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December 9, 2013 7:42 PM   Subscribe

Other than right of conquest or inheritance, how does one become a king? I'm particularly interested in people who became kings by election or acclaim. Historical examples, please!

This question occurred to me as I was reading a history book: So one can become king by having the largest army and conquering places into submission. Authority can also be bestowed on you by somebody higher up the pecking order -- an Emperor creating a King, perhaps, or (in medieval Europe), the Pope declaring you had a divine right worked pretty well.

But what about places where the king wasn't decided by having the biggest army or handed down from someone on high? What about elections by lesser lords? What about kings by acclamation? How does that all come about, that everyone decides to choose a particular guy as a king? Particularly after the breakup of an older empire or kingdom. Specific examples?

I'm fairly casually curious, wikipedia links are fine. I realized that I know how modern democracies and military dictatorships organize themselves into a political unit, but I don't really know how kings did it "in the olden days" if their mandate came from below and not from above. When I studied history in school it was enough that so-and-so was king, I didn't worry too much about how he got that way, but obviously that's a very interesting question!

It's okay if they do some conquering on the way to being king, like I'm sure sometimes a guy conquers SOME places and everyone nearby is like "Oh, yeah, let's just make him king so he quits conquering people." But I'm most curious about a more bottom-up example of king-making. Doesn't have to be European or medieval; doesn't have to be a "king" per se, just a ruler of some sort who probably gets to pick his own successor.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Law & Government (45 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
King Zog
On 1 September 1928, Albania was transformed into a kingdom, and President Zogu became Zog I, King of the Albanians.
posted by mattbucher at 7:44 PM on December 9, 2013

The Polish nobles elected their kings. Usually from among their number unless they had something important to do in which case they would hire a Lithuanian. You can read James Mitchner's Poland or the shorter wikipedia entry. The Great Khans needed to be approved of (by the leading nobles?). The Mamlukes were a series of military slave rulers of Egypt where they would pick the new sultan from among the high ranking officers. Mamluke succession.
posted by shothotbot at 7:51 PM on December 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Wiki article specifically on Polish royal elections.
posted by emkelley at 7:54 PM on December 9, 2013

Response by poster: (Oh, I shall Zog you, mattbucher, I shall Zog you good.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:59 PM on December 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

After the death of Marcus Aurelius it become fairly standard practice for the Roman army (or, more specifically, the Praetorians) to pick the new emperor in return for a hefty bribe. At one point they literally auctioned the office of emperor. Gibbon discusses this in excruciating detail.
posted by orrnyereg at 8:10 PM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Apparently the Khasis of Meghalaya would descend from the plateau into what is now Bangladesh and kidnap a person to bring back to their village to be king. Being king had a lot of responsibility without much extra benefits. Organisation and arbitration, that sort of thing. Khasi priests and priestess were inherited roles.

I don't have the cite in front of me but if you look up The Khasis, you'll find a free copy of the book in which I read this info.
posted by Kerasia at 8:10 PM on December 9, 2013

Here you go, a free copy of The Khasis.
posted by Kerasia at 8:13 PM on December 9, 2013

Beyond bribing the Praetorians, the custom eventually became for a Roman general's troops to hail him as emperor. He would then march on Rome and have himself installed, assuming that there was a.) no current emperor or b.) he could defeat the current emperor in a quick civil war. My understanding was that it always was supposed to appear spontaneous, the number of times it actually was were few and far between.

He would then either have to bribe the Praetorians or disband and install new Praetorians and bribe them instead.

And the emperor who bought the throne? He only lasted 3 months before a general came down from either the Rhine or the Danube with several legions and became emperor. I can't remember if it was the start of one of the multi-emperor years (either 5 or 6), but it seems likely.

Rome really didn't have a fixed way of becoming emperor (in the later empire, it was mostly generals as above, but there were a couple of senators and one "emperor" who was the governor of the province of Africa (where Carthage once was), although he never even made it to Rome), except for the fact that if you didn't pay off your troops/the Praetorians, you were not long for this world.
posted by Hactar at 8:17 PM on December 9, 2013

I've been marathoning The History of Rome podcast and I just hit the crisis of the Third Century, which has all these weird emperors, with an median term of power of less than a year.
posted by Hactar at 8:19 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Henry the Fowler! He was nominated for the kingship by his predecessor and then elected by the bishops and lords so he was appointed and elected as it were.

