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I'm devising a political system for a novel I'm working on, but I'm not sure how to name its parts. I'll give some context first and then get to my question.

  • The story is in a middle age context
  • The continent contains 6 roughly equivalent "kingdoms", where "kingship" is hereditary
  • Kind of like Malaysia's political system, there is a rotation among the 6 "kings" or "queens", where they alternate to become the "high king" for a 5-ish years term. There is a central kind of state, where they sit for the duration of the term.
  • Balance between the 6 "kingdoms" is a big theme in the story, and the meta-governing body is necessary for the plot.

My question is this: Is there a name for this kind of system? I don't want to call it a kingdom, or an empire, or whatever, if this is not the right term. Basically, I'd like to know how I should name

  • The whole "meta-kingdom"
  • The six "kingdoms"
  • The six rulers
  • The ultimate ruler

Thanks a lot.

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    $\begingroup$ The six kingdoms are kingdoms. The six kings are kings. The topmost position is the emperor, or the high king, or paramount king, or the guardian of the sacred geese, as you wish. The entire shebang is an empire, or a union, or a confederacy, or an alliance, or a league. (The Athenian League, Delphic League, Latin League come to mind.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 6, 2019 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @MarkOlson: No, I shouldn't. It's just a comment to a primarily opinion-based question. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 6, 2019 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ You are laboring under the mistaken assumption that words like "federation", "confederation", "league", "union", "empire", "kingdom", "republic" and so on have common, universal, unwavering meanings. They don't. The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire and the British Empire are all called empires although they were extremely different political structures, and the HRE and the BE were more in the nature of loose confederations. The difference between the robustly democratic UK and the stubbornly autocratic PRC is not reflected in their names. Etc. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 6, 2019 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ Look, if the answer is "No, there is no set name for this", that does not make this an opinion based question. What you're providing are facts, and they're telling me exactly what I want to know. My question is to avoid being factually incorrect, there is absolutely no opinion asked here. $\endgroup$
    – Garnovski
    Nov 6, 2019 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ It seems like your system might be akin to the United Arab Emirates, where the hereditary Emirs of the individual Emirates elect one amongst their number to be the next President of the Federation? $\endgroup$ Nov 6, 2019 at 20:18

5 Answers 5

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So the term for this system is "Federal Monarchy". Likely a "Federal Constitutional Monarchy" in that the big king has to have some areas of power where he is not absolute in his authority within each separate Kingdom.

There are lots of terms you can use for the whole Kingdom, though "Federation" should be avoided as the term did not exist back then (Instead, what we call Federation today was a Confederation then... which now denotes a very loose federation. The EU is probably a Confederation). Union or League are probably good common names, given the setting, though if you want a fancier term, I suggest "Polity" or "Grand Kingdom". The actual name of the super-kingdom is yours and yours alone to consider and should probably be a Regional term (I.E. The United States of America is literally a federal nation of republics on the American Continent. As compared to the United States of Mexico, which is a federal nation of republics in the Mexico region of the world). While now only refering to one nation, United Kingdom was used in history for any nation where the King and his men were in control of multiple Kingdoms to one degree or another. The modern UK is four nations (England, Wales, Scotland, and (Norther) Ireland). The historical United Kingdom of Portugal was a period where Portagul was one component of equal monarchies representing their colonial holdings (Including Brazil and Algarves at it's height.) In both cases, all componant nations were part of the former title, but in more common use, the principal kingdom or region will be the first nation mentioned (United Kingdom of Portugal or United Kingdom of Great Britain.). Grand Kingdoms aren't a real thing, but several real life Grand Duchys exist, where the Monarch is a Duke who holds multiple Duchies, often because the Duke/Duchess was the heir apparent to multiple Duchies.

