It’s hard work being a king. At least, that’s what kings would have you believe. All those heavy crowns and the repetitive strain injury from all that royal waving. I imagine at least one king must have met his end after toppling from a balcony, too (though it’s quite plausible that some assassin gave him a push).
Yet, somehow, I think kings have it easier than they make out.
Kings are lazy. That’s all there is to it.
Even on the chess board, the king is the laziest of the bunch. Those bishops and rooks are zipping all over the board. The knights are the champions of jumping. The queen – well, she’s the busiest of them all. Even those slow moving pawns can be forgiven, as they march slowly into the jaws of certain death. But the king? Not him. He’s skulking at the back, hiding behind his army, never moving more than one square at a time except for darting into the shelter of his castle.
No. The average king is only interested in doing the least he can get away with. Work? That’s for the peasants. The occasional gala event, perhaps opening the odd library or hospital, and spend the rest of the time on hunts and at balls and feasts. No sense doing anything that might upset the people.
Once in a while, however, a king breaks the mould. A king takes power with energy and enthusiasm and some downright bizarre hobbies. They inspire their subjects, terrify their enemies and put all the other kings to shame. They don’t tend to last long. Regal duties soon crush their outgoing spirits and leave them as bitter, twisted old men, if they don’t get assassinated in the meantime. That balcony is looking particularly tempting tonight, your majesty…
And sometimes, cruel irony alone is enough to bring them down.
One such go-getting, unusual king went by the name of Melvin. I know, I know. You can’t believe there could ever be a King Melvin. The history books do tend to overlook him, it’s true. They tend to skip over the gap between Henry XVIII and his uncle’s wife’s grandson, Henry XVII (what can I say? I think the scribes lost count – it was a confusing century) and declare that either one Henry ruled longer or the other started earlier, or even that the kingdom spent three years in anarchy. Perhaps historians prefer it that way. Trying to explain King Melvin is… difficult.
For one thing, Melvin refused to wear a crown. He had the most magnificent hair, which he kept on a stand by his bed at night so he wouldn’t crush it in his sleep, or vice versa; a bouffant wig some six feet high and home to three birds, a family of dormice and a small butler that could attend to his every whim should the regular butler be off on holiday. A crown, he said, would be taking things too far. On royal occasions when a crown was demanded, the royal potato wore the crown instead. (Sorry to disappoint you, but the potato was a Maris Piper, and not the King Edward you might expect. That would just be silly.)
King Melvin was a kind and friendly king, often throwing gold from his castle windows to the starving peasants below. This went a lot better after the first attempt, when he started first taking the coins out of the sacks that held them in his vault. Three peasants were crushed in that first deadly display of generosity.
He also had a fondness for nature. At the start of his reign, it was not uncommon for King Melvin to be seen going for a gentle jog in the forests around the castle. This was brought to an equally gentle end after three bears, two wolves and a confused badger had to be executed for threatening the life of the king. Melvin was sad about all of these, especially the badger, and he proposed an alternative – he would live in a brand new castle, made entirely from nature, and he could smell the fresh grass and the woodland flowers without ever leaving his home.
It took two years, but the finest architects, weavers, forestry experts and farmers found a way. The new castle was not so much built as grown. The walls were a light frame of saplings strung with ivy, the carpets were the freshest of spongy forest moss and the walls were clad with tall reeds and grasses from the river banks. The entire castle was a living sculpture, every blade and petal still living and growing. Birds nested in the parapets and insects buzzed happily over the canopy of leaves that formed the roof. The people were immensely proud of the Green Castle. Even Versailles could not compare to the grandeur of this bold undertaking.
And perhaps all would have been well, if it were not for King Melvin’s unfortunate hobby.
I said before that these more… active rulers pursued pastimes that were a little strange. King Terence III held yodelling contests during his reign. Queen Alfreda was so fond of cake that she ate six cakes for breakfast every day. When she finally died of her outrageous obesity, collapsing with simultaneous liver failure and heart failure just as she was walking down the aisle to marry the Duke of Pembrokeshire, even the wedding cake was in tiers. Compared to the knife juggling King Michael IV or the Elvis memorabilia so loved by King Phillip IX (not the singer Elvis – this was long before his time – but Elvis Cooper, the bawdy jester), King Melvin’s obsession was positively tame.
King Melvin loved to collect thrones.
Small thrones, large thrones, gold thrones, silver thrones, bone thrones, lone thrones, twin thrones, trombone thrones, moaning thrones, groaning thrones, home thrones, work thrones, thrown thrones, lost thrones, found thrones, thrones of swords, thrones of skulls, thrones of games… he didn’t care. Whenever he found a new throne, he had to have it.
Soon every visiting dignitary or merchant looking for a favour knew what to do. Buy the king a new throne, and he’d shower you with gold, and he’d even take it out of the sack first. The floor of Green Castle was packed full of royal seating. The annual festival’s game of musical chairs could last for days as there were far more chairs to take than people to sit in them.
As the throne count went up, Green Castle grew ever more cramped. Finally, something had to be done. The king summoned the architects, the forestry experts, the farmers, the weavers, the thatchers and told them that the castle needed expanding. They needed more throne room.
A quick survey of the surrounding area ruled out the land to the north (too rough, too rocky) and the south (arable farmland, vital to the kingdom). The western expanse was no use – that’s where the old castle still stood, and several armies over the last three centuries had failed to take it down, so demolition seemed unlikely. To the east, the old forest still called Melvin for a last jog. He didn’t have the heart to cut it down.
There was only one direction left to build, and that was straight up.
Construction work began that very day. An old weeping willow, spiralling up from the floor, served as a staircase to the upper level, where two lines of young oak trees provided a second floor via a network of branches. A carpet of foliage covered these branches. With space to move at last, King Melvin ordered his collection of thrones moved to the upper level. Downstairs, the business of ruling the kingdom could finally proceed – and the next game of musical chairs would be over in less than four hours.
Perhaps, in hindsight, they should have known. The King of Monaco, on a flying visit from his homeland, was so impressed by Green Castle that he gifted King Melvin with the largest, most extravagant throne that had ever been built. Mahogany framed, lined with gold and jewels, cushioned with the finest down from the fluffiest of pipistrelle bats, it was a dazzling and irresistible gift. Twelve footmen were needed to drag it up the curving willow to the upper level, where it was given pride of place in the very centre of the upper floor.
There was a lot of ominous creaking, and then came a mighty crash. The new throne had proved too much for the delicate natural timbers of the castle. As it came crashing down, so too did dozens more thrones of all kinds. The castle groaned and shivered, and then the sapling walls and the grass cladding folded in on itself. To the horror of all who watched, Green Castle collapsed inwards. King Melvin, along with his retinue, was crushed to death beneath his own throne collection.
King Henry XVII took over the kingdom, moving back into the main castle. He didn’t collect thrones, or indeed collect anything – aside from dust, and taxes. He lived another fifty years before falling off his balcony, but he was one of those boring kings that never did anything special beyond that. He’d learned a valuable lesson from his predecessor.
People living in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.