A Royal Scam

Since the book I’m working on falls roughly into the category of “historical fantasy,” I did a lot of reading about history to research it, and a lot of that involved reading about various royals. The more I learn about royalty, the more I think that the concept of royalty is one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated by and on mankind.

The earliest royals were probably tribal chiefs who won their position through some kind of conquest, whether defeating another leader and taking control or helping defend the group against someone else and being acclaimed as the leader. But then from there it became an inherited position, and they supported the idea of this as a divine right. If they’re in charge, that must mean that God wanted them to be in charge, and therefore any rebellion against the king is a rebellion against God, and therefore a sin. And then there was the idea that royal blood was somehow different from regular blood. The royalty, nobility, and gentry were physically superior to the peasantry. As late as the 1800s, the quite progressive for her time Charlotte Bronte had her character surprised that the coarse peasant girls in her school were capable of learning in spite of being of inferior birth.

And yet if you look at the actual royals, it’s hard to imagine these as superior human specimens. I don’t see how royalty stayed in power in Spain after the later Spanish Habsburgs who were so inbred as to be barely functional. They actually looked at these people and thought God wanted them to rule, and they were superior to the people they ruled? Well, probably not. This is a case of what I mentioned last week, where there was an infrastructure in place of people who benefited from the power structure and supported it. Most of the people didn’t know how sickly and deformed their rulers were, and the people around the rulers were hanging on to their own power, so nobody said, “You know, I don’t really think God is blessing this guy’s rule.”

Where it gets really wacky is the idea that royalty is so important that it supersedes ability or even being from the country they’re going to be ruling. For instance, when the British ran out of Stuarts they wanted anywhere near their throne, they reached back to the great-grandson of a previous king, someone who didn’t speak English, had never lived in England and knew little about it. Ironically, that previous king got his claim to the throne via an ancestor whose claim to “royal blood” was somewhat dubious (though his wife did have a bit more of a claim). I guess your blood suddenly becomes royal once you’ve put on a crown and your descendants forevermore are royal.

That even continues into modern time. When Norway got its independence from Sweden in 1905, they decided they wanted a king. Instead of finding someone in their country who would make a good leader, they imported a Danish prince — I guess because royalty was all-important. The current king is the first king of Norway to have actually been born in Norway in something like 800 years. His grandfather was Danish and his father was born in England (his father’s mother was a daughter of the English king). And the next king of Norway will be the first one in a long time who’s at all Norwegian, since his mother is Norwegian. Until now, they’ve been Danish and Swedish (and English, but in the English royal family, that meant German at that time). Greece also imported a Danish prince to be their king, back in the 1800s, which is how Prince Philip was a Greek prince without being at all Greek (he was Danish, German, and Russian).

I wonder if this kind of stuff is why there’s such a tendency toward “chosen ones” in fantasy. We’re trying to make sense of the idea of royalty, where there is actually something magical about it, some supernatural reason why this person is elevated above others. It makes it feel like the person might have actually earned it. That farmboy who turns out to be the long-list prince proves himself somehow, usually gaining acclaim from great deeds before anyone knows who he is, so it’s like he’s earned his throne rather than merely inheriting it. I love what Terry Pratchett did with the trope, where the long-lost “one true king” is just a cop. Everyone kind of knows who he really is, but no one talks about it. He’s capable of rallying the people when necessary, then goes back to working his beat after the crisis is over. He’s worthy because he’s a good man, not because of his ancestry or the fact that he has a birthmark in the shape of a crown, and because he’s a good man, he has no interest in taking power.

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