Written By Chris Young
This post was most recently updated on April 17th, 2018
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1. William the Conqueror
Gallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0003202.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35865031
Also known as William I, William the Conqueror earned his nickname with his invasion of England in 1066. Victorious at the Battle of Hastings, he was crowned king just a few months later.
William was the first Norman King of England and ruled until his death in 1087. After his coronation, he made arrangements for the governance of England before returning to Normandy. Several rebellions followed but William’s grip on the throne remained secure, allowing him to spend much of his time abroad.
His reign was marked by the building of many castles, including the central keep of the Tower of London. He also put in place a new system of military resourcing, requiring noble families to contribute soldiers to his army. By the time he died there had been a fundamental shift in England’s upper classes, with most of the former Anglo-Saxon nobility replaced by Normans.
It was William who gave us one of the most important historical documents in English history: the Domesday Book. This survey of all the landowners in the country together with their holdings is an invaluable resource for both historians and economists. Today it is held at the National Archives at Kew and can also be viewed online.
2. William II
The third of four sons born to William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, William II took the English throne in 1087 and ruled for thirteen years. Also known as William Rufus on account of either red hair or a florid complexion (Rufus being Latin for “the Red”), he does not seem to have been a popular ruler: according to the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicles he was “hated by almost all his people and abhorrent to God.”
William died in 1100 after being struck by an arrow whilst hunting, and some historians suspect he was murdered.
3. Henry I
Henry I became king on the death of his brother. The youngest son of William the Conqueror, Henry was an arch politician, skillfully manipulating the English barons and drawing on an extensive network of spies and informants.
His marriage to Matilda of Scotland resulted in a son and daughter but his son died at sea, throwing the succession into doubt. Henry took a second wife, Adeliza, in the hope she would bear him a legitimate son to add to the range of illegitimate offspring he had fathered with his various mistresses. The marriage, however, was childless, and Henry declared his daughter Matilda heir.
Despite these plans it was Henry’s nephew Stephen, not Matilda, who succeeded him.
Having been in negotiations with his uncle, Henry I, to succeed him to the English throne, Stephen of Blois did not take kindly to Henry’s daughter, Matilda, being named as the King’s heir. He mounted an invasion and seized the crown for himself, triggering a civil war and a period known as “the Anarchy”.
Matilda’s son Henry invaded England in his turn, but neither side had the stomach for a prolonged battle. When Stephen’s eldest son died suddenly, Stephen agreed a treaty with Henry, gifting him the succession in return for peace.
5. Henry II
The first of the Plantagenet kings, Henry II had been involved in his mother Matilda’s attempts to seize the throne from Stephen from a young age. His reign was marked by changes to the legal system which formed the basis of today’s English Common Law.
In 1152 he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose marriage to Louis VII of France had been annulled. The couple had eight children, and Henry struggled to provide lands and power for all of them. Tensions over the succession culminated in rebellion, with Henry’s son Richard opposing the King supported by Philip II of France. Defeated, Henry II retreated to Anjou where he died.
6. Richard I
Better known as Richard the Lionheart because of his reputation as a great warrior, Richard I ruled England from 1189 to his death a decade later.
Although his childhood was spent in England, after taking the throne he spent the majority of his adult life in the French region of Aquitaine, the homeland of his mother. He took part in the Crusades and conducted several foreign wars, with England apparently serving merely to provide resources for his armies. He died in 1199 as a result of a wound from a crossbow, leaving no legitimate heirs.
The youngest son of Henry II, John became his father’s favourite by not involving himself in his elder brothers’ rebellion. He was a contender for the throne on his father’s death, but Richard prevailed and John had to await his brother’s death in 1199 to take the crown.
Like so many other English monarchs, John’s reign was marked by a series of conflicts with France and by skirmishes with rebellious barons. The latter resulted in the famous peace treaty of 1215, the Magna Carta – but neither side complied with its conditions. Civil war followed and John died of dysentery in 1216 whilst on campaign in the east of England.
8. Henry III
Henry III, the son of King John and his wife Isabella, was only nine years old when his father died. England was in the middle of the First Barons’ War, and the young king relied heavily on the advice of senior ministers. In 1230 he invaded France in an attempt to win back the regions that had once been owned by his father. The invasion was a disaster and was quickly followed by a rebellion at home. Henry prevailed with the support of the Church and afterwards chose to rely on his own judgement to rule.
