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Ok this is 2 questions but they are so closely related I'm sure it's OK


The Premise

  • The world is geographically similar to Earth.
  • The kingdom has the same climate as Germany.
  • The technology is High medieval (1200)
  • The capital town of a kingdom is going to be one of two places
    1. On a large river with only 2 easy ways to access it from land however the limited access ends very quickly (so this won't limit transport too much).
    2. On the coast with unlimited ways to access it from the ground.
  • The river in 1 can be quite short if needed and is connected to the same sea as 2

The Problem

I'm wondering how debilitating to trade needing to travel up and down a river to the capital would be, I know real life examples exist but these often has myriad land connections.

If I just need to add more land connections please say.

These are my questions:

  • How likely is it that a large kingdom (similar to HRE at the time) would place its capital town/city in location 1?
  • If not what would be the best way to defend town 2 and the palace? (I'm thinking big walls, huge moat and palace on a coastal island)
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  • $\begingroup$ as stated the land that is impassable is short and so the food grown outside could be transported by land only a mile or so $\endgroup$ – P.Lord Jul 6 '18 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ I think this also depends on the recent past. For example, if the previous ruler and his entire family died because someone poisoned the river which provided the drinking water in location 1 and they only noticed when half the town was already bed-ridden then the next ruler might think twice about choosing that location. (Especially if he was responsible for the poisoning as well.) $\endgroup$ – Real Subtle Jul 6 '18 at 10:59
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Im going to say the first location. Here's why:

First of all, most major European cities were built near rivers. They provided water, a way for traders to access the city, and defense as attackers would have to find a way to cross it while wearing armor.

Second, on the coast would be too open as invaders would have room to bring their boats around, and since it's also open on the land side, they can trap the city with a pincer attack.

Also, there are more woods, mountains, and open fields for all a cities needs (like wood, stone, or farms) inland than at the coast.

I got info from here

https://www.historyonthenet.com/medieval-towns-and-villages/

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  • $\begingroup$ Agreed. For trade, a river going through your city is a massive boon. The majority of bulk goods in the medieval era travelled by river or canal. Overland routes were comparatively tortuous. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jul 6 '18 at 9:00
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The Coast

Pros:

  • Lots of fish
  • Rare flooding
  • Trade with other coastal cities can be massive.
  • You can benefit from inland trade.

Cons:

  • Almost impossible to defend from the sea. If your city is a day or two from the sea (meaning it's not coastal) then you have time to do something once you've sighted the incoming fleet. But if you're on the coast, sighting to landing is the only time you have to defend. Yuck. The majority of countries on Earth are not coastal.

  • In the 1200s, there was only so far out into the sea you could practically go to gather fish. In other words, being coastal means the half of the world on the sea side is of limited use without a substantial navy (what little that means in the 1200s).

  • Hurricanes.
  • Smells like fish.

You could place the city on a cliff overlooking the sea, but then it's not really coastal in anything but the academic sense. You get no value from the sea, but there's also no threat. You do have the consequence of having only half the available land to resource your city.

Inland

Pros:

  • Lots of land to expand into.
  • Hills, valleys, mountains, waterways, all contribute to your well-planned defence.
  • Trade along the river route can be massive.
  • You can run anywhere, in any direction, and use it all for defence, if need be.
  • You can build a wall around everything, if you wish.
  • It doesn't smell like fish.

Cons:

  • If there are substantial trade opportunities along the coast you can't take advantage of them (at least not easily).
  • More frequent flooding.
  • Forest fires.

All in All

Personally, I'd vote for the inland capital. However, this question borders on being too-story-based because whether or not any of the above listed pros and cons have any meaning depends on how you structure/develop/write the surrounding demographics. If your nearest enemy is inland, putting your capital on the coast makes a lot of sense.

One more thing

Realistically, most towns developed because there were enough resources to make life practical to live. Those resources could include bountiful food and water, but they could also include being at a crossroad of two trade routes, regardless the scant food and water available. Most towns were developed because the opportunity was available. In this case, people rarely thought about defence first.

Upon occasion, towns would develop around a castle, fortress, or fortified encampment. Sometimes for the defence it offered, but often because of the opportunity it offered. Soldiers want to buy things just like everyone else but don't have the privilege of trade unless it happens to be right outside the gate. Whether or not a town actually developed would depend on whether the resident warlord wanted the town nearby and whether or not there was too much danger (people are always attacking the fort at Opportunitus!).

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Capitals can be at all kinds of places

Madrid is the capital of Spain, and has been since 1561. Madrid is at an elevation of 667 meters, and is on the quite un-navigable Manzanares river, about which can be said,

In its urban section, the Manzanares River ..., with a section of water several meters deep, [is] in some parts navigable by canoes

This is not a river or location designed for easy transportation. Yet, had you surveyed Europe in 1600 you surely would have decided that the most important capital was in Madrid.

Politics is a separate matter from economics or geography. Because Phillip II declared by fiat that Madrid was to be the capital, so went the fortune of Spain.

It has been suggested by some that I have read that the relative inaccessibility of the capital played a significant role in Spain falling far being other European powers in the 18th and 19th century. Whether or not this is true, the presence of a major European capital in a place without oceanic or river transport should indicate that your nation's capital can be placed wherever politics dictates that it should be placed.

