Whenever King Arthur travels, part of the court goes with him so he can continue to do royal business. That’s why the commission examining army candidates is with him. The king also continues to judge cases as the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench on the road. Hank considers King Arthur a “wise and humane judge,” although his training means that he has an unconscious bias toward nobility. In Hank’s mind, it’s similar to how people of his day talk about the “blunting effects of slavery” on morality. The aristocracy are like slaveholders; both consider regard themselves as “superior being[s].”
By Hank’s account, Arthur is a hardworking and diligent king who earns respect through his title—but also with his own actions. Thus, he offers an example of how nature and nurture together can make a truly great man. Nevertheless, his socially determined (in Hank’s words, “trained”) biases still get the better of him. Hank recognizes this tendency in the people of his own age, too: slaveholders were trained to believe in their inherent superiority. Yet they lost the American Civil War, foreshadowing the future Hank envisions for the medieval aristocracy.
One case that King Arthur hears in the Valley particularly bothers Hank. An orphaned young noblewoman married a poor young man. Her father was a vassal to a bishop (under the bishop’s authority). The bishop claimed that, by marrying secretly, the girl had denied his “droit du seigneur.” The penalty is confiscation of her property. The girl argues that, since church law demands that bishops be celibate, she denied him nothing. She’s in a bind since she was destined to lose something (her property or her virtue) either way. This reminds Hank of the story about how London aldermen raised money by nominating unqualified people for sheriff, then fining them for refusing to serve.
This case illustrates not just the limits of the king’s training but also the cruelty and injustice of the aristocratic system, particularly when the Church abuses it. Thus, this episode contributes to the book’s critique of the old order that medieval England represents. Notably, this is the third time Hank’s outrage against the nobility hinges on the idea of “droit du seigneur.” Although modern consensus agrees this was a myth, the book uses it as a visceral example of injustice. Both the girl’s case and the aldermen’s example illustrate the way feudal systems encourage power imbalances.
King Arthur sides with the bishop, reasoning that if the girl had informed the bishop of her marriage, he could have gotten a dispensation allowing him to exercise his rights. As punishment, the girl and her husband lose all their possessions to him. Hank believes that brutal laws like these are only possible where not everyone has a vote, and that even an enlightened monarchy can’t provide the best conditions for all its citizens.
Hank’s belief in the inherent superiority of his own ideals blinds him to their limits. He calls out the hypocrisy of the bishop (who took a vow of celibacy yet wants to assert his sexual rights) while conveniently forgetting gross injustices in American history like slavery.
King Arthur’s officer selection provides another example of ways in which the monarchy fails to serve the interests of its citizens. He follows Hank’s suggestion that all candidates be examined, but the only qualification he looks for is four generations of noble blood. Although the noble candidate doesn’t know much about military matters, he has the right family. In contrast, the West Point candidate Hank brought is literate and well versed in military history, theory, and technology, Arthur refuses to commission him because he doesn’t have noble blood.
The examination of the two candidates is hardly competitive: Arthur’s candidate outclasses the other by the criteria of nobility, while Hank’s excels according to the merit, intelligence, and education. By showing the ineptitude of Arthur’s candidate, this episode adds to the book’s critique of monarchy compared to meritocratic democracy. Notably, Hank shames a nobleman to prove that blood alone (nature) doesn’t qualify a person for anything. Excellence requires training, too.
Eventually, Hank hits on a solution by suggesting that King Arthur select officers for a “King’s Own Regiment,” stocked entirely with men of noble birth. The rest of the standing army will be commanded by nobodies forced to do the dirty work of war without aristocratic independence. When the King’s Own want a break, the nobodies will take over. The King’s Own is also a convenient place to stash princes of the royal blood, who are currently supported by taxes on the people. Hank will give them the option to exchange this public support with a special “gaudy and awe-compelling” rank in the King’s Own. He has no doubt that they will jump at the opportunity thanks to the special reverence it will earn them.
Hank’s solution to the question of the army officers shows his capacity as a political operator. It also allows him to isolate his rivals—those whom he sees as underqualified but who outrank him in the social hierarchy—in one, relatively powerless group. Again, Hank and the book criticize the uselessness of a hereditary ruling class by suggesting that the ruling class cares more for showy but ultimately meaningless titles than meaningful work that would actually better society. But it’s also notable that, for all his disrespect for the despotism of divinely appointed kings, Hank consults no one but himself when he contradicts the king’s will in this way. Although he’s trying to replace the monarchy with democracy, he exercises decidedly anti-democratic power.