The latter years of his reign saw growing discontent, fuelled by Henry’s expensive and unsuccessful foreign policies. The most rebellious of the barons, Simon de Montfort, seized power and triggered the Second Barons’ War. Henry died in 1272 leaving the throne to his son, Edward.
9. Edward I
By Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96) – →
This file has been extracted from another file: Pictures of English History – Plates XXV to XXVIII.jpg
, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1276009
Edward I was born in June 1239 and died in July 1307. Also known as Edward Longshanks, he reigned as King of England from 1272 until his death.
He inherited the throne from his father, Henry III, and had first-hand experience of the challenges of governing England. He had fought alongside Henry in the conflict known as the Second Barons’ War, and was taken hostage by the rebellious barons at the Battle of Lewes. Escaping soon afterwards, he continued the fight and led the defeat of the rebels at the Battle of Evesham.
With the barons vanquished, Edward joined the Ninth Crusade to the Holy Land. He was on his way back to England when he heard the news that his father had died. He was clearly in no rush to assume the crown – it took over a year for him to complete the journey and his coronation did not take place until August 1274.
Edward’s reign saw him suppress a series of rebellions, restoring royal authority over England. He also established Parliament as a permanent institution and created a functioning tax system. He strengthened the country’s administration and codified English law.
Other aspects of Edward’s legacy, however, were far from positive. His brutal treatment of England’s northern neighbours earned him the nickname the “Hammer of the Scots”. Jews were another target, and in 1290 Edward issued the Edict of Expulsion, formally expelling all Jews from the country. The edict was not to be overturned for over 350 years.
10. Edward II
Born in Caernafon Castle shortly after his father, Edward I, had gained control over Wales, Edward II is often known as Edward of Caernafon. When his father died in 1307 he inherited the throne, and with it conflict and tension with both Scotland and France.
Edward had marked favourites at court, and his close relationships with Piers Galveston and other young men fuelled opposition from the restive barons. Edward’s wife, Isabella of France, also turned against him and sided with an English nobleman, Roger Mortimer, to launch an invasion. Edward fled to Wales but in 1327 was captured and forced to hand the throne to his son, Edward III.
11. Edward III
Crowned in 1327 at just fourteen years old after his mother had deposed his father, Edward III went on to reign for fifty years. His mother’s lover, Roger Mortimer, had at first effectively ruled in the stead of the young king, but when Edward turned seventeen he led a coup and took personal control.
Having learned from his father’s mistakes, he built strong alliances with the English aristocracy. His military adventures were largely successful, including several victories against the French during the Hundred Years War. In the later years of his reign, however, defeats in battle and the financial pressures of war led to rising tensions between the King and Parliament. After 1375 Edward withdrew from much of the day-to-day business of government and he died of a stroke two years later.
12. Richard II
Like his grandfather, Edward III, Richard became king at a young age, ascending to the throne at just ten years old. With the King too young to play a meaningful role in affairs of state, England was ruled by a series of councils. Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, played a particularly influential role.
1381 saw the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt and the young King played an important part in bringing the rebellion to an end. Later, however, conflict with England’s aristocrats led to a period known as Richard’s “tyranny” and when John of Gaunt died in 1399, Richard disinherited John’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. Henry responded by invading England and succeeded in seizing the throne. Richard died in captivity in 1400, probably starved to death.
13. Henry IV
The first monarch of the House of Lancaster, Henry was the son of John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III. Born in Lincolnshire, he was the first king since the Norman Conquest to have English, rather than French, as his mother tongue.
Having deposed his cousin Richard II, Henry’s first problem was what to do with his predecessor. That was solved by Richard’s death in captivity under mysterious circumstances. Perhaps reaping what he had sown, Henry’s reign was plagued by rebellions and assassination attempts, and despite having put Richard’s body on display in St Paul’s Cathedral there were persistent rumours that the former king was still alive.
Henry died of illness in 1413 and was buried at Canterbury Cathedral.
14. Henry V
Unknown miniaturist – This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.
Catalogue entry: Arundel MS 38
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18112359
Born in 1386, Henry V ruled from 1413 until his death in 1422 at just 36 years old. The second monarch of the House of Lancaster, he assumed the throne soon after his father’s death.
