“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?  From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”

-John Ball


Someone - I forgot who - once complained that science-fiction writers could only imagine monarchies, that numerous stories set in the far future included monarchies that wouldn’t have been unrecognisable to our ancestors from the distant past.  Their complaint, if I recall correctly, was that there were other possibilities - direct democracy, for example, or actually workable communism - and monarchies were just plain lazy.  Leaving aside the simple observation that monarchies tend to make for better stories, even if you wouldn’t want to live in those worlds personally, the simple truth is that the human race has been governed by monarchies for thousands of years.  Large-scale constitutional democracy is actually, on a historical scale, a fairly new invention.  Indeed, monarchy appears so often that one is tempted to wonder if there is something in humanity that adores a monarch.


The historical record seems to suggest that democracies have a fairly short shelf life.  The democracy of Athens, which operated on a very limited franchise, was brought low by its own internal quarrels and weaknesses and eventually gave way to outside rule.  The Roman Republic effectively suffocated under the weight of its own empire, eventually leading to civil war and the de facto creation of a monarchy.  Peasant revolts against the European aristocracies often ended with the peasants choosing not to land the killing blow, only to be slaughtered when the aristocrats regained their nerve; the downfalls of King Charles I and Louis XVI were rapidly followed by political chaos, the rise of rulers with monarchical powers (Cromwell, Napoleon) and, eventually, the restoration of the monarchy.  Even the modern-day United States has not been immune to this trend.  President Bush43 was the son of President Bush41, while Hilary Clinton was the wife of President Clinton42; there are, as of writing, suggestions that the wives or daughters of Presidents Obama44 and Trump45 will enter politics.  If they do, their connections will both help and hinder them. 


Monarchy, a system of hereditary rule, is in fact near-universal throughout human history.  So are the problems it brings in its wake.  A king who remains in power too long will grow set in his ways, unable to change with the times.  Strong and capable kings give way to sons who are far less capable and therefore weaken - and sometimes lose - the throne.  And, of course, there is not even the pretence of democracy.  Kings claimed to be the protectors of their people - smart rulers worked hard to create the illusion all the bad stuff was done by evil counsellors, who could be sacrificed if necessary - but the idea of commoners having a say in their own affairs was effectively blasphemy.


Why did this happen?


The first king, it is often said, was a lucky bandit.  This isn’t entirely true - no one can call Augustus Caesar a bandit - but there is a degree of truth in it.  The first kings (however termed) were men who reshaped society to support their primacy, creating a network of supporters who upheld the king’s position because to do otherwise would weaken their own position.  This pattern was followed by every successful king, but also powerful figures as diverse as Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein.  The reshaping gave the aristocrats, however defined, a stake in society; it also carved out a logical and understandable chain of command and line of succession that provided a certain governmental stability.  There could not be - in theory - any struggle over the succession, once a king died.  His firstborn son would take the throne.  In practice, it was often a little more complex.  It was not until the institution of monarchy became predominant within Western Europe that the line of succession was clearly laid down and unhappy heirs still posed potential threats to newly crowned monarchs (and usurpers, such as Napoleon, found it hard to gain any real legitimacy.)


This structure went further than you might think.  It co-opted religious institutions, merchants and, right at the bottom, commoners, serfs and de facto slaves.  It was incredibly difficult for them to rise in the world, but there was - again, in theory - certain limits on how badly they could be abused.  They knew their place in the world, yet they also knew how far their lords could go.  The Poll Tax of 1381 England, for example, was sparked by the government demanding more and more taxes, taxes that were beyond the commonly accepted levels and collected with a previously known fervour.  The monarch’s representatives had broken the rules, as far as his subjects were concerned, and therefore waging war on them - to teach them a lesson, rather than destroy them - was perfectly legal.  Naturally, the aristocracy disagreed. 


There were, at least in theory, advantages to this structure.  The king was a known figure, a person who could reasonably expect to be on the throne for decades and therefore show a degree of long-term planning; the imperative to sire a heir and a spare was a clear commitment to securing the future of his holdings.  The king would have a bird’s eye view of the kingdom, as well as experience in administration and warfare, and could therefore make decisions that benefited the entire kingdom.  On paper, monarchy may seem to be amongst the better forms of human government.


