Recently I spent an enjoyable evening in London’s oldest pub Ye Olde Mitre (dating back to the Tudor period) with a bunch of history fanatics I know through twitter. This ranged from established writers, to researchers and professors there was much drinking, joking and debating to be had! While merrily chatting away with the head of the London society of Historians (casual name drop I’ll call him ‘M’) we began to discuss who we thought were the most successful/influential monarchs in English history. With my Henry hat on I argued that as the creator our justice system, the most successful king in France and all around economic mastermind, Henry II must be at least in the top 5. Well M whole-heartedly agreed with this statement saying-to my great joy-that while Henry is not a pop culture icon many historians view him as something of a hero. So Henry II is in established historian M’s top three monarchs in English history. Naturally I couldn’t help but ask who the other two were and he definitely surprised me with one…on reflection I actually agree with him! So who do we think M said? Could it be:
Well OBVIOUSLY M said Elizabeth is a given but his third answer was more interesting and, one that as an English student who has studied the history of language, that I’m inclined to agree with. M said that along with Hasty Hen, Frizzy Lizzie, Big Bill was the in his top three monarchs. Big Bill or William Duke of Normandy nee William ‘The Conqueror’ I, was M’s other choice. On first glance you may go ‘huh?’ but stop and think about…to save your brains I’ll break it down for you. Don’t worry I’m going to leave out just why Henry II is amazing, I’ve spent 1000s of words doing that for you readers already, today I’ll turn my attention to M’s other choices. Firstly let’s start with a feminist icon, my heroine and ginger queen: Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth I was very nearly not queen of England, as the third child of bacon machine Henry VIII, Elizabeth had to wait for her siblings (Edward VI and Mary I) to botch up their own reigns before she could get her hands on the throne. There were numerous things standing in the way of Elizabeth and British throne. Firstly, after the death of her (flawless) controversial mother Anne Boleyn and Henry’s very quick remarriage to (the eternally dull) Jane Seymour, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate along with her sister. A few years and wives later, Mary was welcomed back to her father’s arms and Elizabeth was begrudgingly allowed to be ‘Princess’ once more. Upon Henry’s death he constructed a water tight will that his children would later pick apart and argue over. According to Henry first on the throne would be Edward, if he had no heirs it would pass to his eldest daughter Mary and, if she had no heirs Elizabeth would finally be crowned. So Elizabeth’s chances of becoming queen were miniscule, after all, she had to contest with the unlikely prospect of both her siblings either not marrying (unthinkable) or not producing heirs (disaster) but fate was on her side. Edward had always been a sickly boy, coming to the throne aged 9 and ruling through a regent-his uncle Edward Seymour-Edward died aged 16. The boy king was a tyrant, fanatically protestant taking it upon himself to finish his father’s work in dismantling Catholicism in England. Churches were destroyed, stain glass windows smashed in. Edward distrusted both his siblings particularly the Catholic Mary, and when he fell sick Edward had both sisters written out of the will in favour of his cousin Jane Grey. Well we all know what happened to poor Jane and we all know what happened in the 5 years in which England endured under Mary I, a lady as tragic as she was despotic. So after an eventful life of possible sexual assault (see Tom Seymour), house arrest and general hardship, Elizabeth was crowned queen. Of course the glorious ginger woman we know and love suffered her low points:
Robert Dudley possible affair/Amy Dudley’s bizarre death
Numerous Catholic plots against her life
The Irish debacle and the formal rebellion by the Earl of Essex (previous favourite)
The long succession crisis
And yes, towards the end of her reign Elizabeth suffered from a period of being unpopular but she is universally remembered (at least in England) fondly. Under Elizabeth English culture thrived, fought back against the warrign Catholic countries and found a new sense of national identity. Elizabeth bought her own brand of Protestantism to England, one that allowed the pomp of a Catholic ceremony but one that focused on the personal relationship with God. Papacy was out but communion was very much back in. On the whole this worked but, as we all know you can’t please everyone and she was still met with religious opposition from radical Protestants (they’re more suited to the 1600s) and Catholics. What makes Elizabeth so important is the mark she leaves on English culture. She’s considered ‘Glorianna’ the ‘Virgin Queen’ and is heralded with bringing in a new age; the Golden Age. Elizabeth succeeded where her Tudor relatives had failed; she went to war and won. The Spanish Armada is probably one of Elizabeth’s finest hours, it’s the Tudor equivalent of Agincourt; an English underdog fighting back against a superior military threat. On both cases it seems that fate was on England’s side but it is impossible to forget how magnificent Glorianna must have seemed atop her horse clad in armour, addressing her troops. She was the Renaissance Matilda, a woman living in a man’s world but prevailing due to sheer determination and intelligence. The saddest part of Elizabeth’s story is that the Tudor line died with her, nobody is sure why Elizabeth refused to marry, I mean how could we know? Historians argue over several theories all of which have merit but are not 100% likely.
