The Kings and Queens of England – A Primer

This series of previously published newsletter articles was collected and published as The Compleat Anachronist #104, in 1999, by the Society for Creative Anachronism.


Some of this material first appeared in a slightly different form in The All Terrain Unicorn’s Tale, newsletter of the Canton of Trinovantia Nova (London, Ontario).  Most of this material was printed as a monthly series in The Tidings, newsletter of the Kingdom of Ealdormere (Ontario).

My thanks to all the chroniclers I have worked with for their assistance and encouragement, especially Mistress Etaoin O’Fearghail (Sandra Skog).  Thanks are also due to Lord John Patrick of Islington (Tom O’Heir) who located the first five parts of this primer in old copies of “The Tidings” after I lost them moving from house to house and computer to computer.

A primer is by nature short and simplified.  I am aware of numerous omissions and simplifications in the information here, however I have tried to make the information that is included as accurate as any historical writing can claim to be.  Those happy with this primer have my thanks; those seeking more are encouraged to continue their research.  The sources mentioned at the end are good places to start.

Oliver Peren


Chart of Rulers


Dotted lines — indicate a brother or sister.
Tildes ~~~ indicate a half brother or sister.  Not all siblings are listed. Dates refer to reign.

From Roman Britain to Alfred

The year 367 AD was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire in Britain.  An invasion of Scots, Saxons and other tribes interrupted years of peace.  Roman forces under General Theodosius repelled the invasion in 368, but in the decades to come there were more attacks, and Roman armies were often engaged on the continent.  On several occasions ambitious Roman commanders restored order in Britain, and then left to seek the Imperial Throne, taking their forces with them.  One such withdrawal was led by Constantine III in 407, and the last such withdrawal was probably in 425.  In 446, Roman Britons requested help from Rome to fight invading tribes, but no help was available.  The island was on its own.  In the absence of Roman rule, large towns and powerful individuals soon formed small kingdoms.

Some of the aristocracy attempted to make Britain a Celtic kingdom under King Vortigen.  Vortigen (a.k.a. Guothigrin) was opposed by Ambrosius Aurelianus, who had the support of Roman Britons.  Vortigen was also fighting invading Scots and Picts.  He turned to Germanic tribes – Saxons and Angles – for mercenaries.  However, his hired fighters decided to take the land for themselves, and a full scale Germanic invasion began.  Ambrosius managed to slow the invasion, and it was temporarily halted by his successor Arthur.

Arthur was not a king, though he possessed both military and political skill.  He fought numerous battles against the Saxons, and managed to bring some stability and unity to the many small kingdoms in Britain.  When Arthur died (at the hands of his nephew Mordred) in 538, the unity disappeared.  The divided land was unable to stop the Saxon invasion, though by now it was more of a violent immigration than an invasion.

From the middle of the sixth century to the beginning of the ninth, there were many wars between the small kingdoms.  Britons fought Saxons, Saxons fought Angles, Angles fought Angles, Britons and Saxons united to fight Angles, Angles and Saxons united to fight Britons, Britons and Saxons united to fight Britons, and so on.  There were also civil wars within many of the kingdoms.  Among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms there came to be one dominant king called the “Bretwalda” (ruler of Britain).  When the dust settled, the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex was the dominant kingdom, having acquired numerous others by conquest or treaty.

From 802 to 839, King Egbert ruled Wessex.  He was educated and politically skilled, having spent sixteen years at the court of Charlemagne.  He was also ambitious, and set out to rule all the kingdoms of Britain.  Toward the end of his reign he was occupied fighting the Danes.  Danish attacks dated back to 787, but it was not until the 830’s that the major assaults on England began.  Egbert’s son Ethulwulf ruled after him, and continued to fight against the Danes.  Ethulwulf’s sons Ethelbald, Ethelbert, and Ethelred, all took turns ruling over the various kingdoms held by the family and fighting the Danes.  Each reigned for only a few years.  In 871 the fourth son, Alfred, was crowned.

Next: Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

Reigned 871-899

At an early age Alfred had shown that he was intelligent, hardworking and capable of appreciating books and art.  With three older brothers, it seemed unlikely that he would ever be required to rule, so his devout father (King Ethulwulf) started him on a religious career.  Ethulwulf may have hoped that Alfred would become a senior bishop, who could then lend church support to whichever of Alfred’s brothers was the King.

When Alfred was four, and again when he was six, he traveled to Rome to meet the Pope.  On his second trip he remained in Rome for a year.  What he saw and learned there likely provided much of the inspiration for his later achievements.

Each of Alfred’s brothers reigned only a few years.  Ethelbald and Ethelbert died of natural causes.  The entire family, including Alfred, suffered from poor health.  Ethelred died from wounds received in battle, but poor health may also have been a factor.  Ethelred was survived by his two infant sons, but with the Danes advancing it was no time for boy kings.  The West Saxon Council chose Alfred to defend Wessex and be their new king.  There are no accounts of any coronation, and within a month Alfred was fighting the Danes.

During the first year of Alfred’s reign he lost several battles.  Eventually he purchased a treaty, and there was peace in Wessex for five years.  During this time Alfred reorganized and trained his army, and established naval forces.  When the Danes returned in 876 Alfred was ready, and the Danish attack was unsuccessful.

In 878 the Danes staged a sneak attack and invaded Wessex.  In a series of well-organized battles, Alfred drove the Danes out.  They returned in 885 and 893 but could not overcome his defenses.  Meanwhile, more and more of England was coming under Alfred’s protection.  He had fortified about twenty-five towns across England and was prepared to fight the Danes anywhere they might strike.  Under the circumstances, Danes who still sought lands to plunder headed to the continent.  Others settled down to enjoy their old age in northern kingdoms.

One of the towns fortified by Alfred was London, in the Kingdom of Mercia.  Before the Danish invasions Mercia had been a powerful kingdom, and before the rise of Wessex it had been the dominant kingdom of England.  Though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records in 886 that “…the whole of the English nation turned to him [Alfred]…” the loyalty of the Mercians may have been suspect.  To ensure their support, Alfred gave London back to them after he fortified it.  Then he appointed a trusted noble to rule Mercia — as alderman, not king — and arranged for his eldest daughter to marry the alderman.

Alfred’s military success were impressive, but they were by no means his only accomplishments.  He devised a new code of laws, based on the laws of Wessex, Mercia, Kent, other kingdoms, and common law.  As Alfred traveled about his kingdom he restored the courts and insisted they operate regularly despite the Danish wars.  He arranged for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a national diary) to be compiled and duplicated.  Alfred encouraged the use of English rather than Latin.  He ordered his bishops to teach “…all the sons of freemen who have the means to undertake it…” to read and write English.  He also translated five books from Latin to English.

King Alfred carefully divided his time and his income between church and secular matters.  In order to keep his many interests on schedule he devised a candle clock.  He was generous, giving to the poor, schools and monasteries, and supporting artisans and sculptors.  His love of art and literature lasted throughout his lifetime.  Even in the field, between battles, he would have minstrels sing for him or monks read to him.  He died peacefully at age fifty, leaving a generous and fair will.

Next: The Son, the daughter, and a naughty nephew.

Edward the Elder

Reigned 899 – 924

When King Alfred died, the throne passed to his eldest son Edward.  Edward’s right to rule was immediately challenged by his cousin Ethelwald.  Ethelwald was one of the sons of King Ethelred; he had been only an infant when the throne passed to Ethelred’s younger brother Alfred.  Ethelwald attempted to seize power but was unsuccessful.  He then fled to Northumbria and made friends with the Danes there.  He soon became unpopular, but in 902 he managed to gather a force of Danes and invaded Mercia.  King Edward of Wessex quickly came to the aid of his brother-in-law, Ethelred, (the alderman of Mercia), and the Danes were chased back across the northern border.  Ethelwald was killed in the fighting, and the ties between Mercia and Wessex were reinforced.

War with the Danes resumed in 909, under King Edward’s initiative.  English historians are quick to point out that he was probably provoked by border raids.  Provoked or not, the English were now fighting offensive wars against the Danes.

When Ethelred (the Mercian alderman) died in 910 his widow, Edward’s sister Ethelfleda, took over the administration of Mercia.  She also led armies against the Danes, sometimes fighting alongside her brother and sometimes on her own.  Together they took over more and more Danish territory, fortifying towns to maintain control, and also attempting to have the conquered Danes absorbed into English society.  A common new enemy helped unite the Danes and the English.  By 918, both were fighting invading Norse from Ireland.

Ethelfleda died in 918.  King Edward promptly marched with an army to Mercia, where he was accepted as their ruler.  Several other kingdoms also accepted the rule of Edward, usually because it suited their political aims to have Edward on their side.  Strathclyde, for example, had been annexing land from neighbouring kingdoms and wanted help keeping it.

Edward was not as devout as his father, and occasionally neglected the church.  He respected the importance of scholarship, but was not interested in it himself.  His interests were limited to the army and women.  He had two or three wives, and a dozen or more children.  Athelstan, his eldest son, was an illegitimate child by a shepherd’s daughter.  He became the next king of Wessex.

Next: A Golden Age.


Reigned 924 – 939

The illegitimate Athelstan grew up in Mercia rather than with his father in Wessex.  His grandfather Alfred saw that Athelstan was raised to be a king, and when King Edward died, Athelstan was thirty and ready to rule.  The Mercians were quick to support him.  There were rivals for the throne in Wessex, but three of them soon died under mysterious circumstances.  Finally, over a year after Edward’s death, Athelstan was crowned.  The site was near the border between Wessex and Mercia.

Athelstan was an efficient military ruler.  By shows of force and battle, he managed to obtain the submission of several smaller kingdoms, including Northumbria in 927.  In 934, Athelstan led a plundering expedition into Scotland.  This show of force kept things quiet for three years.  Then a combined force of armies from Ireland, Scotland and Strathclyde invaded.  Athelstan retreated before them.  When they were deep into English territory he attacked with a combined force of West Saxons, Mercians, Danes and Welsh.  The day long battle at Brunanburg was long celebrated as a magnificent victory for England.  In military terms it accomplished little, however the shared “victory” helped unite the various English kingdoms under Athelstan.

