What Do the Traits of a Good King Look Like?

Some of the things that make a good king are that he or she is calm and in control, makes decisions quickly, and has personal integrity. A king should also be hardworking and energetic, have good communication skills, protect people, keep the peace, bless others, and recognise the work of others.

Even though most people would probably agree that these are good traits, history has shown that they don’t always lead to the actions you might expect. Let’s look more closely at what some of the best leaders in history had in common.

A Benevolent King

Try to picture the kind of king you’d like to live under for a moment. How does this leader act? Some of the first things that might come to mind are things like being kind and giving. Even though these are good traits in a normal person, some people might say that they are not enough to be a good leader.

Niccolo Machiavelli, a Renaissance-era philosopher and political scientist, wrote a controversial but classic book called The Prince. In it, he says that it’s more important for a ruler to be feared than loved. Machiavelli says that a stable ruler can’t always be the “good guy” and must be cruel when the time calls for it.

When you look at some of the most well-known leaders in history, you can find arguments for this theory. Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror, and Genghis Khan were not exactly known for their charity work. Instead, they mostly used their skills to make their kingdoms stronger through the military. Based on their examples, here are some things that a good king might have in common:

Military strength includes some traits that might seem mild at first, like the ability to stay calm in chaos, being decisive, and having a single goal.

A king was often expected to rally his people or soldiers and explain why his choices were good, whether they turned out to be or not.

Personal integrity doesn’t always mean that a person follows traditional moral rules. Instead, a king had to be sure of who he was and what he was doing at all times.

Wise: Aside from being smart about military strategy, the best rulers were usually willing to listen to and act on the advice of their advisors.

As you can see, though, none of the above-mentioned kings became well-known for always being nice.

What a King Does

The role of a monarch has changed so much over the course of history that it’s hard to explain what they do now. During the Middle Ages, for example, a country’s laws and decisions were pretty much made by its king.

In many ancient societies, like Egypt, Japan, China, and even Rome, rulers were thought to be gods and were treated more or less like gods on earth, or at least as the closest thing to gods. As you might guess, it wasn’t always easy to meet these expectations. When you look back at The Prince, you’ll see that Machiavelli suggests an interesting solution: “It is not necessary that a Prince have all the good qualities of a leader, but it is most important that he seem to have them. I will even go so far as to say that if he has and always uses them all, they are harmful, while the appearance of having them is useful.”

Machiavelli is saying that it’s not always important or even smart for a king to follow a strict set of moral standards. The important thing is that he seems to do it. Even though this sounds contradictory, it’s not too far from what people expect today.

When someone runs for president in the United States, we want to know that their personal and professional lives are clean. It doesn’t take much for the media to make a full-blown scandal out of an old affair or a bad choice in life. On the other hand, a 2019 study found that only 17% of Americans actually trusted the government to “do what is right” “almost always” or “most of the time.”

This brings up an interesting point, especially when you think about how many real kings today serve mostly as symbols and have little to no real political power. Even if we don’t always want our leaders to be perfect, most people want them to at least represent what they want their country to stand for. The kings of today and the kings of the past may both serve as the faces of their countries to the rest of the world.

What Do Good Kings Have?

So how is a king supposed to be both a tough military leader and a good person, or at least make it look like he is? There have been a few rulers in history who have managed to walk that fine line.

A good example is Athelstan, who was the first person to be called the king of England. Between 925 and 939, thelstan was king. He was shown on the popular TV show Vikings. thelstan was a kind and generous king who was known for his devotion to the Christian faith. He encouraged learning, set up a fair justice system, and showed kindness as often as he could.

Still, he wasn’t afraid to fight the Vikings, the Scots, the Norse, or anyone else who was a threat to his kingdom. Overall, he was one of the few kings in history who was able to combine being honest with being strong in the military and in politics in a way that historians think was good for his people.

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, is another well-known example. From 768 to 814, he ruled most of Western Europe. Even though he is remembered for uniting all Germanic people into a single kingdom, he spent most of his time in power fighting.

Charlemagne was a strong and smart military leader, but Pope Leo III made him emperor of the Romans in the year 800. As a ruler, he led a cultural and intellectual revival that became known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne made sure that his legacy would last long after he died by using his skills in military strategy and his ability to help people learn and grow culturally. Even now, some people still call him the “Father of Europe.”

Misha Khatri
Misha Khatri is an emeritus professor in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics and a PhD in Physical Analytical Chemistry from the University of Utah.


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