He also ties in to b1tr0t's point about the Holy Roman Emperors as he's considered the founder of the medieval German state, but I don't think he was ever crowned by the pope, so technically not an Emperor.
posted by Carillon at 8:22 PM on December 9, 2013

(Last comment on this, I swear) While many of these were by conquest, you really did need to be acclaimed by your troops to have the power to take on Rome. So it was a combination of acclaim and conquest. And then there was Nerva, who was just grabbed from being a high ranking minister under multiple emperors after Domitian's assassination and plunked on the throne by the Senate with some support from the Praetorians.
posted by Hactar at 8:23 PM on December 9, 2013

Also, isn't the didn't the current monarchy in Spain return after Franco because the people voted to have him return?
posted by Carillon at 8:23 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a story about this in the Bible. Guy named David ascended to the throne of Israel, in part by military cunning but also by proclamation of a prophet.
posted by chrchr at 8:27 PM on December 9, 2013

Better call Saul!
(1 Samuel 9:1-10:16) Saul was sent with a servant to look for his father's donkeys, who had strayed; leaving his home at Gibeah, they eventually wandered to the district of Zuph, at which point Saul suggested abandoning their search. Saul's servant however, remarked that they happened to be near the town of Ramah, where a famous seer was located, and suggested that they should consult him first. The seer (later identified by the text as Samuel), having previously had a vision instructing him to do so, offered hospitality to Saul when he entered Ramah, and later anointed him in private.
(1 Samuel 10:17-24 and 12:1-5) Reflecting a desire to be like other nations, there was a popular movement to establish a centralised monarchy. Samuel therefore assembled the people at Mizpah in Benjamin, and despite having strong reservations, which he made no attempt to hide, allowed the appointment of a king. Samuel was told by God the day before Saul arrived that Saul, from the land of Benjamin, would come and that he would be anointed as the ruler over the people of Israel [6]

From Wikipedia.
posted by bq at 8:32 PM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Someone upthread mentioned the Holy Roman Emperors. That's definitely the major exception in Western Europe. They were elected by the Prince-Electors of the Holy Roman Empire.

This was obviously not a democracy at all but something a little like the College of Cardinals electing the next Pope.

Also, I think for the most part the Electors simply rubber-stamped the previous Holy Roman Emperor's son, unless there were succession issues to be decided.

Obviously, as I'm sure you know, the Holy Roman Emperor as a position was created by the Pope, for Charlemagne. The people of the Holy Roman Empire didn't rise up and demand a democratically elected emperor.
posted by Sara C. at 8:34 PM on December 9, 2013

Charles XIV John of Sweden, which has to be read to be believed.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:35 PM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

In 1809, there was a coup-de-tat in Sweden that deposed King Gustav IV Adolph. The Parliament elected Prince Christian August of Denmark to be the new king, but he died later that same year.

So the Parliament decided to try to suck up to Napoleon a bit, and they selected one of his Marshalls, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, to be king. Napoleon approved, and Bernadotte was crowned. House Bernadotte has held the throne of Sweden ever since.

Ironically, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was critical to establishing the Sixth Coalition (The UK, Sweden, Russia, Prussia, and Austria), which eventually defeated Napoleon in 1814, and again in 1815.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:44 PM on December 9, 2013

Strictly speaking, this didn't happen. But it could have.
posted by flabdablet at 8:52 PM on December 9, 2013

You could always be invited to take over the monarchy by a bunch of totally disillusioned Members of Parliament. You could also have had Parliament just sort of retroactively declare you King of This Whole Last Period of Time (Ignore the Wacky Republic/Dictatorship/Thing Behind the Curtain Thank You Very Much.)

(The British seemed to have had a recurring tendency to sort-of halfway do this kind of mild democracy-by-nobles-and-merchants crap, from the Magna Carta forward. Their history is amusing, especially because so many of their selected leaders worked out so badly for them.)
posted by SMPA at 8:55 PM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

As far as Spain goes, Franco was the guy who chose Juan Carlos I - but as soon as he was on the throne, the King started the move to a democraticish society.
posted by SMPA at 8:58 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

A pathological case is Emperor Norton, who simply declared himself Emperor of the United States.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:59 PM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hey, remember when some conservative Mexicans decided they should have a monarchy and invited a Hapsburg to be their emperor?
posted by chrchr at 9:05 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

William III of the House of Orange was selected by the Parliament to become king of England after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. He himself wasn't part of any recognized English royal line, but he was married to Mary II, daughter of James II, who was the one deposed by the Glorious Revolution.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:10 PM on December 9, 2013

Other examples of self-proclaimed royalty: not strictly speaking a king, but there's Prince Leonard of Hutt River Province; there's the the absolute and final omnipotent ruler of the entire Lunar surface (disputed), and there's the woman who owns the Sun.
posted by flabdablet at 9:23 PM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Kingdom of Hawaii is an interesting case, because it largely followed succession by the previous ruler's chosen heir, but there were two instances in which no clearly declared heir could be identified and so a new monarch was chosen by the legislature.
posted by kagredon at 9:25 PM on December 9, 2013

An aside---the Spanish move to democracy really is a bit more complicated. Bourbon kings had abdicated and been reinstated several times in the early twentieth century as the Right and Left of politics got the upper hand, finally accepting, more or less, Franco's sovereign role as Jefe del Estado (Head of State) after the end of the Civil War.

