27
$\begingroup$

We've got a lord - the lord returned from a quest and has been absent for a few years. When he returns it is to a little coastal town just large enough to have a thin palisade that protects it from raiders.

The lord returns with only a handful of riders, whereas none of them are knights. So there is no significant retinue to confirm his status.

His signets are not recognized but not claimed to be faked either. (They think it is legit, they just don't believe he is the ruler of the given region.)

The people on the countryside are illiterate, do not come to the castle a lot and do not care much for the concept of maps.

How would a lord in this case, in a legal non-violent way (cannot bite the hand that feeds him), prove to his people that he is the rightful ruler of the region?

$\endgroup$
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ Sovereignty over people is determined by those lords, not by the people. People have no say in who is ruling them. So the ruler should beeline to local lord's residence, who should recognize him. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Oct 21 '15 at 8:30
  • 31
    $\begingroup$ Dead Collector: "He must be a King." Passerby: "Why is that?" Dead Collector: "He hasn’t got shit all over him." $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Oct 21 '15 at 14:48
  • 37
    $\begingroup$ "I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective." $\endgroup$ – Yumecosmos Oct 21 '15 at 14:59
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ He is recognised by his faithful hound. $\endgroup$ – A E Oct 21 '15 at 16:21
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Depending on the style of feudalism and the customs of the society in question, he may be SOL, even if they do recognise him. Power in feudalism flows in both directions, and the king has obligations to those beneath him just as they have obligations to the king. If his quest wasn't pursuant to those obligations, and caused him to neglect them for a long time, he may well return to find that he's been replaced and be, at best, politely asked to leave. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Oct 21 '15 at 21:47

11 Answers 11

27
$\begingroup$

Start with your allies

The power of a king ultimately relies upon others recognizing that power. Someone who has returned from a years-long quest will need to re-claim the throne which is somewhat similar to someone else claiming it from scratch. It will not happen automatically, and it may easily fail. Whoever reigned during these years can wish things to remain that way, and may have made extensive preparations to prevent a return.

Thus, arriving "with only a handful riders, where as none of them are knights", then marching on to "a little coastal town" is a monumentally bad thing to do if you want to return as a king. This would happen only if the king was exceptionally careless (and if that's so, how he managed to remain king up until now?) or some extraordinary circumstances (shipwreck?) forced him to do so.

A realistic arrival from such a quest will be a plan on how to 'arrive in force'. If you can't do it now, then the first priority is to obtain that force and retinue before claiming to the wide public that you've arrived. You need to start with powerful people that you believe will back your claim to the throne - all the lords that are your relatives, friends or who have a political interest in having you in the throne as opposed to the other most likely option. If possible, you'd go directly to them. If not, then you'd hide in disguise until you can be safe from your political enemies - for whom this situation is a wonderful option to get rid of you permanently with no consequences.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Sad to see this accepted as the answer. It's simply not realistic to say that a returning ruler would need to reclaim their power similarly to one "claiming it from scratch." In fact, to contradict your specific hypothetical about a shipwreck, this is exactly what happened to Richard I and four other "riders" and were imprisoned by the Byzantine emperor. His brother John, and the king of an entirely different country (Philip of France) paid the ransom. (John even revolted while Richard was gone, and when Richard got back he forgave him and even named John's son his successor.) $\endgroup$ – Dan Jan 29 '16 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ But my larger point is that when the ruler rides out to war for years, there's going to be people loyal to him back home awaiting his return. The original question was about a small town recognizing him, not the government. Your claim that "marching on to 'a little coastal town' is a monumentally bad thing to do" is just unfounded. Kings did this all the time returning from wars and such. $\endgroup$ – Dan Jan 29 '16 at 2:34
77
$\begingroup$

Written documents were rarely used to prove kingship, and in general peasants didn't argue with armed men.