1) The most obvious is that after seeing Daddy dearest get through five wives, Elizabeth was somewhat scarred by the idea of marriage. Similarily her sister’s catastrophic marriage to Philip of Spain saw the proud Mary heartbroken by her controlling and selfish husband.
2) Elizabeth was what some historians would call the ‘second person’. She was never meant to be monarch, throughout her entire life until her coronation Elizabeth would look upon others take the throne surrendering power, whether it be to a regent (Edward) or to an asshat of a husband (Mary). Elizabeth must have known that if she married, she’d be giving her power to a man, and one who was certainly not a Tudor.
3)She was already married….TO ENGLAND. Ok I’m kidding, a theory by some feminist historians is that Elizabeth was sexually abused as a young teen by Thomas Seymour (husband to Catherine Parr) There are reports of Thomas ‘tickling’ Elizabeth in her bed, some even claiming Catherine held her down on ocassion. That’s not so great is it and some historians believe the incidents put Lizzie off sex for good…ouch!
4) She could not marry the man she wanted: the already married Robert Dudley. Siiigh, as romanticised as this may be I do appreciate a tragic love story
*Phew* I think that’s enough of the Tudors for one day, let’s go back several hundred years to M’s third favourite monarch and father of our monarchy Big Billy I.
William I was the son of the unmarried Duke of Normandy Robert I, his mother was a mistress named Herleva which led to the unfortunate nickname ‘William the Bastard’. William ruled over Normandy happily until about the 1050s/early 60s when he became a strong contender for the English throne, held by his aged and childless cousin Saint Edward the Confesor. However it was not all plain sailing for William and there were other claimants such as the rather pesky Harold Godwinson. Godwinson, an English Earl claimed that Edward had promised him the throne on his deathbed and that surely the wishes of a dying man which did not sit well with William. Big Billy argued that Edward had previously promised the throne to him and, more damningly that Harold had supported his claim through an oath. William, a man with a quick temper, built a huge fleet and sailed to England. We all know what happens next; Billy arrives in England, marches to Hastings, and unleashes HELL. After a few minor battles (bet you didn’t know those happened) William is crowned king on Christmas Day 1066 (1066 being one of the most used PIN numbers-BUT NOT MINE-in the UK) and then, like most Norman kings, he promptly sailed back to Nromandy and governed from there. Billy oversaw the construction of numerous castles-some of which still stand today-all in the same fortress like build that we see in Norman architecture, the Normans would also revise the great Anglo-Saxon churches into the cathedrals we have today (save further extensions by kings such as Henry II, Henry III and a few Edwards). Finally, in terms of architecture, William built one of the most important buildings in London: The Tower of London. So William reformed vat amounts of medieval London and bought about the end of a lengthy Anglo-Saxon rule buuuut I’m not done.
Anyone that has studied the English Language from the 800s-1000s will be aware that it’s almost like a second langauge…seriously hands up who has studied Beowulf in its orginal form. Much of what we now call English originates from a mish-mash of what was once known as ‘Anglo Norman’ (and some German). Anglo-Norman was the common language developed by the wealthy nobility who set up home in England after the Norman conquest, it was mixture of Oil-dialects (the language of those in the North of France) and the Old Anglo-Saxon English. Anglo Norman (and Latin) was used in the court and in legal documents from the 12th century until the mid 15th again showing the impact that William I had on English culture. No post about William would be complete with a mention of that hefty book…you know the mildly threatening and underwhelming one? Yes I’m talking about the Domesday Book-not the DOOMSday, that would be far too dramatic-complied in 1086. The book was a survery listing all the landowners in England along with their property and land, it sounds dull-it is-but it put a thoroughly Norman stamp on England, this was a country that was well and truly conquered.