Franco was deeply involved in bringing up and educating the current King Juan Carlos, and (according to Paul Preston, Franco's biographer) was always deeply opposed to his father who was heir-apparent, the older Juan Carlos, son of Alfonso IIIX who abdicated and lived in exile. Choosing Juan Carlos the son over the father was very much selection-from-high, in the context that Franco didn't trust any potential Falangist successors, didn't want a relatively liberal King to succeed him, or an ultra-traditionalist Carlist (the other contending royal branch in Spanish politics).
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:29 PM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Elected monarchs -
A National Congress elected Idris as King of Libya, and as Idris I he proclaimed the independence of the United Kingdom of Libya as a sovereign state on 24 December 1951.
posted by BinGregory at 11:43 PM on December 9, 2013

Doesn't pick his successor but a monarch nonetheless: His Serene Highness François Hollande became Co-Prince of Andorra by virtue of a different nation having elected him president of their republic.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:10 AM on December 10, 2013

There are a number of somewhat complicated establishments of monarchies almost to the present day. For instance, the British wanted to step back from direct colonial control of the Middle East, so at the 1921 Cairo Conference, an agreement was forged to create kingdoms in Iraq, the Hejaz, and the Nejd (the latter two representing essentially the more northerly and more southerly portions of modern Saudi Arabia, which was the result of the third new kingdom conquering the second). A related deal established the Hashemite dynasty that still rules Transjordan, now just Jordan, today (the Iraqi and Hejaz kings were also Hashemite). This is sort of fiat by devolution.

There are probably dozens of slightly-similar-different examples in British India as well. The puppet monarch, of course, is a special case of the conquest type.

The thing about inheritance, too, is that often there is a bit of interpretation involved. Quite a few "legitimate" heirs of a monarchy found themselves sidelined by practical or legal issues preventing them from actually getting what they believed was their due, and so these successions may tend to resemble elections more than inheritance. Quite a few monarchies have amended their succession laws to ensure that there is one when the time comes -- the UK has operated under the Act of Settlement 1701 wherein the descendants of Sophia of Hanover were declared the legitimate heirs to the crown, and that's sufficed for quite a while; and several countries, including the UK and Monaco, have opened the succession to first-born daughters, in part not to limit the available supply of future heirs.

In US history, Alexander Hamilton argued that the presidency would be an 'elective monarch', but my interpretation is that this was just another part of a broader debate over the nature and powers of an executive in a republic, something that at that time barely existed (at least in the form of a large nation).
posted by dhartung at 12:15 AM on December 10, 2013

There’s a wikipedia page devoted to the subject of elective monarchy which includes many of the instances already mentioned, and some others. For example:
At the start of the 20th century, the first monarchs of several newly independent nations were elected by parliaments: Norway is the prime example. Previously, following precedent set in newly independent Greece, new nations without a well-established hereditary royal family often chose their own monarchs from among the established royal families of Europe, rather than elevate a member of the local power establishment, in the hope that a stable hereditary monarchy would eventually emerge from the process. The first king of Belgium, as well as the now-deposed royal families of Greece, Bulgaria, Albania (unsuccessfully) and Romania, were originally appointed in this manner.
posted by misteraitch at 3:09 AM on December 10, 2013

Keep in mind that, in many principalities in early Europe at least, the king was a leader but was not all that powerful. He often maintained power only as long as the nobles supported him.
posted by yclipse at 4:28 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen became the first ruler of a semi-united Romania, as misteraitch pointed out above. He was sort of elected by the Romanian political VIPs of the time, after being recommended by Napoleon III who was a relative. Some negotiation was necessary, but importing royalty seems to have been more widely practiced at the time, at least in that part of Europe. I don't know the background (maybe due to social/ ethnic tensions?), but after Carol was elected and confirmed, the heir-presumptive to the throne wasn't even allowed to marry a Romanian woman. The next king, Ferdinand I of Romania (initially Prince Ferdinand Viktor Albert Meinrad of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, also a German, like his uncle Carol I of Romania), became king due to a combination of inheriting the throne according to inheritance rules enshrined in the Romanian constitution, and being elected/ confirmed by the Romanian parliament.

This is why they call Germany the monarch factory...
posted by miorita at 4:32 AM on December 10, 2013

Tanistry is neither hereditary nor electoral monarchy. (It shows up in Macbeth and I got the idea in school when we read Macbeth that it's an acclamation sort of model, but Wikipedia disabuses me of this notion.)

just a ruler of some sort who probably gets to pick his own successor.

