Here in America, we are in the throes of a presidential election cycle (you may have noticed. . .) If one of the candidates sweeps up a large majority of the popular vote in November, that leader will be said to have a “mandate”: the backing of so many people that their leadership will afford the chance for sweeping change. Without that mandate, the president will be expected to scale back on campaign promises, to work hard for compromise (wouldn’t it be nice if they did so anyway?) and to be cautious about public polling taking a nosedive.
My blogs on the competing Holy Roman Emperors got me thinking about this process of legitimizing a ruler. HRE Louis was crowned at Aachen, the capital established by the Empire’s founder, Charlemagne, but not by the traditional archbishop, nor was his throne ever recognized by the pope, so his grip on power was tenuous at best, and he and Charles struggled to gain more of the electors to their side in order to claim that legitimacy.
In my novel, Elisha Rex, I have a totally unexpected candidate for the throne of England, based on the power of “laying on of hands,” which was said to be a royal sign, and certain other acts perceived as miraculous–showing that the new monarch had been anointed by the Lord. This recognition, in the book, comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the prelate of England, and the man who had the authority to crown the king, all signs that lend an air of legitimacy to the unorthodox ruler.
In China, there is a long tradition of the “Mandate of Heaven,” the idea that the celestial bodies, representing the deities, have given their blessing to a particular reign, typically an imperial dynasty, somewhat similar to the idea of the king being “God’s anointed.” If a challenger succeeded in overthrowing the current dynasty and establishing a new one, the it was clear that the Mandate of Heaven had passed to the new ruler. Sometimes, this meant presenting or claiming signs of that legitimacy: portents that would indicate the shift in celestial backing, like finding a message in the belly of a fish, or claiming miraculous birth, as did Liu Bang, the peasant-born founder of the Han dynasty.
Interestingly, the Mongols, who rose from the neighboring steppes under Chinggis Khaan, also perceived themselves as having the Mandate of Heaven–in their case, the Eternal Blue Sky–to spread across the lands all the way to the sea, and every victory they won seemed to legitimize the claim. But their great khan still required a vote of support from their followers–a sort of hybrid system between the Mandate of Heaven, and the will of the voters.
What will happen in November? At this point, it’s hard to say–but whoever wins will almost immediately begin to look for the markers of legitimacy, even if they fall short of claiming healing powers or heavenly intervention.