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  • Alison Weir often describes Elizabeth of York, Henry VII's queen, as "popular" in her 'Elizabeth of York' (this originally made me think about the topic given how often Weir laments the lack of evidence for that biography);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.

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    Extreme cases would be saintly royals. Constantly giving alms (St Louis, St Isabel of Portugal, St Oswald (from Beda)), just rulings (even against his own family - St Louis), publicly (as in the front of the whole armies) stopping fratricide wars (St Isabel) or waging wars viewed as needed and not motivated by greed (St Louis, St Oswald), living good marriages even being the king (not easy) (St Louis) or being faithful to nasty husbands (St Isabel). I guess such tales would run wide, and each virtuous act would reinforce the perception and be written down. Some saints had really amazing lives. – Luiz Jul 29 '20 at 17:11
  • @Luiz: The saints are interesting for a number of reasons. One is that in many cases their hagiographies were standardised to present a good image so that many saints' lives show the same elements when read now in their classical tellings. Papal politics would also play a role in this by the High Middle Ages (and probably before) with dynasties benefiting from canonized forefathers. – gktscrk Jul 29 '20 at 17:20
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    Saints are extreme cases of 'popular', but they might help to understand what helps. You should look for less standard tales. Alms giving is a constant, but it was expected from a ruler to some degree. Exemplary marriages or resilient faithfulness also comes with any saint. I gave specific examples - ruling against his nephew who plotted to steal a landed title on the king's absence, thus hurting his family; and riding to the field to stop a battle between the armies of her husband and her son. If such publicly visible, tangible things do not make a ruler popular, nothing else will do. – Luiz Jul 29 '20 at 17:39
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    I fear this would entail a fairly lengthy answer (even by my standards!) but, to put it in a nutshell and based on having read academic biographies of most medieval English kings, I would say strong leadership and maintaining law & order / improving justice are the main (but not only) factors. Chronicles are obviously key sources for making these judgments on popularity, but they have to be considered in the light of individual chroniclers' likely biases / whose views they are reflecting. – Lars Bosteen Jul 30 '20 at 3:49
  • Not really - sorry if I wasn't clear. What I mean is that 'strong leadership and maintaining law & order / improving justice' were key factors which people at the time believed to be important, and that historians have assessed how popular monarchs were on these key points (among others) based contemporary accounts (and taking into account chroniclers' biases). Of course, historians may have got it wrong in some cases! – Lars Bosteen Jul 30 '20 at 4:37

One might say that evidence is skewed towards those classes that really mattered. Who cares what the peasants think as long as they do not rise up into rebellion.

Some chroniclers may actually write down some words about the general mood in the population re. a king. There is also surviving political commentary outside of chronicles, e.g. (for the Holy Roman Empire) several works by Walther von der Vogelweide.

Last not least some events may give you evidence re. a monarch's popularity. If there is a string of imposters after a monarchs death (as happened e.g. after the death of Roman emperor Nero 68 AD) then it probably means that said monarch was popular, at least in some circles.

  • Folk tales surviving about a monarch being benevolent might also give us a hint. Or it might just be that the next kings were so bad, that people remembered the "good old times" under the previous king. – vsz Oct 26 '20 at 10:06

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