Andrew Gimson, author of Gimson’s Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs Since 1066, selects his top 11 monarchs in English – and then British – history since 1066…
William I (‘William the Conqueror’), r1066–87
William I conquered England. This brave, brutal, illiterate but clever Norman warlord attained at the battle of Hastings (14 October 1066) the most durable victory of any monarch in English history. At the head of 5,000 knights, he made himself master of a kingdom with perhaps 1.5 million inhabitants. The English ruling class was wiped out, its lands taken over by the invaders, and French replaced English as the language of government.
William the Conqueror, as he became known, was able to pass on the throne to his sons and his more remote descendants, who hold it to this day. Yet his origins were not as grand as his later achievements might lead one to suppose. He was the bastard son of Duke Robert of Normandy, also called ‘Robert the Devil’, and of Herleve (also known as Arlette), whose father, Fulbert, was a tanner: a trade deemed disgusting and carried out by despised people.
When William was just eight years old his father died and Normandy descended into anarchy. But the boy grew into a formidable warrior who first regained control of Normandy and then mounted a successful invasion of England. And he knew how to hold onto what he had taken: Norman castles, many of which survive to this day, were erected at all the most strategic points in his new kingdom. Arguably, no king of England has ever possessed a more unwavering ability to enforce his own will.
Richard I (‘Richard the Lionheart’), r1189–99
Richard I was the most famous knight-errant of his age – perhaps of any age. He sought adventures in which he could prove his military skill, chivalric virtues and generosity. Indeed, Richard was called Coeur de Lion, or ‘Lionheart’, in recognition of his dauntless valour, and he looked the part: more than six feet tall, immensely strong, with blue eyes and reddish-gold hair. He spent only 10 months of his 10-year reign in England, where he complained about the weather, but he became one of the great English heroes.
The Third Crusade (1189–92), the aim of which was to retake Jerusalem, presented Richard with an impeccably religious motive for glory, fighting and pillage. His only use for England was to raise money for this venture. In July 1191 he captured the port of Acre, after which he had 2,700 Muslim prisoners – men, women and children – put to death. As Scottish philosopher, historian and economist David Hume later put it, Richard “was guilty of acts of ferocity, which threw a stain on his celebrated victories”.
Richard fell out with his fellow crusaders, and although he got within 12 miles of Jerusalem, was not strong enough to recapture the city. Upon his return through mainland Europe he was himself captured, and a ransom of 34 tonnes of silver had to be paid for his release. From 1194–99, he campaigned with success in Normandy and Aquitaine, only to die on 6 April 1199 from gangrene contracted after being hit by a crossbow bolt while besieging a minor fort.
Edward I, r1272–1307
Edward I became known as the Hammer of the Scots, but he actually conquered the Welsh. Before ascending the throne of England, he crushed the rebellion led by Simon de Montfort against his father, Henry III.
Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, refused to do homage to Edward, and believed he could always take refuge from the English in the mountains of Snowdonia. But Edward rendered those mountains uninhabitable by building a chain of castles along the coast of north Wales, which prevented supplies of grain getting through from Anglesey. Llewelyn saw his cause was hopeless, and perished in battle. Edward made his son Prince of Wales – a title still borne by the heir to the throne.
While Edward was campaigning in Wales, one of his mounted knights was hit by an arrow fired from a longbow. This pierced the thick hauberk (or chain mail) protecting the knight’s thigh, drove through the upper leg – including the bone – penetrated the hauberk inside the thigh, forced its way through the wooden saddle and went deep into the horse. The English had never come across this fearsome weapon – one that was to make their armies almost invincible.
Henry V, r1413–22
By defeating the French at the battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, Henry V united the English. He was the last great warrior-king of the Middle Ages, and William Shakespeare drew an immortal picture of him as a leader who on the way to victory at Agincourt inspired his followers not just by his courage, but by mingling with them in the dark hours before the battle. Here is English patriotism in its most cheerful form: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
In 1420, Henry achieved the still more astonishing feat of combining the English and French crowns. He married the daughter of the French king, but his luck had run out, and soon afterwards he died of an illness, probably dysentery, contracted while besieging the town of Meaux.
Historians tend to draw Henry as a less sympathetic figure, who looked and behaved more like a monk than a happy-go-lucky first among equals.
Henry VII, r1485–1509
Henry VII won his crown at the battle of Bosworth (22 August 1485), but ruled with the efficiency of an accountant rather than the panache of a warlord. He was born in Wales and imposed peace on England by establishing a strong new dynasty, the Tudors. When he died, he left to his son, Henry VIII, a united country, a submissive nobility, and a vast amount of money.
Henry’s most disagreeable characteristic was his avarice: he was good at forcing even his grandest subjects to pay tax. By this means he brought to an end the Wars of the Roses, the 32-year struggle between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists in which much of the nobility had perished.
Efficiency in collecting taxes is a somewhat uncharming characteristic, and by the end of his reign Henry was deeply unpopular. The chancellor, George Osborne, however, named him as his favourite king of England.
Henry VIII, 1509–47
No English monarch has treated those close to him with such ruthlessness as Henry VIII. The older he got, the more he behaved like a petulant, self-obsessed teenager with a loaded revolver. But although he degenerated from a Renaissance prince into a tyrant, casting off wives and servants with merciless finality, he did make England independent.
By breaking with Rome in 1534 when the pope refused to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, Henry created the sovereign English nation, living under its own laws and guarded by its own ships. Parliament became his junior partner in this venture, and in the dissolution of the monasteries.