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Towns (the places where markets develop) have several requirements. Among them is a reliable food supply. If you rely upon the river for shipping food at Location #1, then you have two weaknesses:

  • Food will be shockingly expensive in town due to the transport cost. This will ripple through the town, slightly increasing the price of everything else.
  • An enemy campaign will simply blockade the river and let the town starve. Easy, inexpensive siege!

High prices will quickly undercut Location #1's usefulness as a market center, as farmers and merchants start meeting and trading at a more convenient and lower-cost location that's more accessible nearby. That village will grow into the town. Your best option for that market center is Location #2.

Er, this assumes that Location #2 also meets the basic requirements for human habitation, like reliable supplies of freshwater, food, and wood for building and fuel.

Location #1 seems more appropriate for a Zollberg (toll-castle), charging tolls along a trade route (the river). Such an income-generating enterprise would make a huge difference to the king's treasury, allowing him to buy influence, hire a much larger seasonal army, and become a regional power.

Historically, 1200s European poverty (not technology) tended to keep wars small, seasonal, and for rather minor gains. While there was lots of fighting, most power politics was done through (cheaper) intrigues and marriages. Wars in wealthier Asia were quite different, bigger and for major stakes.

The location of the seat of government could be either location; it depends upon the politics of the area and the military threat (if any). And kings can move the capital as they please. Who's going to stop them?

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  • $\begingroup$ One trick that e.g. the Japanese shoguns were terribly fond of (although I believe the French also made use of it) was to move the royal court to some podunk town in the middle of nowhere and force your important nobles to spend a lot of time there. Time they're spending there is time they're not spending in their own provinces, potentially plotting against you. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Jul 6 '18 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence Indeed! $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jul 6 '18 at 1:34
  • $\begingroup$ What reasoning do you have for food being expensive on a river instead of the coast? Rivers are the best method of transportation - cheap easy access to production from all the territory upriver at negligible cost. River transportation is astoundingly cheaper and easier for moving bulk goods than by road or even shipping along the coast because you can just float barges down with the flow rather than needing vessels capable of surviving storms at sea. Moving up-river could be a little more energy intensive if a fast-flowing river, but still almost always more placid than by sea. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jul 6 '18 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi that's true if most food is shipped more than a few miles. However, in medieval economies most food was stored and consumed within a couple miles of production. There's an explicit assumption (since the question did not specify) that local food production is available at Location #2. There's a premise in the question that local food production is not available at Location #1 $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jul 6 '18 at 14:45
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Good defense is not just about walls. Yes, walls are an important thing in medieval times, but don't forget that Troy and Babylon were conquered without a scratch being done to theirs. And Rome was set on fire from the inside. On the other hand, Athens thrived for millennia.

Around the 1200's, I can also think of Lisbon. It was taken once or twice during its whole pre-Renaissance history, and not for very long.


If at the end you choose to go with coastal, don't have the royalty living in a coastal island. That is much easier to lay siege to. Just surround it with boats armed with catapults and fire away. Cut off from the city, there is not much your nobles can do to avoid defeat.

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  • $\begingroup$ Mont Saint-Michel was more what I was thinking of the coastal palace, not something like isle of wight $\endgroup$ – P.Lord Jul 6 '18 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ Boats with catapults to smash the walls of a castle? That is going to be a struggle. A stable platform capable of hosting trebuchets and delivering a large enough stone with enough force to damage walls... that works in videogames, but pulling that off in reality would be exceedingly difficult (as in this was not done). Being at sea is also easier for small boats to slip in and out from the blockade in the night than for people to slip out over land if the attackers build their own cordon. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jul 6 '18 at 14:36
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Given the prevalence of river transport in the medieval (or even earlier) eras, I'd say that the river city is very likely to be a key trade hub. In addition to the access to fresh water, rivers provide easy transport of goods, armies, and the like. There's a reason many cities were founded near or on the banks of rivers. If the city happened to be at or below the confluence of several rivers, it would be a natural spot for a capital, as information and goods could swiftly travel downriver to it. Between the two options, there are nearly no advantages to the second besides access to the sea, which a substantially large river can grant anyway. Consider London, who has a harbor that can service very large ships, including wooden ships of the line (much larger than anything available during your 1200 timeframe).

As for your coastal city, frankly I don't see a lot of good to come from it. You have access to fish, but any wells in the area are likely to be contaminated with salt (access to fresh water was a key problem in sieges in the medieval period). You'd have to build substantial walls to defend yourself, and, unless on a natural bluff, you're building on relatively unsure ground (sand and sandy soils are not ideal for building large fortifications, and the prevalence of water in the area is sure to make things difficult). One benefit you do get is having part of your defensive perimeter cut off front attack by it being the ocean, however, it is a false defensive perimeter, as enemies can still swim or boat in. Unless you're building a city and castle on a bluff, there's no real benefit, and even then, a city on the river can be far more defensible and better.

If I were building defenses along a major river, I'd have my keep built on a natural bend in the river, to maximize the defensiveness of the river as a natural moat. I'd also ensure there was a well or tunnel underneath the keep to supply fresh water from the river or the aquifer that is sure to be present (Aquifer preferred since the soil would filter out a lot of things that could be used to try to poison defenders). You could even build a system that would allow fish through that could be easily caught to feed defenders, but would not allow men through (like a series of grates). With virtually unlimited food and water, your castle will be very hard to take. Add in a healthy compliment of archers, sufficient stockpiled arrows to outlast a long siege, and counter-siege equipment, you'd have a very tough nut to crack. Even if your enemies took the city itself, they could not rule it.

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