A few times on my blog I have talked about the importance of Kings in both the history of the church and the history of the creation of the West. I have asserted on several occasions that the Church and the West were better off when civilisation was stewarded by wise and godly kings and that it was not by popular demand that kings were diminished in Europe, rather it was often by the plots of competing nobles and other rising powers within society.
But this is not the full picture, and for completeness, it is necessary to point out that these other elements in society were able to succeed because many kings forgot their place in society; as the champions of the people.
When the monarchy was at its best, it was the champion of the ordinary man and woman, and it would chip away at the power bases and privileges of the nobles to advance the rights and concerns of the average citizens of their realm. As Davis notes,
“Such drastic economies and the cutting off of fine perquisites or spoils of course awakened violent outcry in powerful quarters, but Henry IV stood by his Minister. King and lieutenant alike seem to have had a real desire to benefit the lower classes, not merely because a rich peasantry would add to the royal income, but because of a genuine benevolence toward their people. Frenchmen loved to repeat the wish of the King “that soon there might be a fowl in the pot of every peasant on Sunday”; and Sully with more practical energy, used the royal precept and treasure not to maintain an extravagant court, but to build roads, to make canals, and especially to introduce better methods of agriculture, asserting that fertile fields and pastures of fat cattle were “the real mines and treasures of Peru” for France.”
Davis, William Stearns. A History of France from the Earliest Times to the Treaty of Versailles (p. 113). Lecturable. Kindle Edition.
Despite the commoner making up the majority of every realm in history this numerical superiority has rarely, if really ever, translated into economic power. The people have always had need of a champion, they have always had need of someone with the power to advance their cause. This is as true today as it ever was.
Contrary to what people believe modern nations that proclaim “democracy” as among their most important values are nothing of the sort. The ordinary man and woman have very little political power, even if we are constantly told others. One particular study published by the Cambridge University Press concluded after evaluating the effects of various classes of the population on the outcome of policies in the United States that,
“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
The failure of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is all the more striking because it goes against the likely effects of the limitations of our data. The preferences of ordinary citizens were measured more directly than our other independent variables, yet they are estimated to have the least effect.”
Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page 2014, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens
The political preferences of ordinary citizens are well known and discussed in modern societies, and are thoroughly ignored when it comes to deciding policy. This is because democracy is little more than a sham, it is thin veneer that actually serves to give different aspects of the elite the chance to make decisions for society during the fixed term in which they are in power, but essentially maintains the same direction as the previous governments on most issues and continually reinforces the prerogatives of the elite class as a whole.
This has always been the case, and nothing in this regard has changed since the removal of kings, except this one thing: the king used to be, at his best, a voice for the people that the elites often could not overpower and rarely could ignore. Kings were the chief ally of the people, an ally the people really needed to see their interests actually advanced in the halls of power.
But the kings of Europe largely forgot this was their role:
“In 1789 France presented the utterly anomalous picture of a great kingdom, of nearly 25,000,000 inhabitants, leading the world in most of the civilized refinements and luxuries of life, and numbering a high proportion of high-spirited, educated, and well-intentioned men, but which nevertheless was cursed with political and economic institutions which had been growing threadbare ever since Louis XI. In its heyday Capetian royalty had been an enormous asset to France. It had been the kings who had rescued the land from feudal chaos. In the olden days the King and the lower classes had more or less made common cause against their common enemy and oppressor – the barons. Only by the loyalty and the unfeigned consent of the lower classes had French royalty been able to rise to power. Often had the King fought against his dukes, counts, and seigneurs, but very seldom against the burghers of his “good towns” or the peasants of his villages. But when the victory had been won, the monarchy had promptly kicked aside its humble helpers. Louis XIV had no more intention of asking the Third Estate to aid in his government than he had of sharing his throne with a Condé or a Bouillon.”
Davis, William Stearns. A History of France from the Earliest Times to the Treaty of Versailles (pp. 209-210). Lecturable. Kindle Edition.
Yes, the kings used to be the champions of the people. But I have neglected to mention that kings did not lose the battle for sovereign power in the West by accident. It is because they forgot their place. Just as the commoner has his place to fit into the hierarchy of society and be loyal to those over him who direct the affairs of the nation, so too does the king have his place in directing the affairs of the nation for the good of his people. The king forgot his proper place as the champion of his people.
Kings, even absolute kings, were never all-powerful. A collection of nobles could bring more power to bear in a kingdom than many kings in history. But a powerful king with the citizenry behind him could out-match even a collection of the most powerful of nobles. This exact dynamic allowed the kings of various European nations to become absolute monarchs and reign in their elite classes. But once they reached the pinnacle of their power, they forgot how they got there. Louis XIV was a good king in many ways for France, but he set in place the conditions for the decline of his nation’s monarchy by taking the monarchy and disconnecting it from its root; the people of France. This was the mistake that undid kings like him.
This particularly happened in Western Christian societies because of the emphasis on the equitable administration of justice in the Scriptures. The Bible does not advocate democracy as the superior system for society, it actually endorses in many places the power of kings and nobles (Rom. 13, 1 Peter 2) and supports a hierarchical system. But this system also requires those kings to administer justice for their people adequately, and when the kings failed in this regard they lost their legitimacy and became vulnerable to attacks which were often shrouded in democratic language about equity and equality.
The recent election of Trump and other “populists” across the world shows that the people still recognize their inherent need for a champion. Many people realize that they are someone at the top of the food chain who can actually achieve something in their interests against the opposition of the elite classes of society. I predict that in the next few decades, we will see such strongmen come to prominence more and more in the West, as we have already seen in Russia, China and other parts of the world. More and more Westerners are working out that their governments do not have their interests at heart, and those divergent interests are widening because what the elites want and what people want is increasingly looking very different.
The most successful leaders of the 21st century will be those who recognize the people’s desire for the return of their champions. Some of those leaders will cynically take advantage of that desire (we already see that happening in parts of the world), some will be genuine. But those who successfully recognize that a powerful aristocrat with the backing of much of society can be more powerful than the entire oligarchic class, will, I believe, be the kinds of leaders who impact the world the most in the coming decades. Trump gave us a glimpse of that. There will be more in his vein, and some will be far more effective than him. The old kings forgot their place. Who will be the men who step into this void? That will be fascinating to watch in the coming decades.