It is relatively common to see certain monarchs described as "popular" while others are "unpopular". It confounds me as to what specific evidence has been used to determine this, because (obviously) there were no such things as opinion polls at the time. It would seem to me that surviving evidence is strongly biased in favour of a few classes at the expense of the other(s). What does the specific description "popular" mean when applied to a Medieval Western European monarch (or their actions)? How is this determined (including if there is no 'standard' to determine this)?
As best I can see, the surviving documentation will stem from a number (from as few as one to hundreds) of chroniclers, foreign dignitaries who visited the state, archaeological findings, tax ledgers, and accounts of unrest/civil strife. Yet, any or even all of these factors are strongly biased towards the nobility and unrepresentative of the peasantry.
I have not made this location-specific as I don't envision there to be many differences across the Medieval period given the paucity of evidence should be more or less similar. If you do note that there would be location-specificity that would apply, I will modify this.
A few examples:
- Alison Weir often describes Elizabeth of York, Henry VII's queen, as "popular" in her 'Elizabeth of York' (this originally made me think about the topic given how often Weir laments the lack of evidence for that biography);
- John I Lackland is generally described as "unpopular":
John may have been motivated by the potential of the royal legal process to raise fees, rather than a desire to deliver simple justice; his legal system also applied only to free men, rather than to all of the population. Nonetheless, these changes were popular with many free tenants, who acquired a more reliable legal system that could bypass the barons, against whom such cases were often brought. John's reforms were less popular with the barons themselves, especially as they remained subject to arbitrary and frequently vindictive royal justice. [Wikipedia]
- Marc Morris generally describes Edward I as "popular" in 'A Great and Terrible King', but this seems to have come about mostly because of Edward's long life while nearly all of the King's taxation measures were still disliked (unsurprisingly) (the below example does actually show what it bases itself on):
When Edward landed at Dover on 2 August 1274 it was clearly to a tremendous sense of popular excitement. 'Behold, he shines like a new Richard!' enthused one Londoner in a song written shortly before the new king's arrival...
In a way, this could be rephrased as 'how many chroniclers have to write ill of a monarch for us to consider it "popular" opinion?' but that sounded too incendiary, especially as the concept (if not the specific term) does seem to be thrown around narrative histories with relative frequency.