Why are most fantasy kingdoms ruled organized as kingdoms? And what even is a kingdom and how does it work? As part of my ongoing world-building, I find myself asking this question often.
First, let’s establish what a Kingdom is. Simply, it is a region or nation ruled by a monarch, usually titled as King or Queen, but Emperor, Sultan, Khan, Kaiser, and many other terms fit this moniker. This individual typically rules with unlimited power, able to make or unmake laws at will. They rule through a feudal system where smaller landowners form a noble class, owing allegiance to the King. This system is so common in fantasy worlds because it was incredibly common in our own history. The hereditary rule goes back as far as the Egyptian Pharos, and the Kingdoms of Ancient Greece. The Romans, before founding the Republic, were ruled by a king who was so hated that when Caesar Augustus took power, he invented the title of Imperator to avoid using the title of king. Famous fantasy kingdoms following this format include the Kingdom of Gondor from Lord of the Rings (with some exceptions, I’ll get back to this), the Seven Kingdoms from Game of Thrones, and even the Kingdom of Narnia.
The Kingdom of Gondor is in an odd situation by the time the Lord of the Rings focuses on it. The King was killed after the War of the Ring, and a Steward has been reigning in the missing King’s place. Often this sort of Regency is put in place if the ruler is gone, either traveling or deceased, until their heir can take power. Going back to Game of Thrones, Cerci serves as “Queen Regent” on behalf of her children until they assumed the throne. In Gondor’s case, the regency was ongoing because the royal bloodline was assumed to be wiped out. Essentially, this just replaces the person in charge of the kingdom for whatever time it takes for a new person to take power.
An interesting alternative to the hereditary monarch is an elected one. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the late Middle Ages, a conclave of landowning nobles voted on a monarch, who ruled for life. But rather than their child assuming the throne on their passing, the conclave would gather and elect a new monarch. This is similar to the proposition made by Tyrion Lannister at the end of the Game of Thrones tv series, where the leading nobles of the Six Kingdoms elect a High King. While a great way to introduce democracy into a hierarchical monarchy, this system often led to infighting as there is no clear line of succession, and nothing stopping nobles from… disputing… the results.
These are just a few of the many ways to differentiate yet another fantasy kingdom in your setting. There are myriad other forms of governance from the Middle Ages and the times that fantasy draws inspiration from, so feel free to mix it up!