What Are Characteristics of a Good King?

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Some of the qualities of a good king include being calm and centered, being decisive and having personal integrity. Being hardworking and energetic, speaking well, protecting people, maintaining order, blessing others and acknowledging the efforts of other people are a few more ideal characteristics of a king.

While most people would likely find these qualities virtuous, history has proven that they don’t always translate into the kind of actions you might expect. Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of some of the most successful rulers in history.

A Benevolent King

For a moment, try to imagine the type of king you’d like to live under. What is this ruler like? Some of the first qualities that come to mind might include things like kindness and generosity. While these are admirable qualities in a normal person, some people may argue that they have their limits when it comes to rulership.

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In his controversial-yet-classic book The Prince, Renaissance-era philosopher and political scientist Niccolo Machiavelli argues that it’s more important for a ruler to be feared than loved. A stable ruler, Machiavelli claims, cannot always afford to be the “nice guy” and must be ruthless when the situation calls for it.

Arguments for this theory exist when you take into consideration some of the most famous leaders in history. Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror and Genghis Khan weren’t exactly known for their charity work. Instead, they largely used their qualities to further their kingdoms through military might. Drawing from their examples, some common qualities of a good king could include:

  • Military strength: This involves some personality traits that might initially seem tame, such as the ability to stay calm during chaos, decisiveness and singleness of purpose.
  • Tactful yet motivating speech: A king was often counted on to rally his people or soldiers and explain why his choices were a good idea, whether they turned out to be or not.
  • Personal integrity: This doesn’t always indicate a traditional adherence to morality. Rather, a king had to know exactly who he was and be sure of himself and his actions at all times.
  • Wisdom: Aside from a sense of cleverness in military strategy, the best rulers tended to be open to listening to and implementing ideas from their advisors.

As you can see, however, none of these kings mentioned above became famous for simply being nice all the time.

The Role of a King

It’s a bit harder to describe the actual role of a monarch these days, as it’s changed a great deal over the course of history. In medieval times, for instance, a king essentially had the final say when it came to the laws and decisions in his country.

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In many ancient civilizations, such as Egypt, Japan, China and even Rome, rulers were believed to be divine entities and were more or less treated as gods on earth — or the closest things to deities, at least. As you can imagine, these expectations weren’t always so easy to live up to. In looking back at The Prince, you’ll find that Machiavelli poses an interesting solution: “It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities [of leadership], but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practices them all, they are hurtful, whereas the appearance of having them is useful.”

What Machiavelli is suggesting is that it’s not necessarily important (or even wise) for a king to live according to a strict set of moral standards. What is important is that he appears to do so. While this may sound hypocritical, it’s not far off from modern-day expectations.

In the United States, when someone runs for president, we want to hear that they have spotless personal and professional backgrounds. It doesn’t take much more than one long-ago affair or unflattering life choice to create a full-on scandal in the media. On the other hand, a 2019 study found that only 17% of Americans actually trusted the government to “do what is right” either “just about always” or “most of the time.”

This brings up an interesting point, especially considering that many actual kings today largely serve symbolic roles and possess little to no actual political power. While we may not always expect our leaders to be perfect, most people at least want their rulers to embody the qualities they’d like to think their country stands for. Perhaps a common role of modern and ancient kings is serving as the faces of their nations to the world.

What Makes a Good King?

So how is a king expected to be both a ruthless military leader yet also be (or at least appear to be) an upstanding human being? It’s a fine line, but there have been a few rulers throughout history who have pulled it off.

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A good example can be found in a Æthelstan, who was the first man ever recognized as the king of England. Æthelstan ruled between 925 and 939 and was depicted on the popular TV show Vikings. Known for his devotion to the Christian faith, Æthelstan was a kind and generous king who encouraged learning, established a fair justice system and showed compassion as often as he could.

That said, he wasn’t afraid to engage in necessary conflict with the Vikings, Scots, Norse or anyone else who posed a threat to his kingdom. Overall, he was one of the few kings in history who was able to combine integrity with military and political strength in a way that historians believe served the overall good of his people.

Another notable example is Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, who ruled over much of Western Europe from 768 to 814. Despite his legacy for uniting all Germanic people into a single kingdom, he had to spend most of his reign at war in order to do it.

Charlemagne was a fierce and skilled military strategist but was ultimately crowned emperor of the Romans in 800 by Pope Leo III. As a ruler, he inspired a cultural and intellectual revival that came to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance. By combining his skills for military strategy and his ability to promote learning and cultural growth, Charlemagne was able to ensure that his legacy would live on long after his death. Some still refer to him as the “Father of Europe” to this day.

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