How to be a successful monarch

Dan Jones looks back over the past 1,500 years to reveal the secrets to a happy and glorious period on the throne.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Queen Victoria in the c1880s. (Getty Images)

1) Make an impact

It’s all very well living to a ripe old age, but you’ll ultimately be judged by your achievements, however long your reign

Longevity is a great personal achievement for a monarch, although it is not a marker of success on its own. Queen Victoria’s 63 years and 216 days defined an age in British history; but in terms of relative accomplishment and reputation-building, Henry V’s nine years and 163 days – during which he won at Agincourt and conquered France – were pretty potent too.

That being said, a long reign can be a good way to earn a lasting reputation. Elizabeth I (44 years) and Edward III (50 years) were both remarkably tenacious rulers, and although both eventually went rather stale, they were living legends by their old age. George III (59 years) followed much the same path. His reign ended, like Edward III’s, in the misery of personal decay and mental collapse, but before that came victories in the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars, and survival during the sorely testing American War of Independence. 

How not to do it

Henry III lasted 56 years, but there was precious little to celebrate. Failure in his attempts to invade France and, risibly, Sicily, was followed by a dreadful war with the English barons that saw Henry virtually deposed by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. 

 

2) Marry well

Rocky relationships can often lead to rocky reigns

Behind – or beside – almost every successful monarch is a trusted consort. Elizabeth II has Prince Philip. Victoria had Albert. William III (and II) and Mary II had one another. Henry VIII began his reign with one fine queen, Catherine of Aragon, and ended it with another, Katherine Parr – although he had to go through four other, rather less satisfactory, versions in between.

One of the most intriguing partnerships in the history of the British monarchy was the marriage between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. This ultimately brought Eleanor’s huge southern French duchy into union with the English crown and the links between England and Gascony would endure for 300 years. And since Eleanor had previously been married to Louis VII of France, her remarriage to Henry signalled a huge shift in continental power away from the Capetian dynasty toward the new Plantagenet crown.

Henry and Eleanor fell out dramatically in 1173–74 when the queen encouraged her sons in a massive rebellion and was imprisoned for more than a decade. However, she endured and emerged in old age to hold together the reigns of Richard the Lionheart and, until her death in 1204, her youngest son, King John.

How not to do it

Mary, Queen of Scots never had the greatest judgment, and her decision to marry her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1565 was among her worst. Darnley turned out to be a drunken, diseased murderer, who was eventually strangled before his house was blown up with gunpowder in 1567. 


Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh tie the knot in 1947. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

3) Have fertile loins

A golden rule of monarchy: you can never produce too many successors 

The most basic fact of British monarchy is that it is hereditary. Its future depends on maintaining a large royal family who can ensure that the bloodline survives, no matter what. Notable successes in this field include Henry II – whose children numbered three kings of England, and queens of Castile and Sicily. Edward III’s many children restocked the Plantagenet dynasty during a lean time at the end of the 14th century.

Even Henry VIII, whose troubles with producing an heir had such a profound effect on English history, managed to father three more Tudor monarchs, carrying the dynasty to the end of the 16th century. Perhaps the greatest success of all, however, was George III, who produced 15 children with his queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Two of his sons (George IV and William IV) ruled after him, and although neither produced a direct heir, Queen Victoria (George III’s granddaughter through his fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent) still inherited the crown in 1837.

We should, however, remember Queen Anne, who gave birth to 17 children – only one of whom reached the age of two – and died at the age of 49 without a child to succeed her. No matter how many children you have, you can never have too many.

How not to do it

It’s all very well spreading the royal seed, but it needs to remain in the family. Henry I fathered more than 20 children, but only two were legitimate: William the Ætheling, who died in a shipwreck, and the Empress Matilda. When Henry died in 1135 his decision to name Matilda as his heir led to the 19-year civil war known as the Anarchy.

 

4) Build big

Architecture can be the saving of even the worst ruler’s legacy

Monarchy is stamped into the landscape as much as it is written in the history books, and even otherwise useless rulers have obtained some redemption through their building works. To the otherwise inadequate Plantagenet rulers Henry III and Henry VI, for example, we owe Westminster Abbey, Eton and King’s College, Cambridge.

In the Middle Ages, kings built castles, and in that sense, all were following the lead of their ancestor William the Conqueror, whose campaigns in England in the 11th century were secured by building and garrisoning fortresses.

In the 13th century, Edward I commissioned the stunning ring of fortresses around Snowdonia, including the castles at Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech. Later, Windsor Castle was extensively remodelled by several monarchs, most notably Edward III in the 14th century and George IV in the 1820s.

During the Stuart restoration, the classical-baroque style flourished, under masters like Christopher Wren (whose masterpiece was the new St Paul’s Cathedral) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (who developed Wren’s work in Greenwich).

The last great phase of royal building came under Queen Victoria – or, rather, Prince Albert. Balmoral was created as a royal holiday residence in Scotland, while in London the museums and cultural spaces around South Kensington were begun under Albert’s influence (and, later, in his memory).

How not to do it

Royal building is an exercise in controlling your own legacy. Elizabeth I refused to follow royal custom by designing her own tomb. Thus she rests in Westminster Abbey beneath a squat, ugly effigy ordered by James VI and I, which compares noticeably badly to the tomb of James’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had executed.

 

5) Bash foreigners

You’re not a true royal superhero until you’ve thrown your weight around abroad

The mythical king Arthur – once an archetype for great kingship – was famous for having extended his influence far beyond the shores of England. According to the original Arthurian pseudohistory, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, Arthur travelled sword in hand to Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul, and conquered a large swathe of northern Europe, much to the irritation of the Romans. “The fame of Arthur’s generosity and bravery spread to the very ends of the Earth,” wrote Geoffrey. Ever since, we have admired monarchs who advanced their influence in a similar fashion.

