While the person of the king may go on trips or lead armies in battle, it is another thing to have an itinerant government. In the earliest feudal kingdoms of Europe, the entire apparatus of government moved with the monarchs.

When Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor, he had no official capitol. Many Emperors were crowned at Aachen, but thy were itinerant, moving from city to castle to abbey throughout their realms. Eventually, the Luxembourg emperors stopped traveling, and started to stay put in their capitol of Prague after 1300. The Habsburg dynasty that succeeded them planted their capital in Vienna and stayed until WWII. The Holy Roman Emperors were itinerant until around 1300.

When the Spanish and Aragonese crowns merged with Ferdinand and Isabel, the Catholic monarchs took to an itinerant lifestyle. They moved from town to town, and the court followed. Their great-grandson Phillip II officially set up the capital in Madrid around 1560.

As far as I can tell, this was the last time a proto-nation-state in Europe had an itinerant capital. No modern nation states have itinerant capitals, even those that still have mostly absolute monarchs. Given a nation-state with a development curve typical of one of the nations of Europe, how late could a nation's government remain itinerant while still developing competitively in Early Modern Europe?

  • $\begingroup$ If I understand your question, are you asking how a country with an itinerant capitol could compete with neighboring countries with stationary capitols? $\endgroup$ – Bewilderer Nov 12 '18 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ It's a cost-benefit issue. Itinerant rulers improve accountability, but increase administrative costs, as the paperwork has to follow the monarch, wherever he goes. It would depend on which proved more expensive. Elizabeth I of England was itinerant, as a means of keeping her nobles in line, but the capital remained in London, because she had ministers to handle daily administration. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Nov 12 '18 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Which nation? A lot is going to turn on how large or small the nation is and how rich it's lands are. $\endgroup$ – Ash Nov 12 '18 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ Ooooh, this is a hard question to answer! When do citizens begin relating power to the seat of government rather than the governing person? Is it due to improved communication? Peer pressure (our king has this cool castle, what does your king have)? Increased need for bureaucracy due to more compex taxing and infrastructure? Increased need to predictably find the person in charge? How about decreasing need to be hands-on in order to preserve the integrity of the kingdom? This is a cool question! $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 12 '18 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Cyn In my mind, the Pentagon, Treasury, Dept of Justice, Dept of State, etc aren't moving to Camp David, so that doesn't really count. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Nov 12 '18 at 16:55

Court and government are two different things

The Royal Court and His Majesty's Government are two very different things, which serve different functions and are made up of very different people; so that, well past the time when this was what was expected of a monarch, the king can choose an itinerant lifestyle if he so pleases, or if he so must.

The times of the stereotypical itinerant monarchs belong to a historical period when there was not much, if any, in the way of central government. Charlemagne could obviously spend all his reign travelling from place to place, because he ruled during the most medieval times of the Middle Ages, when even the notion of a central government was alien to the realms of Western Europe; he simply did not have any kind of government, and the idea that he (or the people immediately around him) would be expected to actually govern the empire did not even cross his mind. The empire was made up of great fiefs, and it was the business of the holders of those fiefs to govern them; the emperor had other business, such as to make war, to hunt, to sire illegitimate children, to make merry, to receive foreign delegations and, time allowing, to attempt to set policy.

But even before the Middle Ages, in the days of the Roman Empire, some emperors choose the life of a perpetual tourist; Hadrian comes to mind: he could be found anywhere in the empire but almost never in Rome. Other emperors had to live on the frontiers: for example, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Yet others, such as that famous pervert Tiberius, had a fixed abode outside Rome, and expected to be left in peace unless some important decision had to be made.

Unlike the medieval Carolingian Empire, the Roman Empire actually had a government; but the physical presence of the emperor was not necessary for the operation of the government. They had senators, and quaestors, and praetors, and praepositi, and procuratores and so on to take care of things.

In post-medieval Europe we also find examples of such emperors and kings. Consider the magnificent Charles V: he was both Emperor of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Both the Spanish and the Holy Roman empires had governments of sorts, in Madrid and in Vienna, but those governments could, and actually had to work without the double emperor holding their hands. Charles V travelled extensively throughout his European realms, as the needs of war and civil and religious strife required. (He did not like it much; at the age of 56, after 40 years of service, he abdicated both crowns and went to o a monastery.)

Or consider the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. He and his court were fixed at Versailles throughout most of his reign; yet the government of France remained in Paris, and for three decades both parties found this arrangement to be perfectly acceptable.

And even in our up-to-date modern days, I understand that American Presidents tend to be grabbed by an irresistible wanderlust when elections approach; for example, in October 2018 President Donald Trump of the U.S.A. have no less than 18 speeches at events all over his huge realm; yet the government of the U.S.A. stayed put in Washington, D.C., and governed the country, and felt no inconvenience.

  • $\begingroup$ This is good historical background, but doesn't seem to address the question. America's government is obviously no longer itinerant. What is the latest a government could reasonably remain itinerant? $\endgroup$ – kingledion Nov 12 '18 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion: The question asks "how long could kings reasonably stay itinerant". I answered that kings could stay intinerant to this day; it is governments which have strong incentives to stay put. In fact, for a modern-ish government the question doesn't even make sense -- a modern-ish government has people in many places, scattered around the country. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 12 '18 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ For a bang up to date example: Queen Elizabeth II can quite happily go damn near anywhere she likes. She has People for running the country and a cordial agreement with them that they’ll do whatever she asks them to do as long as she doesn’t ask them to do anything. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 13 '18 at 9:38

I think the breakpoint is when the government reaches a certain level of bureaucracy. Its easy for an absolute king to move court every month or so. It's a lot harder when you've got 10 bureaus and a few thousand people following him.

And as transportation and communication technology improves, you lose a lot of the benefit of having an itinerant king; once you've got railroads, steamships and telegrams it's easy enough to get in contact with the capital no matter where it is.


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