Henry was active in the Hundred Years War with France, winning his most famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. After months of negotiation, the Treaty of Troyes was agreed, recognising Henry as the rightful heir to the French throne. To cement the union, Henry married Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France. The couple had one son who inherited the throne on Henry’s death, becoming Henry VI.
15. Henry VI
The only son of Henry V, Henry became king in 1422 at just nine months old. Shortly afterwards, on the death of his maternal grandfather Charles VI, he also inherited the French throne.
A less welcome bequest was the continuing Hundred Years War, with Charles VII disputing Henry’s claim to France. When in 1437 the King assumed personal rule he faced a parlous situation – divisions among the English nobility and military setbacks abroad. Shy, religious, and with a dislike of warfare he was not, it appeared, the man for the job.
In 1445 he married Charles’s niece, Margaret of Anjou, in an attempt to bring the conflict with France to an end. The policy was not successful and by 1453 Calais was all that remained of England’s territories in France.
Civil war broke out in 1459 and Henry was deposed two years later following defeat at the Battle of Trowton. He died in 1471 whilst in prison in the Tower of London, possibly murdered on the orders of his usurper, Edward IV.
16. Edward IV
The son of the third Duke of York, Edward IV was the first monarch of the House of York, one side in the long-running dynastic conflict, the Wars of the Roses.
When Edward took the throne in 1461 the majority of England’s noble families still supported Henry VI. Edward relied strongly on the support of one family with extensive lands, the Nevilles, but when he chose to marry Elizabeth Woodville instead of either of the French princesses the Earl of Warwick, head of the Neville family, had been negotiating a marriage with, relations turned sour. In 1469 Warwick instigated a rebellion and Edward was captured. Warwick attempted to rule in Edward’s name, but the nobles were restive and the King was released. Another rebellion followed and Henry VI was briefly restored to the throne, only to be captured again and later killed when Edward invaded.
Edward did not face any more rebellions for the rest of his reign, but in later years his health failed and he died in 1483. His Will named his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Protector to his son and successor, the twelve year old Edward V.
17. Edward V
Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, are better known as the Princes in the Tower, the two young boys whose disappearance has been a mystery for over 500 years.
When their father died in 1483, the young Edward and Richard were on their way to London when they were met by their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard dismissed Edward’s entourage, escorted him to London and installed him in the Tower of London, where shortly afterwards he was joined by his brother.
Edward’s coronation was repeatedly delayed and in June 1483 a sermon was preached throwing doubt on his claim to the throne. On 25 June Parliament declared Richard the rightful king and in the coming months the two young princes disappeared from public view. Various theories have been advanced as to their fate, but the most widely held belief is that they were murdered in the Tower on the orders of their uncle.
18. Richard III
King for only two years, Richard III was the last of the Yorkist monarchs. He took the throne in the place of his nephew, Edward V, who had been expected to succeed his father, Edward IV. Before the young Edward was crowned, however, the marriage of his parents was ruled bigamous and Edward illegitimate. Richard was declared the rightful king and Edward and his brother disappeared from public view, with rumours that the two princes had been killed on Richard’s orders.
Richard faced two rebellions as king. The first, led by Richard’s former ally, Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham, took place just three months into his reign but soon collapsed. The second followed less than two years later, when Henry Tudor raised an army and engaged Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard was killed and his body buried without ceremony in Leicester. His remains were later moved and their location lost until an archaeological excavation in 2012 uncovered them in a Leicester carpark. They were reburied in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.
19. Henry VII
The last king of England to win the throne on the field of battle, Henry VII was the first of the Tudor monarchs and ruled from 1485 until his death in 1509. After the bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses, Henry sought to reinforce his position by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and niece of Richard III. The union of the two warring families was symbolised by the Tudor rose, which combined the white rose of the House of York with the red rose of the House of Lancaster.
Henry was successful in restoring the monarch’s authority and concentrated on raising new revenues rather than spending money on costly foreign wars. His stand-off with the Low Countries over the wool trade resulted in a treaty that was highly favourable to English merchants and had major benefits for the economy.
Henry died of tuberculosis in 1509. His eldest son, Arthur, had already died of illness and the throne passed to his second son, Henry VIII.