Civil matters were not overlooked.  Literacy continued to be encouraged under Athelstan, and he issued six law codes.  He encouraged commerce by ordering coinage for the whole kingdom and supporting the growth of towns that had begun as military fortifications.  With the substance of his government came grand style.  One charter granting land reads in part:

“Truly the record of this our intention, by the inspiration, favour and help of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, was written in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 930, and in the sixth year of the reign committed to me, the seventh indication, the third epact, the second concurrent, 7 June, the twenty-first day of the moon, in the city well know to all which is called Nottingham, all the body of chief men rejoicing, under the wings of royal generosity.  The authority also of its unshaken firmness was strengthened by these witnesses, whose names are entered below depicted with letters.”

There were over forty witnesses, including three sub-kings, two archbishops and several earls and aldermen.

Athelstan was very devout, and generous to the church.  He never married, and may have remained celibate for religious reasons.  With several younger brothers there was no need for him to produce an heir.  A hobby of his was collecting sacred relics.  The collection was a source of pride for the kingdom, and earned Athelstan the goodwill of other Christian countries.  Several of the relics he acquired were gifts from European rulers hoping to marry one of his sisters.  Four were married into royal houses across Europe.

Like others from the House of Wessex, Athelstan suffered from poor health.  He died in his mid-forties, after ruling fifteen years.

Next: A Deadly Feast.


Reigned 939-946

Athelstan died childless, so the throne passed to his half-brother Edmund.  Athelstan had been the eldest son of King Edward: Edmund was the eldest son by King Edward’s third wife, Edgiva.  Edmund was only eighteen when Athelstan died, but he was already a proven battle leader.  Two years earlier he had shared command with Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburg.

Within months of his coronation, Edmund faced a serious challenge.  The Norse in Ireland, led by Olaf Guthfrithson, occupied York, and proceeded to raid and plunder other lands including Danish territories and even parts of Mercia.  Edmund raised an army and met the Norsemen at Leicester.

The church intervened and there was no battle.  The Archbishop of York, who supported the idea of York being an independent kingdom, met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and arranged a treaty.  The terms consisted mostly of surrendering the Danish territories to the Norsemen.  Though the terms were in favour of the invaders, Edmund accepted them.  This gave him time to secure his position and strengthen his forces.  Two years later, in 942, Edmund’s army attacked and won back the surrendered lands.  He was assisted by the Danes living in the area, who preferred English rule.

The Norse still occupied the Kingdom of York.  Olaf soon died, and there were two claimants to that throne.  Both men sought aid from Edmund and they both went so far as to be baptized in the Christian faith.  Edmund recognized first one claimant, then the other.  He also recognized the shaky political situation in York.  In 944 he led an army into York and took over.  The next year, to solidify his control of the northern lands, Edmund invaded Strathclyde and gave it to Malcolm, the new King of Scotland, in exchange for an alliance.

By the age of twenty-four Edmund had demonstrated his skills in battle and diplomacy.  He seemed destined for a long and peaceful reign, but it was not to be.  In May of 946 he was stabbed to death at a feast.  According to one account, he was coming to the aid of one of his officers who had been attacked.  According to another account, Edmund attacked a criminal who had previously been banished from the kingdom.  Edmund left two sons, both infants.

Next: Another brother, and baby food.


Reigned 946-955

When King Edmund died, his sons were too young to rule, so the throne passed to Edmund’s younger brother Edred.  The various kingdoms all pledged allegiance, but Northumbria soon tried for independence.  The Northumbrians accepted as their king Eric “Bloodaxe,” who had been chased off the throne of Norway in favour of a more civilized ruler.

In 948, Edred led an army into Northumbria on a plundering expedition.  The aim was likely to both punish and intimidate the Northumbrians so they would return to English rule.  As Edred’s army was leaving they were attacked by an army loyal to Eric and suffered many casualties.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edred was furious, and threatened to “lay waste the land withal.”  The Northumbrians took this threat seriously and deposed Eric.  They then accepted Olaf Sihtricson, another Norseman, as their ruler.  Edred did not object to this, and may have helped arrange it.

Eric returned to Northumbria in 952, overthrew Olaf, and again ruled there.  Edred’s first response was to throw Archbishop Wulfstan of York into prison.  Wulfstan was one of the leading voices calling for an independent Northumbria, and blamed by many for the continuing Norse control of northern England.  Edred, a Christian king, had previously left Wulfstan alone, but this latest development in the north was too much.

Edred regained control of Northumbria in 954, following the death of Eric.  The details of Eric’s death are not clear but it seems his followers betrayed him.  Edred released Wulfstan from prison, and sent him to a diocese in loyal Wessex, where he could be watched closely.

A peaceful period lasted for twenty-five years, but Edred enjoyed very little of it.  Like his ancestors, he suffered from poor health.  William of Malmesbury, quoting older documents, states “[Edred was] constantly oppressed by sickness, and of so weak a digestion as to be unable to swallow more than the juices of the food he had masticated, to the great annoyance of his guests.”  Though physically weak, he was also merciless: when villagers in Thetford killed their abbot, he ordered a mass killing of the villagers.

Edred died in 955, in his thirties.  His will left money for the church and people all over
England, except Northumbria.  Edred also provided a sum of money to be used for famine relief or to buy off an enemy army.  He died childless and so the next in line for the throne was the eldest son of Edmund, now fifteen years old.

Next:  Boys just want to have fun.


Reigned 955 – 959

Medieval historians, the main source of information about this time, described Edwy as defiant, juvenile, and depraved.  A typical teenager, in other words, for he was about fifteen when he became king.  He was known as the All-Fair due to his good looks, and he had the good fortune to inherit a country at peace.  From his point of view, the one obstacle to his happiness must have been the king’s council.  With such a young king, the council played a larger role in the government of the country.  The council consisted of aldermen from several kingdoms, as well as the powerful Abbot Dunstan.

Dunstan had begun his career in the court of Athelstan.  He became unpopular and was banished.  The next king, Edmund, recalled Dunstan, banished him, and recalled him again.  King Edred, (Edwy’s uncle and predecessor) gave Dunstan extensive administrative powers.  Dunstan later became archbishop of Canterbury and finally a saint.  The conflict between Dunstan and Edwy did not help Edwy’s reputation among medieval historians.

The cause of this conflict was an incident that occurred on the day of Edwy’s consecration as king.  During a meeting of senior kingdom officials, where very important business was being conducted, Edwy slipped out.  Dunstan and another bishop were sent to find him.  Edwy was found in the company of two ladies (a mother and daughter), with the crown on the floor nearby.  Dunstan scolded the ladies, crowned Edwy again, and made him swear to give up the ladies before dragging him back to the meeting hall.  Edwy subsequently married the daughter and exiled Dunstan.

In 957, just two years after Edwy became King, Mercia and other kingdoms revolted and chose as their king Edwy’s younger brother Edgar.  Dunstan may have played a role in this.  Certainly he benefited, as Edgar recalled him from exile and restored his powers.  Edwy continued as King of Wessex for two more years until his death in 959.  Though suspicious, there is nothing in the records to suggest his death was planned.  Despite Edwy’s dislike of Dunstan, he had been generous to the church, and his widow, Queen Elgifu, became highly regarded for her generosity.

Next:  Peace and loves.


Reigned 957 – 975

As previously noted, Edgar became King of Mercia in 957.  When his older brother King Edwy died two years later, Edgar became King of England.  He was then only sixteen, but he proved to be much wiser than his brother.  With the help of the Abbot Dunstan and other advisors he enjoyed a relatively long and peaceful reign.

There was a revolt in the Danish territories in 966, but Edgar handled this easily and diplomatically.  Most of his energies went to administrative rather than military matters.  He established the system of shires and hundreds, and revised the laws (which were enforced with very harsh penalties).  Probably encouraged by Dunstan, Edgar restored many old monasteries and founded new ones.

Edgar’s coronation did not take place until 973, fourteen years after he became King.  The coronation featured an elaborate new ceremony devised by Dunstan.  The reason for the delay in coronation is not clear.  One possibility is Dunstan’s concern over some of the King’s less noble habits.

There is a report of a long penance imposed by Dunstan after Edgar abducted a nun.  Another story concerns an evening stopover in Andover.  Edgar demanded that a local nobleman supply his beautiful daughter for a bed companion.  After dark, the girl’s mother managed to substitute an attractive serving girl.  When Edgar learned of the switch, he was apparently very amused, and proceeded the treat the girl well, at the expense of her masters.  Yet another story concerns his second wife, Elfrida.

Elfrida, the daughter of an earl, was said to be unusually beautiful.  Edgar learned of this, and sent a trusted noble, Ethelwold, to see if this was true.  Ethelwold reported that the girl was in fact rather ordinary, though wealthy, and requested permission to marry her himself.  Edgar granted this.  In time, Edgar heard rumours that he had been deceived.  He informed Ethelwold that he would be visiting.  Ethelwold told his attractive wife the whole story, and begged her to make herself as unattractive as possible.  Elfrida refused to cooperate.  Edgar met her, and quickly fell in love with her.  Then Edgar and Ethelwold went hunting, and there was an accident with a javelin.  Edgar married the suddenly widowed Elfrida, and founded a nunnery.

Despite his personal faults, Edgar’s reign was a time of relative peace and unity.  Following his coronation, a famous incident demonstrated the respect he enjoyed.  He sailed with his fleet to Chester, to meet the lesser kings and receive their promises of allegiance.  Sources disagree on whether there were six or eight kings, but among them were the kings of Wales, Scotland, and Strathclyde.  The kings then rowed Edgar along the river Dee from his palace to a church.  This symbolic display is especially noteworthy because of the absence of any urgent military matters that would encourage allegiances.

