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We Live Better Than Kings

 An essay by Jim Peron:

Not long ago, I spent an afternoon exploring Dover Castle, historically one of the great homes of English royalty. The castle keep was built by King Henry II in the 1180s. After only a few minutes in the royal castle, I decided that I have it much better today than any of the kings and queens of one of the richest nations in the world, had it when they lived in Dover Castle. King Henry II died when he was 35 years old. Living like a king, in that sense, certainly does not appeal to me.
I was interested to see the royal quarters. After all, what sort of luxuries would you expect there to be for a King of England? Apparently not much! The royal bedchamber was smaller than my bedroom at home. And it was all too clear that he would have had a hard time keeping warm in this large and draughty castle, especially when the wind blew off the English Channel. Heat was provided by smoky fires that were ineffective for heating and quite unhealthy.

Royal plumbing, too, left a lot to be desired. The royal loo was a stone bench with a hole in it and a long drop below. According to the tour guide, the lack of any kind of genuine sewage system meant that the castle soon reeked of human excrement. In the summer, the awful smell got worse the warmer it became. So the king was often on the move, from one castle to another, trying to avoid the stench. Air conditioning consisted of hand-held fans that were wafted in front of your face or over your head. There were no whirling blades to stir a cooling breeze with just a flick of a switch.

I didn’t try the royal bed, but I suspect it was less comfortable than my own at home. There was no running water, but there was a well inside the keep in case the castle should be surrounded by hostile troops. Whenever hot water was required, it had to be heated over a fire. Gas or electric stoves, and certainly microwave ovens, were out of the question.

In much of the developed world, even the poor enjoy living standards that exceed those of past royalty. This is not to say that everyone today is better off in all ways. There are areas in the world that are plagued by real poverty where people live in conditions much worse than those of ancient royalty, but even they have access to things that those kings and queens could not have.

When the King wanted to flee the castle, to avoid the stench that was building up, he would climb into a coach pulled by horses down dirt trails, for the most part. Only in cities were there cobblestone streets. But dirt trails or cobblestone streets, when combined with coach wheels and a hard wooden seat, meant that the regal posterior was in for a right royal bruising. Say what you will about cramped kombis, they are far more comfortable and faster than anything royalty had available to them not so long ago.
No matter how rich or powerful the King or Queen would be, they had access to neither inoculations to prevent them from catching a tragic illness, nor anaesthetics to help them sleep through any painful surgical routine. Many, therefore, avoided any kind of treatment, which was a good thing since the state of medicine was such that the cure was often worse than the disease. So, even for the royals, life could be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes put it.

For most of human history, the royals of the world couldn’t take a train ride, catch a taxi, get an inoculation, have a tooth capped, ride in a car, turn on the heating, turn on air conditioning, run a hot bath, make a phone call, turn on the lights, pop some popcorn in a microwave, visit a doctor with a better chance of being healed than killed, or have a good chance of seeing their children survive to adulthood.

Not that long ago, the simplest things that many of us take for granted today, were not available to the richest of men. Say what you will about economic development and technology, it is because of it that the average person can now live better than those average royals who used to occupy Dover Castle.

Author: Jim Peron is President at Laissez Faire Books. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.

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