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Clio's Glory


Power lies at the heart of many roleplaying games, but its manifestations are rarely well implemented. All too often its exercise is a simple case of what the Kings says goes, and if you don't obey you'll be hanged. While this was sometimes the case, the dynamics of court were far more complex than that. Clio often says that she'd sooner live through another revolution than spend another minute in the court of any Tudor monarch. Court was a dangerous and terrifying place for those who wished to get at power. The stakes were high and the price of failure higher still.

To understand court, you must first understand its structure. At the centre stands the king, the source of all power. He can, if he wishes, make or unmake men in a second unless hampered by tradition, custom or the law. Gifts, lands and titles may be handed out in a burst of generosity or confiscated in a fit of rage. All of which makes judging the monarchs' next move a vital skill.

Some kings are more reliable than others. Henry VII was a model king in this respect, taking a personal interest in almost everything that went on, even auditing his own accounts to root out fraud. Henry VIII on the other hand was not, repeatedly disappearing on hunting trips for weeks on end, or simply losing interest in being king for a time. Such absences left a vacuum at the centre of court which was dangerous to fill, but potentially rewarding. Elizabeth I was different again. She was almost always at court, but hated making decisions. When the time came to execute Mary Queen of Scots she refused repeatedly. Eventually her advisors tricked her into signing the papers, and had the order carried out before she realized what had occurred.

A more common practice, which Clio finds 'amusing but predictable', was to employ messengers to carry papers to the queen for signing. If Elizabeth did sign, they were then under strict instructions to get the documents as far away from the Queen as possible lest she change her mind. Every minister from the Roman Empire onwards (and probably before) has employed tricks like these. Make your players learn them or loose out.

After the monarch come the advisors. Monarchs almost always appointed advisors who they had a good reason to trust, typically those from their own family. Wives were often among the most influential advisors. Henry VII's wife largely avoided politics, but he set great store by the advice of his mother who he trusted completely. Henry VIII got through six wives, all of whom wielded great influence at court before their attraction (and often lives) waned. Elizabeth never married, but the prospect of her doing so remained a massive political weapon. For years the Spanish put off a planned invasion in the hope that she may finally marry their King Philip and place England peacefully under Spanish (and Catholic) rule.

Priests were also influential, especially confessors. Every day the monarch would tell them their thoughts and ask their advice. The friendship of the kings' chaplain could be invaluable in advancing your position in court. (More on priests in next months column)

Other advisors came from the ranks of the monarchs personal attendants. Clio relates with embarrassment what it meant to be 'groom of the stool'.

"You see we didn't have toilet paper in those days. You were obliged to make do with your hands, and wash them afterwards. The King on the other hand was above even that, so he had someone to do it for him. It was a position of great respect."

She's right as well. For reasons of security, the groom of the stool had to be someone the king trusted completely, and that trust translated into power. Whatever the job actually involved, attending the kings person was a high honour. Henry VIII's court was dominated by the struggle between his ministers, who held formal positions of power, and his favourites who waited on him, accompanied him on hunting expeditions and dined with him.

All this means a visit to court should never be safe or simple. If the PC's are in high regard, having returned victorious from the battlefield or foreign success, there will be those who want to use their influence, befriending them and offering gifts in exchange for a few words in the right ears. Likewise, if their spending time with the king pushes others to the sidelines, people will lose out and become jealous in response.

Alternatively, if the PC's are nobodies, then they will need a patron before they can even approach a monarch. Courts were full of those who had waited months in the hope of a brief audience with the King, while those who enjoyed greater favour came and went as they pleased. If the PC's do find a patron, make sure that he gets something out of the deal: introductions to the king were valuable things and had a correspondingly high price.

Fleshing out a realistic court is a difficult task, and this is somewhere where turning to the history books will save a GM a lot of time. Visitors to the court of Henry VIII might meet Cardinal Wolsey, the most powerful clergyman in the world after the Pope, or Thomas More, a scholar, visionary and eventually catholic martyr. Fleshing out NPC's to this level of detail would require weeks of work, versus the careful reading of a few textbooks and the odd biography.

Power then was about people, and you could tell who had power by how they behaved. Clio regularly goes to parties with the rich and famous, and when she does I can tell because she's wearing enough jewelry to finance a small nation. Even her dress has jewels worked into it. Sad to say it looks dreadful, gaudy, over the top, and thoroughly out of place in our somber age. Being a good friend I've told her this several times. Every time her reply is the same,

"If I don't dress like this no-one will know how important I am. Look, you see these silks? They're from India. This brooch is made with jade from the Americas and the diamonds in this crown are from Africa. I don't care what you think I look like, my friends are people of wealth and power and if I don't dress like this they'll treat me like some commoner."

She's right of course. The only way to demonstrate you had power was to flaunt it. For most that meant expensive cloths in exotic or rare materials. Taste barely came into it, cost was all that mattered. Flaunting your power could take more substantial form, Medieval nobles took great pleasure in building more and more elaborate castles. Some of these had little military use and brought the families involved close to bankruptcy, but the cost of not having them may have been far higher. With a castle behind them, a family could make good marriages and push their claims. Without one, they were barely more than farmers with a lot of land.

Fortunately for the artistic world, simply displaying wealth only requires expense, but art requires artists . Charles I knew this and assembled an exceptional collection of renaissance art estimated at some 1700 paintings. When the Spanish opened peace negotiations with him in 1629, they sent the painter Reubens to do so. Talented individuals were valuable in and of themselves, but once again influence came with a price. Charles I was Protestant, but many of his favoured painters were Catholic. This fueled rumours that he was about to take the country back into the Catholic fold. Rumours like this contributed to the outbreak of civil war in 1640.

No society has made the link between wealth and power more obvious than the Vikings. For over 300 years they terrorized northern Europe, raided the Mediterranean and even made it as far as Constantinople. Their leaders were warlords, typically the heads of large families, and their power was inextricably bound up with their wealth. Viking poetry is full of references to money, typically in the form of armbands made of precious metal. Viking leaders were expected to reward those who followed them with great wealth. If times were hard their men would look for money elsewhere. If times were good men would flock to them in search of golden rings. Vikings who made enough money soon found themselves in a position to challenge for kingdoms.

Failure to behave properly has always been a fatal error for those with power. Viking misers quickly found themselves without followers, while courtiers who neglected etiquette quickly found themselves out of favour. This problem went right to the top. James I, a Scottish King who came to the English throne following the death of Elizabeth I, quickly became unpopular thanks to his coarse manners and dislike for English etiquette. Clio relates how, on being told that it would do him good if he was seen to 'show his face more' at court the furious monarch replied:

"Hoots mon, I'll pull down ma britches and show them ma arse!"

James was never a popular king.

So what use is all this to you, the roleplayers? Well, make sure that when your players meet someone with power, they realize there's more to power than rank, title or brute force. Opposing someone with power directly will rarely work, but subtle means might. Neither are those who hold power inflexible-- a few well chosen alliances at court might be all it takes to get everything you ever wanted.

Plunge your players into crises of power: what does it really mean when the king is incompetent? How would a kingdom react with a lunatic at its head? If your players have become warriors of such stature that no fight is a challenge (or if they're bored with fighting) then throw them into court at the deep end and watch as they struggle to stay afloat.

Next month the topic will be religion. Till then post your comments below.

Reading List
The English Court From the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War by D Starkey (Heavy going)
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings by P Sawyer

Martin Lloyd

What do you think?

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