What were medieval kings and kingship? And how might their history shed light upon the upcoming coronation in Westminster in May 2023?
In little less than a month, the world will witness the coronation of a king in Westminster Cathedral in London. Following old liturgical rites, the coronation will seem to mimic a medieval ceremony. However, the scene is set for so much more than a medieval pageant. Staged as a rites des passages, the event will primarily constitute a speech-act, a performance through which Charles becomes a true king.
To understand this coronation, however, we have initially to ask: what is a king? On this, anthropologists and medieval historians do not agree. On the one hand, anthropologists are trained to study the structural properties of the societal organisations involving “kings”. Medievalists, on the other hand, are taught to explore the economic foundations, performances and lives kings might enact at different times and inside different societal contexts to rule and prosper as representatives of their people.
This essay presents an overview of the different understandings of medieval kings – as seen through the diverse magnifying glasses employed by these different disciplines. As the question has exercised numerous minds in both fields, the aim here is just to dip our toes.
Kingship and Kings as Seen by Anthropologists
According to anthropologists, kingship is a social and political mode of organisation where one person – the king, is placed at the centre to embody the society. So to speak, he (or she) is expected to represent the fundamental values of society. The king “performs” the society and makes it real. Also, the king is defined as sacred or even divine. To be assigned divinity accords the person and the society which he embodies with (at best) some simulacrum of eternity.
Even if a king, in a strict sense, is not considered sacred, he will still be somewhat affiliated with the gods or their interpreters, the priests of the kingdom in question. Also, this affiliation will be closely connected to the military powers involved in upholding the said kingdom, legitimising the monopoly of violence. As the sociologist, Max Weber famously claimed: “A King is primarily a warlord, originating in charismatic heroism” . Characteristically, this charismatic heroism is performed as history involving the ancestors and the dynasty in a particular form characterising the king and his realm. Even if the royal figurehead personally performs no heroic deeds or is not expected to, his ancestral heritage secures how this “special” attribute clings to his persona.
From a classical anthropological point of view, kings initially were considered “magicians”, who – by personally failing through magic to secure the sought-after harvest or victory – were obliged to turn into king-priests endowed with special powers as go-betweens among the people and their gods. Traditional anthropologists would differ between “magic kingship” and “religious kingship”.
This set of ideas was adopted by the social anthropologist from Oxford, Arthur Maurice Hocart (1883-1939), who wrote a seminal treatise on Kings in 1928. For Hocart, though, kings were not primarily magicians but principal actors performing “mimetic rites” – in a modern 21st-century context, through forging exemplary families, begetting children and by not-divorcing. In a pre-historical Germanic Iron Age context, by leading sacrificial ritualistic gatherings of the polity intended to promote abundant harvests or copious amounts of wild game. In both contexts, though, Hocart missed the point by considering rituals and politics as two different analytical entities.
It pays to note that the performed rituals served two functions – as speech acts creating the proper order and as functional events practically linking social cooperation with material success for the king, his family, kindred and followers.
When taking centre stage, a king might be said to be a mercurial figure performing several personae – simultaneously soldier and priest; and not just any common soldier, but a commander in chief and not just a priest, but a king-priest. This duality is universally known as the source of the one common denominator of kings as “strange”. As such, anthropologists often call kings “stranger-kings”, noting how kings might descend from Gods (witness the positioning of Odin as the procreator of the Anglo-Saxon or Norse kings, or how far-away-mythical heroes like Odysseus in some stories provided the Franks with a Trojan origin. In a late medieval context, a pale reflection may be found in the title, “Defender of the Faith”, invented by Henry VIII.
However, the idea of the “stranger king” also reflects the traditional way kingdoms developed, namely from invasions and conquests. While local warlords in prehistory seldom got beyond harnessing a local surplus production as means to holding a feast where the surplus would be redistributed, medieval kingdoms arose when warlords from the outside – whether mythical or factual – succeeded in conquering and enslaving people, thus creating a two-tiered social landscape consisting of them and us.
Thus – par excellence – a king was initially always a lawless warrior, moral transgressor and conqueror – whose pre-eminence was divinely sourced and whose totem derived from the wilderness (lions, leopards, wolves or elephants). As Caesar crossed the Rubicon to take Rome, Cnut the Great and later William the Conqueror crossed the North Sea and the Channel. Before that, though, they were all engaged in incestuous or at least immoral behaviour. Caesar dreamt of raping his mother, while Cnut the Great entered a licentious relationship with Ægilfu of York, later wrongly denounced by Queen Emma as a servant girl and a “whore”, while William was in himself regarded as illegitimate. All these salacious and metaphoric stories were told later, and with a certain glee confirming the primal “wild” and untamed character of these kings in spe.
