Who is Britain’s greatest monarch?
February 2022 marks the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-serving monarch. But where does the Queen rank among the monarchs since 1066 in terms of making the biggest mark on history?
We asked 12 experts to offer their nominations for Britain's greatest monarch, and explain what made each one truly great. Here's who they chose, and why...
Richard Oram chooses David I, the king who founded modern Scotland
David I (reigned 1124–53) was medieval Scotland’s greatest ruler, and is a towering figure in British history. During a reign lasting 29 years, he redrew the political map of these islands and laid the foundations both of the Scottish state that endured for four centuries and of the institutions that still frame Scottish society today.
Youngest of the six sons of Malcolm III and St Margaret, David had never been expected to rule. Raised in England at the court of the future Henry I, he trained as a knight and judicial agent of the crown. His reward was a marriage that brought the honour of Huntingdon and claims to Northumbria.
Huntingdon gave him lordship over laymen and clerics whose military skills, literacy and administrative experience he brought north when he became king of Scots (following the early deaths of his five elder brothers) to form a new, English-influenced government. Many of them settled there to found some of medieval Scotland’s greatest families, including the Bruces and the Stewarts.
Though remembered as a saintly man who advanced the religious reform programme begun by his parents and brothers, during his early reign he used warfare to crush challenges to his power. By the 1130s he had mastered mainland Scotland, controlling a larger realm than his predecessors.
When civil war erupted in England on the death of Henry I, David marched south in support of Empress Matilda, his niece, against her rival, Stephen. By the 1140s, David controlled most of England north of the rivers Tees and Ribble, almost capturing York and realising his wife’s claim to Northumbria. That these gains barely outlasted David’s life should not obscure his achievement, reflected in chroniclers’ contrast of his government to the “Anarchy” in the south.
Listen | Matt Lewis answers your questions on the Anarchy – a 12th-century civil war for the English crown that pitted Empress Matilda against Stephen of Blois – on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Amid the wars, David also embarked on a spectacular programme of monastic foundations and was the first British ruler to support the reformed Benedictine orders. Working with reform-minded clerics, he oversaw the reorganisation of Scotland’s dioceses, establishing the parish structure that endured until 1975.
Following English models, he founded “burghs” as administrative and market hubs; many remain modern Scotland’s chief towns and cities. Burgh markets became motors for international trade, oiled by the silver coinage he introduced and yielding revenues that funded his great church and castle-building projects.
By the time of David’s death, the underdeveloped realm he had inherited was a dynamic, “modern” European kingdom with a self-identity that ensured its future survival.
Richard Oram is professor of history at the University of Stirling
Nicholas Vincent chooses Henry II, the empire-builder who rewrote the law
The dominion of Henry II (r1154–89) may not have lasted, but his influence endured for centuries. Great-grandson of William the Conqueror, the young Henry came to the throne as the founder of a new dynasty from Angers on the Loire. It was named “Plantagenet” after the sprig of broom (plant de genêt) worn as a badge by his father, Geoffrey, count of Anjou.
After almost two decades of civil war, the Anarchy, in which England had been partitioned between the supporters of his mother, the Empress Matilda, and the usurper king Stephen of Blois, Henry’s first task was to restore peace. This he did in short order, seizing the castles of his more intransigent barons and demanding a return to the status quo of his grandfather’s day.
In the process, English law was rewritten, with centralised royal justice now made accessible to many who had previously been ruled by over-mighty barons. The “common law” of the modern English-speaking world is itself a product of this attempt to strengthen kingship at the expense of local baronial independence. This great leap forward was accomplished by a king whose dominion now stretched from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees.
In the north, Henry negotiated the return of the three counties of Cumberland, Northumberland and Westmorland, previously overrun by the Scots. In the far south, by his marriage to the French heiress Eleanor of Aquitaine, he acquired a claim to a vast region stretching from the Loire to the frontiers of Spain.
In 1159, five years after his accession, he led a great expedition that was modelled upon the exploits of the mythical King Arthur. Failing to seize the city of Toulouse, this nonetheless heralded annexations and conquests in France that in the 1160s were to add the whole of Brittany to Henry’s “empire”.
