Many a tyrant has known how to shine in company – by all accounts, Adolf Hitler was charming if you met him socially – but what if you are just pleasant and amenable by nature? Does that rule out a career as monarch? With a couple of exceptions, this list of perfectly pleasant rulers is not particularly encouraging…
Vespasian (Roman Emperor, 69–79 AD)
Vespasian was a successful general who managed to seize power from the political confusion that followed from the overthrow of Nero in 69 AD. Compared to Nero’s dangerously erratic rule, Vespasian’s reign was much calmer – he led a major rebuilding programme after the Great Fire of Nero’s reign and he fast-tracked the hundreds of law cases that had emerged from the chaos after Nero’s death. Vespasian’s military campaigning continued – he completed the suppression of a major rebellion against Roman rule in Judaea, where he had first made his name as a successful general – but at home his priority was strict economy after Nero’s spending sprees (though he did splash out on the Flavian amphitheatre, or Colosseum, for gladiator combats).
Vespasian was a genial cove, happily married but with a long-standing mistress – but he could be ruthless with critics and opponents. His dying words, according to the writer Suetonius, were an amused commentary on the Roman’s obsession with emperor-worship: “I think I’m becoming a god”.
Vespasian was succeeded by his popular elder son Titus, and a couple of years later by his vicious and unpredictable younger son, Domitian, who took a perverse pleasure in putting senators and actors to death on the flimsiest pretexts, often straight after having appeared to praise them. So, even nice emperors can leave nasty ones behind.
Æthelstan (king of England, 925–939)
Æthelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great and was the first man to be recognised as king of all England. It is difficult to be certain about the personality of figures from so long ago, but accounts of Æthelstan suggest that he was of devout Christian faith and showed compassion and charity to all. He could still fight, though: he inherited Anglo-Saxon England’s long war with the Vikings and he saw off challenges from the Scots and the Dublin Norse. He made his court a hub of learning; established a more efficient system of justice; and seems to have been genuinely popular with all who met him.
Æthelstan had none of the weakness of Ethelred II (“the Unredy” or “badly-advised”), which led him to attempt to buy off Viking attacks, nor the brutal streak of William the Conqueror, whose ruthless ‘harrying of the North’ left the whole region devastated for a generation. Perhaps it was indeed Æthelstan’s Christian faith that enabled him to combine military and political strength with a pleasant and charitable nature. So – it can be done.
Henry VI (king of England, 1422–61; 1470–71)
Henry VI seemed to have everything going for him: the son of the victorious warrior king Henry V and his French queen Catherine de Valois, he inherited the throne of England when he was less than a year old and stood next in line to inherit the French throne too. But Henry was no soldier: he took his faith seriously, preferring a life of prayer to fulfilling his duties as king. In personal terms he seems to have been almost sickeningly pleasant to all around him, which only made him appear weak in the dog-eat-dog world of the English court.
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Overshadowed by the commanding figure of his French wife, Margaret of Anjou, Henry suffered a series of mental breakdowns that rendered him unfit to rule and eventually led to a challenge for the throne from the Duke of York. Henry’s final humiliation in the civil war that followed was to be captured and paraded through London as a prisoner, and finally murdered in the Tower of London. And no doubt he was very nice to the men who did it!
Charles I (king of England and Scotland, 1625–49)
“Cruel necessity”, Cromwell is supposed to have said, as he looked down on the beheaded body of King Charles I. Certainly Charles had brought much of his fate on himself, through his stubborn refusal to negotiate in good faith with his parliamentary enemies. Those who put “Charles Stuart, that man of blood” on trial might be astounded to see him on this list.
Charles’s great weakness was that he made a strict distinction between his role as king, in which he could not compromise, and his personal role, which was entirely pleasant and courteous. In many ways it was his very courtesy that his enemies found so infuriating: they could not understand how he could be so charming to their faces and so hostile behind their backs. Even his friends had reason to rue his ability to be two things at once. The Earl of Strafford had been Charles’s staunchest ally, but Charles still gave in to pressure from Strafford’s enemies in parliament to sign his death warrant in 1641. “Put not your trust in princes,” Strafford commented bitterly. Even nice ones.