20. Henry VIII
By Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8 (German) Details of artist on Google Art Project – eAHC0d0WiemXSA at Google Cultural Institute Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21878559
Henry VIII was born on June 28 1491 and reigned from 1509 until he died in January 1547.
The second of the Tudor monarchs, Henry is perhaps best known for having six wives in his lifetime, two of whom he had beheaded.
It was Henry’s wish to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, that led to England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England. Wishing to marry Ann Boleyn and secure a male heir, Henry expected his previous loyal service to the Church to be rewarded by the Pope’s agreement to annul his marriage to Katherine. Unfortunately for him, the Pope was more concerned about the wrath of Katherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who had earlier that year sacked Rome and briefly taken the Pope prisoner.
Thwarted, Henry summoned Parliament and with the help of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, succeeded in gaining its agreement to end papal supremacy and make Henry head of the Church of England. It was perhaps one of the most transformative decisions by any monarch in English history, and the union between Church and monarchy remains to this day.
21. Edward VI
The son of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour, Edward VI was nine years old when he became king and was the first ruler to have been raised a Protestant. Too young to rule himself, England was governed by a council throughout his reign. Nevertheless, Edward took a keen interest in religious matters and under his leadership the Church of England became further divorced from Catholic doctrine. Celibacy for priests was ended and English, rather than Latin, became the compulsory language of church services.
In 1553, Edward became ill and plans were drawn up to avoid the country reverting to Catholicism on his death. Edward named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, his heir, but the succession was disputed and Edward’s half-sister Mary took the throne only nine days into Jane’s reign.
22. Mary I
Mary was the only child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to survive into adulthood. Mary reigned from 1553 until her death five years later.
Raised a Catholic, Mary’s driving ambition was to restore England to what she considered the true faith. She had nearly 300 religious dissenters burned at the stake, earning her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary”. In 1558 she married Philip of Spain in the hope of producing an heir that would prevent the throne from passing to her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth on her death. The marriage was bitterly opposed by the English nobility, but their pleas to Mary to marry an Englishman instead fell on deaf ears. Rebellion broke out but was quashed, and although Elizabeth declared her innocence of any involvement Mary had her imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The marriage to Philip did not produce a child and when Mary became ill in 1558 she was forced to recognise Elizabeth as her rightful heir. She died that November and, despite her wish to be buried with her mother, was interred in Westminster Abbey in a tomb she would eventually share with Elizabeth.
23. Elizabeth I
By David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639542
Elizabeth I was born on 7 September 1533 to Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII.
When she was just two years old her mother was beheaded by the King. The young Elizabeth could never have expected to take the throne herself – both her half-brother Edward, son of Jane Seymour, and her half-sister Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, were ahead of her in the line of succession. But Edward and Mary died childless and in 1558 Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England and Ireland.
After Mary I’s blood-soaked efforts to re-establish the Roman Catholic Church in England, Elizabeth returned England to Protestantism. Hers, however, was a pragmatic faith: provided that her subjects were outwardly observant, she said she “would not open windows into men’s souls.”
Often considered a “golden age” for England, it was Elizabeth’s reign that saw one of Britain’s greatest military victories, when her Navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. William Shakespeare flourished and English explorers like Francis Drake prevailed.
Having seen her father’s example of matrimonial behaviour, it is perhaps unsurprising that the so-called Virgin Queen never married. Her death in 1603 marked the end of the Tudor dynasty.
24. James I
By unknown, English School – http://www.philipmould.com/zoom.php?sid=2454&p=sa, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6968064
James I was born in 1566 and died in 1625. The son of Mary, Queen of Scots, he had ascended to the Scottish throne as James VI in 1567. He was also, however, the great, great grandson of Henry VII, and on the childless Elizabeth’s death in 1603 he was next in line to the English throne. As such, he became the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland.
After assuming the English Crown James based himself south of the border, returning to Scotland only once before his death. He survived two conspiracies in the first year of his reign and in 1605 escaped a well known assassination attempt – the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, still commemorated as Bonfire Night every 5th of November.
Growing financial pressures on the Crown led to a prickly relationship between James and Parliament, who proved reluctant to grant him the subsidies he required. The King also refused to bow to Parliamentary pressure to go to war with Spain, granting England a period of uninterrupted peace during his reign.