Lord of the largest assembly of French lands ruled by any king since the fall of the dynasty of Charlemagne, Henry also looked to conquests against the Welsh, Scots and Irish. In 1171, he crossed to Ireland, placing Dublin under English royal authority – laying the basis of an Anglo-Irish settlement that was to persist, with mixed but highly significant consequences, into the 20th century. By 1175, following hostilities with the Scots, Henry’s flag flew over the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling.
Henry’s “empire” was not to last. Large parts of it were already lost by the time of the reign of his youngest son, John, himself the object of a backlash against the style of kingship that Henry had pioneered. Even then, however, Henry’s shadow remained indelibly imprinted upon all subsequent history – English, French, Scots, Irish and Welsh.
It is evident in John’s Magna Carta and, indeed, in the earlier settlement between church and state that resulted from Henry’s bitter disputes with Thomas Becket. Aggressive, lecherous and a sly manipulator of political sentiment, Henry was in no sense a “good” man. But, as great kings of England go, it would be difficult to name his equal.
Nicholas Vincent is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia
Matthew Stevens chooses Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, the pragmatist who unified Wales
The prince known as Llywelyn the Great (died 1240) was the most significant of Wales’ native rulers. He succeeded in unifying the Welsh and resisting the English as much through shrewd diplomacy as force.
Before Llywelyn’s birth, the Norman Conquest had reduced Wales to three competing kingdoms: Gwynedd (north-west), Powys (mid-east) and Deheubarth (south-west). His grandfather, Owain Gwynedd, had tried to create unity through force as a “Prince of [all] Wales”, but Owain’s death had brought political disintegration.
By his teens, Llywelyn began to lead men in battle to unify Gwynedd, and by 1199, aged just 26, he was “Prince of all North Wales”. He then surpassed his predecessors by proving himself not merely a warlord but also an astute politician.
His best personal decision was to marry Joan, the illegitimate but beloved daughter of King John of England. This extraordinary woman’s repeated interventions with her father and, later, her half-brother Henry III proved crucial in maintaining or re-establishing good relations with England.
- Read more | A brief history of Wales: the resilient nation
Llywelyn also made powerful allies by marrying off his daughters Gwladus and Helen to English lords. This allowed Llywelyn to play an inside-outside game, leveraging royal favour (aided by his wife) against his Welsh enemies while using English alliances to his advantage against the king.
Capitalising on John’s displeasure with rival Gwenwynwyn ap Owain of Powys, by 1210 Llywelyn had extended his domination to native-controlled mid- and south Wales.
John tried to check Llywelyn’s ascendancy, but in 1215, while John was tussling with his English barons over Magna Carta, Llywelyn summoned a pan-Wales army and invaded Anglicised south Wales, capturing royal Cardigan and Carmarthen. He then held a meeting of Welsh lords at Aberdyfi that was a parliament in all but name, nearly two centuries before Owain Glyndŵr’s famed Machnylleth “parliament” of 1404.
From 1216 until his death in 1240, Llywelyn’s fortunes went from strength to strength. He retained almost all of his gains in Wales, including those made at English expense. In his magnanimity, he was wise enough to manage indirectly the affairs of the old kingdoms of Powys and Deheubarth.
From 1216 until his death in 1240, Llywelyn’s fortunes went from strength to strength. He retained almost all of his gains in Wales, including those made at English expense
He worked to establish and enforce inheritance settlements, thereby creating dependants rather than coarsely annexing territories. And, with remarkable prudence, he declined to use the title “Prince of Wales”, though he advanced Welsh law and the position of the prince within it. In the hours before his death, he donned a Cirstercian monk’s robe as a mark of humility. He was buried at Aberconwy Abbey.
Using as much diplomacy as force, Llywelyn created political stability and relative security for Wales – which it had not enjoyed either since the arrival of the Normans, and would never again know the like under native rule.
