William II (reigned 1087–1100)
As the third son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, it is thought that William II was born in around 1056, yet little is known about his upbringing. Upon the death of his father in 1087, William was bequeathed the kingdom of England, while his elder brother, Robert Curthose, inherited the Duchy of Normandy.
In 1088, a baronial revolt took place against William’s rule in the hope of putting Robert on the English throne. This was led by William’s uncle, Odo of Bayeux. However, the rebellion quickly failed. In retaliation, William waged war against his brother in 1089 in an attempt to claim Normandy for himself and expand his territories. William was successful, and his brother, Robert, later mortgaged Normandy to the king after William levied great taxes on the English people.
William Rufus, as he became known because of his ruddy complexion, faced difficult relations with the church during his reign. He clashed with Archbishop Anselm, took over the revenues of Archbishop Lanfranc after his death in 1089, and purposely kept bishopric positions open in order to make revenue from them.
While out hunting one day in 1100, William was shot by an arrow and died from his injuries. Recorded at the time as an accident, it has since been suggested that the incident could have been an act of assassination on the orders of William’s younger brother, Henry, who consequently ascended to the throne as Henry I.
Henry I (reigned 1100–35)
Henry followed his brother, William II, onto the throne of England after his death in 1100. Just days after his brother’s death, Henry had himself crowned before their elder brother, Robert, could stake his claim.
Robert invaded England in 1101, but to no avail, and he later found himself facing Henry’s troops in Normandy at the battle of Tinchebrai, in 1106. Henry successfully conquered Normandy, and Robert spent the last 28 years of his life in imprisonment.
During his reign, Henry was successful in developing the exchequer and increasing royal revenues. He also secured the northern border with Scotland through his tactical marriage to the sister of the king of Scotland, Matilda (aka Edith), in November 1100.
In 1120, Henry’s son and heir, William, died while aboard the White Ship travelling across the English Channel after it sank. The death of his sons provoked debates over who should succeed the throne after Henry’s death.
Henry’s daughter, Matilda, who was the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V at the time, was put forward as the next legitimate heir. However, resentment over the idea of a woman inheriting the throne prompted Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, to usurp the throne for himself after Henry’s death in 1135. This sparked what would become known as ‘The Anarchy’: civil war raged in England and Normandy for the next two decades.
The Great Seal of Henry I. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Stephen (reigned 1135–54)
As the grandson of William the Conqueror, Stephen held a claim to the English throne when he seized it from Henry I’s daughter, Matilda, in 1135. While he did not have the popular support of the nobles and the people of England, many of the bishops refused to accept a woman as their ruler and therefore backed Stephen’s claim to the throne instead.
Being a woman in this period, Matilda could not lead troops into battle, and so in 1138 her half-brother, Robert, the Earl of Gloucester, raised an army against Stephen. After a number of battles, in September 1139 Matilda decided to invade England and quickly gained control of the west of England.
Over the next nine years, battles and tactics would play out between Stephen and his cousin in the fight for the throne. Stephen was captured by Matilda’s supporters in early 1141 at Lincoln, yet he was exchanged for the Earl of Gloucester in November of the same year, who had been captured by the opposing forces.
Over time, Stephen gradually won more battles than Matilda, and she left England in 1148, unsuccessful in claiming her throne. Yet this was not the end of Stephen’s endeavors. Matilda’s second marriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, produced a son, Henry, in 1133. In 1149 and 1153, Henry invaded England in an attempt to depose Stephen and his son Eustace for good.
In the end, Eustace’s death in 1153 led to the creation of the treaty of Wallingford, whereby Stephen called for peace and acknowledged Henry as his heir after his death.
Henry III (reigned 1216–72)
Despite being one of the longest reigning monarchs of England, Henry III tends to be overshadowed by his predecessors, such as his father, King John, and his uncle, Richard the Lionheart.
Henry became king when he was just nine years old, in 1216. The kingdom was controlled by a number of regents until Henry officially took over the throne in 1234. Henry soon faced tensions from his nobles: many disliked the influence of his relatives on governmental decisions, and others disapproved of the arranged marriage between Henry’s youngest sister, Eleanor, and the noble Simon de Montfort, in 1238.
Furthermore, Henry led unsuccessful military campaigns in France in 1230 and 1242, which led to a disgruntled nobility and greater tax demands on the public. In 1258, the Provisions of Oxford were established, whereby a privy council of 15 men who had been specially selected by the barons were to advise the king and control the administration of the kingdom.