Like Henry II the last few years of William’s life was dominated by quarrels with his sons, issues overland and baronial revolts in England, however also like Henry, William changed the shape, society and outlook of English society permenantly. So to round it up Big Billy is important because:
1) His regime bought about relative stability and heralded in a new dynasty- gotta love the Stormin’ Normans
2)He re-defined what it is to be a monarch
3)He created a logical and thought out economic policy (carried on by Henry I and II)
4)HE GAVE US OUR LANGUAGE.
So there you have it, the 3 most inflential monarchs according M and myself. Unlike M I’ll include a lost of honourable mentions and also my top 5 WORST monarchs (I want an extra 2)
Henry VIII- sorry M but we’d still be Catholic if it wasn’t for Big Hen
Henry IV- a CONTROVERSIAL choice but one I’ll stick by. He gets rid of the weak Richard II, puts Lancaster on the map, staves of rebellions and spawns Henry V
Henry I- He started the legal reforms his grandson would later carry out, bought stability to a fractured England and was relatively fair (and a little harsh in his rule)
Victoria- Vicky had a rough couple of years and yes, she was a total bitch to her children/family/friends people BUT she was the ‘grandmother of Europe’, she defined an empire with her determination and uncompromising attitude. Under Victoria art, science and culture thrived.
Edward I- Not very nice to Scots but Eddie got the job done and reasserted English dominance (take that Braveheart)
Note: I am a big fan of the Lancastrians but Henry V didn’t live long enough to make much of mark, what he did do was awesome! I’m also a fan of George III (unfairly portrayed) but the house of Hanover is pretty abysmal on the whole and Vicky deserves to be there more…
And onto the 5 worst monarchs…in no order
King Stephen- Stephen is ultimately responsible for the period of Anarchy that blights the reign of Henry, Richard and John. Under Stephen England was politically, financiallStephen created a fractured, savage and chaotic England that would takes centuries to fix.
Richard I and John- do I really need a reason? I’m so annoyed with these Plantagenet ragamuffins that they can share a spot! Richard had no concept and/or didn’t care about English customs, system of government so he put in ZERO effort when it came to governing the place. He spent a mighty 6 months there between 1189-99 and spoke no English, using his new kingdom as a medieval ATMN. John on the otherhand DID know about the English legal system/governement customs but, like an supervillian he used his powers for EVIL! That said I actually Richard is a little worse mainly because he is SO not a national treasure
Mary I- Oh Mary, Mary, Mary. I know you had a difficult childhood but marrying an unpopular foreigner? Burning all those protestants? Oh and losing Calais? Poor Mary made some downright depostic decisions and ultimately befriended all the wrong people. Her tragic health problems make her sympathetic and explain some of her wackier decisions later in life, but her awful legacy is enough to put her on the list!
Richard III- Ooooh I hear Richardians clutching at their pearls already, but before you get the pitchforks out let me explain. Hunchback/crouchback (whatever you want to call it) or not, Richard made some horrid decisions. Don’t get me wrong he was a VERY good Prince but as a king? Richard made the mistake of alienating the Southern nobility while favouring the North, he kept schtum about those wee princes in the tower (only made him more suspicious) and he carried out some ridiculously cruel trials. Yes the Tudors ran an impressive smear campaign but people read the books,beyond all the sentimental ‘wronged king schtick’ we’re looking at a less than impressive guy. Oh and also if the Plantagenets can survive John I, Richard II AND Henry VI..poor form mate!
Henry VI- Sorry fellow Lancastrians but well all know that-bless his socks-Henry VI was a little crappy. Like Richard he’s weak, unable to control his people and he fucks up in France…SERIOUSLY what is it with English kings and France?! Yes he gets the throne back for a bit but by then he’s pretty old and senile so yeah…things don’t go well and he dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances…
A note: If I had it my way (and I sort of do) I’d put the all the Stuart kings and most of the Hanoverians on this list, because by God they were awful (with the exception of maybe William/Mary and Anne- only because I feel sorry for her)
Further note: guys this a humorous/bitchy blog not to be taken seriously, I can defend myself in an actual academic tone (not an invitation to come at me) but I decided not to because there are AMAZING historians who can do that 100x better than me. I’m a simple girl who just loves history and being a little sarky… yes, I’m hopefully biased but who cares!
Over and out x