Matthew Stevens is associate professor in history at Swansea University
Nicola Tallis chooses Edward IV, the great stabiliser who bolstered royal authority
Edward IV (r1461–70 & 1471–83) was the eldest surviving son of Richard, Duke of York. After his father’s death at the battle of Wakefield in 1460, he became the head of the House of York in the Wars of the Roses – the three-decade fight for the English throne against the House of Lancaster.
A brilliant military leader, in 1461 (aged just 18) he won victories at Mortimer’s Cross – after which Henry VI was deposed – and the battle of Towton.
Edward was crowned king on 28 June 1461 but spent much of the next decade fighting for his throne. Briefly deposed in 1470, the following year he won a decisive victory at Tewkesbury that saw the death of the Lancastrian heir Edward of Westminster and, subsequently, of Henry VI.
Edward’s throne was now secure, signalling an end to civil war and the restoration of the authority of the crown – his greatest achievement.
Listen | Lauren Johnson responds to listener questions about the Wars of the Roses, the 15th-century clashes for the English throne between the houses of Lancaster and York on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
A natural leader, he inspired confidence in his subjects and worked for the good of the realm. He restored firm and stable government, and brought financial stability with the introduction of the chamber system to over-see crown income. And he promoted trade with France and Burgundy, thereby boosting the English economy and earning the admiration of his contemporaries.
Physically, he epitomised the ideal king: tall, confident and cultured, he spent lavishly on clothes, jewels, buildings and the arts to create an impression of magnificence. A contemporary described Edward’s court as “the most splendid... in all Christendom”.
With two surviving legitimate sons, his dynasty seemed secure – till he died in April 1483, while his heir was a minor. But his achievements made him surely Britain’s greatest monarch.
Nicola Tallis is a historian and author of books including Uncrowned Queen (Michael O’Mara, 2019)
Sarah Gristwood chooses Henry VII, the upstart who founded a dynasty
Henry VII (r1485–1509) may or may not be Britain’s greatest monarch, but there’s one accolade he surely can claim: there can’t be another ruler who has been underestimated so consistently.
Henry won his throne in a way unusual even among medieval monarchs, taking to the battle of Bosworth Field with a blood claim that was thin, to put it mildly. He bolstered that claim by victory and by marriage into the opposing family (a marriage, to Elizabeth of York, that would prove personally happy). But he still had to hold the throne against repeated challenges through his own ingenuity.
He bolstered the arriviste new Tudor dynasty with considerable versatility, linking it with Arthurian myth – and, through the marriage of his eldest son, Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon, with the House of Trastámara, Europe’s grandest dynasty. It’s a puzzle why Henry himself isn’t more of a mythic figure: a young and comparatively handsome prince, he came from across the sea to claim his kingdom in the traditional romantic way.
- Read more | Prince Arthur, Catherine of Aragon, and Henry VIII: a story of early Tudor triumph and tragedy
He could be ruthless when necessary, but he could also display mercy. Where kings had historically identified themselves through warfare, he preferred to ease England’s conflicts with Scotland by marrying his daughter, Margaret, into the Stewart dynasty. Yet all anyone remembers is that, in his later years, Henry VII was overly fond of money.
Yes, his taxes – his exploitation of his feudal rights – were harsh, even unscrupulous, but perhaps they had to be. A king’s liberality doesn’t actually do much for the monarchy itself, however appealing it may be to those around the monarch. Henry’s money-grabbing was, moreover, part of a broader campaign to raise the prestige of the crown above an overweening nobility, and to institute an efficient professional bureaucracy.
These achievements are not glamorous, but they paved the way for a new age. A Spanish envoy said dismissively that Henry was “not a great man”. But the 20th century showed that it is not necessarily the flamboyant sovereigns who do most to preserve the principle of sovereignty.
Henry ascended a contested throne that had changed hands three times in a little over two years. At his death, he left a dynasty strong enough to survive a break from Catholic Europe, a boy king, and the controversial accession of two women (three, if you count Jane Grey).
We praise Elizabeth I for her abilities as a ruler even while we grumble gently about her love of money. But perhaps we should consider how the Virgin Queen was truly Henry’s granddaughter. His bloodline led directly to the present royal family, but that’s only one way in which without Henry VII we would not be where we are today.
