The proper care and feeding of monarchs, or Off with their Heads

I am no fan of monarchy.  In my opinion, a king is just a dictator with a pedigree.  The best ones splurge their peoples’ fortunes on absurd luxuries and launch self-aggrandizing wars.  The worst ones commit crimes of unspeakable horror.  About the best you can say about a monarch is that typical examples of the breed are lazy sorts who rarely work up the energy for a real atrocity, unlike dictators who, generally being self-made men, rarely have the virtue of laziness.

Suppose you’re in charge of a revolt that is far more successful than anyone expected, and you suddenly find yourself in possession of your king.  What should you do?   Should you:

A) Take this opportunity to talk reasonably with the king, now that his evil advisers are far away, and come up with an agreement that will allow the children to be fed and make the kingdom a better place for everyone.

B) Chop off his head.

C) Run away.  Run far far away.

C has its charms.  But kings usually hold grudges, and there’s always room in the budget for a good assassin.  So B is generally the best choice.  Revolutionaries who are also regicides occasionally come to a bad end, as happened with Robespierre.  But often, as with Cromwell and Lenin, things work out remarkably well for them.  (Of course, they often create their own atrocities, but we’ll assume that you, being the reasonable person that you are, will manage to resist that temptation.)

Under no circumstances choose A.  The king will tell you how sympathetic he is to the plight of your people, make a generous deal, and, once you let him go, send in the pikemen to stomp you and your filthy peasant revolt under their mighty boots.  How dare you lay hand on the king!  You’ll be lucky if your death only lasts a week!

(If you doubt the preceding paragraph, see the history of the Peasants’ Revolt.   Admittedly, Richard II, the king in question, came to a bad end.  But that was much later – he managed to outlive the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt by a good many years.)

That was fun!  Let’s try another question:

The king, a jolly fellow of whom you are rather fond, offers you the post of chief adviser.  Should you:

A) Take it, of course!  Think of the opportunity to do good for your country, and perhaps make a little money while you’re helping out.

B) Tell the king thanks, but you’re too busy right now, what with all the tournaments and having to care for your lands and such.

C) Catch the nearest cross-channel ferry, and keep on going.

Here you might be tempted to choose B, but bear in mind that a king rarely takes it well when you refuse a job from him.  So C is your best option.

By no means choose A.  History is littered with the story of kings’ advisers who came to a bad end.  Consider the case of Thomas Cromwell,  Henry VIII’s chief minister whose downfall came about because the wife he found for Henry was not pleasing to the king’s eye.  Cromwell’s head ended up on a spike on London Bridge.

Why do advisers so often come to a bad end?  Because people generally want to think the best of their king.  So when the government does something bad, everyone wants to think that the good king was led astray by his evil ministers.  (Think about how many stories you know of the good king led astray by evil advisers.  Compare that to the far fewer stories of the good minister who tries to save the kingdom from the evil king.  Ever wonder why all those good kings pick bad ministers?)

A typically undocumented part of the job of chief adviser is to be scapegoat-in-chief: when bad things happen, the king often finds it useful to appease the mobs by throwing his top minister to the wolves.  And since something always goes bad during a monarchy, and since chief advisers are, in spite of their fondest beliefs, always easy to replace, they often find their heads decorating spikes in scenic locations around the capital – not the prominent position they envisioned when they took the job.

But people are too clever to fall for the old bumbling-king-bad-adviser story, you say?  Hmm, I say.  You really need to read some of the opinion pieces that have come out in the last eight years, pieces that described Dick Cheney as the evil puppeteer pulling the ignorant president’s strings.  We may not go in for divine right of kings these days (though some presidents do apparently think themselves chosen by God), but some old traditions are still followed.

So trust me: have as little to do with monarchies as you can manage.  And if by some strange chance you do find yourself in the presence of a monarch, just hope that the headsman works for you.  Because a king is a fine and noble thing, with a regal brow and a mighty cranium.  Which means that his head will look awfully good up on that spike.  A lot better than yours, don’t you think?

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One Response to The proper care and feeding of monarchs, or Off with their Heads

  1. Kedar says:

    That was funny.. wonder what inspired you to write this post.. I sure do like the contemporary parallel here 🙂

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