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I'm writing in a fantasy setting. My goal is to have noble houses which derived from monarchy but not a monarchy itself.

My idea for what happened is this:

Once upon a time, there was monarchy--there was a king and his subjects were given noble titles and territories. Then, along came a bunch of wizards, who became so powerful that they threatened to overthrow the king. Before they tried, however, the wizards promised the nobles that after the king is no more, the nobles will retain their titles, their lands and pay less taxes. (also, if anyone dared oppose the wizards, they'll have a bad time because the wizards had better weapons than the nobles.) Thus enticed and threatened, most of the nobles chose to do nothing while the capital is seized and the kind overthrown. Ever since, the wizards ran the capital, but the nobles continue to exist as centers of power, even though there will be never be another king who might officiate their titles.

I want to know if this is plausible, specifically, I want to know if it makes sense for the nobles to stand idly by while the wizards overthrew their king. Assuming that it will be costly but not impossible for the nobles to fight the wizards. Would the absence of a king completely invalid the nobles' power, and therefore make the battle to preserve monarchy obligatory for the nobles?

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    $\begingroup$ This basically has happened in history. More than once. Not with wizards but a foreign power comes in and says "We're taking over. The king is gone but everybody else can keep their titles and lands. You just answer to the new king/sultan/emperor/maharaja/etc now". It tends to smooth out transition by keeping the current administration in place. Often they were even given bonuses in order to stay. Not a bad deal for having to basically do nothing new and just keep on as normal. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Dec 16 '20 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ It has also happened in fiction. The Unwilling Warlord by Lawrence Watt-Evans has a similar situation - super-powerful warlock in otherwise low-ish magic environment forms an empire by telling each of the kings in the target kingdoms to abdicate. Some comply, others resist and immediately die, but there is relatively little disturbance to the echelons below the monarch. (Slight oversimplification and trying to avoid too many spoilers.) $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Dec 16 '20 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ It looks like you think that a king creates nobles. It is the other way around. In the early medieval age there were a bunch of military landlords, with hereditary titles over the land they controlled (i.e. nobles). Since they were'nt united, sometimes one of the powermost of them acted as a "primus inter pares" (a king) in times of necessity such as a war against a powerful entity. Of course, once in charge these kings tended to try to enforce its nominal power over their subjects, who resisted fiercely. Absolutist monarchies appear after centuries of open war between nobles and kings. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Dec 16 '20 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking whether the noble aristocracy will tolerate the destruction of monarchy, or the destruction of this kingdom's monarch? (It makes a difference.) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Dec 16 '20 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ Another real-life reference en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wenceslaus_IV_of_Bohemia#King_of_Bohemia (this is central to the plot of the Kingdom Come: Deliverance video game too!) $\endgroup$ – DaveBensonPhillips Dec 16 '20 at 20:09
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If wizards just replace the king but leave local power to nobles, nobles would have little reason to rebel

I assume, as you speak about kings, nobles and tag it medieval-europe, that the current political regime is feudalism. Small nobles swear fealty to counts, count swear fealty to duke, duke swear fealty to king (ranks may vary, but you get the general idea).

This was done for a reason, a single king can not rule a whole kingdom, you need to delegate power. Feudalism was an effective way, built on a pyramidal scheme. The wizards probably still needs to delegate power. They may not be enough to replace all nobles, lack legitimization, and they may just be unable to rule the country if they replace the nobility with themselves or nothing.

As only the top of the pyramid is replaced, the base still is the same. if you are a count, what does it matter who is the king? You swore fealty to your duke and still have your lands: very little changes for you.

If you still keep the power, you just have too much to lose and too little to gain. If you rebel and win, you keep a fancy title, hurray. If you lose, the wizards will seize all your titles and your wealth. Not hurray.

Nobles have power from feudalism, not monarchy. Just keep feudalism, with a council of wizards at the top instead of a King, and the nobles would accept it.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly this. Maybe one or two dukes (the higher level) rebel because they know the king personally/don't trust the wizards etc. but you just remove them as well and promote someone in his place who promises to be obedient. Problem solved $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Dec 18 '20 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ Meet the new boss same as the old boss but with magic $\endgroup$ – Ryan Roos Dec 18 '20 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ There was similar situation in England when the Normans defeated King Harold. The nobles that fought against the Normans lost their titles and land and the ones that didn't (about 50%) kept all their privileges and stuff. Later on (about 20 years later), the old English nobility were being sidelined by the new Norman nobility, feared the loss of their status, and rebelled. They lost badly and only the few old English nobles that didn't rebel kept their titles and land. So it was ok for them as long as they were good vassals, but they became resentful because they weren't favored by the King. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Peter Dec 30 '20 at 18:23
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G. Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote "The Leopard".

