Archaeology South-East


How to be a (successful) Medieval Monarch

5 May 2023

With King Charles III’s coronation fast approaching, Lorna has been looking at medieval monarchs and analysing their secrets of success. Plus, find out what medieval monarch you are with her quiz!

A woman wearing a tiara side-eyes a large crown in the background. Text reads "Lorna's Medieval Corner: How to be a Medieval Monarch"


Being a monarch in the medieval period was quite different than it is today. Charles III will not have to lead an army, pay deference to the church in Rome, defend lands in France, or appease his nobility with gifts and high office. His reign, however, will start with a coronation that has not changed in centuries.

The coronation oath, which in the modern day will be a series of questions asked by the archbishop, sets out the job description of the monarch. These are four essential things: 1) to protect the church 2) to protect the land of their ancestors 3) do justice and 4) supress evil laws and customs. Each monarch since 1042AD has agreed to these principles.

But is this all you need to be a successful monarch? And what does successful mean anyway? I’ve been looking back at some of England’s medieval monarchs who reigned from AD1066 to 1485, from William the Conqueror to Richard III, analysing their successes and failures, and here’s some things that definitely helped…

1. Be the Eldest Son of a King

Get your kingship off to a flying start by being the monarch’s eldest son! Up until the change in the law in 2013 the English monarchy practiced male-preference primogeniture, meaning the first born male would be the heir to the crown, regardless of whether there was a more direct female heir.

Of course, there are times when it wasn’t straightforward. For example, Henry I was survived only by his daughter Matilda who he named his heir. Matilda was also known as Empress Matilda, as she was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (no not that Henry V) . Unfortunately, it was only AD1135 and this was very controversial.

So why haven’t we heard of Queen Matilda? Because her cousin Stephan was crowned instead of her, starting a civil war known as “The Anarchy” across England from 1138-1153AD.

Therefore, to have the best start as a good medieval monarch is to have a clear claim to the throne as the eldest son. A good example of this is the successions of Henry IV to V to VI. However, being the son of the king isn’t the only way to become the monarch. Having a good family connection to the throne and a large army can also secure you the crown.

2. Have a Coronation – and don’t freak anyone out in the process

This is an important step to be a successful monarch as part of the coronation service involves those gathered to “elect” their King, which in the medieval period was nobles and aristocracy. Having the most powerful people in the country proclaim their support for you is a recipe for success!

Although having the coronation itself isn’t without risk. At William (The Conqueror) I’s coronation, the gathered lords and earls loudly shouted their consent, which the Norman knights waiting outside took as evidence of dissent and foul play, and reacted by setting fire to the houses around the cathedral...

3. Have a good marriage

Medieval royal marriages mattered. They could be dynasty building, they could bring power, land (especially land in France) and could give you an heir (preferably male). A good example of this is the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was the perfect candidate as the heiress of vast lands of France, and together they had three sons and ruled lands from the border of Scotland to the Pyrenees mountains.

In contrast a bad marriage was the marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France. Edward was more interested in his court “favourites”, leading to Isabella feeling ignored and eventually scheming to have Edward deposed in favour of her son, earning the name the “she-wolf of France” in the process.

4. Defend the Faith

When a monarch is coronated holy oil is used and a symbolic link to God is created. In the medieval period this was believed to give the monarch a direct link to God, as authority came from God himself. The monarch was therefore a representative of God, appointed by God himself.

As religion was a central pillar of life the King being seen to “defend the faith” was very important. Ways of doing this included going on a religious crusade, paying deference to the pope and taking advice from bishops.

Sometimes this was easier said than done. John (yes, Robin Hood’s King John, who even today has a rep for being a bad king) was ex-communicated from the catholic church in 1212. This technically meant that no one in England could be baptised, married, or buried under a catholic service for a whole year until John paid the pope off!

Of course, if the pope was messing with your plans you could alternatively just make a whole new church to defend just like Henry VIII! But he’s a Tudor monarch, a little out of our period.

5. Preserve the social order and protect the lands of your ancestors

A pillar of Monarchy in England is to preserve the social order. This includes defending the borders of the kingdom, both at home and lands held overseas. So, to be seen as a successful King this meant that throughout the medieval period England goes to war A LOT.

But has a King failed if their realm is at war with itself? The medieval period is marred with civil war. The Anarchy between Empress Mathilda and King Stephen (AD1138-1153) and The Wars of the Roses (actual dates for this are hotly discussed but generally viewed as AD1455-1485) between the houses of Lancaster and York are the two big examples of this. Arguably the kings involved with these are not successful monarchs.


By the end of the reign of a successful monarch, who should be at a great age and be able to die in their own bed, the focus turns to the legacy of their reign- what will they be remembered as?

Henry V is an interesting example of this. Though not dying at great age in his own bed, he is remembered as a successful King; he left a son, and a string of victories in battle.

There are other ways of leaving a successful legacy. Buildings of state such as Westminster Abbey finished by Henry III and the Tower of London commissioned in the reign of William I could be seen as examples of this. Being remembered as a patron of the arts is also a good legacy to have such as Richard II or Henry VI.

Also leaving a legacy of infamy could also be seen as a sign of a successful monarch. Richard III is immortalised not because his reign was bad but because of how it ended, John’s reign is remembered by bringing in the first step towards constitutional monarchy and William I changed the trajectory of the history of England.

On the 6th May 2023 we will watch the official and ceremonial beginning of King Charles’ reign and though we hope it won’t be as tumultuous as some of his predecessors one thing is sure that the monarchy is never boring…

Now try my quiz to work out which medieval King you are!

Take the QUIZ: Which Medieval Monarch Are You?


Cover image includes image of the St Edward's Crown, which is used in the coronation of British monarchs.