Sarah Gristwood is a historian and author. Her latest book is The Tudors in Love (Oneworld, 2021)
Alison Weir chooses Henry VIII, the cultural colossus who forged modern Britain
It has been said that Henry VIII (r1509–47) changed the heart, mind and face of Britain more than anyone or anything else between the Norman Conquest and the Industrial Revolution. In the year of his accession, a Venetian accurately predicted: “For the future, the whole world will talk of him.”
Another Italian declared that Henry “excelled all who ever wore a crown”. One contemporary wrote: “I know not where in all the histories I have read to find one king equal to him.”
To his contemporaries, Henry was a great man – a legend in his own lifetime. Today, historians recognise that he left an extraordinary legacy: modern Britain.
Launching the English Reformation, Henry broke with the pope and founded the Church of England with himself as its supreme head. He steered his realm through a religious revolution, dissolved the monasteries – which were by then in decline – and authorised the translation of the Bible into English. Inspired by these reforms, Henry’s archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, wrote his beautiful liturgy, a great gift to the English church.
Listen | Diarmaid MacCulloch responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about Henry VIII’s break from Rome and the seismic events that followed on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Henry also had a talent for recruiting able advisors, notably Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. A stickler for efficiency, he overhauled the machinery of the state and its fiscal arm. His progressive taxation schemes presaged modern financial bureaucracy, and government was centralised.
Henry’s reign saw a major expansion of the power of parliament. Parliamentary representation and the privileges of both houses were extended. The revolutionary effect of the Act of Restraint of Appeals of 1533 was to make the king in parliament the supreme authority in England. Parliamentary law became the basis of the new monarchy and, later, of constitutional monarchy – and democracy itself.
The most magnificent court in English history was created by Henry, who was one of the great royal collectors and patrons of the arts. He helped to introduce Renaissance art, sculpture and architecture to England. He was an impressive Renaissance polymath – an expert linguist, humanist, theologian, astronomer and composer. He concocted medicines, designed weapons and raised or remodelled a string of royal residences.
The modern English navy owns its existence to Henry, too. His fleet of warships was the basis for Britain’s future dominance of the seas. Without it, Elizabeth I’s victory over the Spanish Armada and the establishment of British colonies would simply not have been possible.
His true greatness lay in his acute political perception. His remarkable insight, strength of will and subtle intellect equipped him to deploy all the forces and resources that underpin strong government
Henry enhanced the standing of the monarchy and helped forge a new sense of national identity and unity. The Act of Restraint of Appeals stressed the sovereign authority of the English state, its preamble majestically proclaiming: “This realm of England is an empire, governed by one supreme head and king, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown.”
His true greatness, though, lay in his acute political perception. His remarkable insight, strength of will and subtle intellect equipped him to deploy all the forces and resources that underpin strong government. He averted religious and dynastic wars, suppressed rebellion and maintained peace throughout his reign. He conditioned the nobility to identify with the crown rather than their own interests, and he elevated England’s status in Europe, where he helped to maintain a balance of power between his rivals, France and the Holy Roman Empire.
Henry VIII began his reign in a medieval kingdom; he ended it in what was effectively a modern state. It has been said that we are still living in the England of Henry VIII. That is the measure of his achievement – and why I think he deserves to be recognised as England’s greatest monarch.
Alison Weir is a historian and bestselling author whose books include In the Shadow of Queens: Tales from the Tudor Court (Headline Review, 2021)
Tracy Borman chooses Elizabeth I, an icon for the ages
All other contenders step aside: Elizabeth I has taken the stage.
As the younger, forgotten and – in some eyes – illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII, in her early years she had little prospect of ever inheriting the throne. It is one of history’s greatest ironies that her father went to so much trouble (not to mention wedding so many wives) to beget a son – yet it was Elizabeth (r1558–1603) who became his longest-reigning and most successful heir by a country mile.
Elizabeth’s mother was Anne Boleyn, executed at Henry’s orders on trumped-up charges of adultery when Elizabeth was not yet three years old. Anne’s name was still anathema to most of Elizabeth’s subjects when she inherited the throne upon the death of her half-sister in 1558.
