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The High King

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So you want to show that your character is no mere monarch, but one so important that the other kings swear fealty to him. But you don't want to call him an emperor, since this word carries so much negative cultural baggage. The solution is making him a High King.

High King is a title found in historical Britain and several other places and widely used in fiction. A High King rules a feudal alliance or federation of states; usually he doesn't manifest direct power over all subjects of his vassal kings, which makes him different from a totalitarian emperor who is omnipresent in the daily affairs of his subject. That's why a High King is likely to be good, or even Big Good.


May be ruling alongside The High Queen, but he is not the Spear Counterpart (that's The Good King); that trope is about the character, and this is about the title.


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  • Tsar Vladimir the Conqueror in Nikolai Dante has the official title Tsar of all the Russias, and appears to be the de jure ruler of Russia plus some off-world colonies. He is also the de facto ruler of all Earth; while Britain still has a king and there is mention of a triumvirate ruling China, those offices are clearly shown to be subservient to the tsar, and can be replaced at his whim. Indeed, Vladimir himself granted the Houses of Numa, Tantor, and Kong dominion over Africa.

  • Indicated in The Ten Commandments with the Pharoahs of Egypt Moses grows up under.
  • Invoked in spirit in How to Train Your Dragon 2 when Valka shows Hiccup the White Bewilderbeast, Alpha of the Glacial Sanctuary. She notes that every dragon nest has its queen, but a Bewilderbeast is the king of all dragons.