A 13th-century depiction of the coronation of King Henry III in 1216. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
However, disputes between the Earl of Gloucester and Simon de Montfort led the nobles and barons’ alliances to separate. Henry then abandoned the Provisions, and civil war broke out. Initially, de Montfort and the barons were successful and Henry was even captured at one point. However, in 1265 de Montfort was slain at the battle of Evesham by royalist forces led by Henry’s son, Prince Edward.
After the rebellion had ended, Henry looked to reconcile his courtiers and regain their support. He reestablished royal authority in 1267 with the Statute of Marlborough, where Henry promised to maintain Magna Carta.
One permanent legacy left by Henry was Westminster Abbey in London, where the king was buried in 1272. Throughout the 13th century, Henry rebuilt the abbey from its Norman construction in the gothic architectural style and established it as a shrine to the saint Edward the Confessor.
Queen Anne (reigned 1702–14)
The last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, oversaw significant political and cultural change throughout her reign, and became the first sovereign of Great Britain after the Act of Union in 1707.
Born in 1665, Anne was the second daughter of the future James II and VII. Anne and her elder sister, Mary, were brought up as Protestants, despite their father’s conversion to Catholicism. His religious sympathies and conflict with parliament would lead ultimately to his deposition in 1688, when Mary and her husband, William of Orange, took the throne. As William and Mary had no children, Anne became the next legitimate heir.
Anne became queen in 1702, just months before the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, led a series of military victories during the conflict – including the famous battle of Blenheim in 1704 – which dominated a great deal of Anne’s reign.
A portrait of Queen Anne, attributed to Godfrey Kneller. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
James VI of Scotland had succeeded the English throne in 1603 and became ruler of both nations, yet it was Anne who oversaw the unification of England and Scotland, which was confirmed in 1707. The Act of Union stipulated that one parliament should meet in Westminster; a combined coinage would be established, and a common flag would be created.
Despite becoming pregnant 18 times, Anne suffered numerous miscarriages and her only child to survive infancy, Prince William, died at the age of 11 in 1700. As it became quite likely Anne would not have any more children who could succeed her, parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1701, which established a Protestant line of succession to the throne.
After her death in August 1714, Anne was succeeded by Prince George, the Elector of Hanover, beginning the Hanoverian line of monarchs.
George II (reigned 1727–60)
Prior to George I’s succession in 1714, Prince George and his father suffered very strained relations over their differences in political ideas and Prince’s George’s popularity with the public. George’s London residence became the centre for political rivalries among the court: members of the Whig party – who opposed the traditional political system – were entertained there.
Under the advice of his mentor, John Carteret, George led England into the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740. This influenced many at the time to argue that George was more interested in government issues in Germany than that of England. At the age of 60, George II became the last British monarch to lead a military campaign during the battle of Dettingen in 1743 against French troops in Germany.
As a result of his alliances at court, especially with politician Robert Walpole, George faced no major opposition in government from either the senior Whigs or Tories during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, whereby the ‘Young Pretender’ Charles Edward Stuart attempted to take the throne. George’s troops successfully defeated the final threat from the Jacobites after facing the pretender at the battle of Culloden in 1746.
George’s reign also witnessed a rise in the population in Britain, a growth in agriculture and trade, and an expansion in industries such as shipbuilding and coal. George also oversaw the expansion of Britain’s authority in India and Canada, after military leaders Robert Clive and James Wolfe directed significant campaigns there.
As George’s son, Frederick, died in 1751, George’s grandson, George III, inherited the throne after his death in October 1760.
William IV (reigned 1830–37)
Succeeding to the throne at the age of 64, William IV is to date the oldest monarch to ascend to the throne, after his brother, George IV, died without a surviving heir in 1830.
Prior to his accession, William had enjoyed a successful career in the Royal Navy, which he joined at the age of 13, and in 1811 he became admiral of the fleet. He spent time stationed in the West Indies and in America, and after his accession to the throne, many referred to him as the ‘sailor king’.
After George IV’s only daughter, Princess Charlotte, died in 1818, George’s brothers jumped at the chance to get married and produce an heir. It was in this year that William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, but his two daughters both died in infancy, and William had no legitimate heir. He did, however, have 10 illegitimate children with his long-term mistress, Dorothy Jordan, with whom he lived between 1791 and 1811.
After ascending the throne in 1830, William’s reign was dominated by the Reform crisis and political factions between the Tories and Whigs. After a struggle between the House of Commons and Lords surrounding the Reform Bill, William established the minimum number of Whig peers needed in the House of Lords in order for a bill to pass through. The resulting 1832 Reform Act extended the voting franchise to more people in Britain than ever before, and it abolished some of the abuses of the electoral system.
On 20 June 1837, William IV died without an heir. His niece, Victoria, ascended the throne just short of a month after her 18th birthday, and therefore avoided another regency.
This article was first published on History Extra in July 2015