Edgar died suddenly in 975, only thirty-two years old.  It seems he inherited the poor health shared by many of his ancestors.  He was survived by his son Edward, about fifteen, and ex-wife Edith, from his first marriage; and by Ethelred, about ten, and Elfrida, from his second marriage.

Next:  Comets, Famine, Violence…and Murder.


Reigned 975 – 978

Edward’s ascension to the throne was contested by a powerful group of noblemen, who supported his half-brother Ethelred.  There were several reasons for Ethelred to be preferred.  Edward was unpopular due to his violent temper tantrums.  Many noblemen thought that too much favouritism had been shown to the monasteries under Edgar, and they expected this to continue under Edward.  Edward was supported and counseled by the Abbot Dunstan, who was also unpopular and blamed for the favouritism shown the monasteries.  The nobles may also have thought they would have more influence over a ten-year-old king.

Dunstan and his allies succeeded in getting the Witan to declare Edward King, but there was little cause for celebration.  A comet, considered a bad omen, appeared the same year, and the following year began with a famine.  Meanwhile, Edward’s enemies were attacking monasteries and otherwise committing “many wrongs and evil lawless acts.”  Finally, Edward was murdered while visiting at the home of Elfrida, his father’s second wife (Ethelred’s mother).  According to most accounts, she set him up, and her servants stabbed him.

The crime horrified England.  People expected the country would suffer for the king’s death at the hands of his own family.  Edward’s personal faults were quickly forgotten, and he was regarded as a martyr and saint.  No one was punished for the murder, but Elfrida soon entered a nunnery (the same one founded by Edgar in penance for killing her first husband).

Next:  Y1K


Reigned 978 – 1016

Ethelred was a weak king, but his biggest fault may have been being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He became King at fourteen, after witnessing the death of his half brother King Edward at the hands of his mother.  He inherited a country that had become wealthy and perhaps a little soft after many years of relative peace.  The people were pessimistic about the future: The end of the millennium was approaching, and many expected this would be the end of the world.  The previous King’s murder was considered an example of the crime and treachery that would precede the end.

Ethelred’s advisors, so essential for a young king, were weak, greedy, selfish, or otherwise incompetent.  Ethelred is known as “The Unready,” but this nickname, coined long after his death, does not refer to his lack of ability or youth.  Rather it is a corruption of a 13th century pun.  The name “Ethelred” means “noble-counsel.”  Adding “rede-less” or “unred” suggests that “noble-counsel” was not what Ethelred received, and is a criticism of his advisors.

In 980, a new wave of Danish invasions began.  Some people saw this as more proof of the coming end of the world.  A strong King had united Denmark and Norway into a single kingdom, and many of his opponents fled.  They found England was wealthy, ill equipped for fighting, and ready to offer vast sums in tribute.  Word spread that England was an easy target.

There were many battles, including the famous battle of Maldon in 991.  The armies were gathered on opposite shores of a small river.  The English had the advantage, as the invaders could only cross a few at a time, and were promptly killed.  The raiders asked permission to cross, so that the battle could be fought on equal terms.  This was granted…  The English lost most of the battles, often due to poor organization or traitors.  Ethelred himself very rarely led armies, unlike his warrior-king predecessors.

In 1002, a desperate and frustrated Ethelred called for the execution of all Danes resident in England.  This was a rather difficult task, as most of the people in northeast England were of Danish descent.  However, many were killed, including the sister of the King of Denmark and her family, and a group of people who were burned alive when they took refuge in a church.  These killings served only to provoke the Danes.  More invasions followed.

The Danish King Sweyn arrived in England in 1013 with a large fleet and army.  The eastern and northern regions quickly accepted him as their King, and by the end of the year he ruled all of England.  Ethelred fled to Normandy, the home of Emma, his second wife.  (Emma was the daughter of the Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy, and consequently William the Conquerer was Ethelred’s great-nephew.)

At first, Danish rule was short-lived.  Sweyn died early in 1014.  His son Canute was not accepted as King by most of the English councilors.  Instead, they asked Ethelred to come back, saying that “no lord was dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern them more justly than before.”  After promises on both sides, Ethelred returned, and led an army against Canute.  Canute was unprepared, and fled.  When Canute attacked again, Ethelred paid a tribute of 21,000 pounds, and Canute decided to take a trip to Denmark.

Canute returned in the summer of 1015, with a stronger army.  Meanwhile, one of Ethelred’s sons by his first marriage, Edmund, took control of a portion of northern England, and began to raise an army to oppose Canute.  Ethelred was ill, paranoid, and no longer had any real power.  When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund was accepted as King by Londoners, but most others leaders accepted Canute when he agreed to govern justly and according to their laws.

Next:  Ironside, briefly.


Reigned 1016

After King Ethelred’s death in April of 1016, Edmund, his ambitious son, was accepted as King only by the leaders of London.  The Danish King Canute ruled the rest of England.  During the summer the two Kings fought over London, and through Wessex, Essex, and Mercia.  Edmund’s endurance in the face of continued defeats earned him the title “Ironside.”  Although most councilors wanted Edmund defeated, they acknowledged that he was a stubborn enemy, and advised Canute to share England with Edmund.  Edmund unwillingly agreed to a treaty which granted him rule over Wessex.

Edmund was a more powerful and respected King than his father had been, and from Wessex he might have eventually expanded his rule.  His brothers were too young to seek power, and he had not neglected starting his own family.  Edmund had married in 1015, and already had one son, with another on the way.  However, in November of 1016 Edmund suddenly died.  This allowed the Danish King Canute to become King of England.

Edmund’s death has always been regarded as suspicious, and according to one source an alderman famous for changing loyalties, hoping to gain favour with Canute, arranged for Edmund’s murder.  Canute may have appreciated the death of Edmund, but he was leery of those who would kill a King, and killed the alderman, after pronouncing him guilty of treason.

Next:  Happy Days, and a famous beach scene.


Reigned 1016 – 1035

Canute (also spelled Cnut) had conquered England as a Viking warrior, but he ruled as one of its wisest administrators.  During the many years of Danish invasions, the English people had become good at quickly raising large sums of cash.  Canute took advantage of this to collect and make a large payment to his army, and then sent them back to Denmark.  He remained in England, and promised peace, with no distinction between the conquering Danes and the conquered English.  He agreed to rule according to the laws of King Edgar (973-975), and enforced tithing and endowed monasteries (he had converted to Christianity).

Canute often left England, but he and the English people considered it his home.  One journey brought Norway under his control, and England became the base of Canute’s empire.  Another journey was a pilgrimage to Rome to visit the Pope and the emperor, something no reigning Saxon king had done.  While travelling, he kept in touch with his people through letters prepared by a staff of English clerks.

Canute’s letters show that he was a master of propaganda.  He was also skilled at smoothing over past conflicts.  In dedicating a new church where a major battle had taken place four years earlier, he praised both his victory and the brave fighting of the English.  To consolidate his rule, he married Emma, who had been the second wife of King Ethelred (978-1016).  Despite the political motivation of this match (she gained protection for her sons by Ethelred), it was apparently happy.  (Trivia note: Emma was ten years older than Canute).

There is famous anecdote about Canute.  It is said that his court praised him to the point of saying even the tide would obey him.  He duly went to the shore, ordered the tide not to come in, and when it did, he claimed this proved the foolishness of the courtiers.  Another version holds that Canute himself believed the tide would obey him, went to the shore to prove this, and was humbled when the water rose around him.

Canute died early, at age forty, leaving behind two serious problems for England.  One was his division of England into four powerful earldoms.  This may have originally been a temporary measure, but his death made it permanent, and the divisions weakened the country.  The other was the problem of succession.  The legitimate heir was Hardicanute, by Emma, but before his marriage he had a son, Harold, by an English woman named Elfgifu, who had some of the privileges of a royal wife.  There were also Emma’s children by Ethelred…

Next:  Who’s in charge?


Reigned 1035 – 1040

When the Danish King Canute died, his legitimate son Hardicanute was occupied defending Denmark and could not come to England to claim the throne.  This led to much debate in England over who should rule.  One faction, led by Queen Emma (mother of Hardicanute, widow of Canute) and Earl Godwin of Wessex, wanted to take the risks of an absentee king and maintain hereditary succession.  The opposing faction, led by Earl Leofric of Mercia and supported by Londoners, would not accept an absentee king, and instead proposed limited rule by Harold Harefoot (Canute’s eldest son, by his mistress Elfgifu).  The negotiations lasted two years.

Meanwhile, Alfred (son of Queen Emma by her previous husband, King Ethelred) came to England from Normandy.  It is not clear whether he had his eyes on the throne or simply wished to visit mom, but his timing was very poor.  He was caught, clumsily blinded, and died soon after, and many of his followers were mutilated or killed.  Earl Godwin was tried for the crimes but not punished.  His story was that he did arrest Alfred, out of concern for Alfred’s safety, but other persons kidnapped Alfred from him.  Rumour also implicated Queen Emma in the crimes.

Eventually Harold was proclaimed Regent, who would rule only until Hardicanute came to England.  Queen Emma would control the treasury.  However, Harold seized the treasury, expelled Emma, and proclaimed himself “full king over all England.”  Emma fled to Normandy, where, in 1039, Hardicanute joined her, having settled affairs in Denmark.  Before they could invade England, Harold died of natural causes.

Next:  Death and taxes.


Reigned 1040 – 1042

Hardicanute (also spelled Harthacnut) was immediately and widely accepted as King when he arrived in England in the summer of 1040, after the death of King Harold.  The welcome did not last long.  One of his first acts was to exhume his half-brother’s body and toss it into the Thames.  Concerned with maintaining a strong navy, he increased the fleet from sixteen ships to sixty-two.  The ship tax nearly quadrupled, and wheat prices rose dramatically.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has this to say about Hardicanute:  “He did nothing worthy of a king as long as he lived.”