  • Variant in The Belgariad: Garion assumes the title of Overlord of the West (sometimes called Overking), which gives him nominal power over the countries on the "good" side of the continent. This doesn't give him actual rule in those countries (except when there's a politically ugly situation that the local monarch would rather delegate to him instead of trying to resolve it himself - a habit Garion ends up complaining about), but he can order them to mobilise their armies in the inevitable event that the Angaraks finally invade. Similarly, the various schemers on the "evil" side of the world deign to call themselves "Overking of Angarak", but none of them manage to truly achieve that power, except for Physical God Torak, who is called "King and God" - though it is implied that 'Zakath, formerly The Emperor (though he still has the title) will end up as the real Overking of Angarak eventually, if in a looser sense than he'd previously intended.
  • In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan names Peter High King of Narnia. As such, he has authority over other rulers of Narnia (such as his siblings, and King Caspian), but is still under the authority of Aslan, who is himself called, the High King above all High Kings of Narnia. Aslan's father, meanwhile, is referred to only a few times in text as The Emperor Beyond The Sea (and is the High King of all worlds including Narnia).
  • David Weber's Honor Harrington series has this on Grayson, where the title of the highest-ranked Grayson ruler, Protector, is the English cognate of Emperor, but his powers more closely resemble this trope. As the series progresses and Queen Elizabeth III's power consolidates in Manticore, she becomes more like this, culminating in the declaration of the Star Empire of Manticore and herself as Empress Elizabeth I (as she generally remains the Reasonable Authority Figure, the SEM remains mostly The Federation despite having trappings of The Empire).
  • Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain take place in Prydain, a Fantasy Counterpart to medieval Wales. Math son of Mathonwy was the High King of Prydain, but he was never shown doing much of anything - that was left up to his heir and warlord, Prince Gwydion. He appeared in the first book to thank the heroes for their efforts against the Horned King, was mentioned in each of the next three books, and appeared shortly before his death in the last book. Gwydion's own last act as High King, before departing for the Summer Country, is to declare Audience Surrogate Taran the new High King of Prydain.
  • Codex Alera: The First Lord of Alera is basically this, despite his title. His subordinates are called High Lords, not kings, but are largely autonomous and rule over enough territory they might well have been called kings if it weren't for inherited Roman cultural baggage regarding kings.
  • Dwarves in Discworld consider lower to be better than higher, so they have a Low King who is acknowledged by most dwarves as the most important monarch. In practice he's the only real "king" per se; in most mines the king is more like a mine foreman or senior engineer than royalty.
  • In the Land of Oz, the rulers of the four countries (Munchkins, Gillikins, Winkies, and Quadlings) are under the ruler of Oz in general, who lives in the Emerald City. At least, this becomes the case after book one, where the Wicked Witches of the East & West were destroyed and replaced. Although in this case, the high ruler is Ozma, who rules under the title of Princess.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion:
    • The exiled High Elves in Middle-earth spread out into multiple kingdoms with separate kings, but they were all (at least in theory) subject to the High King. In practice, most subjects of the House of Fëanor pretended that there wasn't one.
    • The Teleri Lords had a High King, but he lived in an enchanted forest where nobody could find him. The Vanyar had one as well, Ingwë, and he was accounted the High King of All Elves.
    • The Valar had one as well, Manwë, and he was the High King of All Arda. The war Morgoth started in the Years of the Trees was to depose him, though he never succeeded. Within the mythologies of Tolkien, Ingwë and Manwë are still alive and still rule, but mortal Men have long since abused the power to reach their homeland and no longer can except by complete accident.
  • Belisarius Series:
    • Kungas is addressed as "Great King" by mountain tribesmen. They refuse to call him "king" (because their first obedience goes to their clan chief) but they are satisfied to call him "Great King" because their chiefs obey him.
    • Similarly, Eon's title means "King of Kings", as the King of the tribal leaders whose lands make up the Kingdom of Ethiopia.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire
    • The Targaryen dynasty conquered all but one of the Seven kingdoms of Westeros (which later joined their rule through marriage), demoted the surviving kings to lords (sometimes called High Lords or Lords Paramount), elevated a couple of formerly-minor lords to Lords Paramount on equal footing with the former kings, and reserved the King / Queen title for themselves.
    • Mance Rayder, as King-Beyond-The-Wall is effectively High King of the wildlings, ruling as first-among-equals in a loose confederation of tribal chieftains.
    • High King was the most coveted royal title in Dorne until the Rhoynish invasion. The simple title of Prince has been in use ever since.
    • The Ironborn used to elect a High King at their Kingsmoot to rule over the other Rock and Salt Kings of the Iron Islands. Since then they went from a single elected monarchy to a hereditary one to becoming lords under the Targaryens.
  • In the Emberverse, Rudi "Artos" Mackenzie, already the heir-apparent to Clan Mackenzie and the son of the founder of the Bearkillers, marries the heir of the Portland Protective Association and brings several other allies into the fold through diplomacy to form the High Kingdom of Montival. It's a true feudal state, with member states (many of which are de facto monarchies, but several of which are republics or governed by a council of elders) retaining the lion's share of their local autonomy, but required to contribute military aid to the common good during times of war.
  • Kallor the High King is a recurring character in the Malazan Book of the Fallen (though it's an in-universe Artifact Title, as Kallor is an immortal and it's been ages since he was actually king of anything - he still carts a throne around with him wherever he goes). The usual connotations of this trope are inverted, however, as Kallor during his reign was considered one of the worst tyrants in the setting's history, far worse than any of the characters who've used the title "Emperor", to the point that he destroyed his own empire rather than let the gods take it away from him.
  • Birthright (2017): Sabrina's father is officially titled Maharaja. However, it's difficult to tell if he's actually a High King, or if it's a case of 'title inflation', as was sometimes the case in real-world India.
  • Chronicles of the Kencyrath: The people of the Kencyrath consist of nine major houses, plus some minor ones. Each is ruled by a lord, who has a lot of power and autonomy in his own right, and a seat on the High Council. The leader of all the Kencyrath has the title "Highlord".
  • In The Queen's Thief series, it is implied that Eugenides is on his way to becoming this. Teleus calls him "Annux, a king of kings."

    Live Action TV 
  • The Sons of Anarchy are divided into independent charters each ruled by a President, but the president of the Redwood Originals appears to hold a kind of “first among equals” positions among the charter presidents.
    • The Mayans appear to have a similar system, with a senior and well respected president holding sway over them all. However, the position is independent of charter, as Alvarez, the leader of the Oakland charter, hands it down to Bishop, the leader of the Santo Padre Mayans.
  • In Babylon 5, the Centauri Emperor is actually this, though the particulars have changed in time:
    • During the time of the First Empire (before any form of first contact, or even the development of steam power), the Centauri were divided in four kingdoms, among whose rulers one held a position of supremacy.
    • After the First Empire collapsed under the invasion of the Xon (the Centauri equivalent of Neanderthals, living on their world's southern continent until discovered by a Centauri expedition), Centauri society reformed under the Houses, each ruling their petty kingdom, until House Kiro managed to unite the Houses in an alliance, with their lord as the new Emperor-and the position being only partially hereditary and the Houses maintaining their own lesser militaries. This system, with a few modifications, persisted well after they achieved spaceflight and into the series, though the power of the Emperor has greatly increased (the Royal Navy greatly outnumbering all the House Militias put together in addition to outclassing them in training, technology and firepower).

