There is not much commendable to record about the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. However, there is evidence that citizens enforced to stay at home are discovering new hobbies, new neighbourliness and new patterns of life. I too wanted to make this period of self-isolation count in some useful ways. What to do? Learn the cello (impossible), Welsh (unlikely), juggling (possible), or what about a bash at boosting my appalling grasp of history (likely)? Of all the holes in my education, history is the gaping chasm. My excuse is that between my two secondary schools I studied the Egyptians, the Romans and then the Second World War. In most conversations about antiquity I can legitimately excuse myself claiming that it is ‘not my period’.
I also never really got on with
history. I liked hard
science - history was a bit woolly. Why
look back at old stuff? Science
was about the new stuff. My
dislike of the subject was cemented by an incident in form
3A at Reading School. The
history teacher, Mr ‘Bowlegs’ Bowyer, set the class
reading a chapter from the set book while I sneakily read
the latest edition of the New Musical
Express, the teenage-lauded NME. ‘Bowlegs’
caught me, rolled up the newspaper, swiped me round the
head with it and then confiscated it. I
hated both him and his subject as only a stupid
14-year-old can do.
Sixty years later, I came across Andrew Gimson’s book, Kings & Queens. Who could object to a survey of ten centuries of English history in just 240 pages? Who could object to its terse introductory style statement, ‘The story opens with an illegal immigrant, William the Conqueror’? This is my kind of history, amusing history - the very model of a modern oxymoron.
And so this majestic kaleidoscope begins with William I (1066-1087) and marches through the Henrys, Edwards, Georges and several others, up to Elizabeth II (1952-20??). All those distant dynasties such as the Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, right up to the Windsors. Who are these suzerain people? I should know, but regrettably I don’t.
The following is not so much a
review of the book, but more my chronological aide-mémoire
to these Ks & Qs. It
is history old skool. It
is my facts-and-figures style of history in just seven lines
per monarch – my regal heptastichs
(no, me neither). Alas, while that
structure worked well on my PC in Word Arial 12, it
annoyingly collapsed on my website in SeaMonkey Verdana
Small. The structure is therefore now perhaps better
described, though more prosaically so, as just 87 words
per monarch. No matter, they are still mostly
Gimson’s original comments condensed by me – my
paraphrase of his synopsis. It is
therefore a rather personal choice and not to be held in
great store by anyone. But,
at least, there is none of that empathetic malarkey –
'Describe how you would feel if told you were one of Charles
II’s illegitimate children.' On
the other hand, the selection is quite quirky, with probably
too much emphasis on the monarchs’ spouses, their fecundity
and heights. But that’s
So to start. First, a little context. Edward the Confessor, the son of Aethelred the Unready and his second wife, Emma of Normandy, was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and he ruled from 1042 until 1066. He had spent much of his early life in Normandy living under the protection of the Dukes of Normandy while the Danes ruled England. Edward is regarded as a gentle and peaceable man, yet his death sparked one of the bloodiest periods in English history as rival claimants to the crown of England battled it out.
William I, aka the Conqueror, the reddish-haired, five-foot ten-inches warrior had, in 1051, married the tiny, four-foot tall Matilda. She bore him nine children. In 1066, the brutal and illiterate William landed in England and by the Battle of Hastings became master of 1.5 million inhabitants, wiped out the ruling class and installed French as the governing language. William’s third greatest feat was the instigation of the Domesday Book recording landholdings down to the last acre and the last pig – ugh, bureaucracy!
William II, William Rufus, one of William I's sons, was next from 1087. He had a red face, yellow hair, different-coloured eyes and a stutter, especially when angry. He never married, fathered no children and apparently preferred attractive young male courtiers. He ravaged the possessions of the Church, then became ill, then repented, then recovered, then became as intolerable as before. In 1100, he was murdered while hunting in the New Forest. It was said, ‘He was loathsome to almost all people, and abominable to God.’