“It is more than a monster in nature that a woman shall reign and have empire above a man,” declared the Scottish theologian John Knox, shortly after Elizabeth’s accession. This was an age in which women were seen as the weaker sex in every respect – so the idea that one might rule a kingdom was preposterous.
Previous examples – most recently “Bloody” Mary Tudor – had hardly inspired confidence in female sovereigns.
Rather than fight against the misogyny of her all-male government, Elizabeth cleverly pretended to share their regret that she had been born 'a weak and feeble woman'
Rather than fight against the misogyny of her all-male government, Elizabeth cleverly pretended to share their regret that she had been born “a weak and feeble woman”, and used her feminine wiles to devastating effect. When under pressure to go to war or, worse, marry, Elizabeth would employ that “feminine weakness” of indecision to buy time rather than rush headlong into disaster, as had so many monarchs before her.
One of the greatest achievements of this master of pragmatism was to settle the vexed question of religion and establish peace and stability after one of the most turbulent half-centuries in England’s history. Though she never uttered the much-quoted line about “not making windows into men’s souls”, it neatly encapsulates her approach.
In the first parliament of her reign, Elizabeth declared: “In the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.”
Few present believed her: it was inconceivable that a woman could rule effectively without a man by her side. But the new queen had learned from the examples of her past, and had no intention of entering the dangerous world of royal marriage and childbirth. Neither did she wish to surrender any of her hard-won power to a husband. As she put it: “I will have but one mistress here, and no master.”
More than any monarch before or since, Elizabeth appreciated the power of PR. She crafted her public image to be worshipped as the Virgin Queen both during her lifetime and for centuries after her death. An exceptionally intelligent and cultured woman, she also ushered in a golden age of the arts that nurtured the likes of poet Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare.
During Elizabeth’s long reign, England emerged as a world power. The foundations of an empire were laid during the period from the 1560s to the 1580s, thanks to the exploits of the queen’s adventurers, particularly Walter Ralegh, Francis Drake and John Hawkins.
Her finest hour came in 1588 when her navy (with a little help from the British weather) defeated the mighty Spanish Armada of Philip II. By then she had already seen off a succession of other rivals to her throne – notably Mary, Queen of Scots.
By the time of her death in 1603, Elizabeth had triumphed over the deep-seated prejudice that had confronted her 45 years earlier: she had made England fall in love with queens. As subjects under the Stuart dynasty reportedly chanted: “A Tudor! A Tudor! We’ve had Stuarts enough / None ever reign’d like old Bess in her ruff.”
Tracy Borman is a historian and author. Her latest book is Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy (Hodder, 2021)
Clare Jackson chooses James VI and I, the Stuart intellectual who unified two warring nations
As the platinum jubilee of Elizabeth II approaches, it is worth noting that her Stuart predecessor James VI & I (reigned Scotland 1567–1625, England 1603–25) enjoyed one of the longest British reigns – as king of Scotland for 58 years from 1567 until his death in 1625. The last 22 of those years were also spent as king of England and Ireland.
The impressive length of his royal tenure is a tribute to sheer tenacity. James was crowned as a “cradle king”, aged just 13 months, following the forced deposition of his Catholic mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. His father, Lord Darnley, was murdered before James turned one. The infant king also survived violent civil wars and the rapid turnover of successive regents including his grandfather, the Earl of Lennox, who was assassinated in 1571.
As an adult, James withstood assassination attempts, kidnappings and forced detentions by noble opponents. His reign as king of England might well have ended prematurely had James not insisted on a second search of the Palace of Westminster that led to the discovery of the 1605 gunpowder plot.
- Read more | Why did the 1605 gunpowder plot fail? 9 big questions about the conspiracy to blow up parliament
A polymathic intellectual, James combined royal authority with royal authorship. An early poem, written when he was about 15, opened: “Since thought is free, think what thou will.” James, a prolific author, later published more poetry as well as theological commentaries and works on political theory, demonology and tobacco consumption.