Hardicanute was kinder to the half-brothers with whom he shared a mother, and sought to punish Earl Godwin for the murder of Alfred.  Godwin escaped the King’s wrath by presenting him with a warship, “with gilded prow, … weapons, and eighty picked soldiers whose persons and magnificent weapons glittered with gold.”  Godwin also claimed that the mutilation and death of Alfred had been all King Harold’s idea.

Edward, the oldest surviving half brother, came over from Normandy to become a member of Hardicanute’s household and share in ruling the kingdom.  This allowed Hardicanute to return to Denmark if necessary.  Edward was also appointed heir to the throne, which may only have been a courtesy, as Edward was much older than Hardicanute.

On June 8, 1042, Hardicanute suddenly collapsed at a wedding feast, and died soon after.  He was not mourned.  This was the end of Danish rule in England.  Edward, son of King Ethelred of Wessex and Emma of Normandy, exiled to Normandy for 25 years, became King.

Next:  Calm before the storm.

Edward the Confessor

Reigned 1042 – 1066

Edward had the good fortune to follow two unpopular short reigning kings and to be a descendent of Saxon kings rather than Danish.  He guaranteed his popularity by cutting defense taxes.  Monastic biographers later praised him for his piety and support of the church, and for the founding of Westminster Abbey.  His religious convictions were so strong that he may have been celibate–although married, he had no children.  His failure to produce an heir or otherwise provide for succession is a hint that although he may have been a good and respected man, he was not a very good king.

Early in his reign he managed, with the support of some key earls, to strip his Norman mother Emma of her wealth and power.  He also married Edith (Eadgyth), daughter of the powerful Earl Godwin.  But he had lived in Normandy for twenty-five years, and was not comfortable with English society and the court of Anglo-Danish warriors he inherited.  Instead, he surrounded himself with Norman advisors, and patronized Norman knights and clergy.  English nationalist earls were uncomfortable with this, but Edward pacified them with large grants of land.  Godwin was briefly exiled for his part in Alfred’s death, and Godwin’s son Sweyn was briefly outlawed for seducing an abbess, but generally Edward could not control his earls, and in his later years he was content to let them run the kingdom while he devoted himself to construction of his abbey.  Godwin’s son Harold looked after military affairs.

According to one source, stress from the power struggles between the king and his earls contributed to Edward’s death at age 63, but most sources suggest natural causes.  His quiet death after a long and peaceful reign was later seen by many as the end of a golden age.

Next: The Godwin family finally rules–briefly.

Harold II

Reigned 1066

Harold, second oldest son of the powerful Earl Godwin, was the effective ruler of England long before his brother-in-law King Edward died.  Sources disagree on whether Edward or the council choose him to rule, but either way the appointment was not secure.  King Hardrada of Norway, a son of King Edmund, and Duke William of Normandy all claimed hereditary rights to the throne.  William had other reasons for believing he should be the next king of England.  He once visited his great uncle King Edward and some sources claim he was promised the kingdom at that visit.  In addition, Harold had earlier pledged to support William’s claim for the throne, in exchange for being rescued from a shipwreck.

Harold spent the summer of 1066 waiting for the invasions and uncertain how much support he would get from the other powerful and jealous earls.  By September, his forces were weakened as men returned home to help with harvesting.  When the Norwegian King landed in northern England, Harold and his remaining troops raced north, and on September 25 they successfully defeated Hardrada and his forces.  Just a few days later William set sail for the south coast of England, and Harold rushed south.  Tired and understrength, Harold’s forces fought all day when they met William and his knights at Hastings on October 14, but fate was on William’s side.

Next: Doomsday.

William the Conqueror

Reigned 1066-1087

William, born in 1027, was the illegitimate and only son of Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy (Robert is also known as the Magnificent).  The Duke died on pilgrimage to Jerusalem when William was seven or eight.  For the next dozen years the boy learned hard lessons about government and war, while three of his guardians were murdered, until finally he was able to master his unruly barons.

When Edward the Confessor died, the now powerful Duke William felt the crown of England should be his.  He wife was a descendent of Alfred the Great, Edward may have promised the crown to him, and some powerful English earls supported his claim.  The last point allowed him easy entry into England, and a combination of the skill of his knights and Harold’s poor luck made William the conqueror.

It was not until five years after the conquest of 1066 that William had made his rule secure, by successfully quashing all rebellions and installing Norman supporters in the church, in the government, and on the land.  During his rule he reorganized the military and the land ownership system, built numerous castles, and collected high taxes, all to create a strong central government.  The taxes and some new laws were resented, but at the same time William was respected for keeping and enforcing many English laws.

A famous act of his reign was the creation of the Domesday Book.  This was a very detailed record of the rural economy, and included such items as the ownership and value of each plot of land, the rents paid, who lived on it, how much was pasture, how many fish ponds, and so on.  The aim of the document was to ensure the maximum in taxes could be collected.  It was known as the Domesday Book because there was no appeal against it–it was the final judgement.

Next: Ruthless Rufus.

William II

Reigned 1087-1100

William the Conqueror’s eldest son became the Duke of Normandy, but the tougher son William succeeded him in England.  By all accounts he was violent, both in his personal life and in his rule, but opinions differ on whether this made him a strong king or a bad king.  When Norman barons caused trouble in England the King had one of them, a cousin, “whipped in every church in Salisbury and hanged.”  On one occasion the militia were summoned for an expedition to Normandy.  This was an inappropriate use of the militia, but they never actually went to Normandy.  After gathering at the coast, they were relieved of their travelling funds and sent home.  William eventually occupied Normandy when his elder brother went on crusade.

At home, William won the support of many by pledging to enforce English laws, but sometimes this meant extremely harsh punishments, and other times he ignored his promises and responsibilities.  He was not without vision and purpose: He built the first Westminster Hall, part of the new palace of Westminster, and another sign of the shift of power from Anglo-Saxon Wessex to London.

He did not like the church, nor did the clergy like him.  Among other things, they criticized his trendy clean-shaven longhaired look.  His red hair gave him the nickname William Rufus.

His violent rule ended violently when he was shot by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest (established by his father).  Some sources refer to this as a suspicious hunting accident, while others name possible assassins.  He died unmarried and without any children.

Next:  The Lion of Justice.

Henry I

Reigned 1100-1135

William the Conqueror’s youngest son now ruled England.  His claim to the throne was weak, but he had been born in England, promised to uphold English law, learned to speak English, and married a descendent of Edmund Ironside, the last of the Saxon kings.  In addition, older brother Robert Curthose, the Duke of Normandy, was still on crusade.  They quarreled when Robert returned in 1101, but Henry kept England and became Duke of Normandy in 1105.

Like many younger sons who cannot count on getting into the family business, Henry was well educated (his nickname was Beauclerc).  He developed efficient and honest taxation from his father’s records, and royal justice was strengthened.  He was a very effective administrator who created lasting routines and institutions of bureaucracy, including the office of the exchequer.  State business continued at Westminster even when the court was travelling, and he created an inner council, known as the Curia Regis, to deal with various affairs of state and justice.  Henry was an effective diplomat, he chose his subordinates well, and he made peace with the church.

Henry was a skilled and respected king, strong without being tyrannical.  He had several mistresses and many children, but his only legitimate son drowned at sea.  He nominated his daughter Matilda to succeed him.  However, powerful councilors were not prepared for a female ruler, and Henry’s nephew Stephen became the next king.

Next:  Nineteen long winters.


Reigned 1135-1154

Stephen had sworn fealty to King Henry’s daughter Matilda, but on Henry’s death, Stephen claimed he had sworn the oaths under coercion, and that his cousin Matilda, the daughter of a nun, was illegitimate.  His claims, possibly combined with unease at the idea of a female ruler, were enough to get him the English crown.  Unfortunately, he was a mild man, and a poor ruler.

Welsh and Scots took advantage of his weakness and raided across borders, and in 1139, Matilda challenged his rule.  A civil war dragged on for years, thanks to poor strategy on Stephen’s part, and earls eager to increase their own power in the confusion.  Matilda was briefly the “Lady of the English” in 1141, but she was unable to establish herself as the ruler.

Matilda eventually withdrew her claim in favour of her son Henry, and when Stephen’s son and heir died of an illness in 1153, Stephen reluctantly named the 21 year old Henry Plantagenet his heir.  This ended the civil war, and Stephen died less than a year later.  He was a patron of religion, and there is some evidence that he was a man of good character, but he was the first weak king since the conquest, and England suffered under his rule.

Next:  The Richest Prince in Europe.

Henry II

Reigned 1154-1189

When the twenty-one year old Henry Plantagenet became King of England he moved quickly to restore the land and create an enduring administration.  His rule was unopposed and he certainly had no need to enlarge his holdings.  He was already the Duke of Normandy and the Count of Anjou, and in 1152 he had married Eleanor of Aquitaine.  She was the wealthy and divorced wife of French King Louis VII, and through her Henry gained control of several French territories.

Henry’s first task was to clean up after the civil war.  Within a few years foreign mercenaries were dismissed, illegal castles dismantled, and Crown Lands returned.  Henry then modified and centralized the justice system.  He transferred power from the Shire, Hundred, and Feudal courts, to the Royal Courts.  He also attempted to control the ecclesiastical courts, which brought him into conflict with the church.

Thomas Becket, the archdeacon of Canterbury, had long assisted Henry in his endeavours.  In 1162, Henry appointed Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, at least partly for help in bringing the church courts under royal control.  Much to Henry’s dismay, Becket became an ardent supporter of the rights of the church.  Henry’s conflict with the church was thus both legal and personal.  After eight years of quarrel, negotiation, and various political games, Becket was murdered.  Although Henry was not directly responsible, the deed was provoked by his own words, and public pressure forced him to purchase a papal absolution and give up getting control of the church courts.