Henry I, another of the Conqueror’s sons, seized the day when William was killed and three days later grabbed the crown. He did some good – he laid the foundation of Magna Carta. And some bad – he had many illegitimate children. He was a competent administrator, well-educated and he spoke English. A yard was henceforth defined as the distance from Henry’s nose to his outstretched thumb. He married another Matilda and had a daughter, yet another Matilda. In 1135, he died after eating a glut of lampreys, perhaps!
Stephen of Boulogne, Matilda’s cousin, sailed to England and seized the crown once Henry I was dead. He was brave, straightforward and charming. Yet, he was disastrously too soft both to be king and to subdue his troublesome cousin Matilda’s claim to the crown, as well as to control the double-dealing, castle-building, cruel barons. The Stephen vs. Matilda power struggle meant that England descended into a 15-year civil war, known as The Anarchy, until peace was restored under the 1153 Treaty of Westminster.
Henry II, or Henry of Anjou, the first of England’s Plantagenet (sprig of broom) kings, was Matilda’s son. His wife was the rich and unscrupulous Eleanor of Aquitaine. She had persuaded the pope to annul her marriage to Louis VII, king of France. The energetic Henry set about restoring peace and order across his vast kingdom from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees. Thomas à Becket became his chum and chancellor, but later his defiant Archbishop of Canterbury and later still his inadvertently murdered subject.
Richard I, son of Henry II and Eleanor, the extraordinarily tall ‘Lionheart’, the knight errant and crusader, was crowned in September 1189. On his way to the Holy Land he stopped off at Cyprus to marry Berengaria of Navarre. There were no children, perhaps because Richard preferred the battlefield, or was he gay? His place among military heroes was ruined by his infamous massacre of 2,700 Muslims at Acre. Having got within 12 miles of Jerusalem, he was forced to turn back. Richard died of a gangrenous wound in 1199.
John, brother of Richard, was among the most ghastly of monarchs. At 33, he married the 13-year-old Isabella of Angoulême. John fell out, then in, with Pope Innocent III. Devious in behaviour and unsuccessful in campaigns, he provoked his barons and was forced to agree to Magna Carta with its ‘the right to trial by jury’ and ‘no taxation without representation’. Ironically, such kingly incompetence laid the foundations of English and American civil liberties. John died in 1216 of apoplexy after gorging on peaches and cider.
Henry III was, in 1216, only 9 years old when hurriedly crowned with a piece of his mother’s jewellery. A weak, pious, but long-ruling king with an interest in theology, he rebuilt Westminster Abbey. At 28, he married the 14-year-old Eleanor of Provence – Henry showered her French relatives with gifts to the annoyance of the English. By 1258, the indebted king called a Parliament to raise taxes – the barons objected and sided with Simon de Montfort. Civil war ensued, Henry and his son Edward were seized, then rescued. Peace ruled.
Edward I, the formidable warrior, aka ‘Longshanks’, crushed the rebellious barons and asserted the English monarch’s rule. He heard his regal news in 1272 while in Sicily with his wife Eleanor of Castile, whom he married when she was 10 and he was 15 – they had at least 14 children. The coronation celebrations lasted a fortnight. The nationalists, the Welsh under Llewellyn of Gwynedd and the Scots under William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, were frequently troublesome. He died, aged 68, en route to sorting out the latter.
Edward II, the hapless, strong and musical king, who could swim. His life was dominated by Piers Gaveston, the amusing Gascon upstart, his boyhood friend and the fondest of adults. In 1308, when Edward married the 12-year-old Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France, Gaveston outshone everyone by wearing the Queen’s jewellery. Hated by the barons, they had him beheaded on the road from Warwick to Kenilworth. Isabella ran off with Roger Mortimer. Edward II was forced to abdicate and then murdered in shady circumstances.
Edward III became king at 14, as arranged by his mother, Isabella, the ‘She-Wolf of France’ and Roger Mortimer. The latter was captured and hanged at Tyburn. At 15, Edward III married the popular Philippa of Hainault and they had 14 children, including the Black Prince and John of Gaunt. Edward kept family, noblemen and Parliament on his side. English became the language of court. Edward, the warlord, took Scotland and started the Hundred Years War with France. In 1348-9, the Black Death carried off a third of Europeans.