You could maybe argue for Octavian/Augustus being picked by Julius Caesar, in the sense that he (presumably) wouldn't have attained equal political power and become emperor without Caesar having named him heir. I want to say there are some examples of Roman emperors being picked as successors, bypassing more obvious heirs, but I can't find one right now. (Claudius was either the intended beneficiary of a coup or the guy who happened to survive and seemed decent enough.)

goodnewsfortheinsane has already mentioned the president of France being co-prince of Andorra, but if you didn't click the link, the other co-prince is a Spanish bishop.
posted by hoyland at 5:01 AM on December 10, 2013

The Danish prince Christian Frederick was elected King of Norway May 17th 1814, by the very first Norwegian parliament. "Sweden refused Christian's conditions and a short military campaign ensued in which the Norwegian army was defeated by the forces of the Swedish crown prince Charles John. The brief war concluded with the Convention of Moss on 14 August 1814. By the terms of this treaty, King Christian Frederick transferred executive power to the Storting, then abdicated and returned to Denmark. The Storting in its turn adopted the constitutional amendments necessary to allow for a personal union with Sweden and on 4 November elected Charles XIII of Sweden as the new king of Norway."
"On 13 December 1839 he ascended the Danish throne as Christian VIII.".

In 1905 Norway picked a Danish Prince, Carl of Denmark and Iceland, as the first King of newly independent Norway: Haakon VII: "The democratically-minded Carl, aware that Norway was still debating whether to retain its monarchy or to switch to a republican system of government, was flattered by the Norwegian government's overtures, but declined to accept the offer without a referendum to show whether monarchy was truly the choice of the Norwegian people. The referendum overwhelmingly confirmed by a 79 percent majority (259,563 votes for and 69,264 against) that Norwegians desired to retain a monarchy, Prince Carl was formally offered the throne of Norway by the Storting (parliament) and elected on 18 November 1905."
posted by iviken at 5:47 AM on December 10, 2013

The supreme monarch of the Federation of Malaysia, the Yang di Pertuan Agong, is elected every 5 years by (and from) a council comprising the hereditary monarchs of the member states.

the joke used to be that the monarch reigns for five years and the prime minister rules for life, but Mahathir did finally step down.
posted by BinGregory at 5:48 AM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Roman kings in the so-called legendary period (753-509 BC) were often elected.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:26 AM on December 10, 2013

another interesting approach:mandate of heaven
basically you can rule as long as the ruling is good
posted by forforf at 7:19 AM on December 10, 2013

The Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich III, son of the Great Elector, proclaimed himself King in Prussia in 1701.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:21 AM on December 10, 2013

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (probably the most important now-forgotten political entity of Europe) had an elective monarchy; the system was called Golden Liberty.
posted by languagehat at 9:43 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another pathological case is Prince Roy of Sealand.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:35 AM on December 10, 2013

I think this is my third or fourth mention of David Howarth's 1066 on Metafilter. I apparently really liked this book.

So, Howarth talks about how, up to 1066, English kings could name or recommend a successor, but that was considered advisory, not binding:
"Under the unwritten constitution, it was the duty of the assembly, in the name of the people, not only to advise the King in his lifetime, but to choose his successor when he died." - p. 29
Howarth then goes on to discuss the various considerations that went into this decision.

Later, he discusses the claim that Harold had promised to "use his influence to secure the crown for William when Edward died", a promise which (if Harold indeed made that promise) William might have taken to mean he (William) WOULD succeed Edward, because in France at the time the custom was that the king named his successor and that was binding. But in England, Howarth says,
"Harold may have done his best and spoken up for William ... That was all he was said to have promised to do, and all he could do: the decision belonged to the witan [the king's advisory council]. Willam, the absolute autocrat, may well have believed that if Edward the king and Harold the premier earl both wanted him to succeed, the thing was as good as settled - but that was not how England worked. ... There is only one certain thing: whatever he promised, he could not have meant to put himself under an obligation to oppose the witan's constitutional decision when they made it, whatever it was. No Englishman could have done that." - pp. 74-75
posted by kristi at 4:23 PM on December 10, 2013

I'm shocked no one has mentioned Clovis I, aka King of the Franks. He was elected the first king of France.
posted by wnissen at 6:45 PM on December 10, 2013

Response by poster: You guys are always the best on random historical trivia! I am in a Wikipedia hole and may never come out!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:46 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Kingdom of the Netherlands has been an independent monarchy since 16 March 1815, but has been hereditarily "governed" by members of the House of Orange-Nassau since 1559, when Philip II of Spain appointed William of Orange as stadtholder. William became the leader of the Dutch Revolt and the independent Dutch Republic. As stadtholder, he was followed by several of his descendants, and during the 18th century, the function of stadtholder developed into a hereditary head of state of the thus "crowned" Dutch Republic. The last stadtholder, William V, was succeeded by his son, William I, who became the first king. More on Wikipedia...
posted by rjs at 10:08 PM on December 10, 2013

There's also the complex process of selecting the Doge of Venice.
posted by rjs at 10:12 PM on December 10, 2013

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