The six Kingdoms can be Kingdoms or Vice-royalties or Captaincies or Duchies. Obviously this denotes different things, where the Kingdom will be a hereditary King (closes in line will be King, usually going down the eldest son's family tree), Viceroys and Captains (as well as Governor and Governor-Generals) typically denote people who act for the king in day to day management (I like to say, the Keep the Local Throne warm). Typically they're not lineage driven, but you could have a system like the Papal Conclave where the Big King may designate from the persons family line (but not necessarily direct line) when a vacancy needs filling and then those people sit on a rotational basis of five years, with the big king leaving after five. Alternitively, it could be the guy in charge of the Big King's Kingdom while he is managing the Big Kingdom so it's five kingdoms and one Vice-royalty. Could also be that the collective actions are made by all six kingdoms with the Viceroy's vote going to his king (giving big King a second vote, that may only be used in a tie breaker vote.). Alternitvely they could be Princes of Principalities or Princely States (India used this. A raj was a prince, a raja was a King, and a maharaja was a High King, ususally having more than one Raja or Raj answering to him. An Emperor was called something else).

The Big Guy would probably a High King or an emperor. Depending on the flavor of the six constituent kingdoms, you could find a similar term for them. Empreror usually denotes that the Emperor is a king of multiple kingdoms at once (similar to a Grand Duke is a Duke of many Duchies) while High King is usually a King of Kings, meaning that his power is absolute in his personal kingdom, but he does have some authority over kings of other kingdoms, but not absolute. For example, in the United States, the President speaks for all states in foreign negotiations, but does not speak of a state in matters of zoning laws... a governor does that.).

The government is probably an oligarchy in nature (which means leadership is not inherited but is limited in who can be eligible). It's probably Constitutional as well (though a Constitutional nation didn't become a thing until the United States did it and everyone wanted to be cool. Middle ages would not have it and the closest thing, the Magna Carta, was a list of Rights of Nobles (and later all men) that formed only part of the Constitution. To this day, the UK is one of only two nations without a codified constitution (the other being New Zealand. Ain't no rule that you have to actually follow the Constitution or that it has to have a bill of rights... It's just a list of hard rules of government operation. Saudi Arabia is an Absolute Constitutional Monarchy (there Constitution is the Koran). Vatican City is an Absolute (infallibility, though rarely invoked) Constitutional (the Bible) Elective (Conclave) Monarchy (The papal title is a linage to a certain person, though not blood lineage as is traditional to monarchies, but a spiritual one and the ruler is picked from Cardinals named by him or his predecessor).

There are a lot of fun options, but you should probably focus on why a rotating king as opposed to a unified empire was desirable (descendants from one Mythic King of the Realm who couldn't choose a favorite child from his six? Six weak kingdoms that only survive in their unity, but are too proud to become fully unified on all fronts? A military alliance of six kingdoms that allowed a rotating leader an extra vote when ties occurred and the military needed some decision. This was carried over in peace. A group of enlighten monarchs that believe no one man should have all the power (The Liberal Movement that Sparked the United States never actually favored Republics over Monarchs. Rather it believed government should protect the people's rights. The anti-Monarchy angle came from the fact that George III was using royal ascent to grant parliament the ability to abuse citizens of their rights and the King couldn't be ousted reliably by anyone led to a marriage of Liberalism to Republicanism, though the two are not mutually required.).

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the proper name would be a confederated monarchy, but this is the correct answer. It’s not a period-correct name, as you point out, but it is the correct name. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Nov 6, 2019 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet: In Modern Parlence, Confederacy are basically Federations that allow for member-states to leave if they so choose and are rare (I believe the EU to be the only modern one, but even then it's dodgy to call them a confederacy). In the old sense, it's the same as Federation and can be found in historical terms used by older federal nations. The United States' had the Articles of Confederation as their proto-Constitution and the formal name of Switzerland is "The Swiss Confederacy". $\endgroup$
    – hszmv
    Nov 7, 2019 at 11:36
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Yes, there is an existing name for this kind of political system. It is called...