He died in 1625 after a period of illness and the throne passed to his son, Charles.
25. Charles I
Charles I was the second son of James, and succeeded to the throne as the result of the death of his older brother, Henry, from typhoid fever at just 18 years old. Under Charles, the disputes with Parliament that had characterised his father’s reign became ever more heated. His marriage to a French princess fuelled concerns that he was leading England’s return to Catholicism, while his attempts to raise money by levying taxes without Parliament’s consent led to outright opposition.
The situation deteriorated until 1642 saw the outbreak of the English Civil War between the King’s supporters, known as Cavaliers, and the Parliamentary army, the Roundheads. In 1647, after a series of defeats on the battlefield, Charles placed himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army. After months of negotiations, the Scots handed him to the Parliamentary commissioners and after a failed escape attempt Charles was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle.
Charles was charged with treason but continued to argue that no-one had authority over a king, whose right to rule had been granted by God. The court disagreed, found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
On the day of his execution, Charles asked for a second shirt as the weather was cold and he did not want to shiver and have the crowd believe him afraid. His head was severed in a single, clean stroke by an executioner whose identity was kept secret. It was displayed to the crowd and afterwards stitched back onto his body for his burial in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
26. Charles II
By John Michael Wright – Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639427
After the death of Charles I, England was ruled directly by Parliament for four years until Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector. Five years later Cromwell died and his son, Richard, briefly took the title before being removed from power. Almost a year of anarchy followed until Parliament invited the dead king’s son, Charles II, to return from exile in mainland Europe and take back the throne.
Charles returned to London in 1660 on his thirtieth birthday. While he and Parliament granted amnesty to almost all of Cromwell’s supporters, some fifty people were excluded and nine of those who had signed Charles I’s death warrant were executed. The body of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed and decapitated.
A popular king, Charles was known as the Merry Monarch. Under his reign, the theatres that had been closed during the Protectorate reopened, staging bawdy comedies where female parts were played by their “natural performers”, rather than by boys as had previously been the case.
Charles had no children with his wife, but acknowledged no fewer than twelve illegitimate offspring with various mistresses. On his death he was succeeded by his brother, James.
27. James II
James came to the throne in 1685 and ruled until he was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The second surviving son of Charles I, he was viewed with suspicion by the English nobility who were concerned that he was pro-Catholic and intended to rule without the consent of Parliament. When James produced a Catholic heir, the nobles asked his Protestant nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, to lead an invasion. William complied and James fled to France whereupon the throne passed to his daughter, Mary II.
James attempted to regain the crown, landing a force at Ireland in 1689. His army was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne and James spent the remainder of his life at the French court.
28. Mary II
Mary ruled with her husband, William III, from 1689 until her death in 1694. When her husband was in England she ceded most of her authority to him, but in his absence on military campaigns she proved herself a decisive and effective ruler.
The eldest daughter of James II and his first wife, Anne Hyde, Mary was brought up an Anglican. She married William of Orange in 1677 and became pregnant soon afterwards. Sadly, the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage which it seems may have permanently damaged her ability to have children. Her childlessness was a source of great grief to the Queen.
In 1694 she became ill with smallpox, dying just after Christmas. Her death left William heartbroken and she was widely mourned by her subjects.
29. William III
Born into his role as the Prince of Orange in 1650, William III ruled from 1689 until he died in 1702. Widely known as William of Orange he is also referred to by the somewhat less formal title of “King Billy” in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
William married his fifteen-year old first cousin, Mary, in 1677. Eleven years later, he invaded England to seize the throne from his Catholic father-in-law, James, in what became known as the “Glorious Revolution”. With James defeated, he and Mary ruled as joint sovereigns until her death in 1694.
Heralded by many as a champion of Protestantism, William joined coalitions of both Protestant and Catholic powers to fight France’s Catholic king, Louis XIV. His reign also saw the passing of one of the most significant documents in English history, the Bill of Rights. This imposed limits on the monarch’s power, including prohibiting him from suspending laws passed by Parliament or levying taxes without Parliament’s consent.
The Bill also set out who would inherit the throne on the death of William and Mary and barred any Roman Catholic, or anyone married to a Catholic, from becoming king or queen – a prohibition that continues to this day.
