The King’s Job

(notes by Peter Keating)

Publication history

First published in A History of England by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling (1911) and in all subsequent school and non-school editions of the book. It was used to open chapter VII, ‘The Tudors and the Awakening of England, 1485-1603,’ thus following on immediately from “The Dawn Wind” which had closed the previous chapter. ORG, Verse I (1969), No. 980 (j), says that it sometimes carries the alternative title “The King and the Children.” The poem was reprinted in I.V., 1919, when the explanatory subtitle (The Tudor Monarchy) was added; in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 27. For the Sussex Edition single quotation marks replaced the double quotation marks throughout the poem, and a dash was inserted after the colon at the end of line 18, thus giving slightly more emphasis to the children’s advice to the king.


The king in question is Henry VII who succeeded to the English throne after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He was the founder of the Tudor Dynasty and reigned until 1509, thus initiating the process that would culminate in the geographical exploration, naval triumphs, expanding economy, and literary renaissance of Elizabethan England, achievements which were regarded by Fletcher and Kipling as having been made largely possible by the changing intellectual climate evoked in “The Dawn Wind.” Henry VII was the first English monarch to be confronted with these changes, and although he himself was not instrumental in bringing them about, his soundness and common-sense are credited with having helped to establish the ‘modern’ atmosphere necessary for their reception. Fletcher describes him as ‘a king admirably suited’ for the tasks confronting him: ‘If you gave him a name you would call him “Henry the Prudent”’ ( A School History, p. 113 ).

At the same point in A School History, Fletcher takes care to explain that the behaviour of the Henry in Kipling’s poem may not be historically accurate, but it is in character: ‘He did not do as did the king in the poem … nor did any real king of whom I ever heard; but Henry tried hard to find out what a king’s real “job” should be, and he set to work to do it.’

The narrative device of a king (or some other person in a position of authority) visiting his people in disguise and then wisely acting on the unpleasant truths he hears about himself is a very common one in folk and fairy tales. As Kipling might have come across such stories almost anywhere there is little point in searching for a specific source. Though considering the historical purpose for which the tale is used, it is tempting at least to draw attention to two events that would have been very familiar to Kipling from Shakespeare’s history plays, both concerning Henry V who belonged to the House of Lancaster and reigned from 1413 to 1422. As Prince Hal, in Henry IV, he appears to waste his time mixing with Falstaff and his disreputable gang, while at the same time claiming that he is only acting out a role in order to learn more about his future people, gaining knowledge that will help him be a good king when he does eventually succeed to the throne. Then, as King in Henry V, he gives a similar performance on the evening before the battle of Agincourt, disguising himself in a borrowed cloak and moving among his soldiers so that he can hear their unguarded comments.

It may, however, be the case that Kipling was consciously offering a personal view of Henry VII’s character, for although Fletcher was no doubt right to say that Henry VII did not actually go about in disguise, Kipling does seem to have felt that it was appropriate behaviour for this particular English king. He had already used the idea in the short story “The Wrong Thing” and also in one of the accompanying poems, “King Henry VII and the Shipwrights” in Rewards and Fairies (1910). In these two pieces Henry is not insecure about his ability to be a good king (as he is in ‘The King’s Job’). Instead, from a position of real authority, he uses disguise in order to distinguish between honest and dishonest workmen and also to save money. Henry was renowned for his determination to make himself (and England) rich, and he was not scrupulous about how he obtained the money. Some of the methods he and his officials used to raise taxes were notoriously underhand. These, perhaps, are the personal traits to which Kipling is drawing attention when he portrays Henry VII as always willing to obtain desired ends – whether good advice, money, or information about his subjects – by pretending to be someone else.

“The King’s Job” is one of the poems in A School History most obviously written for young readers. The folk or fairy tale element is important in this, so are the very simple, uneven, occasionally jangling, generally fast-moving rhyming couplets used to tell the story. None of this – and not even the King’s jokey, at times farcical behaviour – is allowed to obscure the essentially serious moral to be drawn from the poem.


 ©Peter Keating 2010  All rights reserved