4 Surprising Awful Sides Of Life As A Medieval King

Being a medieval king straight up sucked.
4 Surprising Awful Sides Of Life As A Medieval King

Certain things in the recent era can feel akin to the Middle Ages … or at least what we think of the Middle Ages. The truth is a lot of what pop-culture presents of the period doesn't match the actual history. This week at Cracked, we're doing a Middle Ages deep-dive – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Well, it happened. You’re not sure how but it did. Maybe you were reaching for a magical medallion and fell into a moat, or maybe you quantum leaped and lucked out because instead of fighting the biblical devil, you ended up in medieval times … as the king! Heck to the yeah. Sure, you may not have access to air conditioning, heating, medicine, modern entertainment, or even toilet paper but … Huh. This doesn’t really sound all that great, and actually gets much worse. Being a medieval king straight up sucked, and if you ever find yourself in the situation, here’s what your rule (known as the reign of King Crapout of Luck) would look like:

Don’t Expect Any Alone Time.

You first awaken in your bedchamber after a pleasant night’s sleep, mostly because, unlike the lower classes, your bedding isn’t more full of straw and filth than an online political argument. But just as you’re scratching your ass, the doors open and a bunch of people enter your bedroom. Best-case scenario? They’re your friends who’ve come to see you get dressed. Weirder case scenario? They are two nobles who’ve come to ask you to settle a dispute between them. And to see you get dressed. Slooowly. What … what’s going on here?

William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress

William Hogarth

And why are they asking you to dance around a maypole? 

For centuries, medieval kings were kind of reverse strippers due to the Levee/Lever ceremony where they would invite people to their chambers as they got dressed and put on their shoes, etc. And then the kings would … give people money? OK, so the stripper analogy isn’t perfect. Anyway, one of the earliest recorded instances of this practice was during the times of Charles the Great (747–814), who’d favor some of his closest friends with the honor of being the first to smell his morning breath. But sometimes, if there was a legal dispute to settle, you, as a medieval king, may also use this time to meet with the two parties and decide if it was right for, say, the Duke of Bitchfield to stab the Lord of Shitterton for seating him THREE seats from the door during the last Martinmas feast.

And of course it was … OK? “What a terrible dishonor to the good Duke?” you venture a guess. Good. They seem to have bought it. Give the Duke some money so he’ll leave. Oh, there you go, the stripper analogy works! But you still won’t be able to get any alone time because you can’t be expected to dress yourself. That’s what your gaggle of servants is for. Even if you stumble out of the chamber, mumbling something about having to use the toilet to get a few minutes to yourself, you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise.

In the late medieval period, with the invention of the close stool (a toilet that was essentially just a chair with a hole in the middle and a chamber pot underneath) a new kind of job emerged at the royal castle: The Groom of the King’s Close Stool, or Groom of the Stool for short, or Guy Who Wipes the King’s Ass with Cotton and Water for accurate/gross. 

William III's close-stool.

Lobsterthermidor/Wiki Commons

True fact: This is why "stool" became a word for feces. 

The Groom eventually grew into a highly desirable noble title that also gave its holder some power over the royal finances and control of the king’s schedule. But at the end of the day, it was still someone getting all up close and personal in your most private place. 

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Then It’s Straight To Church With You. Probably To Listen To A Sermon About Incest.

At 8 in the morning, so around the time when normal modern people are still washing out the coffee (that they had to throw in their faces to wake up) from their eyes, most medieval kings would be attending morning mass. You know, to get them all warmed up for the evening mass they were also expected to attend. And on Sundays and Catholic holidays, of which there is, conservatively, 365 per year, there might be an additional, extra-long mass that you, as the defender of the faith, can’t exactly skip. 

Clément VII célébrant la messe

via Wiki Commons

Featuring exactly zero fun pop hymns. 

What can you expect from a medieval sermon, though? Mostly talks about whom you can’t or cannot bang. And when.

While the Church really wanted people to go forth and multiply, they didn’t want it to happen on a Sunday, cause that’s the Lord’s Day and that would be like banging on your dad’s birthday. It’s just not right. Thursdays and Fridays are also out because that’s when you’re supposed to be preparing for communion. One of those Catholic holidays? The only thing your royal-down-crown should be doing then is shriveling up in shame over what a massive sinner you are. And in case you were wondering: no rubbing your dick between someone’s thighs to get off. The Church was VERY specific on that. Meaning that it had to be happening pretty regularly. And you’ll get to hear aaaaaaaaall about it. But you will probably hear more about incest.

Marrying your first cousin or anyone else in your extended family was a great way for royals to retain control of land holdings and fortunes, which they kept in the family by, well, keeping it in the family. And it’s not like the priest would call you out directly during sermon, but the Church during the early medieval period did spend a lot of time convincing believers to avoid boinking people you could go halfsies with on a Grandma’s Day present. 

Military and religious life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance

Internet Archive Book Images

"If you two share a gran, keep it stuffed in your pants. Leviticus 18:11." 

Interesting fact: Some researchers credit these teachings with creating smaller, nuclear families instead of huge extended ones. They even go further and link it to the rise of individualism in Western society. But that’s probably not what you will be thinking about during those long sermons. Instead, you will mostly be wondering why the priest keeps glancing your way when he’s telling the congregation to keep their hands off their hot cousins.

