Kingdoms and Realms

Beware: Arbitrary definitions to follow

Technically speaking the words kingdom and realm are interchangeable. As I work on these posts on lost kingdoms it occurred to me that I have a few planned posts on entities that really fall in a gray zone, either because we have little proof they existed or because their location is unfixed. So what is the right term for them? Proto-kingdom? Pseudo-kingdom? Principality is no better. District really isn’t either since district implies a regularized grid or plan. Petty kingdom is just weird and one of the entities I’ll be writing about wasn’t petty, if it existed. So realm is the term I’ve decided on.

A realm refers to an area ruled by a king, perhaps passed on to his successor, or not. There were certainly many transient realms. Indeed, one of the differences between realms and kingdoms are that kingdoms tend to remain together even when the whole dynasty changes.

A kingdom may be absorbed into a larger kingdom, but even then it tends to retain its organizational structure and identity. Lindsey remained a distinct unit even when completely assumed by either Northumbria or Mercia. Its still a district or county today.

Some realms had a core kingdom in addition to a swollen tribute area. “Northumbria” is a realm until 679 when Ecgfrith assumed direct rule over Deira for the final time and the southern border was set by arbitration. Bernicia is the core kingdom of the realm of Northumbria. Even then the term Northumbria probably didn’t consistently exist. It king would have simply been called King of the Angles/English in the north.

So comments or suggestions?

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4 thoughts on “Kingdoms and Realms

  1. I’d probably go with ‘polity’, or if we’re talking about land-base, as opposed to people/organisation, then perhaps ‘region’.

    I tend to think of ‘realm’ as bigger and more organised than a ‘kingdom’. Probably because realm comes from the Gallo-Roman regiminem, accusative form of L. regimen ‘system of government, rule’ (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary). It’s the notion of something big enough to need a system that makes it, to my mind, bigger than a kingdom, which simply needs a king. Kingdom, of course, comes from the good old Anglo-Saxon cyning. So, huh, it’s probably just my learned prejudice speaking: Roman systems are bigger and more complex than Anglo-Saxon ones.

    This probably doesn’t help, sorry.

  2. Bigger is not always more organized, as the example of Northumbria shows. The kings of Bernicia certainly had better control of the kingdom of Bernicia than the extended realm of Northumbria and beyond. Think of the times of Aethelfrith, Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu… their control over Deira was tenuous at best much less their reach/realm beyond Northumbria.

    Anyway, I’m not saying the term realm was used then; it was not. Its just the term I will use to distinguish kingdoms from less secure entities or swollen hegemonies.

  3. I tend to use `principality’, though I mainly face this with Catalonia, an area with three separate ruling families, now split over two modern countries, never a kingdom in its own right at any of its extents without Aragón being included… it needs a weaseal word, and polity won’t do (though I’d happily use it elsewhere) because it implies that there’s a single political umbrella that can describe it. (Though `Pre-Catalonia’ works, somewhat lumpily.) But `principality’ can just mean `somewhere under the rule of a prince’. It suffices, I think.

    For these cases, though, I think `kingdom’ is still good. I mean, they’d surely have been `regna’ to contemporaries, right? And you’ve got Welsh kings of a much later era who rule hardly anything still called `reges’ even in English sources. Run with it 🙂

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