After he became James I of England, some 15,000 copies of his Basilikon Doron – a manual of royal advice to his son, Prince Henry – were printed; it also appeared in Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish and Welsh.
As confessional tensions escalated across continental Europe, James deployed paper bullets in preference to military armies against his adversaries. He consistently articulated a message of religious toleration and accommodation, and called for an ecumenical council to facilitate the Protestant churches’ reunion with the papacy.
- Read more | 12 facts about the Stuart Dynasty
Having succeeded Elizabeth I as England’s first Stuart monarch, James styled himself king of “Great Britain”. He urged closer political, religious and economic union between Scotland and England, saying: “Two snowballs put together, make one the greater; two houses joined, make one the larger; two castle walls made in one, makes one as thick and strong as both.”
James, whose reputation has recently undergone extensive rehabilitation, was – as philosopher John Locke later conceded – “that learned king who well understood the notions of things”.
Britain’s most scholarly and intellectual monarch, he was also a humane, pragmatic and witty individual whose prolific literary output provides vivid insights into a turbulent, dangerous and fast-changing world.
Clare Jackson is senior tutor at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. Her latest book is Devil-Land (Allen Lane, 2021)
Andrew Roberts chooses George III, champion of the constitution
George III (r1760–1820) instituted an invention of genius: the limited constitutional monarchy that we enjoy today, and which provides a bulwark against megalomania and political extremism.
When he came to the throne in 1760, the monarchy had enormous powers, especially over the appointment of individual cabinet ministers and lord chancellors. It wasn’t out of the question for a monarch to refuse royal assent to a parliamentary bill – indeed, Queen Anne had done so in 1708. The prime minister was merely primus inter pares (first among equals) and did not consider himself head of the government.
By the time George III died in 1820, though, cabinet ministers owed responsibility to the prime minister who, since the appointment of William Pitt the Younger in 1783, had become undoubtedly the central figure in the government.
The lord chancellor, Lord Thurlow, had been dismissed on Pitt’s recommendation in June 1792 – an episode that, later British premier Stanley Baldwin believed, marked the beginning of the concept of collective cabinet responsibility. “There was a very great principle at the back of that struggle,” Baldwin told the House of Commons in February 1932, suggesting that George’s support of Pitt over Thurlow was a key moment in the development of the British constitution.
Listen | Andrew Roberts discusses his landmark new biography of King George III and takes on some of the myths that have surrounded the monarch on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Of course, George III’s “malady” – a bipolar disorder hitherto misdiagnosed as porphyria – and the fact that he experienced bouts of debilitating mental illness during the last decade of his life, also helped drive the process whereby the cabinet became more powerful than the crown.
By 1811, it was inconceivable that the Prince Regent, George IV, might veto a parliamentary bill approved by the Commons and the Lords, yet the process of that development had been started by his father. It is a great irony that in the US, George III is still widely regarded as a despot and tyrant. That’s despite the fact he revered the constitution, as established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, which so influenced the later US constitution.
- Read more | George III: why his reputation as the mad king who lost America needs to be re-evaluated
Only on one occasion did George III – the longest-reigning British king – do anything so seemingly unconstitutional as appoint a prime minister who did not have the support of a majority of the House of Commons: Pitt the Younger, in December 1783. Yet that was done in defence of the constitution when the radical Whigs’ India Bill was threatening to nationalise the East India Company, so place the subcontinent’s huge resources under the control of a 15-man commission appointed by them.
The vast wealth and power this would have left in the Whigs’ hands, once spent on British politics, would have overturned the constitution that George had spent so long nurturing. His disruption of this genuinely unconstitutional scheme was soon fully vindicated by Pitt’s landslide victory in the general election of 1784.
George’s greatest legacy today is to be found in the modern monarchy, so much of which is down to him rather than to the person who usually gets the credit – his granddaughter Queen Victoria.
It was George who bought Buckingham House (present-day Buckingham Palace) as a present for his wife Queen Charlotte in 1762. He commissioned the Gold State Coach which is still used today on the grandest of state occasions. He invented the royal walkabout, instituted the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, inaugurated the annual Trooping of the Colour, and was the first monarch since Charles I to be buried at Windsor – since when all of them have been.