You’re Going To Have To Pass The Weirdest Laws Ever

After Church, your day of work will officially start by accepting supplicants, talking to your council, and signing things into law. You’ll probably want to pay attention here. By and large, the legacy of a king is the laws he passes. And you might think you'll know not to sign your name to anything that would make you one day appear more unhinged than a badly put-together Ikea door. Yeah, well, George the First probably thought that his legacy was safe, too, and now he’s the guy who said that all pigeon droppings belong to him. And now you’re picturing him with madness in his eyes, hugging a pigeon-defiled park statue while yelling “Miiiine!”

National Portrait Gallery

George missed his true calling, as a Groom of the Stool. 

True, he wasn’t a medieval king, and the law made sense (during the 18th century, pigeon droppings were a rich, free source of potassium nitrate, a key component in making gunpowder). Many medieval kings made similarly rational decisions that now make them look like a bunch of weirdos. For example, in 1349, Edward III banned football in all of England while making archery practice mandatory.

Again, he had good reasons because, in his days, “football” was really just a lawless, town-spanning brawl between two massive mobs with a pig-bladder ball that was primarily there for plausible deniability, like keeping a baseball glove in your trunk next to your bloodied-up bat. As for archers, England simply needed more of those after the Black Death killed close to HALF of Europe’s population. So Eddie was totally justified in his decisions. Yet some people are still picturing him with his underwear on his head, shooting footballs with arrows cause that’s the way the king game goes. 

via Wiki Commons

Clearly bitter because his team kept getting beat by Edinburgh United. 

So, what do you think YOUR kingly legacy would be? Will you, like Alfred the Great, go down in history as a guy who decreed that “If at a common task a man unintentionally kills another (by letting a tree fall on him) the tree is to be given to the kinsmen”? (To be fair, they WOULD need the material for the coffin.) Will you, like Edward II, make stealing dead whales and dolphins a crime? (Interesting how that law only applies to slippery animals with blowholes. Very interesting.) Or maybe you will make all wild swans the legal property of the crown, like what happened in England in the 12th century? Fun fact: That one is still on the books.

Your Life Will Most Likely Be Painful And Your Death Horrifying

So after a day of, we don’t know, proclaiming that anyone who sees a redhead must run naked through the square while yelling “The hedgehogs are to blame!”, you might finally get some leisure time before church in the evening. Your choices are limited to the three Fs: feeding, fornicating, and forcing your best mathematicians to invent the internet faster. Just be sure you don’t overdo it on the first one, OK? William the Conqueror (1028–1087) liked to eat, and now he’s dead. COINCIDENCE?

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry

Lucien Musset

We can think of one thing he could not conquer. 

There is more to this story. Later in his life, the main thing Willy liked to conquer was whatever was considered a delicacy in France back then. So, definitely something delicious and cruel to the animal. One story says that his gut grew so large, it got punctured by the pommel of his saddle while the king was riding on, one would assume, some kind of massive direhorse. Needless to say, this ended up killing him, and due to a whole bunch of different reasons, it took weeks for William to be interred. By then, his already oversized body bloated so much, the king couldn’t fit into his stone sarcophagus. When his pus-balloon of a body was being forced into it, his stomach allegedly burst, releasing a terrible, noxious gas. Dealing poison damage from beyond the grave. A warrior to the end.

The story may just be legend, but awful things DID keep happening to royals’ bodies, hundreds and hundreds of years after William’s death. After she died, Queen Anne (1665–1714) was “so swollen with dropsy,” she had to be interred in a giant square coffin. Charles I (1600–1649) was beheaded and then had his head stitched back onto his body so it could be put on display to prove that the guy was definitely dead. Which sounds a bit counterproductive to us, but we’re not going to argue with the people who ordered it. They sound nuts. Incidentally, the surgeon responsible for re-heading Charles likened it to “stitching the head back on a goose.” We just REALLY wanted you to know that.

Cromwell was said to have visited Charles's coffin, sighing "Cruel necessity!" as he did so. The story was depicted by Delaroche in the nineteenth century.

Paul Delaroche

Did ... did people stitch a lot of geese back then?         

So you’ve probably already made a mental note to finally eat right and exercise and, who knows, maybe the thought of turning into a Poison Blob after death will finally help you stick to a diet. But you can still get sick, and as a medieval king, you may not get the best medical treatment. One, because it may not exist, like with Alfred the Great, who spent 20 years living with what was probably Crohn’s disease because nobody back then knew what that was. Two decades of abdominal pain and severe diarrhea, which his most learned men probably tried to cure with mercury dick-enemas or something.

There may also be cases where people won’t be too eager to figure out what’s wrong with you, if they think whatever illness you’re dealing with is a punishment from God. Henry IV suffered either from leprosy or really bad psoriasis, which medieval writers saw as the result of him beheading the rebellious bishop Richard Scrope in 1405. And even if you die somewhat peacefully, history may just decide that, nah, that’s too boring, and you get (incorrectly) remembered, like king Edward II, as the dude who died from having a red-hot poker jammed up his ass.

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Top image via Wiki Commons


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