Richard II took
over at 10, amid cheering crowds. But
soon the hated poll tax led to the Peasants’ Revolt under
Wat Tyler. Richard
met the rebels, promised them much, but reneged. His
marriage to Anne of Bohemia was contented, but childless. He
was extravagant with no taste for war. When
Anne died, Richard’s rule became tyrannical and he married
Isabella of France when she was just 6. With
Richard in Ireland, his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, seized
the throne. Richard
II was incarcerated in Pontefract.
Lancastrians and Yorkists
Henry IV (Bolingbroke), the usurper, was king though Richard II was alive, but childless, and despite the proper heir being Edward Mortimer. So Henry IV enjoyed a vast coronation and was anointed with oil supposedly given by the BVM. Henry wooed the Church and sanctioned burning at the stake and the extirpation of the followers of John Wycliffe (the Lollards). Opposition grew under Owen Glendower, Harry Hotspur and others. Henry then suffered from painful ‘leprosy’, became a recluse, suffered a stroke and died in 1413.
Henry V, the pious, Prince of Wales, the English patriot. He sought the unification of the nation, buried Richard II in Westminster Abbey and waged war against the French. The notable battle of Agincourt left 6,000 Frenchmen dead, but only 400 Englishmen. He combined the English and French crowns and married Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France. Hoping to take all of France he pressed south, but fell ill and died just outside of Paris, aged only 34. Catherine eventually married the Welshman, Owen Tudor.
Henry VI, the king least successful and youngest – 9 months old, knighted at 4 and crowned at 7. He was ‘spiritual’, peace-loving and learned – he founded Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. Joan of Arc, the peasant girl, forced the English to retreat from French territories and had Charles VII crowned at Reims. She was captured and burned and Henri II was crowned. He married the Margaret of Anjou, but France was slipping away – only Calais remained. Henry showed signs of madness. The Wars of the Roses started.
Edward IV, the Yorkist and militarily astute king, cut the Lancastrians to pieces at snowy Towton – Henry and Margaret fled to Scotland. He married a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville. Edward fell out with Warwick, so the kingmaker sought the Duke of Clarence and then Henry VI, the Readeption, to be king, while Edward was driven to France. On his return in 1471, he killed Warwick, Margaret, her son Edward, Henry VI and his brother, the latter in a butt of malmsey wine. Edward died after a fishing trip on the Thames.
Edward V, the 78-day king, who was never actually crowned, was the eldest of Edward IV’s two young sons and legitimate heirs, the Princes Edward and Richard, who were suffocated in their beds at the Tower of London by order of their uncle, the Lord Protector, the future Richard III. Or so the story goes! Edward’s mother, Elizabeth, feared that the younger brother, Richard, would seize power. The brothers, Richard and Edward, met at Stony Stratford on their way to London for a coronation, but their uncle Richard had other ideas.
Richard III, the hunchbacked toad and child-murderer, or the innocent king? Born in 1452, the youngest of ten children of the Duke of York was taken to the Low Countries as the Wars of the Roses broke out. At 17, he regained Carmarthen and Cardigan. In 1483, Richard and his wife Anne walked barefoot to Westminster Abbey to be crowned – his kingship was variously challenged. Nobody liked him. He lost the Battle of Bosworth Field against Henry Tudor and died there, the last king of England to die in battle.
Henry VII, born in Wales to Owen Tudor and Margaret Beaufort, crowned on a battlefield, the first of the Tudors – less a warlord, more an accountant. His bodyguards were the Yeomen of the Guard. He married Elizabeth of York and ended the Wars of the Roses by uniting the warring houses of red Lancaster and white York. His son, Prince Arthur married Katherine of Aragon in 1501, but died less than 5 months later. The next year, Henry’s queen died after childbirth along with their newborn daughter. He became ill with grief.
