With lands to conquer, rebellions to quash and finances to raise, ruling over medieval England was no mean feat. Some monarchs flourished, while others floundered. Here, we look back on seven kings whose leadership – whether good or bad – changed the course of English history
Despite being one of England’s most iconic medieval kings, Richard I (r1189–99) spent only six months of his decade-long reign on English soil and may not have even spoken English. His energies were undoubtedly focused towards international war-mongering rather than affairs within England itself. Writing for History Extra, Andrew Gimson argues that Richard’s “only use for England” was to raise money through taxes in order to wage war abroad.
As his epithet ‘Lionheart’ suggests, Richard boasted a reputation as a fearless warrior king. He is best remembered for his efforts in the Third Crusade, a religious campaign to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslim sultan and military leader Saladin.
On the battlefield, Richard was a strong commander and renowned military tactician. Although he is often portrayed as the stereotypical chivalric medieval knight, Richard’s actions in the Middle East were often far from gallant and honourable by modern standards. Following a dispute over the city of Acre in 1191 he ordered the killing of 2,700 Muslim prisoners, including women and children. Yet despite several victories in the Holy Land, Richard never achieved his ultimate aim of conquering Jerusalem for the glory of western Christendom. Following infighting with other European crusade forces and a year-long stalemate, he made a truce with his opponent Saladin. After years of pouring the nation’s finances and men into the crusade, he was forced to concede failure and head back towards England.
Yet the king’s route home was far from simple. On his return to Europe, Richard was captured and handed over to German king and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Henry ransomed Richard, demanding a crippling payment of 150,000 marks from England for his return. This return was short-lived however, as Richard headed straight back out to the battlefields of Normandy and Aquitaine. He led successful campaigns there for a further five years before being mortally wounded by a crossbow bolt during a siege battle.
History has not been kind to King John (r1199–1216). He is most frequently remembered as the cruel and greedy villain of the Robin Hood legend, who attempted to usurp his beloved brother Richard, backtracked on Magna Carta and threw England into civil war.
In 1193, John gained his reputation as a usurper by unsuccessfully attempting to seize the throne while his elder brother King Richard I was imprisoned in Germany. After this plot failed, John was subsequently banished. In 1199, following the brothers’ reconciliation and Richard’s death, John finally gained the throne by legitimate means.
John’s reign was marred by rebellion and discontent, and he faced significant antagonism from both outside and inside of England. War with France cost him dearly – he lost large amounts of money and land, including Normandy, Anjou and Maine. Taxes to fund the war grew enormous and the situation significantly damaged John’s reputation.
The king’s attempts to quash opposition at home proved equally unsuccessful. By 1215, discontent within England had reached breaking point, and John was forced into a civil war with rebel barons. He was consequently compelled to agree to Magna Carta, a peace treaty that would go on to be recognised as one of the founding documents of the English legal system. By sealing Magna Carta, John dealt a huge blow to the power and prestige of the monarchy, as the document asserted that no man was above the law, not even a king. However, the king was quick to backtrack on the democratic promises of the treaty, arguing he was forced to concede to its terms under duress. England was plunged back into civil war. The future French king Louis invaded at the request of the barons, and John was condemned as a coward for fleeing from the French invaders. Peace was only negotiated following John’s death in 1216.
Known as ‘Longshanks’ due to his tall stature, the Plantagenet king Edward I (r1272–1307) is often credited with beginning the unification process of the British Isles. This process was far from peaceful however – Edward led a harsh campaign of suppression in order to force Wales and Scotland to bend to English will.
Edward’s troubles in Wales began when the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, refused to pay homage to him. In response, Edward chose to force Wales and its leaders into submission, building a chain of castles along the Welsh north coast in order to block supplies into the region. Welsh hopes of independence were quashed and the country was conquered. After Llywelyn’s defeat in battle in 1282, Edward later bequeathed the title of Prince of Wales upon his own son – a tradition that still remains today.
Known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward also led major campaigns in Scotland, including a successful invasion of the country in 1296. He faced significant rebellions from the Scots, including William Wallace (whose execution he ordered in 1305) and, later, Robert the Bruce. After Edward’s death his land gains in Scotland were quickly lost by his son Edward II.
Alongside this aggressive foreign policy, Longshanks was also responsible for tackling corruption and significantly reforming England’s administrative and legal systems. His extensive military ventures required considerable financial backing – money that ultimately came from the pockets of his heavily taxed subjects. One result of this increased taxation was an increase in parliamentary meetings. Another was the persecution of England’s Jewish money-lenders, and in turn, Jews in general. After executing 300 Jews in the Tower of London, in 1290 Edward expelled all Jews from the country.
Edward II (r1307–1327) has been widely accepted as both an unpopular king and inept military leader, whose reign was characterised by conflict and poor decision-making. Writing for History Extra, Kathryn Warner said that Edward’s reign “lurched from one crisis to another: endless conflict with his barons, constant threats of civil war, and failed military campaigns.”
One of Edward’s infamous failures was losing the significant military gains his father had made in Scotland. The defeat of his forces at the hands of Robert the Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn was a humiliation that helped secure Scottish independence from English rule.
Edward was an unconventional monarch personally as well as politically, reportedly revelling in the company of peasant labourers, fishermen and carpenters. Throughout his life, Edward alienated many of England’s barons by promoting unsuitable and unpopular personal favourites, who were widely believed to hold a negative influence over him. First came Piers Gaveston, whom the barons hated so much that they repeatedly banished him before executing him in 1312. Edward later shifted his favour to Hugh le Despenser and his son, sharing significant power with the pair and supporting their campaigns in Wales. This was an immensely unpopular decision that would prove fatal to Edward’s reign. Civil war broke out and Edward found himself devoid of supporters.
