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Brigand Kings are special brigands found occasionally in red- or orange-ringed ships.
The determination of "Does this ship contain a king" seems to be made when the ship is engaged. Attacking a ship that is red to someone else, but green to you, will not give you a Brigand King.
Defeating a Brigand King provides a special trinket.
It is believed by some forum posters that the intention of Brigand Kings is to provide advanced challenges, with better-than-normal brigands. This has not been confirmed or denied by the developers.
The initial release of Brigand Kings came with the same release as puzzle-skill based brigand generation. Since the datapoints to be used had not been properly set yet, early Kings were horribly wimpy.
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