The novel is the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a 19th-century Sicilian nobleman caught in the midst of civil war and revolution. As a result of political upheaval, the prince's position in the island's class system is eroded by newly-moneyed peasants and "shabby minor gentry." As the novel progresses, the Prince is forced to choose between upholding the continuity of upper class values, and breaking tradition to secure continuity of his (nephew's) family's influence ("everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same").

That last sentence is the key, and it can also apply to your case:

If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change

Nobles do not need a monarchy to legitimate their power, if they have some other way to justify it: be it wealth, be it industry, be it a republican party. The real hidden source of power is money.

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    $\begingroup$ A revolution, it's a wonderful term. When a wheel revolves, it comes back to where it started. It should be noted that the 19th Century was the period of industrialisation, previously while power still came from money, money came from land and farming, after industrialisation it came from business and manufacturing and land ownership lost its primacy. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Dec 16 '20 at 10:10
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Look at power, not legitimacy.

In theory, the king owned all land and gave fiefs to vassals, who owed fealty (and taxes, and military services). Those vassals also got noble titles and a complex hierarchy.

In practice, the king was unable to control the whole kingdom personally, and had to delegate some authority. When one of the vassals died, there had to be a new one, and not selecting the heir of the dead guy would have caused trouble. Every now and then, a king might have wanted that trouble, perhaps to cut an overly powerful family of vassals down to size, or to get lands to reward a personal favorite.

Assume that each of the senior noble families controlled a relatively small part of the kingdom -- small enough to manage it personally and to keep their own vassals under control. Keep things that way for many decades, possibly even centuries, and you have a tradition where formal fealty is given to the king, but the senior nobles are very much in control of their own fiefs. Perhaps there were several incidents in living memory when powerful nobles removed a king and formed a "regency council" for a more pliable heir.

Then the wizards came along and suggested to some nobles to do away with the current king. Not a radical idea at all, as long as the forms are preseved. Make sure that the king and credible adult, male heirs die, form a regency for some figurehead who is a baby, or a woman, or both.


Note that my use of genders in this scenario plays on modern conceptions of medieval prejudices. Make a conscious decision how that is handled in your setting.

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    $\begingroup$ I believe that as a rule, fiefs were historically not given to vassals personally, but to families. Inheritance was automatic, not a favor. But for worldbuilding, that's something which you can change without even needing to explain. It definitely helps here: no king anymore, so the former vassals now obtain the ability to appoint their own heirs. Small price to pay for the wizards. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Dec 17 '20 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters, that's the practice but in theory individuals swore their oaths. The heirs had to do it all over again. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 17 '20 at 6:30
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As other answers have indicated, it is certainly possible to have an aristocracy in a republic. I'm not sure what historical time period your fictional setting best equates to, but if you want specifically medieval historical parallels (as opposed to Early Modern or Victorian ones), the nearest thing to what you're describing probably occurred in Italian city-states such as Florence, which managed to throw off the rule of feudal princes but maintained a role for local nobility in their political system.

Nonetheless, I think it's wrong to suggest that your wizardly coup could would succeed without a fight in most pre-modern societies. Simply put, legitimacy matters, and your mages don't seem to have any. The power of pre-modern monarchs to command their subjects was fairly limited, but they did have a tremendous amount of sacral authority as God's chosen representatives on Earth, which meant that overthrowing the monarchy could not be accomplished without causing severe social and spiritual upheaval. Even in the 17th century, rebels in England and the Low Countries were careful to couch their republics as a restoration of ancient rights and traditional constitutional forms, not as innovations.

Why is this important for the stance of the nobility specifically? Well, the limited coercive capacities of a pre-modern state made it more - not less - important for power-holders to be able to claim some plausible moral justification for their rule. Medieval society depended on hierarchical bonds of trust and reciprocal loyalty, and thus if the nobles refuse to defend their king at all, then they are still undermining their own position even when their lands are not directly affected. If the higher lords fail to honour their sworn oaths to defend the monarch, why should their own vassals feel obliged to honour the oaths they have sworn to them? Here is an article explaining in more detail how the fealty-based political system of a feudal polity actually works, and how the kind of no-holds-barred treachery practised by nobles in Game of Thrones would be nonsensical and self-defeating in real life: https://acoup.blog/2019/06/12/new-acquisitions-how-it-wasnt-game-of-thrones-and-the-middle-ages-part-iii/ Plus, even if you decide that your nobles ARE all faithless schemers, it still seems likely that at least one of them would try to fill the king-shaped vacuum in the realm by claiming the throne once it gets forcibly vacated.