If a group of heavily armed people turned up at your village and one of them said they were a king you said "Yes your Majesty, how may we serve you your majesty" and then sent a runner off to whoever the most important local person was so that they could deal with it.

A local noble would most likely be able to recognize the king, or if not then again they would offer them hospitality while they sent for someone who could.

Keep in mind that pretending to be the King when you are not would be a capital offence, anyone trying this and getting caught would expect to be hunted down and exterminated once people found out.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Ouch! Now that's one brutally realistic reply. Plus, a very logical one, too! Word up! Question arises if the newcomers are less than 20 and not so heavily armed :p $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Oct 21 '15 at 15:56
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ And "hunting down the impostor" would be responsibility of the "real" king, not peasants. King can have all the power he can hold and defend. But defending it was full-time job. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Oct 21 '15 at 16:47
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Magic-Mouse The solution is still the same though, whether impostor or royalty he would be passed up to the local lord, and then so on up the chain until either recognized or executed. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 21 '15 at 18:37
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Even if you already had a king, it was quite common throughout history to have a guy and lots of thugs arrive and declare, "Well, I'm your new king." Success rates varied. $\endgroup$ – JS. Oct 22 '15 at 18:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If a group of heavily armed people turns up at my house and says he is king, I'd also go "Yes your Majesty, how may we serve you your majesty". $\endgroup$ – Davidmh Oct 23 '15 at 18:45
16
$\begingroup$

There is also a much simpler answer: the ruler will look like a ruler, even without the signets and such. Then it just becomes a matter of whether or not they think this person is lying about being their ruler, which probably isn't a smart idea.

To elaborate: In a settlement like the one you're describing, this lord and his party will very much seem higher in social rank than the town's inhabitants. I'm not talking about colorful flags or fanciful garb or anything theatrical like that; simply the having mounts and weapons and other accoutrements/supplies one might take along with them would say much about their social status.

Thus, even if the townsfolk have doubts this person is Lord So-and-So, they'll almost certainly recognize that he must be someone of a higher social class, in which case it may not matter much to them either way. After all, what's the point of potentially risking the ire of your lord if you're not sure it isn't him? Is it worth the risk?

So even if the town is uncertain, they'll still likely accept it.

Also, I'm framing this entirely from the viewpoint of the small village you've described; in a larger settlement (like a city) there would be other factors in play.

(Additional side-note, the language the ruler speaks would indicate to the town whether he were a foreigner or not.)

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly: The townsfolk won't care whether the guy with the sword is legitimate or not, they will care if the swords are pointed at them. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Oct 22 '15 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ youtube.com/watch?v=Hi8vXOUi-eI Monty Python seems to agree with you $\endgroup$ – Mauro Oct 22 '15 at 12:58
10
$\begingroup$

Other than having your face on the money and monuments, proof of reign is social: the King is supported by the Lords. If nobody recognises you as King, and you don't have an answer to "you and whose army" then you aren't. If you go away and don't write and aren't popular you may find someone else is king when you get back.

(See in the history of the UK, William of Orange vs Charles Stuart and the "Pretenders" who were technically the legitimate monarchs but were exiled into France for Catholicism)

$\endgroup$
9
$\begingroup$

Tim B's answer is pretty realistic. Force is the true legitimation of power in a feudal society, our concept of legal authority is an anachronism.

That said just because people are illiterate does not mean that they cannot recognize symbols of authority. In fact feudal societies often have dense symbolic systems for non-verbally conveying each individuals place.

1) Historically specific colors became associated with rulers. For example purple cloth is associated with kings and emperors due to the high expense of producing pre-modern purple dyes. While the people of the town might not know who their king/lord is should he appear clothed in a color associated with royalty, they are more likely to accept his claim. Perhaps the color is associated with a particular royal family or lineage.

2) Legal restrictions on clothing items, known as sumptuary laws, are often used in feudal societies to reinforce distinctions. While historically this was used to distinguish nobles from commoners, there is no reason that a specific cut of clothing couldn't be limited to members of the royal family.

