited fools would disregard them.

Of course, like the magnates, prelates could use their role for their benefit – and that of their community. Indeed, it was expected of them. The lives of saints and bishops abound with churchmen tricking kings into acts of far greater generosity than at first conceived. Equally, being asked to make a king was a sign of standing both within the realm and the Church. It was a privilege jealously guarded. In the 1120s, an archbishop of Canterbury almost tore off the king’s head when he saw that someone else had given the monarch a crown to wear, while the canons of Rheims and the monks of Saint-Denis embarked on veritable publicity campaigns each to deride the other’s claims to lead in the king’s coronation. In Castile, Santiago de Compostella became an archbishopric in part because its incumbent had taken it upon himself to oversee the king’s inauguration. Making kings signalled seniority within the Church.

Professor Björn Weiler is the author of Paths to Kingship in Medieval Latin Europe, c. 950-1250 (Cambridge University Press, 2022, £29.99)