From 1173 on, Henry was involved in numerous rebellions and minor wars.  He enlarged his French holdings and took some counties from Scotland, but much time was spent fighting his three eldest sons.  Henry had awarded them various titles but little real power.  The sons were encouraged to rebellion by Queen Eleanor, who resented Henry’s unfaithfulness, and supported by those who resented the King’s strong administration.  The sons also fought among themselves, and various French figures joined in, including Louis VII, the Queen’s first husband.

Henry alienated the church, and his wife, but among the people of England he became more popular every year.  He was educated, courteous, well read, and took an active role in the administration of justice.  By all accounts he was hardworking and dedicated to ensuring the country had good administration.  He had five sons, though one died young and another died in the rebellions, and three daughters.  He is also known to have had three illegitimate sons.  His most impressive accomplishment was the relative stability in England following his death and the absent rule of the next king.

Next:  A “shield of golden lions and scarlet crusader’s cross.”

Richard I

Reigned 1189-1199

Richard reigned for ten years, but he spent only six months in England.  Duke of Aquitaine until his father’s death, he crossed the channel for his coronation and stayed just a few months.  He spent that time selling anything he could, to raise money so he could join the third crusade.  He is reported to have said, “I would sell London if I could find a bidder.”  He auctioned public offices and granted many charters.  One charter allowed tournaments to be held in five places in England, so long as participants always acknowledged the king’s laws, respected the clerks on the field, and paid the necessary fees.

Richard went on crusade with Phillip II, King of France, and this common pursuit kept the two men from fighting for a time.  The quarrels they put aside included land disputes and Richard’s refusal to marry Phillip’s sister.  Richard defeated the Muslim leader Saladin at Arsuf, but could not take Jerusalem.  However, he did arrange a treaty allowing westerners access to Jerusalem.

While on crusade Richard managed to provoke many other rulers and, on his way home, Leopold of Austria took him hostage.  Leopold turned Richard over to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and German King.  Henry requested an enormous ransom–one source calculates the modern equivalent to be about five million dollars–and received most of it.  He also got Richard to swear fealty to him.  During this leadership vacuum Richard’s brother, John, attempted to seize the Kingdom, with the help of Phillip.  Richard’s servants were able to quell the rebellion and raise the ransom, which demonstrates both Richard’s good luck and the strength of the English bureaucracy and economy.

Freed early in 1194, Richard returned to England to assert his rule, punish the rebels, and raise more money.  After two months, he left, to defend Aquitaine and Normandy from Phillip.  The defense was costly, and the fighting dragged on for years.  Richard died from a crossbow wound received in a minor battle.

Richard’s military exploits and other continental adventures made him a hero of romances, and one modern source refers to him as a “magnificent leader” and “the hero of the crusades.”  However, his military actions include cruelty–one account reports the massacre of over two thousand Muslim prisoners.  In addition, Richard clearly neglected his duties as king.  Luck and skilful administrators held the kingdom together despite Richard’s absence and reckless financial policy.  Richard married while on crusade, but spent very little time with his wife and apparently had no children.  While absent from England he had appointed a nephew to be his heir, but on his deathbed he appointed his younger brother John to be his successor.

Next:  The luck runs out.


Reigned 1199-1216

John was a very poor king.  At the end of his reign, Normandy had been lost to the French king, the barons were in revolt, and England was a papal fief.  Battles with the French, the barons, and the church were nothing new for English kings, but John seems to have lacked the necessary diplomatic skills to maintain control of the country.  Some accounts vilify him as paranoid, undisciplined, and immoral, but others suggest that despite his faults he was not entirely to blame for England’s problems.

John grew up involved with his brothers in various plots to overthrow their father King Henry II.  Later, John plotted with the French king against John’s brother King Richard.  Richard had appointed a nephew to be heir, but on his deathbed asked his barons to swear fealty to John, although the nephew’s claim to the throne was stronger.  Coincidentally, the nephew was later murdered (not by John).  Given this background, a certain amount of paranoia is to be expected.  The French king, former ally, moved to take Normandy once John was King, and John also quarreled with the Pope over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Surrounded by enemies, he trusted few, took hostages to ensure co-operation of subjects, issued irresponsible pardons, and personally supervised tortures.

John’s arbitrary behaviour alienated many, as did his lack of resolution to follow through on great ventures, and his inability to see the forest for the trees.  It should be said that he was intelligent, highly interested in the administration of justice, and both skilled and interested in the minute details of government.  However, the barons were interested in reliable rule and protecting their rights and assets, and so forced John to sign the Magna Carta.  The Magna Carta (Latin for great charter) restored some of the rights John had taken from the barons, and granted new ones.  The value of the Magna Carta has been debated, but it is generally recognized as the beginnings of constitutional monarchy in England.

A divorce, a second marriage, and three illegitimate children could be seen as evidence of immoral behaviour, but regular readers of this series (or the newspapers) will know that moral weaknesses exist in both the good and poor rulers.  Though John clearly lacked the necessary skills to govern well, he was also unlucky.  The loss of Normandy was only a matter of time, and Richard prevented it from happening during his rule by reckless spending.  Richard’s spending led to severe taxation, and John became the target for anger over taxation.  At the same time, responding to John’s disagreement with the church, Pope Innocent III laid an interdict on England for five years.  This closures of churches, perhaps more than anything else, contributed to extremely harsh accounts of John, which have persisted to the present day.

Next:  Anachronistic rule.

Henry III

Reigned 1216-1272

King John’s unhappy reign ended when, at age forty-eight, he died in a war against barons.  At this time much of eastern England was under the rule of the French Prince Louis, later Louis VIII.  Barons in western England choose nine-year old Henry, John’s eldest son, to be their king.  The rebel eastern barons soon decided they would have more freedom with an English child king than a French prince, and the civil war ended.  An earl became Regent, and Henry was kept from power until 1227.

Once in power, Henry tried to gain back the continental lands and the baronial privileges that his father had lost.  His wife’s family and his mother’s family encouraged his territorial ambitions.  These expensive and anachronistic policies made him unpopular, and kept the pot of political intrigues simmering for years.  One result of Henry’s constant attempts to raise more tax money and increase his power was a larger, more powerful, and more representative council, sometimes referred to as the first parliament.  This illegal and ineffective body tried to restrain the King. Eventually barons rebelled again, and a combination of military and political blunders removed Henry from power.  The established bureaucracy kept the machinery of government moving, and Henry’s son Edward ruled for him.

Henry’s character has been described as “child-like,” in the worst sense of the expression.  He believed he had a divine right to power and respect, and he had no tolerance for other points of view.  This may be an unfortunate result of becoming king while still a child.  Despite Henry’s faults and weakness, it is worth noting that he did what he thought would be best for his country.  He was also a well-educated patron of literature, and a patron of the church.  His most notable achievement was the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey.

Next:  At last–a great king.

Edward I

Reigned 1272-1307

Edward was everything one expects in a medieval English King.  He was tall, handsome, and fit, and his pleasures included hawking, hunting, and tournaments.  He was a good soldier, and a respected leader of men at arms.  He was crowned at thirty-five, although he had ruled for his father for several years already.  In his youth he learned both military and diplomatic skills, and witnessed the horrors of civil war and weak rule.

Edward was a good administrator, who enforced the laws, and used the new concept of a parliament, now larger, more representative, and legal, to gain popular support for his new laws.  These laws covered everything from how the exchequer operated to how bushes were cleared from the roadsides.  He was not a creative man, but he recognized good ideas, and knew he needed a strong and popular government to put ideas into action.

A strong government can be popular at home, but foreign conflict is inevitable.  France, Scotland, Wales, and the church all posed challenges that Edward met.  Despite trying to limit church authority, the king was a religious man, in the manner of his time.  He was on crusade when his father died, and he expelled Jews from England in 1290, in the midst of trying to settle various domestic affairs.

Edward was a devoted and faithful husband.  He had thirteen children, but three of his four sons died young.  As a father, he ruled a little too strongly, and displayed a fierce temper sometimes seen in public life as well.  His son was a disappointment to him.

There is a story that Edward promised rebellious Welsh a leader born in their country who spoke no English – and then presented them with his own infant son, born there and too young to speak at all.  Facts prove the legend false, but it remains a good story.

Edward ruled for about 35 years, giving stability to his reforms and leadership.  He died enroute to Scotland, leading his army to put down a rebellion.  Respected in court and on the field, Edward I was by most measures a good king.

Next:  A woman scorned.

Edward II

Reigned 1307-1327

Edward II was physically similar to his father, but completely different in character.  He had no interest in matters of state, and spent his time involved in such common activities as wrestling, rowing, and play-acting.  His common interests and companions alarmed the barons, and they particularly resented his close relationship with a knight’s son, Piers Gaveston.  Edward showered Piers with gifts and titles, and Piers insulted various powerful figures with his wit and presumption.  The barons eventually had Piers banished, and when he returned a short time later he was killed by the leader of the barons, Edward’s cousin Thomas.

Edward was too weak a leader to avenge the death of his friend, so his handling of Scotland is not surprising.  Edward did nothing until Robert Bruce had almost completed the uniting of Scotland.  Then Edward led a poorly organized army into Scotland, where they were thoroughly defeated at Bannockburn, by a Scottish army they outnumbered four to one.  Edward survived, now even weaker and more dependent on the barons.

Struggles with the barons went on until Edward’s wife Isabella had enough.  She was particularly annoyed with the close relationship between Edward and a baron’s son.  Isabella and her lover, an exiled baron, raised a small army, took Edward prisoner, forced him to renounce the crown in favour of his son, and killed him.

Next:  A busy man.

Edward III

Reigned 1327-1377

Edward III became king at age fifteen, under the control of his mother and her lover.  He had witnessed the fall of his father, the weak Edward II, and that probably left him determined to be a better and stronger ruler.  He started with family life.  He married at sixteen, and by eighteen he had a son, the first of his twelve children.  Later that year, with the help of friends, he managed the arrest and execution of his mother’s lover.  He did not punish his mother, but her political power was over, and Edward became king in deed as well as in name.