The younger sister of Mary II, Anne came to the throne in 1702 after the death of Mary’s husband, William III. It was during her reign that the Acts of Union united England and Scotland as a single sovereign realm. The era also saw the growth of two-party politics. The Whigs were broadly aligned with commercial interests and Protestants seeking to break away from the Church of England, while the Tories – whom Anne favoured – supported the Anglican Church and the landed gentry.
Anne had married George of Denmark in 1683. She suffered ill-health throughout her life, and despite becoming pregnant no less than seventeen times a series of miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths saw her die in 1714 without issue.
31. George I
After Queen Anne died childless the throne passed to her cousin, George I. The 1701 Act of Settlement had barred Catholics from the succession and George was the nearest Protestant relative. At 56 years old, he became the first monarch of the House of Hanover.
George’s reign saw the power of the monarchy diminish and a system of cabinet government begin to emerge. Shortly after his coronation the Whig party won an overwhelming victory in the general election of 1715 and the party grew in dominance through his reign. Real political power came to be exercised by Sir Robert Walpole, who became Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister.
George died of a stroke during a trip to his native Hanover. He was succeeded by his son, George Augustus.
32. George II
The last English monarch to be born outside Britain, George was born and brought up in Germany. He gained the throne in 1727 and ruled until his death in 1760.
With Parliament’s power growing, George exercised little control over domestic policy and spent much of his time in Hanover. He participated in the Battle of Dettingen, part of the War of Austrian Succession in 1743, making him the last British monarch to lead an army in battle.
An attempt to depose him in 1745 in favour of the Catholic James Francis Edward Stuart failed, and he remained King until his death at the age of 77. His legacy includes the donation of the royal library to the British Museum.
33. George III
By Workshop of Allan Ramsay – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1621850
George III became King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1760, ruling until his death in 1820.
A member of the House of Hanover, George’s rule saw Britain defeat France in the Seven Years’ War. While that victory saw the country become the dominant power in North America and India, it was soon followed by the loss of the British Colonies in the American War of Independence. More wars with France were to follow, culminating in Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The latter years of George’s rule were marred by mental illness. The King’s own view was that his malady had been exacerbated by the stress caused by the death of his youngest and favourite daughter, Princess Amelia. The following year, in light of his poor health, his eldest son, George, Prince of Wales was made Regent, ruling in his father’s stead until the King’s death.
35. George IV
George IV inherited the throne from his father, George, III in 1820 and ruled for ten years. An arbiter of fashion and taste, his extravagant lifestyle and treatment of his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, nevertheless attracted the scorn of the people.
George had little involvement in the government of the country as either Prince Regent or King, leaving affairs of state to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. His Ministers considered him irresponsible, while taxpayers condemned his profligacy.
His only legitimate offspring, his daughter Princess Charlotte, died before him in 1817. When in 1830 George followed her into the ground, he was succeeded by his younger brother, William.
35. William IV
After his two older brothers died childless, William ascended the throne in 1830 at the grand old age of 64. His reign saw the reform of the poor law, the introduction of restrictions on child labour and the abolition of slavery across most of the British Empire. Although he did not involve himself greatly in politics, he was conscientious in his duties: his first Prime Minister, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, stated that he had done more business with him in ten minutes than he had managed with his predecessor, George IV, in as many days.
William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen but their two daughters died young. Both William and Adelaide were fond of their niece, Victoria, who would inherit the throne on William’s death – but their relationship with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, was of a different kind. William publicly expressed the wish that he would live until Victoria turned eighteen so that she could rule without her mother’s involvement. He died at Windsor Castle in 1837, just after Victoria’s eighteenth birthday.
Victoria was born in May 1819 and ruled from 1837 until her death in 1901.
(NB We now have a longer post dedicated to Queen Victoria here)
At her birth, she was fifth in line to the throne – but when three of her grandfather’s four sons all died without legitimate heirs, the eighteen year old Victoria was crowned Queen.
After the Indian Rebellion in 1857, the East India Company was dissolved and British territories on the Indian subcontinent became part of the British Empire. Victoria saw “Empress of India” added to her titles.
The Queen married her cousin, Prince Albert, and had nine children. Following Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria went into deep mourning. Tragically her second daughter, Alice, died of diphtheria on the anniversary of Albert’s death, a coincidence that the Queen called “almost incredible and most mysterious.”
Victoria avoided public appearances in her widowhood and her invisibility saw a temporary growth in republican sentiment. By the time of her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, however, her popularity had recovered and both occasions saw great public celebration.
Victoria died at the age of 81. Her favourite pet dog, Turi, was placed on her deathbed as her last request and she was buried alongside Prince Albert in Frogmore Mausoleum in Windsor Great Park.
37. Edward VII
The eldest son of Victoria and Albert, Edward VII ruled from 1901 until his death in 1909. His mother’s long reign meant that he had been heir apparent and Prince of Wales for longer than any of his predecessors, travelling throughout Britain and abroad to perform ceremonial duties.
As king, he showed a keen interest in foreign affairs and his cordial relations with France earned him the nickname “Peacemaker”. His reign saw significant social and technological change in Britain, including the invention of steam propulsion and the growth of socialism. At one point, Edward was so depressed at the tone of class warfare in Parliamentary debates that he introduced his son to the Secretary of State for War as “the last king of England”.
A heavy smoker, he suffered increasingly from bouts of bronchitis towards the end of his life and died in 1910 after a series of heart attacks.
38. George V
George was the second son of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. He became heir apparent when his elder brother, Albert, died in 1892 and ascended the throne on his father’s death in 1910.
His reign saw the expansion of the British Empire to its greatest ever extent, while abroad the empires of his cousins Wilhelm II of Germany and Nicholas II of Russia crumbled as a result of the First World War. In 1917 he changed the name of the royal House from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor, in the face of anti-German sentiment.
George was plagued by smoking-related illnesses for much of his later life and in 1928 he fell seriously ill with septicaemia. He was never fully to recover and died in 1936. His physician, Lord Penn, admitted in his diaries that he had hastened the King’s death with two lethal injections, claiming that he had done so to preserve the King’s dignity and prevent further strain on the family.
39. Edward VIII
The eldest son of George V and Mary of Teck, Edward VIII was king from January 1936 until his abdication in December of the same year.
Careless of court protocol, Edward caused a sensation only months into his reign when he proposed marriage to American divorcée Wallis Simpson. A marriage to a woman who had divorced two husbands would have been both socially unacceptable and incompatible with the monarch’s position as head of the Church of England, which at the time refused to condone marriage after divorce whilst a former spouse was still alive.
Edward knew that if he went ahead with the marriage the British Government would have to resign, triggering a general election and throwing into question his own political neutrality. Faced with the choice of the throne or Wallis, Edward chose Wallis. His reign of 326 days is among the shortest in British history.
40. George VI
Known as “Bertie” to his family and close friends, George VI was named after his grandfather, Prince Albert. As the second son of George V, he had never expected to become king and the abdication of his brother Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson placed on him an unwelcome burden. The day before the abdication he went to visit his mother, Queen Mary, reporting, “When I told her what had happened, I broke down and sobbed like a child.”
On taking the throne, Albert assumed the name George to reflect continuity with his father and restore confidence in the monarchy after the turbulence of Edward VIII’s short reign. He received speech therapy for a stammer in the mid 1920s – as dramatised in the film The King’s Speech – but never completely overcame the impediment.
King throughout the Second World War, George and his wife, Elizabeth, visited bomb sites, munition factories and troops throughout Britain to raise morale. The King also visited troops abroad in France, North Africa, Malta, Italy and the Netherlands.
He died in his sleep of a coronary thrombosis, aged 56.
41. Elizabeth II
By NASA/Bill Ingalls – http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2007/queen_egress_8.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2694860
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was born April 21, 1926 and since 1952 has reigned as Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia and Head of the Commonwealth.
The eldest daughter of George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, it was clear after the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII in 1936 that Elizabeth would one day be called to the throne. She began to undertake public duties when she turned 21, including serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service during the Second World War.
She married Prince Philip in 1947 and was crowned Queen five years later. She and Philip have four children: Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, Anne, Andrew and Edward. Her reign has seen constitutional change with the devolution of Scotland and Wales, and Africa’s decolonisation.
The longest living monarch in British history, the Queen is also the oldest monarch in the world. Her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 saw public celebrations take place around the world and on 6 February 2017 she became the first British monarch to commemorate a Sapphire Jubilee.