You've decided you want to write a court system with princesses, emperors, dukes and kings. But how to structure it? Look no further than the courts of history. Here are five global monarchial systems to inspire your fantastical court. Move over, England.
Each example will feature questions to ask your world so you, the writer, can breathe life into it.
Aztec Empire (1428 CE - 1521 CE)
The Aztec Empire was located in modern central and southern Mexico and lasted from 1428 CE to 1521 CE, when the capital was overthrown by the Spanish. The Aztec Empire began with an alliance between three powers. The resulting form of government was hierarchical and relied on officials to handle administrative duties. This empire was non-localized and organized hundreds of regions into independent city-states called altepetl (think Vatican City). Each was supervised by tlatoani or “speakers.” Tlatoani were most often hereditary to the dynasty of the emperor, or huey tlatoani. The huey tlatoani governed the capital city, Tenochtitlan. and was worshipped as a deity. Other officials included tax collectors, local nobility, judges, spies, and merchants.
Questions to ask your court system: How did your government form? In what way is the land divided and governed? How many levels of administration are there? Knowing your world and kingdom’s history can help with these questions.
Roman Kingdom (753 BCE - 509 BCE)
Not to be confused with the Roman Empire, the Roman Kingdom was the regal period of ancient Rome before its empire emerged. This period lasted about 200 years from 753 BCE, when the city was founded, to 509 BCE. Rome was founded through the myth of Romulus and Remus. Seven kings ruled in this time with an average of 35 years each. A pretty long reign! The king held the power of highest military leader, judge, priest, and legislator. The Senate served to advise the king. Perhaps unusual about the Roman king was the fact that he was elected. During the search for a king, the Senate reviewed nominees, and, if approved, the potential king would be presented to the people for their opinion. Obviously, not every person could vote. After the vote, the Curiate Assembly would approve or deny the candidate.
Questions to ask your court system: What myths do your people believe about their highest official and history? What myths surround the monarchy? How are monarchs selected to rule, if not through bloodlines?
Kingdom of Croatia (925 CE - 1102 CE)
Starting in the 10th century, the Kingdom of Croatia was troubled and defined by its alliances involving the Byzantine Empire and competition for Dalmatian territories. A feudal system maintained the peasants, but unfortunately reduced military power. In 997, the three sons of the late Stjepan Držislav fought violently for the throne. This caused the political power of the kingdom to weaken. Croatia experienced periods of both peace and unrest during its nearly 250-year monarchy, but it was built on shaky ground. Stephen II’s death in 1091 left the kingdom with no heir, and a period of civil war followed. The kingdom was practically dissolved in 1102, when it joined with the Hungarians. Interestingly, there was no permanent capital where the king lived.
Questions to ask your court system: Who are the allies of the court, personal and broadly? How does your monarchy forge alliances? Which surrounding territories are most important to your monarchy?
The Chinese Dynasties (2070 BCE - 1912 CE)
For nearly 4000 years, China was controlled by dynasties. Dynasties were hereditary, meaning titles were passed through bloodlines, most often to the oldest son. The emperor had absolute authority and was expected to uphold the Mandate of Heaven. To fail would be to justify a new government, a.k.a. civil unrest. Periods of natural disaster could be a sign that the emperor had lost this Mandate. Proper etiquette and address to the emperor was very important. Families also carried hereditary status and were grouped into communities during the Ming dynasty (1368 CE - 1644 CE). The lowest level of district authority rested with appointed magistrates, and there were other officials above them who tended to large cities and provinces. The reaches of dynasties were broad and gained through military conquest, and sometimes dynasties existed simultaneously in different regions. Dynasties fluctuated in the territories under their control and lengths of reign. I highly recommend the GIF of their territorial control on Wikipedia.
Questions to ask your court system: Martial power is important to any kingdom. What is the extent of your kingdom? How has/does it militarize and maintain its army? How does one act around the head monarch? What is the etiquette required?
Joseon Dynasty (1392 CE -1897 CE)
The Joseon Dynasty was the longest-lasting (and final) Korean dynasty that spanned 500 years! Confucianism, a philosophical belief system focused on order and simplicity, was embodied by the dynasty. In its early development, the power of the aristocracy to keep personal armies was abolished, a state council was formed, and an office for appeals was created. It was possible to petition the emperor, and officials were arranged in 18 levels of government. Examinations were required to become an official. The Joseon focused on agriculture over trade, and after a war with Japan, chose to become more isolated.
Questions to ask your court system: What are the social beliefs of the people in and out of court? How are titles given, and what rigors, if any, exist to test them? What is your kingdom’s attitude towards foreign lands and trade?
Once you ask these questions about your monarchy, the culture and structure will start to build itself! And these are not the only places you can find inspiration for fantasy courts. Seek out books with well-developed courts, or TV shows. Does Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones have similar elements of what you’d like to write? I encourage you to select a monarchy and draw inspiration from it, or why not combine a few? Once you have structure, then you can branch out into questions of fantasy peoples, magic systems, and other mythical beings. Shouldn't be too hard, right?
There’s no one way to make a court, but there are ways that make sense. If you want eight kings with absolute power, then go for it. I find that as long as your system is justified with its own history and culture, then the possibilities are broad.
There are hundreds of historical monarchies, empires, dynasties, and kingdoms to analyze, and I hope you have fun with your story.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.