And, in a deeper sense, George III also set the tone for the modern monarchy. When we look at Elizabeth II, we see the same sense of financial prudence, capacity for hard work and commitment to duty as her great-great-great-great-grandfather George III.
Andrew Roberts is a historian and writer. His latest book is George III: The Life and Reign of Britain's Most Misunderstood Monarch (Allen Lane, 2021)
Shrabani Basu chooses Victoria, the queen who defined an age
In June 1887, teeming crowds lined the streets outside Buckingham Palace to catch a glimpse of Queen Victoria riding in her carriage. What they saw was an elderly woman dressed in a black gown with white lace trimmings, a necklace of pearls around her neck and a bonnet instead of a crown. Yet this demurely dressed queen had achieved a rare milestone: she was celebrating the golden jubilee of her reign.
Rulers from 50 countries had been invited; riding behind Victoria’s carriage were kings and princes from across Europe and India. It was a carefully choreographed display of Britain’s position in the world as an empire on which the sun did not set.
In the early hours of 20 June 1837, Victoria (r1837–1901) had been woken at home in Kensington Palace and informed that her uncle, William IV, had died. Still in her nightdress, she learned that she was queen, aged just 18. Wearing the crown would not be easy. The monarchy had suffered years of disrepute, and her predecessors had not covered themselves in glory. George III had lost the American colonies, and his son and heir, George IV, was notorious for his debauchery and excess.
Monarchies in Europe were toppling. It fell on the young queen to stabilise the crown.
Despite her inexperience, she held her own. Her marriage to her cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was a partnership that strengthened the monarchy. Together, Victoria and Albert projected the image of a virtuous and ideal family, surrounded by their nine children. Extensively photographed and recorded, they became a brand recognised and esteemed around the world.
Albert’s love for invention, backed by Victoria, prompted the Great Exhibition of 1851. Visited by 6 million people, its profits laid the foundations for the museums of the future in London.
Victoria went on to define an age. Under her rule, Britain enjoyed the fruits of the Industrial Revolution: railways, mighty bridges of iron and steel, scientific innovation, and the world’s first underground train hurtling beneath the streets of London.
She was also a trendsetter. For Victoria and Albert's wedding she chose to wear white – an unusual choice for the time; today, white wedding dresses are worn by brides around the world.
Under Victoria, too, Christmas became a popular family event. Though the tradition of Christmas trees had been introduced by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, Victoria and Albert made the feast a time of family celebration featuring the giving of gifts and the sending of Christmas cards.
Listen | Emma Griffin explores Britain’s Industrial Revolution, from the key inventions and cultural impact to workers’ rights and child labour, on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
After the death of her beloved Albert, Victoria wore black for the rest of her life, but returned to her role as a constitutional monarch. In her later years she became close to her Indian servant, Abdul Karim; she learned Urdu and started taking a keen interest in Indian politics, living her role as empress of India. In 1897, Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee, a moment recorded on grainy film footage. Even at 78, she was the symbol of Britain: imposing statues of her were erected all over the colonies, and towns, buildings, rivers and waterfalls were named after her.
Perhaps her greatest legacy, though, was as the grandmother of Europe, having arranged matches for her children with royalty across the continent. During her life, Victoria held a turbulent Europe together. At her death, the fragile bonds snapped. Thirteen years later the nations of two of her grandchildren, George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, went to war – and the world changed forever.
Shrabani Basu is a journalist and author. Her latest book is The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer (Bloomsbury, 2021)
Heather Jones chooses George V, the crisis manager
George V (r1910–36) was an unexpected king for unexpected times. A second son, he found himself heir to the throne when his older brother, Eddy, died in 1892. Becoming king in 1910, after the death of his gregarious, high-living and popular father, Edward VII, the inexperienced, poorly educated George faced historic crises on a scale unimaginable to his predecessors.