Edward III was a capable leader and ambitious for military glory.  In 1340 he declared himself King of France, and the Hundred Years War was underway.  Thanks to good battle strategy, the use of longbows, and assistance from his son, he earned that glory in many battles with French forces, especially with a decisive victory at Crécy in 1346.  Lack of funds prevented further fighting in France then, but the war continued on and off until 1453.

Celebrations of the victories in France included many lavish tournaments, and Edward tried to re-create Arthurian chivalric ideals and revels in his court.  In 1347, he established the Knights of the Blue Garter (Order of the Garter), with himself and twenty-six companions the first members.  Edward even built a round tower in Windsor castle, to house a round table where he and his fellow knights could meet.

The tide began to turn in 1348, when the Plague arrived in England for the first time.  Its effects, though serious, were not destructive to the growing bureaucracy that was gradually removing the king from government.  Parliament, still an instrument of the King’s will, was becoming more established, and during Edward’s reign the upper and lower houses (Lords and Commons) developed.  Meanwhile, English displaced French as the language of the courts, and it was an English that we can more or less read today.  (“A Knight ther was…he loved chivalrye…with him ther was his sone, a young squyer…of twenty years of age he was, I gesse.”)  Chaucer was a member of the Royal Household, and in 1360 Edward helped pay Chaucer’s ransom after he was captured while delivering letters in France.

The Plague returned in 1362 and 1369, worsening problems caused during the initial outbreak.  Financial distress at all levels of society led to an anti-clerical sentiment, and in 1366 Edward III rejected England’s status as a papal fief (first accepted by Richard I).  The French lands won earlier began slipping away, and the aging Edward lacked the skills, people, and funds to keep them.  His sons, including John of Gaunt, founder of the House of Lancaster, and Edmund of Langley, founder of the house of York, fought, and in 1377 his eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, died.  (Since the 16th century, Edward of Woodstook has been known as Edward the Black Prince, apparently because he wore black armor.)  Soon after Edward himself died.  He had ambition but lacked long term vision and resources.

Next:  Little Richard and the Rioters.

Richard II

Reigned 1377-1399

Richard was nine or ten when his grandfather, King Edward III, died.  A council of aristocrats ruled for him, but they were pre-occupied with their own interests as a group and individually.  Meanwhile, the English people, especially the poor, struggled with the social and economic consequences of the war with France and the plague.  Widespread unrest turned to rebellion in 1381 when the government established a head tax.

The rebels marched into London, burning buildings and, according to one source, killing public officials.  Richard and civic leaders went to meet the mob.  When the rebel’s leader was killed in a scuffle, Richard called on the rebels to accept him as their leader.  His diplomacy and courage, at age fourteen, was enough to end the rebellion.  Peasants did not benefit from the rebellion, as promised charters never materialized, but Richard gained power and respect (except from peasants).

One of Richard’s first aims when he began to rule for himself was to end the war with France.  He wanted a strong monarchy, and the costs of war made that difficult.  At this time there was already a temporary peace.  England had not been active in the war due to lack of interest and funds, and France was preoccupied with internal conflicts.  A boy had been crowned king, and his uncles were fighting among themselves.  Richard wanted to make the peace permanent, but he had to deal with his own uncles.  The idea of peace without victory, and the loss of profits from military excursions, did not sit well with the some of the aristocracy, and Richard’s youngest uncle gathered enough support to use armies and parliament to strip Richard of his powers.  Richard’s quick attempt to regain power backfired, and many of his supporters were exiled or executed.

By 1389, the government had settled down.  Richard ruled in co-operation with parliament and a council of lords, and his powerful uncles kept each other in check.  Richard quietly moved to make peace with France, and after the death of his first wife he married the seven-year-old daughter of the French king.  As part of the deal, the French king promised to support Richard against Richard’s subjects if necessary.  Richard also made an ally of Pope Boniface IX.  The pope was not pleased with England’s earlier rejection of papal fiefdom, or the anti-clerical sentiment in England, but at this time there was a rival pope, recognized by France, and Boniface was keen to strengthen ties with England.  During an expedition to Ireland, Richard practiced enforcing royal authority where it was often neglected, and raised his own army.

In 1397 Richard suddenly arrested his youngest uncle and had him executed.  The uncle’s supporters were executed or exiled, and the laws that forced Richard to rule with a council were declared illegal.  Richard’s friends on the council, including his cousin Henry, were rewarded for their support of these actions.  Now free to rule as he wished, Richard tried to control local governments, imposed arbitrary taxes, and otherwise abused his powers.  Among other acts, Henry was denied his inheritance and exiled.  Richard, never popular due to everything from his preference for peace over war to his use of handkerchiefs, had now created a leader for his growing number of enemies.

Richard went on another expedition to Ireland in 1399, taking his most capable supporters with him.  His attention to Great Britain rather than continental adventures was a wise policy, but it was the wrong time to go.  Henry took advantage of his absence to return to England, where many powerful lords welcomed him.  When Richard returned to England he was captured by Henry and imprisoned.  Parliament was told that Richard had cheerfully and voluntarily abdicated, and Henry claimed the throne.  Soon after, Richard died in prison.  His youthful courage and his vision of a strong monarchy had led to fatal misjudgments.

Next:  Rebellion for a king, rebellion against a king.

Henry IV

Reigned 1399-1413

Henry came to the throne as a mature, experienced knight.  He had been on crusade to Jerusalem, and traveled through Eastern Europe.  At home, he had fought against his cousin Richard II, for Richard II, and against him again.  His claim to the throne was very weak, but he was a military and political veteran, backed by powerful lords.  Parliament accepted him, and in return he promised to restore good government to the country.

Henry did not get a chance to prove his intentions.  Rebellion, dissent, and conflict came from every direction.  Parliament limited his resources, and the powerful lords who had supported him now expected their various demands to be met.  Friends of the deposed Richard plotted against him, and the war with France became an issue again.  There were also military threats from Wales, Scotland, and within England, especially Northumberland.

The Lollards were another problem for Henry.  This religious movement criticized the excesses and mysticism of the church, and was seen as a threat to both the church and the state.  Deeply religious, eager for church support, and also threatened by the Lollards, Henry helped the church to suppress them.  He obtained a law from parliament condemning unlicensed preaching and permitting the burning of heretics.  In practice, the prosecution of Lollards was limited to the lower middle class.  There were many Lollards among the gentry, but Henry could not afford to confront them.

After nine years of conflict, Henry had eliminated most threats to his rule.  Invading armies were repelled and enemies were beheaded or exiled.  Now he was free to act on his promise to restore good government, but he was no longer the powerful and respected knight he had been.  His actions to suppress rebellions cost him popular support and the struggle cost him his health.  Many believed his poor health was a judgement for his execution of the rebellious Archbishop of York.  For almost two years, Henry had no real authority at all, and his son carried out French expeditions contrary to Henry’s wishes.  Henry reasserted himself late in 1411, but with limited effect.  On March 20, 1413, he collapsed and died while praying in Westminster Abbey.  He was forty-six years old.

Next:  What might have been.

Henry V

Reigned 1413-1422

Henry succeeded to the throne at age twenty-five, experienced in political and military combat.  Lollard knights quickly rebelled, and were put down just as quickly.  He then restored titles and lands to many that had lost them under Henry IV.  His energy and devotion to justice, as well as his strong faith, charm, and military skill, brought domestic peace and secured his rule.

For better and worse, Henry was not content to lead England.  He believed in the already outdated concept of king as national hero and religious leader, and set out to accomplish great deeds.  His goals included ruling France, ending the Great Schism (rival Popes), and leading a crusade to Jerusalem.

As prince, Henry had fought in France, and knew it was weakened by political instability.  Once crowned, he claimed France as his rightful land, noting that his great-great-grandmother, the wife of Edward II, had been French.  The Hundred Years War was on again.  Through skilful diplomacy and military activity, Henry achieved numerous victories.  The most famous was the battle of Agincourt, where a smaller English force defeated the French, killing and capturing many nobles.

By 1420, Henry was the regent of France, married to the French King’s daughter, and had arranged for his heir to succeed to the French and English crowns.  In other matters, Henry had helped elect a compromise Pope, Martin V, thus ending the Great Schism, and had started to collect information in preparation for a crusade to Jerusalem.  He was well on his way to achieving his goals, but not there yet.

Securing English rule in France was proving costly, and parliament was becoming increasingly reluctant to grant the necessary funds.  Territories in France that had not been conquered refused to accept Henry as King, and it was at the long siege of one of these territories that Henry contracted dysentery.  He died at age thirty-five, and was mourned and remembered as a great man, struck down at the height of his power.  Whether the conquest of France, and the crusade, could have been achieved by Henry, and paid for by England, is uncertain.  What is certain is that Henry’s successor, his infant son, could not build on his father’s achievements.

Next:  From minority to insanity.

Henry VI

Reigned 1422-1461, 1470-1471

Henry VI was nine months old when he was crowned King of England, and not much older when he was crowned King of France.  The real power rested with various earls and dukes, who fought among themselves.  The situation did not change when Henry came of age.  He was deeply religious and devoted to education.  An example of the latter is his establishment of King’s College at Cambridge, and King’s College of Our Lady of Eton (generally just called Eton).  However, he had no military skill, and he was far too gentle to take charge of his divided country.  He had no vision, he was too trusting to resist bad advice, and too loyal to dismiss unpopular ministers.  His simple and honest but weak nature degenerated into insanity, at first temporarily, and later permanently.  He was a passive player in the two great events of his reign, the end of the Hundred Years War with France, and the start of the domestic War of the Roses.  The sad result of his rule was a country where the nobles fought and the common people suffered poor government.

The Hundred Years War had been dragging on since 1337.  Under Henry V, there had been great victories, but at great cost, and the English forces were starting to run short of money.  Without the strong hand of Henry V the soldiers were also becoming undisciplined, making them less effective fighters and increasing the resentment of the French people towards the English occupation.  Against this background Joan of Arc appeared.

