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In history and literature, high kings may be found where there is a high degree of cultural unity, along with sufficient political fragmentation that the high king's subordinates style themselves kings. In this respect, high kingships frequently differ from empires, which are culturally as well as politically heterogeneous, as well as from feudal monarchies, where the subordinate rulers take lesser titles (such as duke or count) and may be, at least in theory, subject to appointment and dismissal by the sovereign.
In this model, a high king might be chosen from among a group of kings in his personal capacity, for instance by election or on the basis of genealogical superiority. Alternatively, the high kingship might be attached to the kingship of one of the constituent kingdoms, either permanently or when one kingdom is able to assert supremacy over the others. The high king's authority over other kings is usually limited, and in some high kingships his duties are largely ceremonial, or restricted to occasions such as war that create a need for a unified command structure.
Historical high kings
Rulers who have been termed "high king" (by their contemporaries or by modern observers) include:
- Various ancient Irish and British rulers, notably the High King (Ard Rí) of Ireland. Some other monarchs, such as King Arthur, Uther Pendragon, and Vortigern, have been termed "High King of Britain" in some accounts.
- The ruler of the Picts.
- The Ard Rí Alban, high king of Scotland.
- Some ancient Greek rulers, such as Agamemnon (see anax).
- The most powerful king of the various Etruscan city-states.
- Mepe-Umaglesi "Most High King" was a predicate of the Georgian Orthodox Mepe-Mepeta ("King of Kings")
- In Lithuania, the title of "Didysis Kunigaikštis" is more accurately translated as "high king", although it is traditionally rendered as "Grand Duke"
- In ancient Sumer, the rulers of all Sumer held the title of "Nam-Lugal" (High King).
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong (literally Supreme Lord) in Malaysia could probably be seen as a "high king", as he is elected from among nine Malay rulers of the states (seven Sultans, a Raja, and a Yang di-Pertuan Besar-literally Great Lord) by the Conference of Rulers (through informal agreement, on a rotational basis). In practice, however, the term "high king" is rarely applied to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, rather "King".
"Taewang," meaning "greatest of kings," was used by the later rulers of the Korean kingdom of Koguryo (and Silla, albeit to a rarer extent) to rank themselves as equals to the Chinese Emperors or to express suzerainty over surrounding states, particularly during the Three Kingdoms Era. "Daewang" ("great king") was used by rulers of other kingdoms and subsequent dynasties, including Baekje, whose king assumed the style of "Daewang Pyeha" ("His Imperial Majesty the Great King") by the reign of King Mu (600-640 AD) at the latest. However, after the Mongol Invasions of Korea, these rulers remained technically subordinate to the Mongol Empire and later China until King Gojong declared the Korean Empire in 1897 and assumed the title of "Hwangje," or Emperor (the Korean rendition of the Chinese "huang di").
Originally, the rulers of Wa (倭), an ancient name of Japan, was known as the "Grand King of Yamato" (大和大王, Yamato-ōkimi) or the "Kings of Wa" (倭国王, Wakoku-ō) prior to the 7th century. It was later changed to become the Emperor of Japan (天皇, Tennō).
- High-King (ハイ・キング Hai-Kingu?) is also the name of a J-pop group created in 2008 featuring Ai Takahashi, Reina Tanaka, Saki Shimizu, Maimi Yajima and Yuuka Maeda.
- In C. S. Lewis's epic fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pevensie was the High King of Narnia over the younger Edmund Pevensie, by virtue of being the eldest, and his brother and sisters, Susan Pevensie and Lucy Pevensie were King and Queens under his monarchy. He was also the High King over all Kings of Narnia, from the first to the last. Aslan, the deity and the Great Lion of Narnia, is described as being "the High King above all High Kings", meaning He is the highest King over all rulers of Narnia.
- In J. R. R. Tolkien's works, mainly The Silmarillion, there was a succession of High Kings of the Noldor exiled in Middle-earth, beginning with Fëanor and culminating in Gil-galad's reign. Ingwë, leader of the Vanyar, is also referred as the High King of the Eldar, while Manwë is also sometimes titled High King of Arda. Thingol is acknowledged as high-king of Beleriand by Fingolfin. In the Third Age, the rulers of Arnor were known as "High King", including Aragorn, as King Elessar.
- In Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, there is a line of High Kings of Prydain (a fictionalized version of Wales) who are descendants of a royal family who came from the Summer Country in order to oppose Arawn. The High King throughout the series is Gwydion's father Math, who is then succeeded by Gwydion and later Taran in the final novel of the series, The High King.
- In Bethesda Softworks The Elder Scrolls The high king is the highest authority in the Province of Skyrim and theoretically the high king of Alinor is also the highest authority of the Summerset Isle (later renamed Alinor).
- Dawson, Doyne. The First Armies. London: Cassell & Co. 2001, p. 80.