The European Union

This is exactly precisely how the European Union works. There are 28 (as of 6-Nov-2019) member states. Every six months, one of the heads of government of the member states becomes President of the Council of the European Union. The order is fixed and known in advance. As of now, in November 2019, the President of the Council of the E.U. is Antti Rinne, Prime Minister of Finland. In January 2020, whoever will be Prime Minister of Croatia at that time will become President of the Council of the E.U., to be followed by the Chancellor of Germany in June 2020 and so on.

In the E.U. we usually call this the "rotating presidency", but this is not an official term in any way.

Fun observation: The President of the Council of the European is a non-executive position, yet it is always held by an executive head of government, never by a non-executive head of state. Go figure.

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Confederacy

As others point out, what you're wanting really is a confederacy. I'd like to focus on one historical example: the Iroquois Confederacy. They're a fascinating read, or if you're short on time, I think the youtube channel Historia Civilis has a pretty good video overview of them. There were "sachems" who became the "council" of the actual confederacy. Everything was deeply symbolic of the family structure.

There wasn't exactly a high king; it was more democratic among the council (like a parliament or congress). There's no way I can do it justice here, but really, the Iroquois are worth some study. But instead of doing them justice, if we raid their language in the name of creative fun, we can come up with:

  • Confederacy = The whole "meta-kingdom"
  • Nation = The six "kingdoms"
  • Sachem = The six rulers (elected from among the "chiefs" of the "council" - again, playing around with names here)
  • Great Clan Mother, or Great Mother (or "Great Father" / "Great Clan Father") = The ultimate ruler.... This wasn't a thing for the Iroquois, but we can make this up for fun.

Personally, I like the symbolism of "one great family", and this example of a confederacy was quite remarkable.

Hegemony

Wikipedia has a decent list of historical hegemonies. A noticeable example was the League of Corinth where Philip the Second "unified" (basically by threat of force) the Greek city-states into the Macedonian empire. The league elected a Hegemon to rule over the league. Each Greek city-state participated in the alliance and they appointed Philip and his descendants as the Hegemon over the League. This was more or less a military alliance, with Macedon "allowing" the city states to do their own thing so long as they (a) never interfered with Macedon, and (b) participated with Macedon (under Philip's rule) to wage war against Persia.

Broadly speaking, a Hegemony is a form of confederation, as other answers point out that's really what you want. And historically there isn't a hegemony exactly like what you're describing. But the word "confederation" wasn't used as much historically, and hand-waiving here is probably okay for creativity's sake. In this context you could steal from the language to make:

  • League = The whole "meta-kingdom"
  • State = The six "kingdoms"
  • King = The six rulers
  • Hegemon = The ultimate ruler

Although the Hegemon wasn't rotated in or among the

Satraps and King of Kings

A more top-down approach would be something like the Achaemenid Empire, which is a where Cyrus the Great established satraps (basically governors) over a satrapy (state), where they had (mostly) full autonomy, outside of some tax laws and allegiance to Cyrus (the "King of Kings"). This worked really well, especially in a multi-ethnic area. Granted there is no rotating in or out of the king of kings, but again, stealing some of the language for the sake of creative fun:

  • Empire = The whole "meta-kingdom"
  • Satrapy or State = The six "kingdoms"
  • Satrap or Governor = The six rulers
  • King of Kings or Emperor = The ultimate ruler
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I have to type fast before this is closed as opinion-based or whatever.

Basically what you're asking cannot really be answered, we can only give an opinion on what would sound good, and again depending on what kind of "feeling" you want your setting to evoke you have to choose different names. So I won't make any suggestions, but I will try to give you some guidelines:

1) Start with the word for the six "kingdoms" OR one of the six "kings". Depending on your setting this could be a lot of things, totally different for medieval high fantasy and space opera where the kingdoms are planets or star systems. One way to approach this is to find a familiar language (depends on your audience, but generally something like English, German or French is suitable for Europeans, or Greek/Latin if are a man of culture) and try to combine two words that reflect "authority" and "place" (if you start with the "kingdom") or "authority" and "man/woman/human" (if you start with the "king")

2) Once you have the word for one of "kingdom" or "king", you have to devise the word for the other, this will usually be done by either appending something or cutting something from the first word. Do as you see fit, but try to keep both words at or under three syllables maximum.