The problems of monarchical rule, however, are manifold.  No human ever born can hope to absorb and process an entire country’s worth of information, even when that information reaches the monarch without being altered by his servants.  Kings therefore make poor decisions because they don’t know what’s really going on.  Second, kings are often the prisoners of their own throne.  A king cannot easily rule against his great lords, the ones who are abusing the commoners, for fear of turning them against him permanently and therefore being disposed when a new challenger arrives.  Third, a king’s sons are rarely as capable as their father because they haven’t struggled and suffered in quite the same way.  The great kings of England - Henry II, Edward I, Henry V, James VI and I, Charles II - were often followed by sons and grandsons who lacked their father’s insight.  Indeed, a heir’s failings may become apparent very early on - Henry the Young King, for example - but because of the nature of monarchy it was very difficult to remove them from the line of succession. 


And, when they become kings in their own right, they were very hard to remove.  Richard II was disposed by his own cousin, Henry VI became a pawn in the original game of thrones, Charles I had his head lopped off after a civil war and James II was replaced by his sister and brother-in-law.  The price of monarchy, in short, is periods of instability caused by kings who were not up to the task, or lacked a power base of their own (Mary of Scotland) and ambitious aristocrats manoeuvring for power.


At its core, the problem of monarchy is that it puts the primacy of the monarch and his aristocrats ahead of the interests of the entire kingdom.  The king practices - he must practice - a form of nepotism.  He must put forward men who are loyal to him personally, rather than the kingdom itself; he must use his sons and daughters as pawns on the diplomatic chess board, rather than let them marry for love (or bring new blood into the monarchy).  He must raise his sons to take his place, all too aware that refusing to grant them real power will lead to resentment, hatred and (perhaps) civil war when - if - the heir’s courtiers start pushing him to grant favours he simply doesn’t have the wealth or power to give.  The kingdom therefore becomes a collection of scorpions in a bottle, the monarchy unwilling to make any compromises for fear of where they will lead, let alone allow people to question his power, and the aristocracy unwilling to put aside its prerogatives for the greater good.  This is a recipe for chaos and revolution.  And revolution can often lead to a tyranny worse than the now-gone monarchy. 



Why, then, are monarchies so popular?


There’s one argument that suggests the myth - and yes, it is a myth - of the ‘Father Tsar’ is actually quite appealing, that one can find comfort in it as one might find comfort in spiritualism and religion.  There’s another that suggests a person bred and trained for power will do a better job than someone elected into their position, although both the historical record and simple common sense suggestions otherwise.  And there’s a third that says we look at the fancy outfits and romantic lives and don’t recognise the downsides.  And there’s a fourth that hints we all want to surrender our autonomy, to unite behind a single divinely anointed leader and follow him wherever he leads, rather than questioning him too closely for fear of what we might find.  Personality cults are growing increasingly common these days and those who ask if the emperor has no clothes often come to regret it. 


Personally, I think the blunt truth is that very few of us have any real idea of what it is like to live under an absolutist monarchy.  The few remaining western monarchies are jokes, compared to their predecessors.  It is easy to watch Bridgeton and debate whether or not Daphne raped Simon; it is harder to understand why a real-life Daphne might feel driven to such an action, or the consequences if she’d taken any other course.  The fancy costumes we love hide a grim reality, one better left in the past.  As the joke goes ...


“My girlfriend wanted me to treat her like a princess.  So I married her off to a man old enough to be her father, a man she’d never met, to secure an alliance with France.”


There is a temptation in monarchy.  There is an entirely understandable sense that uniting behind a single man is right, particularly if that man has divine right, and if you do that man will fight for you.  But no one can be trusted with such power.  They would, eventually, be corrupted or be replaced by those who became corrupted themselves.  Those people do not fight for you.  They fight for themselves. 


And now you’ve read this far, I have a request to make.


It’s growing harder to make a living through self-published writing these days.  If you liked this book, please leave a review where you found it, share the link, let your friends know (etc, etc).  Every little helps (particularly reviews).


Thank you.


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2021