By assuming his new role, conversely, the king had to relinquish his persona as a wild and violent warlord and turn into another person – the new divinely approved soldier-king. Or he had to refine his role as a warlord and bow to his alter-ego, a priestly king, such as the local primate or the Pope.
In the Japanese context, the Mikado established a dual sovereignty with the Shogun, as did the Islamic Kalif with the Emir. Among the Carolingians, and later in the Holy Roman Empire, the Emperor paired up with the Pope, as William the Conqueror paired up with his maternal half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (to name but a few examples).
Thus, having arrived and conquered the locals, the king would have to be domesticated. Typically, this took place at an installation, inauguration or coronation, which took the form of a rites des passages transforming the warlord into a priest and, in a medieval context: a judge, presiding over right and wrong.
In any institutionalisation – whichever form it takes – a king passed from violent human aggressor – to stand-in for the divine king – after which a ritualised procession of the now seated, anointed and crowned king let him re-enter his earthly realm to practice righteousness. Before, the king was a violent aggressor – often guilty of transgressing the law by patricide, fratricide or incest. Now, he became the benevolent benefactor, an imitation of the Christian God, “Rex Iustus”.
Medieval Kings as seen by Historians
In the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a handful of successor-kingdoms established themselves through conquests. Key players were the Sueves, the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. Until the beginning of the eighth century, the legitimation of their rulers as “kings” was primarily derived from their ability to perform as traditional warlords caught up in a vicious circus of pre-emptive violence and gift-giving. Performed at their furnished burials and through the histories, such as those provided by Gregory of Tours, we meet them as vicious and more-or-less pagans constantly trying to gain the upper hand against their foes while involved in raiding and tribute-taking.
However, in the eighth century, the church entered the equation by inventing liturgies such as unction, coronations and processions, thus lending kings a new status as performers of not just secular law but heavenly ordained order. Such remained the status quo until the 11th century when Gregory VII worked to establish the Pope and Church as the true “Kings”, God’s representatives on earth. By withholding unction and coronations of kings and emperors and meddling in the elections of kings, Popes were now in the business of reducing medieval kings to warlords, whose primary job was to redeem themselves by taking the cross and performing crusades. As opposed to this, the well-established kings and dynasties began in the late 10th and 11th centuries to create royal saints. Their role was not least to up the ante in the conflict concerning the separation of church and state and the investiture Controversy, whereby the Pope withheld the ring and the crozier from kingly elected bishops he had not endorsed.
Famously, the medieval historian Kantorowicz in 1957, wrote how the Pope ended up donning the tiara and the imperial purple, pontifical red shoes and received a ring at his “coronation”, performing the sacerdotium – the priesthood – as imperial. Meanwhile, kings donned clerical (long) attires (profoundly impossible to wear in times of war) and priesthood by performing as priests, saints or even the heavenly King.
Kantorowicz’s description was part of the overall classification of the four types of medieval kings, the Germanic kings, the anointed kings (c. 750-1100), the law-centred kings (c. 1200-1350) and finally, the administrative and polity-centred kings (c. 1300-1500). Where the early kings built their power on performing as “ring-bearers” and “gift-givers”, and the later medieval kings sought religious sacralising when plying the law, the later kings created their powerbase through income from mining minting, taxation, legal writs and enfeoffment. At any time, these different modes of legitimizing powers and building entourages, followers and royal courts involved all of these different symbols and tools.
However, a particular shift in the role of gift-giving versus enfeoffment may nevertheless be discerned. In this change, the development of literacy played a crucial role.
So, what is a king?
Perhaps – from a proper anthropological point of view – the transformation which takes place with King Charles in May aims to turn him from being a moral transgressor – adulterer, fornicator and stranger-king – into a properly anointed and exemplary king. However, from a historical point of view, the coronation in May in Westminster is not just about cleansing the royal couple of their former misdemeanours and enact Charles as king and Camilla as queen. Instead, the ritualised performance is foremost about encapsulating the royal couple – and with them – the realm and its institutions in a particular history of privilege while defining centres and peripheries. More to the point, the coronation will once again underline the realm as The United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Charles will sit on both the throne of Edward I AND the Stone of Destiny.
 The following text refers to medieval kings with the pronouns, he and him. Occasionally, women would gain powerful positions as-if kings. However, only very rarely were they recognised as such. For a rare example, see the Danish Queen Margaret I, who was titled “”fuldmægtig frue og husbonde og Danmarks riges formynder” – “Mighty Madam and Lord Protector of the Realm of Denmark” after the death of her father, King Valdemar.
 Weber, Max. 1922. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie. Mohr: Tübingen. English Translation: Economy and Society. An outline of interpretive Sociology
By Max Weber. Engl. Translation ed bye Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. California University Press 1968, p. 1141: Charismatic Kingship