Henry VIII, the most
famous, petulant, self-obsessed king. Brother
of Arthur, Henry was king at 17 and married the widowed
Wolsey rose to cardinal and chief fixer. No
male heir. Enter Anne
Boleyn, exit Wolsey, enter Thomas Cromwell, exit the pope,
enter Thomas Cranmer, exit Katherine, enter Elizabeth,
enter the C of E., exit the monasteries. A
jousting accident made Henry unbearable. Enter
Jane Seymour and a son, Edward. Then
Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and the best, Catherine
[Divorced, beheaded and died. Divorced, beheaded, survived]
Edward VI, the fragile king, born to Jane Seymour at Hampton Court in 1537 and educated by arrangement of Catherine Parr – he became an earnest Protestant and ‘Supreme Head of the Church’ and instigator of several Edward VI schools. John Dudley became Duke of Northumberland and tried to stop Edward’s sister, Mary, a devout Roman Catholic, from gaining the throne. He married his son to the 15-year-old Lady Jane Grey who was proclaimed queen for just nine days. Edward VI died of TB in 1553.
Mary I, the first and saddest queen of England, a staunch Roman Catholic, who, as ‘Bloody Mary’, burned 287 Protestants at the stake. Daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine, they arranged her marriage at the age of 2 to a French dauphin. Her stepmother, Anne, called her ‘the cursed bastard’. Mary was made a maid to Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. Then in 1554 she married Philip of Spain and feigned a phantom pregnancy. Papal authority was restored in England. Mary was feared. She died the barren queen in 1558.
Elizabeth I, on the other hand, was loved by her people. Daughter of Anne Boleyn, she was the last of the Tudors. Diplomatically, the C of E remained Catholic and Protestant – ‘All can, none must, some ought.’ Would the virgin queen marry? What about the Earl of Leicester, ‘sweet Robin’? She signed Mary Queen of Scots’ death warrant – the people rejoiced. France and Spain planned invasions. Enter Francis Drake, who led the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. She died in March 1603 without naming her successor.
James I, the first of the Stuart dynasty, a slobbering and dishevelled king. At 13 months, Charles James Stuart, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned James VI, King of Scots. He married Anne of Denmark and had three children – Henry, Charles and Elizabeth. He unified England and Scotland and called them Great Britain. He steered an uneasy via media in religion – enter the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible, the Pilgrim Fathers and Guy Fawkes. He continually tussled with Parliament and lost his kingly powers.
Charles I, the shy, elegant, 5-foot 4-inches, stuttering king, born in Edinburgh, beheaded in London. He married the Catholic Henrietta Maria, sister of the King of France – they had 9 children including Charles II and James II. Charles upset the Short, Long and Rump Parliamentarians. Archbishop Laud (Old Redingensian) upset the Puritans and the Covenanters and lost his head. Charles sought to enter the Commons but was rebuked. Enter Cromwell, Fairfax and the New Model Army. Charles was executed in 1649.
The Interregnum (1649-1660), when Oliver Cromwell declined, twice, to become king, though installed as Lord Protector. As the great military leader, he efficiently subdued Ireland and defeated the Scots, Dutch and Spanish. England’s power was at a high. How to govern England? A commonwealth, a republic, or a Cromwellian monarchy? Radical ideas were afoot – enter John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, et al. Dissension prevented forming a republic and as Richard was unable to emulate his father Oliver, monarchy returned.
Charles II, the lazy, 6-foot 2-inches, hedonistic wit, aka ‘the Merry Monarch’. Cromwell died in 1558. The 1660 Restoration of the Stuarts moved the UK from Puritanism to licentiousness. From Holland to Scotland to England, Charles was a fugitive. The 1662 Act of Uniformity punished the Dissenters. He married the barren Catherine of Braganza and took mistresses including Nell Gwyn. 1665, the Great Plague. 1666, the Great Fire. He said that Presbyterianism is ‘not a religion for gentlemen.’ He died in 1685.
James II, a pious and arrogant monarch. He believed God was on his side so he ignored his subjects. He converted to Roman Catholicism in his thirties and wanted the UK to be RC, including all army officers, JPs, etc. At 52, in 1685, he succeeded his brother to the throne. He married the RC, Mary of Modena. His heirs, Mary and Anne were Protestants and the former’s husband was William of Orange – he was invited to invade England. In 1690 he defeated James at the Battle of the Boyne. England had said, No Popery.