3) From there on, you have two options. Either append something that reflects the meaning of "over"/"superior"/"greater"/"bigger"/whatever to these words to name your "meta-kingdom" and the "ultimate ruler". Or follow the same process as before, but with words that sound "grander".

Alternatively: you don't have to restrict yourself to one name. Each kingdom and its king may have a different title, and the combination of such may be named something else entirely. This works because it gives you more of an individual feeling, for example if I read about a "Confederation" I'd get a different head-image than if I read about an "Empire" or "Caliphate". Additionally, for important things like the "super-kingdom", you can have multiple titles, one "formal" and one "informal" (which may even be derogatory) used among the general populace.

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  • $\begingroup$ oh snap, I think I wasn't clear enough, I'm not looking for its name, per say, but for the correct term for this type of system. If there aren't I'll just go with one of your suggestion. I really am not looking for opinions, so I hope it won't get closed. $\endgroup$
    – Garnovski
    Nov 6, 2019 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ Anyways, thanks for the answer, very helpful! $\endgroup$
    – Garnovski
    Nov 6, 2019 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ Oh. I thought you were looking for a name, rather than asking for real-life examples. For me it's useless to look at real world examples because they tend to name them whatever they want, rather than what would be an accurate descriptor. There are a lot of "close enough" cases (U.S.A., U.K., E.U. from modern times, the Greek city states from antiquity, and others) all of which follow different naming conventions. But that's decidedly less fun than coming up with your own names. $\endgroup$
    – Nightmayre
    Nov 6, 2019 at 20:00
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You might want to read my post in the thread: Imperial Kingdoms?1

Some of the historical examples it gives from Earth history may be informative for your purposes.

To decide the title of the ruler of 6 kingdoms consider the organization of a feudal kingdom in Europe, which is more or less a rough model for your society.

Most of the land in the kingdom would be divided into hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of manors, each with tens or hundreds of peasants, both serf and free. Each manor would have a lord who held it as a fief from a higher lord and had to give feudal service to the higher lord.

A larger region of the kingdom would be a county, and the count of the county was usually the overlord of most or all of the manor lords in the county. The lords were the vassals of the count. Thus the count could be considered to be a lord of lords but used the separate title of count instead.

The kingdom would be divided into some large regions called duchies, each containing a number of counties. The duke of the duchy would be the overlord of most or all of the counts in the duchy.

A duke could be considered a lord of lords of lords, or a count of counts, but used the separate title of duke instead.

All of the kingdom would be under the king, and all of the dukes would be vassals of the king.

So a count could be considered a lord of lords or lord to the second power, a duke could be considered a lord of lords of lords, or lord to the third power, and the king could be considered a lord of lords of lords of lords, or lord to the fourth power.

A duke could be considered a count of counts, or a count to the second power, and a king could be considered a count of counts of counts, or a count to the third power.

And a king could be considered a duke of dukes, or a duke to the second power.

In real life the feudal system, or lack of system, could b get a lot more complicated. Many persons accumulated a number of different lordships, counties, duchies, and even kingdoms and thus had several different overlords and many different vassals. Few persons ever turned down a chance to acquire another manor, fief, or principality merely because it would make their feudal relationships more complicated.

It was perfectly possible for Lord A to hold fief B from Lord C while Lord C held fief D from Lord A, making them both each other's overlords and vassals.

A baron was a lord who was a direct vassal of the king and wasn't a vassal of any count or duke.

In the Holy Roman Empire the class of princes were rulers who were immediate and direct vassals of the Emperor and king, but they had a number of different titles. From lowest to highest the titles of the princes were princely count, landgrave, margrave, count palatine, prince, duke, grand duke, and archduke.

In some kingdoms, abbots of monasteries, bishops, and archbishops were also feudal vassals.

Anyway, in a feudal kingdom, each higher level could have been described as the overlord of the next lower rank but instead had a totally separate title.