The difficulty Henry’s wives had in providing him with the longed-for male heir helps to explain why Henry got rid of them. Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a girl, Mary. She was replaced by the much younger and prettier Anne Boleyn, who likewise gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth, before Henry wearied of her and had her beheaded on trumped-up charges.
Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, had a son, Edward, but died two weeks later. Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was considered so unattractive that Henry was unable to consummate the marriage. The fifth, Catherine Howard, was young and ‘sexy’, but took lovers, so was executed. The last of Henry’s wives, Katherine Parr, was an amiable widow from the Lake District who looked after him in his declining years.
Elizabeth I, r1558–1603
Elizabeth I’s reign developed into a love affair with her people, and with every eligible man, conducted in many different moods: teasing, flirtatious, romantic, haughty, procrastinating. In 1588 it reached its ecstatic climax when together they defied the Spanish Armada sent by Philip of Spain to subdue them.
France descended at this time into the horrors of religious civil war. England did not, because Elizabeth steered a successful course between Roman Catholicism and puritanism. She promoted the Church of England as a compromise between religious extremes, and she was herself tolerant of private differences of belief. For 20 years she resisted entreaties to have her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, put to death: only Mary’s flagrant plotting to seize the throne with a foreign, Catholic force rendered her execution unavoidable.
Elizabeth had amorous friendships, but never married. She employed outstanding ministers, but never allowed herself to be dominated. In her speech in 1588 to her army at Tilbury she showed she understood how to rally the nation against the threat of invasion, and turn weakness into strength: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” She is, in my view, England’s greatest monarch.
Charles II, r1660–85
Charles II is, in my view, the wittiest monarch in English history. He was courageous, tolerant, lazy, duplicitous and pleasure-loving: his return from exile in 1660 inaugurated the most conspicuous change in manners – from extreme puritanism to unbridled licentiousness – this country has seen. But he conducted the restoration of the Stuart dynasty with such tact, and rode every later crisis with such skill, that he was never in serious danger of being unseated.
His father, Charles I, was executed after refusing to reach a compromise with his opponents. The same fault led to the downfall of Charles II’s successor – his younger brother, James II and VII, who was in 1688 chased out of England for attempting to impose his personal, Roman Catholic, preferences.
James on one occasion warned Charles II not to go for a walk without guards, to which Charles replied, with characteristic humour: “You may depend upon it that nobody will ever think of killing me to make you king.”
William III and II, r1689–1702
William III is one of the greatest kings of England and yet one of the least remembered. No one could have been more skilful at deposing James II, or at negotiating the terms for a monarchy more acceptable to parliament. But even in his lifetime, this bold, cold, asthmatic Dutchman was not popular. Only by Loyalists in Northern Ireland is King Billy remembered as a hero; the victor of the battle of the Boyne (fought in 1690 between the Catholic James II and the Protestant William III who, with his wife, Mary II, had overthrown James in England in 1688).
William had timed to perfection his arrival in England in 1688, landing in Devon with a printing press as well as an army. His grasp of the need to present himself as a reasonable king for a reasonable people was as strong as James II’s was defective. But for him, the Glorious Revolution, as the constitutional settlement reached in 1688–89 came to be known, might not have been very glorious at all.
Queen Victoria reigned for longer than any of her predecessors. She rescued the monarchy from the contempt in which it was held for several decades before 1837, and became the grand unifying figure, at once majestic and domestic, in a Britain that dominated the globe.
Here was an empress who had a startling affinity with the middle class: the class to which even the aristocracy felt it must now defer. Her views about politics, and especially about foreign affairs, were so strong, and expressed with such partisan sincerity, that it was impossible to kick her upstairs, to the less exciting region above politics that her successors came to occupy.
Her personality was of “irresistible potency”, as her greatest biographer, Lytton Strachey, put it. But though Victoria was passionate, she possessed also a devout desire for self-improvement, fully shared by her husband, Prince Albert, who was from Coburg. His early death on 14 December 1861 led her to retire for many years from public life.
Benjamin Disraeli, the most theatrical of Victoria’s prime ministers, lured her out of this mournful seclusion in 1868. Victoria proceeded to rout incipient republicanism by establishing an emotional link with her subjects that no anti-monarchist could rival.
George V, r1910–36
During the reign of King George V, an alarming number of royal families, including the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs, were overthrown. George helped to avert that fate by welcoming the Labour party into power.
In January 1924 the first, short-lived Labour government was formed. Its members proved as anxious to demonstrate respectability as George was to confer it. He wondered what his grandmother, Queen Victoria, would have thought, but was himself favourably impressed: “I must say they all seem to be very intelligent and they take things very seriously. They have different ideas to ours as they are all socialists, but they ought to be given a chance and ought to be treated fairly.”Here was the king as the upholder of the national idea of fair play. Like a cricket umpire, he could be depended upon to remain impartial. He also became, through his Christmas broadcasts, extremely popular.
George V set a pattern of conscientious monarchy that his eldest son, Edward VIII, felt unable to uphold – hence the abdication of 1936. But George’s second son, who at the end of that year became George VI, was just as determined to be a dutiful monarch.
So too was George VI’s elder daughter, who upon his death in 1952 became Queen Elizabeth II. She had learned from her father and grandfather how a constitutional monarch should behave, which is one reason why even leftwing Labour politicians show no real desire to overthrow her.
Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs Since 1066 (illustrated by Martin Rowson, published by Square Peg, £10.99).
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015