William III and Mary II, the courageous, asthmatic Dutchman, aka ‘King Billy’, and nephew of Charles II. In 1677, he married the 15-year-old and 4 inches taller, Mary, older, yet barren, daughter of the future James II, and the rightful heir. They enjoyed gardening together. In 1688, William, wanting an ally against his old enemy France, prepared to invade England. Parliament became independent and they became constitutional monarchs. Mary died of smallpox – the distraught William died after his horse stumbled on a molehill.
Anne, the last of the Stuarts. The daughter of James II and his first wife, Anne Hyde – a rare monarch with a commoner parent. Anne, as a Protestant, deserted her father and joined William. She married Prince George of Denmark – 18 pregnancies, 5 born alive, 4 died in infancy. Parliament passed the 1701 Act of Settlement excluding Catholics from the throne. The 1707 Act of Union joined the kingdoms of England and Scotland into Great Britain. Tipsy Anne, aka ‘Brandy Nan’, became severely obese. The ‘king’s evil’ ended with her.
George I, the Anglophobic, German, Protestant king. George preferred Hanover, yet arrived in London with no wife, but 18 cooks. He married his first cousin, Sophia Dorothea, but she was banished for infidelity. They had a son and a daughter. Father and son, Prince of Wales, hated one another – a trait of the Hanoverians. Robert Walpole reconciled them. The South Sea Bubble scam inflated, then burst. The king liked cutting out paper patterns. He died in 1727 in Holland on his way to Hanover and was buried there.
George II, also born outside Great Britain. His wife, the clever Caroline of Ansbach, though pro-Hanover, liked England, but they hated their eldest, Frederick. At Caroline’s death the king became inconsolable. Walpole stuffed the government with his family. George was a keen soldier, but England was at peace. During the War of the Austrian Succession, he was the last king to lead his troops. Enter William Pitt, Robert Clive and James Wolfe. George died in 1760, the last king interred in Westminster Abbey.
George III, king for 59 years, who lost America and went mad. Grandson of George II and son of poor Fred, he spoke English and never set foot in Hanover. Dominated by his mother, he married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – they had 15 children in a happy union. ‘Farmer George’ was frugal and virtuous and a devout Protestant. But he dealt naïvely with Parliament and the American colonists. 1773, Boston Tea Party. 1776, Declaration of Independence. With dementia, he died in 1820.
George IV, aka ‘the first gentleman of England’, but a dissolute spendthrift. He could swear in three languages. He secretly married Mrs Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic. He had nothing to do, yet the debts mounted – £630,000 by 1795. He married, unseen, Caroline of Brunswick and treated her, and his parents, abominably. Caroline was loved, George was hated. Mrs Fitzherbert returned. 1815, the Battle of Waterloo. Britain had a global empire, George had no heir. He was crowned in 1821 and died in 1830, largely unmourned.
William IV, as the third son of George III he was unlikely to be king, but neither of his brothers produced an heir. At 13, he joined the Royal Navy and became a chum of Horatio Nelson. After 10 years, he tried, unsuccessfully, to be an MP. He lived with Polly Finch and then Dorothea Jordan, the actress, before marrying Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in a childless union. In 1830, George IV died and William, aged 64, was crowned. Unrest was rife, so the 1832 Reform Act changed the electoral system. William died in 1837.
Victoria, majestic and domestic, she rescued the monarchy. Born in 1819 to Edward, fourth son of George III, and Victoria of Saxe-Coburg, she became queen in 1837. In 1839, her 20-year-old cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg visited – 5 days later she proposed! They created Balmoral Castle and Osborne House and had 9 children. 1851, the successful Great Exhibition. 1861, Albert died of typhoid – Victoria was grief-stricken and withdrew. Benjamin Disraeli as PM helped her back into public life. She died, aged 81, in 1901.
Edward VII, son of Victoria, aka ‘Bertie’, was a charming hedonist, unlike his father. He married Princess Alexandra of Denmark despite having several mistresses. The Boer War weakened Britain’s European influence, but in 1904, the Entente Cordiale. Edward was fat and set a fashion for undoing his waistcoat’s bottom button. Regal power declined, ceremonials increased – enter Edward Elgar. He was a constitutional monarch – the Commons vs. Lords conflict over the People’s Budget brought on a 1910 fatal heart attack.
