Many fantasy worlds sport kings and queens. There seems to be something essentially romantic about a monarch ruling a small country. In the best stories they are adventurers and even heros in their own right. But in our day-to-day existence, us modern Westerners are so far removed from a medieval monarchy that some of the boring logistics of how they worked are forgotten.
C. J. Cherryh didn’t, though. In her Fortress series of fantasy novels (beginning with Fortress In The Eye Of Time) we see a king’s court depicted in quite a lot of functioning detail. Cefwyn Marhanen has an enormous retinue of servants and soldiers just to make his own life happen. And then there are the lord he directly rules over, many of whom spend much of their time at court. And they have considerable numbers of servants and soldiers, as well. And then you have to add the locals of whichever castle the royal court is occupying at the moment who host their royal guests and keep the basic functions of the place working. It is a major exercise for the King to move his court around.
Dizzy yet? Cherryh is known to have an interest in this aspect of history. In this story, King Cefwyn is a major character and the machinations of his court is crucial to the story. That it needs a vast human machinery to function is important to numerous scenes.
That is one depiction of how a king’s court works.
Kings in medieval times had varying amounts of power. Democracy as we know it today didn’t exist. The law of the land in the eleventh century was very different. Terry Jones in his book and TV series Medieval Lives explores this wonderfully. He makes the point that our modern perception of “outlaw” is quite different from what it really was. We tend to think “outlaw” just means someone who had no master and was free to do whatever they wanted. But that was actually a terrifying concept to the average person on the street because it meant they did not have a place in society.
The King’s Court was originally where the king decided matters of justice, remember. Petitioners who could not find any one agreement brought their case before the king. The famous story in the Bible about Solomon deciding between two women as to who was the mother of a child is a result of exactly this arrangement. But this really only works with a suitably small population. As populations get larger, the king must delegate this type of power.
Sometimes this delegation happens naturally, sometimes it happens incidentally. In history, both usually happen at once. This makes it so complicated that I can’t even summarize it.
Kings and queens today are almost always rulers under a special type of law that formalizes their arrangement with a parliament of some sort. One of the earliest was the Magna Carta in England. The Wikipedia article is instructive, but the one fact I want to raise is that the key thing it does today prevents the monarch from overriding the rule of law.
Fantasy stories usually have kings and queens doing what they like. But clearly that’s not the only option.