    Mythology, Religion, & Legend 
  • Agamemnon of Mycenae in The Iliad is said to be the king over all the Achaians (Greeks), who are also divided into various smaller kingdoms.
  • The High King (Ard Rí) of Ireland. The office did exist in real life, but it was primarily a ceremonial title, and is not definitely documented before the 9th century CE. In the Irish legends, however, there is an unbroken succession of powerful High Kings starting in the 2nd millennium BCE with Sláine mac Dela of the Fir Bolg, and containing mythical and semi-mythical figures like Nuada and Lugh of the Tuatha De Dannan, Conaire Mor, Conn the Hundred-Fighter, Cormac mac Airt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, and Loegaire, up to historical kings like Brian Borúma mac Cennetig (a.k.a. Brian Boru). Traditional Irish chronicles regard Mael Sechnaill (died 1022) as the last undisputed High King, with the kings after him considered "High Kings with Opposition", and Rory O'Connor (Rudraige Ua Conchobair) being the last bearer of the title when it was made obsolete in 1171 by the Norman invasion of Ireland. The last king to style himself High King of Ireland was Edward the Bruce, who tried to break Ireland from English control, but was killed in 1318.
  • King Arthur was said to be High King over the petty kings of Britain. This is particularly apt because most sources agree that the Arthurian legends originated in Wales, which was composed of several smaller principality-type regions with their own rulers who were then ruled by the High King.
  • Prince Vladimir in the Russian Mythology and Tales is roughly equivalent to King Arthur in Welsh legends: as the Prince (Knyaz) of Kiev, he is superior to the princes of other Russian cities and lands, and so it is at his court that all the bogatyrs (mythical protectors of the Kievan Rus) gather before embarking on their heroic adventures.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms campaign setting: In the Moonshae Islands, the Folk are divided into a number of small kingdoms loosely controlled by a High King, who's more of a figurehead than a true ruler.
  • In Ironclaw the Don of House Rinaldi is High King of Calebria as the other three great houses were once independent kingdoms, but by the time of the game it is basically a meaningless title, and the throne is presently vacant following the gruesome murders of the last Don and his eldest son while the other great houses are making their own plans. One of the first published adventures was to find his missing second son.
  • Warhammer Fantasy:
    • The leader of the Dwarf race is The High King, who acts as a spiritual leader to all Dwarfs, and holds the Great Book of Grudges which holds all the grudges in the Dwarfs history which they hope to avenge.
    • The Norse also have a title by the same name for the supreme ruler of their country. Being warriors of Chaos, their version is less directly benevolent than the Dwarfen version.
    • The Kurgan are another tribe of Chaos-worshipers who instead have the title of High Zar, which is basically the same thing.
    • The Ogre Kingdoms have an "Overtyrant" to whom neighboring tyrants pay tribute, Tradelord Greasus Tribestealer Drakecrush Hoardmaster Goldtooth the Shockingly Obese.
  • In Rocket Age Sasonik was the High King of the Lada Range Kingdoms of Venus, bringing about a golden age in culture and technological advancement. His great-granddaughter Sassinisk is attempting to reclaim the title.
  • Magic: The Gathering: On the plane of Eldraine, the Realm is rules by a High King, who has authority over the five smaller Courts. The current High King, Algenus Kenrith, got the title by undergoing the trials of all five courts, to prove that he deserves the title. His wife, Linden, would have been The High Queen, but she only managed to complete four trials, because she was rasing Algenus' twins after their birth mother killed them (long story). Ironically though, it's implied she's the one who does most of the actual ruling, while Kenrith keeps the Courts united through charisma. The novel The Wildered Quest is about Algenus going missing, and his children having to search for him.

  • Westeros: An American Musical: Mance Rayder is leading a union of all Wildling tribes and the title he has a leader is King-Beyond-the-Wall. This effectively makes him High King of the Wildlings.