His reign encompassed Britain’s first modern total war, between 1914 and 1918 – a conflict that stoked anti-monarchism across continental Europe. War-weary populations, blaming royal leaders, toppled a string of monarchies, many related to the British. Most famously, in 1917 the war triggered the Russian Revolution, and communism.
At home, voting reforms in 1918 and 1928 enfranchised women and large numbers of working-class men. The labour movement became a major political force and entered government. Anti-colonial insurrections erupted in places such as Ireland, Iraq and Egypt, provoking major imperial reforms.
These events marked a rupture in royal history – and George V’s choices proved vital. For this new era of mass politics, the king made the monarchy apolitical: from now on, the monarch would not show personal preference for any political party. He accepted democratic and imperial reforms. George V also got to know Labour leaders personally. His monarchy did not ostracise Labour, but, rather, lent it respectability – something that helped integrate British socialism into the existing political system and drew it away from revolution.
George V gave the monarchy a new national image, distancing it from discredited continental European relatives and changing the dynastic name to Windsor. His were the first king’s children in modern times who were allowed to marry non-royal British subjects.
Any one of the crises George faced might have proved fatal to the British monarchy. Yet it survived – and, indeed, thrived, thanks to his choices
Above all, in the First World War George V made the monarchy central to the commemoration – and honouring – of the war dead. He showed solidarity with the population’s suffering, too, eschewing luxurious food, alcohol and entertainments, and constantly visiting the war wounded, the munitions factories and the troops.
Any one of the crises George faced might have proved fatal to the British monarchy. Yet it survived – and, indeed, thrived, thanks to his choices. By the time of his silver jubilee, George V and his queen, Mary, were wildly popular. Upon his death in 1936, over 800,000 people filed past his coffin – far more than did so for George VI, or even Winston Churchill.
Heather Jones is author of For King and Country: The British Monarchy and the First World War (Cambridge, 2021)
Tom Holland chooses Elizabeth II, a constant in a changing age
The ideal of monarchy in Britain has never been a stable one. The expectations laid upon sovereigns have varied from age to age. If it is pointless to evaluate a medieval king by the standards of a 21st-century democracy, then it is also unfair to blame a queen in the 21st century for failing to bring in her own laws, or to devise national policy, or to win battles against the French.
A monarch, such as Elizabeth II (reigning since 1952) has been for nearly 70 years, can ultimately be judged only by the standards of the age through which she has lived. By those measures, Elizabeth has proven herself the most admirable, the most impressive monarch that Britain has ever had.
“Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” These words, true when the Beatles sang them in 1969, ring no less true today. The role of the monarch in contemporary Britain is to stand above the fray, to affect a studied neutrality, to serve as a symbol rather than a leader. The wellsprings of the Queen’s inscrutability, however, lie as much within her character as they do within the constitution.
Just as the young Victoria had more in common with a Jane Austen heroine than with the subsequent stereotype of a Victorian, so Elizabeth II still retains the moral character of the country that stood up to Hitler. Her virtues remain those that we still as a nation, despite recent revisionism, fondly ascribe to those who endured the Blitz.
A commitment to service and a stoical sense of duty are qualities that we have not entirely forgotten how to admire. To a country that shows no sign of abandoning its enduring obsession with the Second World War, the Queen serves as a living reminder of our finest hour.
Yet the paradox of her determinedly old-fashioned style is that it has enabled her to serve all the more effectively as the symbol of a country that has, over the course of her reign, experienced a quite startling rate of change. Because the second Elizabeth, unlike the first, has not stamped her age with the brilliance and flair of her image, she has been able to grow old gracefully.
No wigs or thick facepaint for her; never having set fashion, she has never had to worry about going out of fashion. Whether arrayed in ceremonial robes or in her trademark bright colours and pearls, Elizabeth II has always looked pretty much the same. To even the most ardent republican, she serves, as Dr Watson did to Sherlock Holmes, as “the one fixed point in a changing age”.
Has any country ever had a more potent symbol of continuity? Perhaps we will only properly appreciate this when Elizabeth II’s reign comes to an end.
Tom Holland is a historian, broadcaster and writer. His latest book is Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
This content first appeared in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine