You Gotta Know These British Monarchs
- Alfred the Great (849–899; r. 871–899) Saxon House. Actually just the King of Wessex in southwestern England, he expelled the rival Danes from the Mercian town of London in 886, eventually conquering most of the Danelaw territory. Alfred also kept England from the worst of the Dark Ages by encouraging his bishops to foster literacy; in addition, he translated Boethius, Augustine, and the Venerable Bede’s works into Anglo-Saxon.
- William I (the Conqueror) (1028–1087, r. 1066–1087) House of Normandy. Duke of Normandy from 1035, he was promised succession to the throne by Edward the Confessor, but when Edward gave the throne to Harold II in 1066, William invaded England, killing Harold and defeating the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. An able administrator, he authorized a survey of his kingdom in the 1086 Domesday Book. By that time William had replaced Anglo-Saxon nobles and clergy with Normans and other continentals.
- Henry II (1133–1189; r. 1154–1189) House of Plantagenet. The son of Geoffrey of Anjou and Matilda, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, and invaded England the following year, forcing Stephen of Blois to acknowledge Henry as his heir. While king he developed the common law and due process, but fought with Thomas à Becket over submission to the Pope; Henry had Becket executed in 1170 but performed penance at Canterbury. Eleanor and his four sons conspired with French king Philip II against Henry on several occasions.
- Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) (1157–1199; r. 1189–1199) House of Plantagenet. The third son of Henry II, he spent only five months of his reign in England. He went on the Third Crusade to Jerusalem, winning many victories in the Holy Land, but on his way back was captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria. He also fought Philip II in Normandy, and died while defending his possessions in Aquitaine.
- John Lackland (1167–1216, r. 1199–1216) House of Plantagenet. Though he tried to seize the crown from his brother Richard while the latter was in Germany, Richard forgave John and made him his successor. Excommunicated by the Pope for four years for refusing to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, John was also weak as a fighter, as French King Philip II routed him at Bouvines in 1214. A year later, England’s barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede, an event that marked the beginning of the development of the British constitution.
- Richard III (1452–1485, r. 1483–1485) House of York. He was made Duke of Gloucester in 1461 when his brother Edward IV deposed the Lancastrian king Henry VI, as part of the Wars of the Roses. Upon Edward’s death in 1483, Richard served as regent to his nephew Edward V, but likely had the boy murdered in the Tower of London that year. Two years later, Richard died at the hands of Henry Tudor’s Lancastrian forces at Bosworth Field, ending the Wars of the Roses and beginning the reign of Henry VII.
- Henry VIII (1491–1547, r. 1509–1547) House of Tudor. The son of Tudor founder Henry VII, he brought England into both the Renaissance and the Reformation. Henry patronized the philosopher Erasmus the painter Hans Holbein the Younger, and the writer Thomas More. Originally a supporter of the Catholic Church — the Pope had named him “Defender of the Faith” — he named himself head of the Church of England in 1533 so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry executed top ministers who crossed him, including Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More. He married six times, but only his third wife, Jane Seymour, bore him a son, the sickly Edward VI.
- Elizabeth I (1533–1603, r. 1558–1603) House of Tudor. Known as the “Virgin Queen” because she never married, as Henry VIII’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, the Catholic Church considered her illegitimate. After the death of her Catholic sister Mary I, Elizabeth I tried to restore religious order by declaring England a Protestant state but naming herself only “Governor” of the Church. She foiled attempts at her throne by Spanish king Philip II and Mary, Queen of Scots; the latter Elizabeth reluctantly executed in 1587. Her reign saw great expansion of the English navy and the emergence of William Shakespeare, but when she died, the Crown went to Scottish king James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots.
- James I (1566–1625, r. 1603–1625) House of Stuart. At age one James succeeded his mother Mary as King James VI of Scotland. As the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, he claimed the English throne upon the death of Elizabeth I. James was the intended target of Catholic fanatic Guy Fawkes’ failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605. A believer in absolutism, James dissolved Parliament from 1611 to 1621, favoring ministers Robert Cecil and the Duke of Buckingham instead. His rule saw English expansion into North America, through royal charter in Virginia and Puritan protest in Massachusetts.
- Charles I (1600–1649, r. 1625–1649) House of Stuart. The last absolute English monarch, Charles ran into trouble almost immediately. His minister, the Duke of Buckingham, asked Parliament for money to fight costly foreign wars, and when Parliament balked, Charles had to sign the Petition of Right. From 1630 to 1641 he tried to rule solo, but financial troubles forced him to call the Short and Long Parliaments. His attempt to reform the Scottish Church was the last straw, as Parliament entered into the English Civil War. They defeated Charles, convicting him of treason and executing him. England became a Commonwealth with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.
- Charles II (1630–1685; r. 1660–1685) House of Stuart. While Oliver Cromwell ruled the Commonwealth, Charles was crowned King of Scotland in 1651. After Cromwell died, Charles used the Declaration of Breda to restore himself to the English throne. He fought two lackluster wars against the Dutch, and needed protection from Louis XIV through the Treaty of Dover. His wife Catherine of Braganza produced no legitimate heirs, but this “Merry Monarch” has as many as 14 illegitimate children. Tolerant of Catholics, he dissolved Parliament over the issue in 1681 and refused to prevent his brother James from succeeding him.
- James II (1633–1701; r. 1685–1688) House of Stuart. The 1678 Popish Plot against Charles II would have elevated the Roman Catholic James to the throne, had it been real and not fabricated by Titus Oates. James’s three years, however, did feature heavy favoritism toward Catholics, so much so that Protestants invited James’s son-in-law William of Orange to rule England, deposing James in the Glorious Revolution. Exiled to Louis XIV’s court, he made an attempt to regain his crown in 1690 but was routed at the Battle of the Boyne.
- George III (1738–1820, r. 1760–1820) House of Hanover. Though he lost the American colonies in the Revolutionary War, Britain’s economic empire expanded during his reign. While George’s ministers kept their lives, they fell from power frequently, including William Pitts, Lord Bute, and Lord North. Popular at home, he suffered from porphyria, causing the “madness” that ultimately led to the Regency period (1811–1820) of his son George IV.
- (Alexandrina) Victoria (1819–1901, r. 1837–1901; Empress of India 1876–1901) House of Hanover. The second-longest-reigning monarch in British history (after Elizabeth II), she relinquished much of the remaining royal power, both to her husband Albert and to her favored prime ministers, Lord Melbourne, Robert Peel, and Benjamin Disraeli. After Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria largely went into seclusion, though she influenced the passage of the Reform Act of 1867, which doubled the number of Britons who could vote.
- Elizabeth II (1926–present, r. 1952–present) House of Windsor. Representative of the modern ceremonial monarchy, she and her husband “Prince” Philip Mountbatten have traveled the globe representing British interests. Marital failures by her sons Charles, Prince of Wales and Andrew have plagued her reign. She superseded Victoria as the longest-reigning British monarch.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.