During the Middle Ages, Richard the Lionheart and Edward I earned their military reputations fighting in the crusades; Edward III and Henry V expanded the territorial reach of the English crown to include great chunks of France. During the late Tudor and Stuart ages royal subjects populated the New World, and at the apogee of British imperialism under Queen Victoria, the crown’s influence really did extend to “the ends of the Earth”, as empire expanded to include India, Australia, Canada, southern Africa and south-east Asia.

Today the house of Windsor exercises ‘soft’ power over the Commonwealth, but Elizabeth II is probably the most internationally travelled monarch in history, having been on state visits to scores of countries, from Ireland to Zimbabwe, China to the Vatican City.

How not to do it

George I, first of the Hanoverians, got things the wrong way around, being far more focused on life in his native Germany than on spreading his fame and renown in Britain, where he held his crown. An unpopular and largely unsuccessful king, he is ill-remembered today.

 

6) Learn how to delegate

Remember, you’re never too regal to rely on advice from lesser mortals

Even a great king or queen cannot rule by themselves: the most successful find able servants on whom they can rely for advice, information and diligence in carrying out the royal wish.

At its best, monarchy is the business of building partnerships with these sorts of counsellors and servants, and the list of effective pairings is long. Henry II had Thomas Becket. Henry V had Cardinal Beaufort. Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell. Elizabeth I had Lord Burghley and, later, his son, Robert Cecil. George III had William Pitt the Younger. Of course, in the case of Becket and Cromwell, things ended fatally for the counsellor. That was the hazard of the job.

Even in the modern age, when ministers have been thrust upon monarchs by democratic election, rather than hand-picked under royal prerogative, it has been possible for those born to power and those raised to it by the people to work in successful partnership. Circumstance threw together George VI and Winston Churchill, and despite their many differences, their relationship was an important part of Britain’s victory in the Second World War.

How not to do it

Edward II made perhaps the worst choice of advisors in history. His childhood friend Piers Gaveston was murdered by the king’s irate barons. His later favourites, the Despenser family, caused a rebellion and civil war following which Edward was forced to abdicate and was murdered in Berkeley Castle.

 

7) Treat life like a catwalk

You’re powerful, you’re chivalrous, you’re magnificent – so dress like it

Monarchs are supposed to look different from their subjects, and the best of them understand this. During Edward III’s day, a cult of chivalrous and magnificent kingship was created around lavish outward display, huge tournaments and parties in which the king and his friends would wear elaborate costumes of exotic birds, or monks.

Subsequently, Edward IV imported the latest Burgundian fashions to the English court, while Edward’s grandson and great-granddaughter, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, stepped things up another level, and made sure their splendid outward display was captured for posterity by the best court painters in Europe.

Since then, kingliness (and queenliness) has regularly been equated with a form of regal high fashion all of its own. This has included the dandyish decadence of Charles II’s court, the tights-wearing pomposity of George IV’s, and the medal-chested military sobriety of George V’s and George VI’s. Today, Elizabeth II has made her own the bold, single-coloured hat-and-coat combinations created by her dresser Angela Kelly. 

How not to do it

Henry VI never exuded regality, and though he could dress well, he was better remembered for wearing all black with clumpy farmer’s boots. Paraded through London by his enemies near the end of his life, he was mocked by the population for being dressed in a shabby old blue gown.

 

8) Spin, spin, spin

Reality is overrated. In royal circles, it’s perception that matters

One of the best ways to be remembered as a great ruler is to put the word out yourself. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both took great care to cultivate their own magnificent images. But one of the greatest masters of this art was Henry V. Although undoubtedly a great soldier and extremely talented ruler all round, Henry also understood the importance of influencing the way he was perceived.

Between 1416 and early 1417 a cleric in Henry’s private chapel wrote the Gesta Henrici Quinti – a book portraying Henry as a man on a divinely approved mission to seek justice in France, and establishing much of the public image of Henry that has survived so successfully. 

How not to do it

Richard III provides an object lesson in how not to be remembered. Despite his efforts to frame his usurpation in 1483 as legally and morally justified, he remains a highly controversial king. And, for all the efforts of his modern apologists, the Tudor image of a hunchbacked, murdering schemer persists
to this day.

 

9) Do God

Atheism isn’t an option in a role that gives you a direct line to the Almighty

The permanent and irreversible mark of monarchy is conveyed by anointing the king or queen with holy oil at their coronation – a ritual that has existed since the Middle Ages, and which puts the king or queen in direct communion with God. So the sanctity of monarchy is and has always been a serious business. Medieval kings routinely ascribed their successes to the Almighty, and their successors have been expected to protect the church (which, since the Reformation, has been under their oversight).

It is important, of course, to find the same God as the majority of your subjects. Elizabeth I succeeded where Mary failed in large part because she was a relatively moderate Protestant rather than a Roman Catholic; William III (and II) replaced James II (and VII) on the grounds that England would not tolerate another Catholic Stuart king. Even today, when monarchs can once again (in theory and in law) marry Catholics, Elizabeth II and her successors are and will be governors of the Church of England.

How not to do it

There is a fine line between belief in the awesome sanctity of monarchy and a belief that God has pre-approved everything you do. The insistence of James VI and I and Charles I on the divine right of kings played a significant part in the outbreak of the Civil War and the abolition of the monarchy between 1649 and 1660.    

Dan Jones is the author of A Realm Divided: A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England, which is to be published by Head of Zeus in October. He will be discussing the Plantagenets at BBC History Magazine’s History Weekends – see historyweekend.com.

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