George V, the dutiful, unpretentious, bearded naval officer. He married the unsmiling Princess May of Teck, who, as queen, changed her name to Mary. George loved to kill animals and stick in stamps. Times were difficult – national strikes, suffragettes, Irish civil war and then The First World War. Anti-German feeling meant the family name was switched to Windsor. 1924, the first Labour government. 1925, the General Strike. 1932, the Christmas broadcasts began. He died, aided by his doctor, at Sandringham in 1936.
Edward VIII, aka ‘David’, was wildly popular and trendy, but intellectually and artistically ignorant. He was bored and neither wine, parties, nor mistresses brought him contentment. Crowned in 1936, he was an heir unfit for purpose. Enter Wallis Simpson, a 38-year-old American divorcee – Edward was besotted and determined to marry her. He failed to separate his private life from his public duties – he abdicated in 1936, married Simpson in 1937, they retired to France and he died as the Duke of Windsor in Paris in 1972.
George VI, another Albert, aka ‘Bertie’, the stammerer with no desire to be king. In 1909, he joined the Royal Navy. He proposed three times to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – in 1923, she eventually accepted. In 1926, their first child, Elizabeth, was born, followed by Margaret Rose in 1930. In 1937, George and Elizabeth were crowned. In 1940, Neville Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill as PM. George was a national pillar during the war. He died in his sleep after a day’s shooting at Sandringham in 1952.
Elizabeth II, aka
‘Lilibet’, the dutiful queen – her motto, ‘I serve.’
In 1939, she met Prince Philip of Greece, a naval cadet,
at Dartmouth and in 1946, he proposed and she
accepted. In 1952, the Princess flew back to Britain
from Kenya as Queen Elizabeth II. Crowned in 1953 on
worldwide TV. Sadly, the hoped for royal family
fairy-tale slowly disintegrated over the next 70
years. Her life has authority, yet she is
powerless. Dogs and horses are her hobbies.
Christ is her anchor.
Charles III, William V and George VII, the next three potential generations of monarchy, though their regnal names may change.
Gimson's book is a delight – it is both instructive and amusing. For me, it has been a lovely read during the coronavirus lockdown and a considerable source of knowledge and understanding. It has truly been a history lesson-and-a-half, but then I did start from close to historical ground zero. Moreover, my self-imposed constriction of 87 words per monarch has been a nice test of concision for both thought and word. And my sincere apologies to all proper historians – the blunders are mine.
Forty monarchs - ten centuries. Let me make four observations. First, and shockingly, too many of our kings and queens were not nice people. Many were autocrats, dictators, tyrants and despots. They killed and divorced at their pleasure and leisure. They lied and plotted as a way of life – the good few stand out like paragons among reprobates. Second, our monarchs tended to be fertility radicals – they had either no offspring or about a dozen. And mistresses and illegitimate children were the order of the day for many. They were certainly not models of wholesome sexual behaviour. Third, too many monarchs gave their offspring names the very same as their own. Think Matildas, Henrys, Edwards, Georges and so on. For the novice historian, confusion reigns.
Fourth, sure, our early monarchs were considered sovereign, but reigning that involves bloodshed, subterfuge and torment is far from righteous. Yet as the centuries passed, so sovereign power passed from the monarchs to Parliament. And whereas the regal line has been fed by birth, politicians have been installed by the electorate – the very principle of democracy. Yet our elitist monarchy has survived and happily jogs alongside our populist egalitarianism. Our Queen has now become largely a figurehead, and a useful one too – though republicans would mostly disagree. But she now has very little control of the affairs of state and only minimal governing authority. How long will it all last? What a question – probably until the twenty-second century. After all, there are already three kingly contenders waiting in the wings. Though the office may live on, its shape, duties and influence will certainly change. Will our future kings not only open Parliaments but also shopping malls, not only ride polo ponies but also bicycles?