George III (king of Great Britain, 1760–1820)
Like Charles I, George III has had such a hostile press that it might be a surprise to see him feature on this list. He was denounced as a tyrant in the American Declaration of Independence and as a threat to the constitution by the Whigs in parliament. And he continued the Hanoverian dynasty’s congenital family feuding by getting into the most bitter dispute with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, over the prince’s drinking, gambling debts and especially his clandestine marriage to a Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert.
Yet in many ways George III was a much more pleasant, more courteous figure than he has been given credit for. John Adams, the first minister to his court from the newly independent United States, recounts how at his first audience the king generously allowed him the run of his house and especially his extensive library. He was a doting father to his 15 – yes, 15 – children with Queen Charlotte (at least when they were little), and, though a stickler for protocol, he could show great consideration. The novelist and lady-in-waiting Fanny Burney, who did not find court life easy, found him unfailingly kind to her, even when he was in the grip of his celebrated ‘madness’ (possibly the blood disorder porphyria, though some medical historians think it was psychological disorder, possibly a form of bipolar condition). In his later life George became a genuinely well-liked figure, his popularity enhanced by the illness that clouded his final years.
Louis XVI (king of France, 1774–92)
Louis XVI wanted to be so reasonable to everyone. If his controller-general of finances thought the taxation system needed overhauling to make nobles cough up? Then Louis would stand by him. If the nobles objected and called for the controller-general to be sacked? Then Louis would sack him (this happened at least three times). When Marie Antoinette wanted a small house and a pretend village in the grounds of Versailles, so she and friends could play at being shepherdesses in a sort of rural idyll? Of course she could have them – her little ‘hameau’ can still be visited today. When the revolutionary women of Paris, demanding bread and infuriated by his queen’s reputation for frivolous expenditure, had walked all the way to Versailles in October 1789 to tear her to pieces – but of course, Louis would meet with some of them. He must have been infuriating to be married to.
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Louis’s dilemma was that he sought to show understanding and consideration to all sides in a situation that was spiralling out of control. It was mad to try to work with the revolutionaries while also listening to his wife and his brothers, who were all urging him to maintain his royal prerogative – yet that is what he did. Louis was a devoted father (these doomed monarchs always are) to his four children, as well as four more he and Marie Antoinette adopted; he was a devout Christian and a genuinely humane man. And he died under that humane execution machine, the guillotine.
Frederick III (German emperor, 1888)
The German emperor Frederick III is one of the great ‘might-have-beens’ of history. Married to Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, he had imbibed much of the liberalism of the British constitutional monarchy and he fully intended to inject it into the German political model as soon as he became emperor. Frederick was much more affable, more pleasant and more – well – nice than his testy father, the reactionary old William I, who seems to have spent much of his time shouting at his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and dissolving into tears when he didn’t get his own way.
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Frederick’s vision for Germany was for it to be a liberal state, on good terms with its neighbours (especially Britain) and committed to maintaining European peace. It led him into fierce arguments with the anglophobe Bismarck, which, in Frederick’s eyes, proved he was right.
Sadly, by the time his father died in 1888 Frederick was himself gravely ill, from throat cancer. His reign lasted no more than 99 days and there simply was not time to bring about the changes of direction he had hoped for. When he died, first Bismarck and then his son, the Kaiser William II, took Germany firmly down the path of aggressive militarism that was to lead in 1914 to the First World War.
Nicholas II (tsar of Russia, 1894–1917)
Nicholas II was the living proof that you could either be a pleasant, loving family man and an amenable, reasonable and humane ruler, oryou could be the autocrat of all the Russias, heir to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great: it was one or the other – not both. Nicholas’s problem was that he tried to be a reasonable ruler in an irrational state. Previous tsars had been ruthlessly authoritarian; Nicholas tried to sustain the image of “little father” to his people, while also sometimes having to be ruthless. It led to a huge loss of faith in him and his monarchy.
Nicholas’s devotion to his wife and family was well known, but so was the PR disaster of inviting the mystic Rasputin into the heart of the imperial family. When the First World War began so disastrously Nicholas ignored advice and took personal charge of his armies, thus ensuring that it continued disastrously as well. He was trying (with admirable diligence) to fulfil a heavy task that was far beyond his capabilities. As a result, he was overthrown in the revolution of February 1917 and when, the following year, both he and the family he had cherished fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks, they were put against a wall and shot.
Dr Sean Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in March 2019