Joan was a young peasant girl, who convinced the French prince of her divine inspiration.  She was given some military authority, and inspired French troops to victory at Orleans.  She was later captured and sold to the English, who turned her over to French clerics that supported the English.  Her claim of divine inspiration was considered witchcraft and heresy since it did not recognize the traditional church hierarchy, and she was burned at stake by secular authorities on May 30, 1430.  The trial was declared invalid in 1456, and she was made a saint in 1920.

Despite Joan’s death, or perhaps because of it, the French were able to defeat the English in many areas of France.  Some factions in England wanted the war to end, and in 1445 Henry married a French princess, Margaret of Anjou, as part of a truce.  By 1453, the English were completely out of France, except for Calais, which remained English for another hundred years.

Peace abroad did not mean peace at home.  In 1453 Henry suffered an episode of madness, and a struggle over the kingship began.  On Henry’s side were his strong willed queen and powerful nobles that benefited from his rule.  On the other side were more nobles, and descendants of Edward III with a stronger claim to the throne than Henry (also a descendant of Edward III).  Henry came from the house of Lancaster, which had a red rose for a badge.  The other line of descent was through the house of York, which had a white rose for a badge.  Hence the name War of the Roses.

The War of Roses is a story of shifting alliances, compromises, betrayals, and other interesting stuff which this primer does not have room to include.  Edward IV, of the house of York, was crowned in 1461 and Henry went into exile in Scotland.  His madness became permanent.  A decade later he was restored to the throne, in name only, for six months.  Edward returned, many of the Lancaster side, including Henry’s only son, were killed in a battle, and Henry died, almost certainly murdered, in prison.  Margaret, who had led armies in support of her husband and son, was also imprisoned, but she returned to France in 1476 and died in poverty.

Next:  How to make money invading France.

Edward IV

Reigned 1461-1483

Edward IV came to power in the midst of the War of the Roses, when the House of York defeated the House of Lancaster.  He was a nineteen year old soldier and, like his cousin the defeated Henry VI, a descendant of Edward III.  Unlike his cousin, Edward IV was a capable soldier, strong willed, popular, and fond of wine, women, and song.  He could also be cunning when necessary.

Edward owed his position to the many earls that supported him, and one, the Earl of Warwick, hoped to further himself by arranging a marriage between Edward and a member of the French royal family.  Warwick was not amused when Edward announced he was already married, to a beautiful young widow, from a relatively ordinary family, whose husband had been a knight on the Lancaster side.  To make matters worse, Edward arranged good jobs and marriages for other members of her family.  Warwick retaliated by working with Henry VI’s wife to restore her feeble-minded husband to the throne, and they succeeded in 1471.  Edward had established his own resources and foreign alliances, and quickly defeated Warwick and the Lancaster forces.

The rest of Edward’s reign was a time of peace and prosperity.  Many of the king’s opponents were dead, or in prison, with their property confiscated.  Many of the king’s powerful supporters, who expected to have influence over him and could be just as dangerous as his opponents, were also dead.  The confiscated property helped secure the king’s financial position, as did a treaty with France.  In 1475, Edward invaded France, partly to satisfy some militant supporters.  The French king offered to buy a peace treaty, and Edward readily agreed.  Money from the treaty went to both the country and to Edward personally.

The growing merchant class in England was happy with the treaty, as it allowed for greater trade.  They were also happy the country was at peace, both domestically and internationally.  The middle classes had little interest in succession battles–they just wanted law and order.

Edward grew into a capable administrator and a patron of the arts.  He was a patron of William Caxton, who set up the first printing press in England in 1476.  Edward left the day to day details of running the country to parliament and capable advisors while he participated in trade ventures with merchants and various other pleasures, including many mistresses.  He died happy, popular, and wealthy, at age forty.

Next:  A sad episode.

Richard III

Reigned 1483-1485

The early death of Edward IV left a power vacuum, as Edward’s oldest son, Edward V, was about twelve years old.  Various uncles fought for control of the throne and the War of the Roses resumed.  Shortly before Edward V was to be crowned, his Uncle Richard (Edward’s brother) imprisoned him and his younger brother in the tower of London.  Richard then declared the boys illegitimate on the grounds that Edward IV’s secret marriage was invalid, and, with a show of reluctance, was crowned as the legitimate heir.  The boys were never seen again.  (The skeletons of two children were discovered in the tower almost 200 years later.)

Various powerful individuals assisted Richard III in his schemes, and there was little opposition to his claim to the throne.  Most people wanted a strong king and peace, and Richard had executed several of the nobility who were against him.  However, within a few months of Richard’s coronation, rumors began to circulate that Edward IV’s young sons were dead.  When Richard could not prove they were alive, he lost supporters and gained new enemies.  Even in the political climate of the time, the murder of young boys, one of them the king, by their uncle, was seen as shocking.  Richard found himself opposed by nobles in his own House of York as well as the House of Lancaster.

Richard’s military skill and ruthlessness enabled him to hold on to power for two years.  In that time he managed to show he was a wise and capable ruler, despite the opposition, and the deaths of his wife and his only son.  His time ran out in August of 1485 when the widely supported Lancaster claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, arrived from Brittany.  At the battle of Bosworth, many of Richard’s men refused to fight or changed sides.  Richard died in battle, and Henry claimed the crown.

Next:  Red and White united.

Henry VII

Reigned 1485-1509

Henry Tudor’s hereditary claim to the throne was very weak, but he was the head of the House of Lancaster, and opposition to Richard III meant he also had supporters from the House of York.  Technicalities and popularity aside, Henry’s forces had defeated King Richard, and Henry claimed the crown due to that victory.  Well aware that the next claimant could try to defeat him in battle, he took numerous steps to consolidate his position.

Henry started his reign by marrying Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV.  This united the Houses of York and Lancaster, and ended the War of the Roses.  The War had thinned the ranks of the nobility to such an extent that Henry was able to choose new councilors who depended on him for their power, and he used his councils to keep other powerful individuals in check.  Henry also carefully accumulated wealth, to avoid financial obligations, and worked hard on foreign relations, to maintain allegiances and to promote trade.  A peace treaty signed with Scotland in 1499 led to the marriage of his eldest daughter to the King of Scotland, and eventually this brought about the union of Scotland and England.

Henry faced minor rebellions throughout his reign, and he could be ruthless in his treatment of potential claimants to the throne.  He was an autocratic ruler, and there were only seven parliaments in the twenty-four years of his reign.  However, the country prospered with good, stable government, and people were prepared to tolerate some excess power in the hand of the King if it meant peace in the land.

Some sources claim Henry VII’s reign was a new era in the government of England, but others point out that he was merely wise enough to apply the lessons of his successful predecessors: Avoid wars, keep the nobility in check and happy, administer justice firmly and fairly, maintain good relations with other countries and the church, marry well, and don’t die young.

Next:  He needed a divorce, or two.

Henry VIII

Reigned 1509-1547

Henry inherited the crown, and the enormous wealth his father had generated for it, at the age of eighteen.  Initially he left the administration of the kingdom to others, and enjoyed music, poetry, and sports.  He also took part in invasions of France, encouraged by his advisors, and turned his interest in naval warfare into development of the Royal Navy.  Meanwhile the country prospered under the efficient stewardship of Thomas Wolsey, a churchman from humble origins who became the richest and most powerful man in the country.  As Henry matured he took an interest in politics, and began to pay attention to discontent with the church, and the power and wealth of the church.  He also became concerned about producing a male heir.

Henry had married his older brother’s widow shortly after he was crowned.  He was opposed to the marriage, and there were doubts about its validity, but his father, Henry VII, had arranged it.  His wife Catherine had a girl, Mary, in 1515, but by 1527 it was apparent that there would not be a male heir, and Henry had become fond of Anne Boyeln, granddaughter of a wealthy merchant.  Wolsey assured Henry a divorce could be readily obtained, and a request was sent to Pope Clement VII.

Clement was in a difficult spot.  He wanted to assist Henry, because Henry was a strong supporter of the Catholic Church, even writing a book defending the papacy against Luther, in 1521.  As a reward, Clement had given Henry the title “Defender of the Faith.”  On the other hand, Clement could not afford to offend Catherine.  She was an aunt of Emperor Charles V, a necessary ally of the Pope.  When Clement delayed making a decision, Henry decided to take matters into his own hands.

Henry dismissed Wolsey and appointed a married churchman, Thomas Cramner, as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Cramner pronounced Catherine divorced, and Henry married Anne in 1533.  Henry then increased the size and power of parliament, and took advantage of the anti-clerical sentiment in parliament to pass a series of laws which ended all links with the papacy, proclaimed the king head of the Church of England, closed all monasteries, and confiscated their property.

The creation of the Church of England was an important part of the Reformation, but Henry’s motivation was only to get his divorce, and seize the power and wealth of the church.  He was opposed to Protestant beliefs.  Likewise, he did not create a more powerful parliament out of a love of democracy.  Parliament was simply a way to implement his policies.

Henry’s desire for strong rule led to war with Scotland, an attempt to conquer Ireland, and the incorporation of Wales into England in 1536.  Meanwhile, the religious upheaval led to internal rebellions, the threat of crusade against England, and the beheading of numerous officials who found themselves disagreeing with Henry’s current outlook.  His policies may have created division, but his firm rule prevented those divisions from damaging the country and helped it thrive.

Henry’s political skills, confidence, popularity, and ruthlessness allowed him to wield enormous power and wealth.  Despite this, or maybe because of this, he was not able to have a successful marriage.  His second wife Anne gave birth to Elizabeth, and was later convicted of adultery and beheaded in 1536.  Henry immediately married Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to Edward in 1537.  In 1540 Henry married Anne of Cleves, largely for political reasons, and soon divorced her because he did not like her and the political need evaporated.  In 1542 Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was convicted of adultery and beheaded, and he married Catherine Parr.  He died in 1547.