Of course, if the wizards have enough raw power then probably they can browbeat or bribe the aristocracy into quiescence eventually, after which they can start manufacturing their own forms of legitimacy. Nonetheless, I find it implausible that the nobility could simply be bought off with a tax cut without putting up any significant resistance.

So the answer is: yes it's possible, but that doesn't mean it's likely.

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    $\begingroup$ good points here, thanks $\endgroup$ – user289661 Dec 16 '20 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ Good points - the Church in the real world was a second power base besides the nobility ("second estate"), and in this setting the wizards would also form such an estate. And that second estate could hold supreme power - we have plenty of examples of prince-bishoprics, where the nobles were vassals of the local bishop. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Dec 17 '20 at 0:17
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    $\begingroup$ "legitimacy matters" Says who? France went the whole way and executed all its aristocracy, so there was no "legitimate" government linked to the previous one. The English did the same during their Civil War, ending with a republic mostly run by people who had been minor aristocrats or middle class. What matters politically is simply who has practical power, not legitimacy. $\endgroup$ – Graham Dec 17 '20 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham is on point. For the most part, the nobles wouldn't care too much about the legitimacy of a monarch. Yes, some might. However, if the last monarch first turned into a newt and then into a big fire, finally into a pile of ash, I don't think many nobles would be willing to point out that the wizards aren't the rightful rulers. Besides, legitimacy is easy to manufacture. Has been many times. Take over and marry the daughter of the old king. Or a cousin or something. Or just any noble house. Legitimacy is mostly a political tool to oust unwanted leaders. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Dec 17 '20 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ Legitimacy matters because, in the absence of a modern coercive state (i.e.a professional bureaucracy, police force, government-controlled military, etc), a regime literally cannot function without the consent of local elites. I agree, if the wizards have overwhelming magical power (i.e. enough to sub in for a coercive state), the nobles will yield in the end. But first, some will fight. Fealty to a liege isn't just window-dressing in an aristocratic society, it's the basis of how the whole hierarchy works, and some nobles will be willing to risk death to preserve their honour and way of life. $\endgroup$ – Montefeltro Dec 17 '20 at 18:45
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The nobles might worry the same could happen to them.

I find it plausible that nobles might be talked out of supporting the old king because the wizards promise them everything will stay the same. If that is what you need for oyur story it makes sense and other answers have said that.

Some nobles, though, might see the writing on the wall as regards their own prospects. The only thing maintaining the aristocracy is their solidarity. They have no particular skills or gifts, just money and inertia.

Maybe some nobles have magic users in their own territory. If a magic user can kick out the king and other members of the aristocracy do not help, that same fate could befall any one of the nobles. A magic user could kick him out of his ancestral estate and the other nobles nod and smile.

Nobles might decide that it is bad precedent to let a bunch of riffraff magicians kick out the king, and go to his aid. Or for your story it might be better if just one noble house did that. Magic users wind up in that house as well as the king's palace.

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You're story setting is a metaphor for current wealth divide

I think self interest and self preservation would lead to a path similar to how you have described. In public nobility would declare full allegiance to the king but if the wizards can launch an overwhelming attack on the king and inner circle with superior weapons few would choice to join them in death after the battle is effectively already lost.

King dies. Rich keep wealth. Rich pay guards. Guards prevent uprisings. The rich bless poor people with token amounts of money known as trickle down economics. The rich live happily ever after.

I suspect you'll get a transfer to a more "modern" wealth divide situation. Wealth creates more wealth, inheritance passes wealth onto children, the titles just morph into modern "nobility" titles like "billionaire".

A billionaire is able to invest money and let it grow into more money, such that it can be divided between their children, allowing a noble to bestow the title of "billionaire" onto their children. No king needed in the process of granting the noble title.

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You don’t need a monarch to have nobles. Look for example at this Wikipedia link listing the noble titles conferred by the successive Lords Protector as the heads of the Republican Commonwealth of England during the Interregnum following the English Civil War. And pre-existing noble titles established under the monarchy were not abolished.

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