    Video Games 
  • In The Elder Scrolls series, the province of Skyrim (homeland of the Nords) is traditionally ruled by a High King. Originally hereditary starting with Ysgramor, this practice mostly ended when the last in Ysgramor's line was killed without an heir, causing a Succession Crisis. Fifty years of infighting cost the Nords their 1st Era Empire until the Pact of Chieftains ended with the election of a new High King. Ever since, when the High King dies or is otherwise deposed, a "moot" is held by the Jarls of Skyrim to elect a new one. As part of the Cyrodiilic Empire, the High King of Skyrim is subservient to the Emperor of Tamriel. However, shortly before the events of Skyrim, pro-independence Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak challenged High King Torygg to a duel for his throne, an archaic but legitimate practice among the Proud Warrior Race Nords. Ulfric won by using the Thu'um to kill Torygg and, as a result, he and his followers feel that by victory he should be the named the new High King of Skyrim. The Jarls of Skyrim, who vote for the new High King, are torn due to Ulfric's use of the Thu'um being seen as cheating. Eastern Skyrim secedes under Stormcloak's leadership, while western Skyrim (and the Empire) support Torygg's widow, Elisif, for the throne, leading to Civil War. The Player Character can resolve the crisis by joining the war on either side, and there's also a Game Mod available that lets you take the throne for yourself.
  • Final Fantasy XII: The Dynast King Raithwall in the back story united the nations of Ivalice into the Galtean Alliance and it is the goal of the Big Bad to do the same thing.
  • The Lycian Alliance of Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade is a group of fiefdoms each ruled by a Marquess that all answer the the Marquess of Ostia only in times of war. At the end of the game, the Ostian Marchioness Lillina (alongside Roy if they marry) unites them and becomes the High Queen.
  • In World of Warcraft Varian Wrynn, King of Stormwind, has become this for the Alliance, though this was mostly done to have an Alliance counterpart to the Horde's Warchief.
    • In the Legion expansion, Varian Wyrnn dies and is succeeded as High King by his son, Anduin Wrynn.

  • King Samrick of Charby the Vampirate rules over his own Kingdom and the Grand Kingdoms of the Alliance which pay him tithes.
  • In Poppy O'Possum Kit Darling's father Ren is High King of several small kingdoms ruled by the Darling family, one of 12 High Kings of the Canidae Empire in fact. Though, due to his debilitating illness Kit's older sister Vix is acting High Queen, leaving Kit as the unwilling queen of Vix's Fenneclands.

    Western Animation 
  • In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) the planet Eternia is made up of several kingdoms but King Randor is the high king of the whole world.
  • The Earth King in Avatar: The Last Airbender is the head of the entirety of the Earth Kingdom despite smaller kingdoms like Omashu existing within it.
  • The tribal chief in Legend of Korra is technically the head of state of both Water Tribes. While he does have firm executive power in the Northern Water Tribe, the Southern Water Tribe sees him as a figurehead with ceremonial and representative duties, and actual governmental power there is vested in a Council of Chieftains and Elders. This lasts right up until he tries to exercise actual authority in the South, at which point they immediately secede after a brief civil war.

    Real Life 
  • Ireland had a ceremonial High King (Ard Rí) at least as early as the 9th century CE, and possibly before (see the Mythology folder). This tradition is probably an inspiration for some of the Literature examples (such as Middle-earth and Chronicles of Prydain).
    • They had a hierarchy of kings, or 'Ríthe', with the Rí benn (king of peaks) or ri tuaithe (king of a single tribe) at the bottom, roughly analogous to chief, and the Ri buiden (king of bands) or ri tuath (king of many tribes) or ruiri (overking) to whom the other rithe were subordinate, and the rí ruirech (king of overkings) a provincial or semi-provincial king above the overkings, and the Ard Rí (high king) above all of them.
  • The Mongols since at least the Yuan dynasty had the 'Khagan' as a title above a 'Khan', with the former generally taken to mean 'emperor' or 'Khan of Khans' and the latter translated as 'king'. Khagan is also sometimes translated as 'Great Khan'. The title is also used in Turkish.
  • Imperial Germany consisted of multiple states ruled by monarchs, with the King of Prussia holding seniority over them as German Emperor.
  • India historically used 'Raja' for a lesser king and 'Maharaja' as a king above them.
  • The East Slavic, and later Russian equivalent is the title "veliki knyaz", usually translated to English as "grand prince" but otherwise identical to the other High Kings.note  It started as the title of the prince of Kiev, considered first among equals in medieval Ruthenia, and continued in specifically Russian principalities of Vladimir and, later, Moscow when Kiev lost prominence. Ivan III was the grand prince who did away with all the feudal patchwork and became a de facto emperor in everything but name, but the title persisted as tradition until his grandson, Ivan the Terrible, gave himself the de jure imperial title of Tsar.
  • The paucity of records dating from the time period means we will likely never know for certain, but there may have been a High King of Mycenaean Greece, as reflected in The Iliad.
  • The President of the United Arab Emirates and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia are High Kings, as both countries are composed of several monarchies, with one of the monarchs acting as Head of State.


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