• Ben


I just finished writing about Chlothar II. I've outlined his life, his times, his accomplishments, his shortcomings, and I even imagined how he may have died. With all of that said, I ran into an interesting issue as I laid the King to rest: how do you rate a monarch's rule?

How do you rank a King?

In modern times, we hear all about legacies and what leaders hope the world will think of them once they've left office. Well, this is by no means a modern problem: I mean, who really wants to be known for all of time as The Unready, The Mad, or The Bald? And to be fair, these nicknames do little to tell us about who a monarch really was, what they were trying to do, or how they stack up against other monarchs. And most of the time, the moniker they're stuck with comes from a single event, or worse, their political opponents, giving history a skewed view of an reign that could have spanned years or decades.

As an example, take Mary I, a.k.a. "Bloody" Mary: from her nickname you would think she was an absolute tyrant. Now, she wasn't exactly gentle or wise (IMO), but "Bloody" gives the impression that she started vicious wars or enjoyed torture or executed an absurd number of people. Well, Mary did lose Calais (it was actually her husband's fault, but Mary was Queen Regent so she gets the blame); however, she didn't lead the country into any huge conflagrations. Beyond war as bloodshed, let's look at torture. Mary didn't seem to revel in it, at least not in any source I could find. Torture was a part of what was used in those days to expedite confessions, but no one has claimed she used it to excess. So if it wasn't war and it wasn't torture that earned her the "Bloody" moniker, then what about executions? Mary did call for the burning or killing of upwards of 300 people during her reign, mainly for espousing heretical points-of-view. That's a lot of people to die in an absolutely horrible fashion, right? Well, yes. But again, this number has to be placed in a larger context. Executions, like torture, were more common at this time. More than this though, Mary's numbers were actually not all that high; her sister Elizabeth, who succeeded her and who is generally credited with having ushered in a Golden Age, actually signed off on over 600 death warrants. And the father of these two women, Henry VIII, had thousands put to death, with some sources reaching into the tens of thousands. By comparison, Mary was a softie! Yet, Mary was a Catholic at a time when Protestantism was sweeping the land. Her burnings were publicized and exaggerated, and people were willing to buy into these exaggerations largely because her government wasn't giving them much of a reason not to. Hence, for all of history, she will be known as a tyrant rather than the meh ruler that she was.

With all of that said, I've come to wonder about how to fairly rate and rank monarchs. One show, like Pontifacts, has figured out how they want to rate the Popes and assigns each of them a score. And I appreciate that! I'm considering something similar for the French Kings, and I think I'm coming close. Rather than a ranking of 85 kings from 1-85, I'm instead leaning toward the idea of W.A.R. This statistic is used in baseball and stands for Wins Against Replacement. It basically tells a researcher how many extra games a team would have won over the course of a season by comparing a given player against a statistically middle-of-the-road replacement, or in other words, someone who won’t lose a game for the team but who also won’t bring them any additional success. I think this will lead to a more nuanced look at the Kings over time; after all, looking at someone like Louis XIV, the Sun King, and determining what he meant to his people is clearly skewed based on his relative nearness to our time in history, what he was given as a starting point, and the geopolitical situation around the nation during his reign. Rather than saying he was better or worse than Clovis and trying to rank them 1-2, I think it's better to look at what they did within the scope of their monarchy and based on what their country needed at that moment in time. After all, the early Franks needed a warlord and a military leader more than a cultural icon; Louis XIV would have fared poorly at this. The later French were ready for Versailles, a palace and a social milieu Clovis couldn't have imagined.

With that, I'm going to try to develop a single number that will bring all of this together. It will of course remain subjective, but overall I think it will lead to a better understanding of who was a good King, who was bad, and who was just middle of the road (or in this case, replaceable!), and all of it adjusted for time and place. What could possibly go wrong?!?!

Next I need to start thinking about just what metrics to use and how to sort this out over time. The questions get more and more nuanced the longer I think about this, but that's good. At least when T+M places a "Bloody" label on someone, you'll know that some thought has gone into it! With all of that said, what do you think I should include in a rating scheme? Religion? War? Social impacts? All of the above? And how do those larger topics get broken down into subtopics? It will be interesting to find out what people think!

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