3) Objects can also legitimate authority. In the Roman Republic the authority of a magistrate was indicated by the number of lictors (bodyguards essentially) who they had at their command. Each lictor carried a ceremonial axe which symbolized their ability to impose capitol punishments. Any number of similar items (beyond the signet rings mentioned in the question) might symbolize power. While no one in the town may have seen these objects before, if they are sufficiently distinct oral traditions or art may make them recognizable.

4) Oaths tend to be very important in illiterate societies because of the lack of external confirmation. Should taboos against oath-breaking be strong enough, perhaps buttressed by any number of superstitions, then a strong oath might be sufficient for establishing ones' identity.

From a modern perspective none of these symbols may seem sufficient to prove someone's identity but the standards of evidence in an oral society are likely to be far lower than they are in a literate society. Therefore some combination of these symbols would likely help a lord or king to prove their identity at least until a higher authority (church leader, high noble etc.) could be consulted.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Force is the true legitimation of power" - sorry, but no. Force alone is not enough. Soft power (tradition, personal relations with other lords, etc.) was very important. If someone with a group of armed men occupied a village (whose lord was absent) and claimed he was the lord of the village, the lords of neighboring regions would quickly unite to depose him if they didn't recognize him or he couldn't prove his lineage well enough. Without personally knowing any of the lords of neighboring regions (or at least being recognized as the son of someone they know) he wouldn't stand a chance. $\endgroup$ – vsz Oct 22 '15 at 6:09
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Failing to do so (just appearing with a small band of armed men), the only way he could prove his legitimacy was if his superior, the king, did inform the neighboring lords about him. Even in that case, he would have a high chance of being the target of intrigues. The lords of a feudal society were highly interconnected by family ties and alliances, so I would say it's nearly impossible for someone to not be recognized by anyone and still being able to claim legitimacy. $\endgroup$ – vsz Oct 22 '15 at 6:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Force is the "true legitimation" of authority in all societies, including ours. It's pleasant to think that because we're a democracy that that means the "people" rule. There's truth in that, but only to a certain extent. There have been a number of cases here in the U.S. recently where the people passed a referendum, and then the courts declared it "unconstitutional" and overruled it. Ultimately, the president of the U.S. rules because the police and the army back him up. If the police and the army declared that they were supporting someone else, it wouldn't matter if he'd won the ... $\endgroup$ – Jay Oct 22 '15 at 16:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ... biggest landslide in history, he'd be out. I suppose if the army tried to stage a coup there might be a mass uprising, but then it becomes a matter of who can bring more force to bear or bring force to bear more effectively. Now as to WHY the police and army and other powerful institutions back one leader or another, that has a lot to do with perceived legitimacy. In a feudal society, being the son of the previous king gives you this perception. In a democracy, it's winning an election. Etc. $\endgroup$ – Jay Oct 22 '15 at 16:45
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @vsz "underestimate soft power and tradition" Not at all: read my last two sentences. But whether the soldiers fire at the protestors or at the government officials, we're still talking about soldiers shooting somebody, i.e. raw military power. Yes, which side the soldiers take is determined by many factors. My point was that who rules a feudal society is not particularly more or less a question of force than who rules a democratic society. The difference is what is perceived to confer legitimacy. $\endgroup$ – Jay Oct 23 '15 at 13:19
5
$\begingroup$

If the ruler cannot be physically recognised as such (and nobody recognises his signet or other trappings either), and isn't willing to use force, then basically he won't prove to some random village that he truly is their King, at least not to start with. Even if he looks the part, demonstrates his noble bearing, demonstrates to the illiterate local priest that he speaks some Latin, and so on, that merely proves he's a lord, not that he's their lord or the top man.