So that would make it logical for you to invent a totally new title for the overlord of kings, since counts, dukes, and kings had titles which didn't specify who they were the overlords of.

As most people should know, there was a country in Europe which had many rulers who were overlords of kings - Ireland.

Medieval Ireland had tens of states or kingdoms called Tuatha - I have seen numbers like 90 or 150 but don't know how many there actually were, so I assume that there were about 50 to 200.

The island of Ireland has an area of 84,421 square kilometers or 32,595 square miles. So if at any one time there were 50 to 200 Tuatha in Ireland, the average Tuath would have an area of 422.105 to 1,688.42 square kilometers, or 162.975 to 651.9 square miles. If each was perfectly square it would be 20.545 to 41.090 kilometers on a side or 12.766 to 25.532 miles on a side.

If medieval Ireland had a population of 1,000,00 persons at any specific time the average Tuath would have a population of 5,000 to 20,000 persons at that time. Of course Tuatha varied a lot in size and population.

But if the kingdoms in your story are no larger than Irish Tuatha the six kingdoms would occupy only a rather small island instead of an entire continent.

The monarch of each tuath was a ri, or king. The ruler of a group of tuatha was often called an overking. The ruler of all the tuatha within a province of Ireland was often called a king of overkings.

"Province" is an English word. The Irish word means "fifth", and the "provinces" were originally fifths of Ireland. But ambition was more important than math or logic for Irish kings, so the number of "fifths" at any one time varied with political and military events, and today people usually talk about the four provinces or "fifths" of Ireland, forgetting there were once five and sometimes six.

And for centuries there was a king claiming the over lordship of all Ireland, who was called the High King of Ireland, or often called the King of Tara from the ancient ceremonial center at Tara.

As I said before, you are free to make up any name you wish for the supreme ruler above the six kings. If the name of your island or continent is, for example, Ecalpemos, you could call the supreme ruler the Ecalpemcrat, "ruler of Ecalpemos". Or maybe Contincrat, "continent ruler".

However, I kind of prefer that you call the supreme ruler of the continent the king of kings of that continent.

And that is because a number of religious persons claim that the title of King of Kings is reserved for God almighty, and I think that silly opinion should be disregarded as often as possible.

In the Bible, God is often called the Lord, and King, so if using titles that have been used for God is bad, all the lords and kings in medieval and modern Europe would have also been using titles reserved for God.

Furthermore, when the Bible was written including sections describing God as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, human rulers had already been using the title of king of kings for centuries or millennia. Clearly the writers who described God as king of kings couldn't hope to persuade human kings of kings to give up that title, or convince the more educated Jews that king of kings was a title used only by God, so those could not have been their intentions.

And of course many Christian countries have been ruled by kings of Kings.

But claims that mere mortals shouldn't use the title of king of kings may have discouraged its use in many medieval lands. In Ireland, for example, it would have been logical for an overking to use the title of king of kings, a king of overkings to use the title of king of kings of kings, and the High King of Ireland to use the title of King of Kings of Kings of Kings of Ireland.

European culture lacks any title higher than king and lower than emperor, and so many rulers who wanted use higher titles than king took the title of emperor. Thus there were a bunch of so called "empires" such as the Russian Empire, the First and Second French Empires, the Austrian Empire, the First and Second Haitian Empires, the First and Second Mexican Empires, the Brazilian Empire, the German Empire, the Empire of India (the British Raj), the (Italian) Empire of Ethiopia, and the Central African Empire.

But none of those "empires" were true empires in the sense of being Roman Empires or claiming to be the rightful governments of the whole world. If European culture had a tradition of titles ranking between king and emperor, such as great king, high king, king of kings, etc., etc., those titles could have been used by European rulers higher than ordinary kings but lower than emperors.

And I hope that fantasy writers do their part to show what an error that was by creating titles higher than king for their fantasy world while restricting the title of Emperor to those rulers who claim to be the rightful rulers of all the world or all the universe.

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