The final nail in Edward’s coffin proved to be a coup led by his own wife, Queen Isabella of France (who despised the Despensers) and her lover Roger Mortimer. In 1326, the pair invaded England, successfully deposing Edward II and placing his teenage son (Edward III) on the throne. Following his humiliating downfall, Edward was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle in 1327, where it is generally accepted he was murdered. According to a popular and enduring myth, the former king was killed in grisly fashion with a red-hot poker.
Although he went on to become one of the most famous monarchs in English history, Henry V (r1413–1422) was not initially intended for the throne. Aged 13, his fate was transformed by the actions of his father Henry Bolingbroke, who usurped the then king, Richard II, and seized the throne for his own dynastic line.
Henry began developing his promising military skills as a teenager. In 1403, he proved a strong commander, leading troops in the battle of Shrewsbury. He was just 16 at the time, and was shot in the face with an arrow that pierced his cheek. Henry also led significant campaigns to help his father tackle Welsh rebellion. His hands-on role as Prince of Wales was not all smooth sailing however, as his passionate involvement in policy-making led to heated disputes with his father.
By the time Henry inherited the throne in 1413, he was itching to reclaim lost French territories – something that his father had resisted for several years. After swiftly quashing an attempted coup by rival Edmund Mortimer, his first key action as king was to launch a major attack on France.
Henry’s finest hour has commonly been seen as his defeat of the French at Agincourt in 1415. It is for this victory that he is best remembered – perhaps largely due to the rousing immortalisation of this moment in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Victory at Agincourt led to further triumphs in France – Henry went on to conquer Normandy and Rouen. In 1420, these victories culminated in the Treaty of Troyes, which recognised Henry as heir to the French throne.
Yet only two years later, the all-conquering king met an unpleasant end. In 1422, he died suddenly after contracting dysentery at the siege of Meaux.
A major player in the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV (r1461–1470 and 1471–83) is best known for leading Yorkist efforts to claim England’s throne and for his unconventional choice of bride.
Edward came from the Yorkist branch of the Plantagenet dynasty – his claim to the throne derived from the fact that his parents were descendants of Edward III. Although England had been ruled by the opposing Plantagenet faction, the Lancastrians, since 1399, Lancastrian king Henry VI’s grip over England was weakening. With the support of the Earl of Warwick, known as ‘The Kingmaker’, Edward made a bid for the throne. After a series of victories including the 1461 battle of Towton, he succeeded in overthrowing Henry VI and was crowned king.
Historian Amy Licence describes the young Edward as being “charismatic, tall and handsome, renowned for his love affairs and athleticism.” Yet, one of these love affairs was to prove intensely politically problematic, ultimately plunging England back into civil war.
In 1464 Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville. Woodville was a highly controversial choice of bride for Edward. Not only was she a Lancastrian, a widow and a mother – she was also a commoner. The marriage undermined attempts to secure a politically advantageous French match for Edward and saw Woodville’s relatives given enviable royal favour. The ramifications of Edward’s decision were huge, as it lost him the support of Warwick. The angered earl proved to be a dangerous ally to alienate – he transferred his allegiances to the exiled former king Henry VI, fuelling a strong Lancastrian revolt against Edward.
Faced with deposition and death, Edward made a swift escape to the Netherlands. After six months in exile, he launched a remarkable comeback. With only a small force, he crushed his rivals, defeating Warwick in battle, imprisoning Henry in the Tower and reinstating himself on the throne. Edward’s second reign proved a much more sedate and stable period than his first. Although he was still involved in conflict, tackling a revolt by his brother and launching an invasion of France, these events passed relatively smoothly until Edward’s sudden death aged 40 in 1483.
Undoubtedly the most hotly debated of all England’s medieval monarchs, Richard III (r1483–85) has continually fascinated both academics and the public alike. The discovery of the body of the ‘king in the carpark’ in September 2012 fuelled even greater debate over Richard’s reign. Was he a usurping murderer, or a misunderstood monarch?
Following the death of his brother King Edward IV, Richard was appointed protector of the realm and charged with safeguarding the underage king – his 12-year-old nephew Edward V. Aspersions were cast on the legitimacy of the young king and his brother and in June 1483, Richard assumed the role of king.
Shortly afterwards, the princes (later known as the ‘princes in the Tower’) mysteriously disappeared while in Richard’s care, leading to pervasive rumours that their usurping uncle had murdered them. While these claims have not been comprehensively proven, the princes’ disappearance conveniently eliminated any future threat they could pose to Richard’s rule.
Nevertheless, Richard’s grip on England quickly disintegrated, as former allies began to defect. In August 1485, just two years after he had been crowned, Richard’s reign was dealt the final blow. A Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, launched an attack on England. He came to blows with Richard at the battle of Bosworth. At the outset, Richard’s chances at Bosworth looked promising. He outnumbered Henry Tudor’s forces three to one and was reportedly so confident of victory that he was “overjoyed” at the chance to take on his rival. However, Richard’s advantage was undermined by the defection of several of his main supporters and he met with a devastating defeat. After reportedly refusing to flee, he was killed on the battlefield.
Richard’s death at Bosworth heralded the end of the medieval era. Decades of fighting in the Wars of the Roses were drawing to a close, as a new royal dynasty came to prominence – the Tudors.