However, in a feudal society there will people around the place who are able to make a better assessment. Sufficiently well-informed priests, magistrates, sheriffs, knights, lesser nobles and whatnot. They won't be immediately available out in the middle of nowhere, so the King in effect keeps saying "take me to your leader" until he hits someone who recognises him or his signet.

In practice it won't normally be necessary to prove you're the King anyway, since travelling as an unknown noble without a retinue is still pretty good. Serfs might not drop everything and follow him when ordered, like they would if they knew who he was. So if he wants to take command of the local militia, and they don't believe who he is, then he just can't and that's the end of it. But they're going to be mindful of the possible consequences if their lord ever hears from this unknown lord that they mistreated him, so it's much safer to help him on his way than to assume he's a charismatic rogue and tell him to naff off.

Realistically there won't be many images of the King in the whole kingdom that are of high enough quality to use as reference, and none in a small village. But for comedy purposes, pointing at a coin and then at your face might do it ;-)

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

In the middle-age, one very efficient way of sealing contracts (I remember my teacher telling me it was during the Hundred Years War, for the english bowmen) was to cut a sheet of paper in two with a very specific patern, and to give one part to the bowmen and the other to the lord.

There was no way to fabricate a copy of the contract with the exact same patern, so the lord would know who were his men.

I hope this will give you an idea !

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ For that to work, the lord should have his copy of the sheet and the other copy should lay with the people. The lord can have his copy ... but it is not necessary for these snarky lot to have the other half. The other half would probably be laying with some well known head of the family in his capital. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Oct 21 '15 at 8:22
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The curch was held in very important regard at the time, and was often charged of keeping royal records - for exemple, the Hungarian Golden Bull was given to the pope and the archbishops of Hungary for safety. $\endgroup$ – Anthsyt Oct 21 '15 at 8:36
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ OP didn't mention a church. At least in the Christian church, church officials such as priests were generally literate long before literacy was well spread throughout the population. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 21 '15 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ I know; I was just trying to give him an idea. $\endgroup$ – Anthsyt Oct 21 '15 at 8:43
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ +1 for mentioning the church. Even if churches aren't present in OP's setting, you have a point in pointing out a central authority where both parties can refer to. Nice thinking! $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Oct 21 '15 at 10:07
4
$\begingroup$

If the area includes more than just these village people, then the lord may pay for his bread and butter for a couple days while send one of his horsemen to his capital (or other large town) and call a few dignitaries who can prove his status to these lot.

Furthermore, if the lord has visited this place before, at least the elderly people should be able to recognize him.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Back in the 70's, the sultan of Brunei, who was, at the time, the richest man in the world was shopping in Harrods.

He spends tens of thousands of pounds and wished to charge it to his Amex card. The salesman was unsure and asked if he had any other means of identity.

His bodyguard opened his wallet, took out a banknote, and held it up beside the sultan's face.

Does your putative ruler have any coinage with him? ;-)

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Coins has been mentioned several times but alas the lord is none but lord and the kings face is on the coins. $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse Oct 23 '15 at 12:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well as an avid coin collector, I can tell you that the faces on hammered coinage were not very detailed ,-) $\endgroup$ – Mawg Oct 23 '15 at 12:58
1
$\begingroup$

The classic order has been:

1) Appearance: Wear dress fancy enough to impress the locals. Sometimes simply having a sword and/or mount was impressive enough.

If that doesn't work,

2) Appeal to religion. Claim you are their leader by God's mandate.

If that doesn't work, fall back to what always has worked:

3) Start bashing in heads until their admit that you were their leader all along.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Two examples from "real" story-telling are Ulysses (Odyseus) and Richard the Lion-heart. Ulysses drew the bow only he could draw and killed all of the interlopers. Richard was recognized by his old and true retainers (and was accompanied by some who had quested with him.) When travelling a local lord left his affairs in the hands of his wife and relations. Any feudal lord will have many local connections of fealty and blood. There were signet rings and such that would count as proof for illiterate persons, even of high rank.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.