Next:  The boy never had a chance.

Edward VI

Reigned 1547-1553

Before he died, Henry VIII tried to prepare for the future.  Edward, nine years old and his only son, had never been very healthy and was not expected to live long.  Henry appointed the councilors to act during his son’s minority, and arranged for his technically illegitimate daughters Mary and Elizabeth to succeed if Edward died without heirs.

For several years Edward’s uncle, the Duke of Somerset, controlled the council.  Under his guidance, some degree of religious freedom was allowed.  Somerset was sympathetic to peasant concerns arising out of inflation and the closing of monasteries, but when hopeful peasants rebelled against the government, the Duke of Northumberland defeated the rebels, took over the council, and executed Somerset.

Northumberland was ambitious, and tried to get the now dying Edward to arrange matters so that the throne would pass to Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry VII, instead of Mary.  Mary was a devout Catholic, while Jane was a Protestant.  Jane was also sixteen, and married to Northumberland’s son.  Sources disagree on whether Northumberland persuaded Edward, but when he died Northumberland proclaimed Lady Jane Grey Queen.  He lacked support for his rebellion, and succeeded only in creating support for the ascension of Mary.

Next: The bitter, lonely Queen.

Mary I

Reigned 1553-1558

In her youth, Mary suffered many indignities and hardships arising out of her father’s divorce, her subsequent illegitimacy, and her father’s remarriages.  Numerous marriages were proposed for her, but came to nothing.  Her life became even harder when her young half-brother Edward became king, and her devout Catholic religious beliefs were criticized.  However, when Edward died, she ascended to the throne with a wave of popular support.  Once queen, she set about to restore the Catholic faith, which would also render Henry’s divorce invalid and restore her legitimacy.

Lacking trusted advisors in England, she relied heavily on her Spanish cousin Charles V for political guidance.  She happily entered a marriage with Charles’s son and heir, Philip of Spain.  The decision to marry a foreigner was widely condemned at home and the cause of several rebellions.  The marriage proved disastrous for both personal and political reasons.  Philip, eleven years younger than Mary, had no interest in her.  He came to England just long enough for the wedding, and possibly made a second brief visit.  Meanwhile, the marriage obliged England to join Spain’s war with France.  The result of this unpopular conflict was the loss of Calais.

For religious guidance Mary relied on another cousin, the exiled Cardinal Pole.  The decision to restore Catholicism proved just as ill advised as her marriage.  Confiscated monasteries were not required to be returned to the church, but Mary paid for the return of some, and rumors spread that others would eventually be returned by force.  The old heresy laws were restored, and roughly three hundred Protestants were burned at stake.  The public burnings and other harsh policies turned the English firmly against Catholicism and Mary, and earned Mary Tudor the nickname “Bloody Mary.”

Mary suffered numerous illnesses in her life, and was only forty-two when she died.  Some historians make apologies for the hardships during her reign, noting that she was generous and considerate with the poor, not personally inclined to cruelty, and had the best of intentions.  However, when she died there was much rejoicing, and there is agreement that her reign was among the darkest periods of English history.

Next:  A great age.

Elizabeth I

Reigned 1558-1603

Elizabeth ascended to the throne at age twenty-five, well educated and a survivor of the politics of the day.  During Mary’s rule Mary’s Spanish supporters and other claimants to the throne threatened Elizabeth and she spent time in prison.  She managed to avoid being caught up in plots to overthrow Mary, and she accepted Catholicism when it became the law of the land.  Elizabeth also knew the dangers of mixing love and politics.  She had seen her father’s and Mary’s marriages, and at an early age she had received the attentions of a married man.  He was later executed for such inappropriate behaviour, and she was extensively questioned.  Once Queen, she applied her survival skills and courage to government.

Elizabeth, like her father Henry VIII, believed in strong rule, but, unlike her father, she recognized the need for popular support, and carefully selected her advisors.  She re-established the Church of England, and allowed the faith to be a compromise between Catholicism and Protestant doctrine.  Her foreign policy consisted largely of holding out the prospect of possible marriage, which encouraged peace.

During Elizabeth’s rule trade flourished and England began to expand overseas.  The Englishman Francis Drake sailed around the world from 1577 to 1580, a feat first done by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan in a Spanish expedition sixty years earlier.  Drake also led expeditions that captured Spanish treasures from Spain’s ships and colonies.

The aggressive English naval activities invited war, and at the same time a domestic threat existed in the presence of Mary Stuart, who had fled Scotland and was a rival for the English throne.  Elizabeth initially sheltered Mary, but eventually had to order her executed in 1587.  In 1588 the Spanish Armada, a fleet of 130 ships and 30,000 men, was sent to invade England.  English ships repelled the invasion, and the Armada returned home with half its ships lost.  The victory was a sign of England’s rise as a sea power, and Spain’s fall, and boosted national pride.

Elizabeth’s reign was the height of the renaissance in England.  For forty-five years she kept the country at relative peace and allowed it to prosper.  “You may well have a greater prince,” she once said, but “you shall never have a more loving one.”  She always put the country before herself, and if that meant lying, worshipping in accordance with the political wind, or executing a favorite companion for treason, she would do it.  Her dedication and patriotism were good for the country, but she was conscious of the lack of an heir and her later years were lonely.

Next:  Four hundred years later, another Elizabeth.

Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II

James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, succeeded Elizabeth.  He was a descendant of Henry VII.  This is the James of the King James Bible.  Persecution of Puritans during his reign drove a group of them to leave for North America in the Mayflower.  His son Charles I was even less popular than James, and conflict between king and parliament led to the English Civil War.  Charles was executed for treason in 1649 and the monarchy was abolished.

For much of the next eleven years Oliver Cromwell, a gentleman farmer who became a skilled military leader and a good administrator, ruled England.  Struggles between ruler and parliament continued.  Despite Cromwell’s relative religious tolerance, theatres were closed and dancing was prohibited, for religious reasons.

The monarchy, as well as dancing and theatre, returned when the popular and fun loving Charles II was crowned in 1660.  However, the question of parliamentary authority continued under his rule and became more urgent under his brother, the unpopular James II.  James tried to restore Catholicism and rule as an absolute monarch.  The result was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which James was deposed and replaced by William and Mary.  William and Mary were husband and wife, cousins, and both descendants of Charles I.  They ruled jointly until Mary’s death, and William continued as William III.  They accepted the 1689 Bill of Rights that stated that sovereignty rested with parliament, and no Roman Catholic would rule England.

Mary’s sister Anne ruled from 1702 to 1714.  During her reign Parliament became stronger and the crown became weaker.  Anne died without surviving children, so the throne passed to George I, ruler of a small German state and a distant relative of James I.  He never learned to speak English, and took little interest in politics, so it is no surprise that Parliament developed a Cabinet and a Prime Minister.  His son George II took a more active role in government, and was the last English monarch to lead troops in battle.  George II’s grandson, George III, wanted to rule personally, but succeeded only in increasing the power of parliament and encouraging the American Revolution.  An inherited disease left him temporarily, and later permanently, insane.  His son George IV’s legacy is the unusual and luxurious Royal Pavilion that still draws tourists in Brighton.  William IV, George IV’s younger brother, took little interest in politics but did assist passage of a law allowing more people to vote for Members of Parliament.

Queen Victoria, the niece of William IV, reigned for a record sixty-four years.  Since George I, the English rulers also ruled Hanover, a small German state, but as Victoria was ineligible to succeed there, the link to Germany was broken.  Her nine children married into royal families across Europe.  Her eldest son, Edward VII, became King at sixty and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son George V, nine years later.  During World War I George V gave up all his German titles, and changed the name of the Royal House from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.

Edward VIII, eldest son of George V, was briefly king in 1936.  Parliament, already angry with him for his interference in politics, ordered him to abdicate when he announced his intention to marry a twice-divorced American woman.  Edward’s brother George VI was next in line.  Like his father, he never expected to become king.  When George died in 1952, his eldest daughter Elizabeth became Queen.

Elizabeth II (Elizabeth I in Scotland), born in 1926, has four children: Charles, Anne, Andrew, and Edward.  Charles, now fifty-one, has two children, William and Henry.

God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen.
Thy choicest gifts in store
On her be pleased to pour,
Long may she reign.
May she defend our laws,
And give us ever cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the Queen.
17th century, anonymous.

Next: Enjoy history in the making.  The primer is done.


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British Royal Family Web Site.

Davis, Henry William Carless.  “Henry I.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  1943.

— “Henry II.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  1943.

— “Henry III.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  1943.

— “John.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  1943.

— “Richard II.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  1943.

— “Stephen.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  1943.

— “William I.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.  1943.

“Edward” Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. 1995.

“Edward V” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943

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Gairdner, James.  “Mary I.”  Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943

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Humble, Richard. The Saxon Kings. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1980.

Kingsford, Charles Lethbridge.  “Edward IV.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

— “Henry IV.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

— “Henry VI.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

— “Richard II.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

— “Richard III.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

“Matilda.” Concise Columbia Encyclopedia.  1995.

“Mary ” Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. 1995.

Myers, A.R.  England in the Late Middle Ages.  Rev. 8th ed.  The Pelican History of England.  4.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Peach, L Du Garde.  Kings and Queens.  Ladybird, Loughborough, 1968.

Phillips, Charles Stanley. “Edward.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

“Richard” Concise Columbia Encyclopedia.  1995

“Stephen.” Concise Columbia Encyclopedia.  1995.

Stenton, Doris Mary.  English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066-1307).  4th ed.  The Pelican History of England.  3.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

Tout, Thomas Frederick. “Edward I.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

— “Edward II.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

— “Edward III.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

Whitlock, Ralph. The Warrior Kings of Saxon England. Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker, 1977.

“William.”  Concise Columbia Encyclopedia.  1995.

“William II.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1943.

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 1999, All Rights Reserved.

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