Monday 1 October 2012

Long to reign over us: a brief history of the British monarchy (Part 1)

Above: The German-born King George II, who ruled Britain between 1727 and 1760; he was the last British ruler to lead his army into battle. A slightly less glamorous death awaited him, however, when he died on his toilet after suffering a massive stroke.

"Royalty is a Government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions. A Republic is a Government in which that attention is divided between many, who are all doing uninteresting things." - Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867)

There has been monarchy in the British Isles for thousands of years. Like an aged relative, it's hard to imagine it being young. It's even harder to believe that the monarchy has only managed to survive for so long by constantly adapting. Forget the conical-bra-themed self-reinvention of Madonna - the real mother of spicing up your image to suit the times is the British monarchy. The trick is that the monarchy has the knack of making itself look like a beacon of continuity. It's constantly changing, especially when it has to in order to keep the public's love, but it manages to hold on to just enough of the past to stay familiar. It's a hard juggling act and some kings and queens have been better at it than others.

A quick note on how the monarchy is numbered - since this confuses some people. After 1066, it's customary to start putting numbers after rulers' names. So, for instance, there have been four kings called William in British history - in 1066, 1087, 1689 and 1830. This means that when the current Duke of Cambridge becomes king, he will be called King William V. The woman a king marries usually gets the title of queen, because of her marriage to the king. However, this type of queen is called a 'queen consort,' and because she is married to a king and doesn't hold power in her own right, she does not get a number after her name. If there were no males left in the royal family and a woman inherited the throne in her own right, then a woman got a number after their name. For example, there have actually been five queens in English history called Elizabeth. However, three of them - Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the late Queen Mother) - achieved their title by marrying a king; they were queen consorts. Only two, Elizabeth I in 1558 and the current Queen in 1952, came to the throne in her own right and inherited power from her father. They are known as 'queen regnants.' When there is a queen regnant, her husband does not get the title of 'king,' he becomes a prince, because in royal tradition, a king is always higher than a queen and if a queen rules in her own right, nobody can be higher than her. That is why the current Queen's husband is called "Prince Philip". 

After the collapse of the Roman Empire's hold over Britain, numerous smaller kingdoms sprung up across the isles in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland - or Caledonia, Britannia and Hibernia, as the Romans had called them. In time, England came to be united under one crown and by the year 927, King Athelstan (above) was able to legitimately claim that he was "King of the English." This Anglo-Saxon monarchy was a sophisticated and wealthy institution, which presided over a prosperous economy. At that time, England's culture had much in common with what we would now think of as Celtic or Irish culture. However, she was also part of the international community and had strong links to the rest of Europe - particularly Scandinavia, Germany and France. By the middle of the eleventh century, England's monarchy was so close to them that the Duke of Normandy was able to claim that he was the true heir to the English throne. When saintly King Edward the Confessor died in 1066 without an heir, it therefore resulted in turmoil. An English aristocrat, Harold of Wessex, was elected the new king by a council of English lords and bishops, but he was opposed by the Viking king of Norway, Harald, and the ruthless Duke William of Normandy. Both invaded. Whilst the Vikings were defeated, the Normans were not and their victory at the Battle of Hastings turned 1066 into probably the most famous year in British history. Certainly, it was one of the most decisive.

Duke William went down in history as King William the Conqueror, which is appropriate because the Norman invasion of England amounted to little more than a full and savage conquest of native English culture. The new king's Norman followers were rewarded with land that was taken off the English aristocracy. Native architecture, names, language, church services and art were obliterated and replaced by the culture and values of Normandy. Rebellions were brutally crushed by William's unstoppable, unmerciful armies. Some historians would say that the reasons for the economic differences between the south and north of England actually arose in the eleventh century, when William the Conqueror decided to punish the north for rebelling against him by burning half the north, including its fields and agricultural land. Arguably, the region's economy and population has never fully recovered. 

For the next two hundred years, the English monarchy was essentially an absolute one. Backed up by the full force of Norman militarism, William's successors were able to expand their empire and terrify their opponents. By the time William's great-grandson came to the throne as Henry II in 1154, the English crown ruled more of France than the French. Henry had an empire which stretched from England's border with Scotland to France's border with Spain. He had married the flamboyant Eleanor of Aquitaine (below), the greatest heiress of the century and all-round diva; through her he had gained control of the Aquitaine, the most economically prosperous and culturally advanced region in southern Europe. With such wealth and power, it was almost inevitable that England's crown would soon become the dominant power in the British Isles, too. And that expansion started when Henry II became involved in a squabble between the Irish kings of Connaught and Leinster, resulting in King Dermot of Leinster switching allegiance to England and making Henry II the new Lord of Ireland. To say that it was a controversial moment in British history is something of an understatement.

England's mighty multi-national European empire was unsustainable, however. Too much of its success had relied too heavily on the personality of its kings. The monarchy in the Middle Ages was so absolute that if the king was incompetent, weak or unpopular then it was bound to fail. Kings were not just political leaders; they were also commanders-in-chief. Being a nice guy, a good husband, a good father or a good Christian was far, far down the list of what a king was expected to be good at. If he wanted to be successful, he had to have a strong brain and a stronger arm. In a nutshell, he had to have all the cunning and ruthlessness of a mafia boss and he also had to have the bulging muscles and fighting know-how of a Marine. For one hundred and thirty years, the blood of the Normans somehow, magically, kept these traits going. Between William the Conqueror in 1066 and Richard the Lionheart in 1189, England's vast empire, wealth and fearsome armies were able to run unchecked because England had strong, clever kings who let nothing stand in the way of their country's expansion. Essentially, they were ruled by a series of men whose policy was "punch first, ask questions later." It may not have been pretty, but it was certainly effective. Then, in 1199, Richard the Lionheart died on military campaign in France and his disastrous, loathsome, vicious little brother, John, came to power.

The fact that King John was a repulsive, dishonest, thieving, lying little rapist had nothing to do with the fact that he was a bad king. (By the way, he's the inspiration for the thumb-sucking lion in Disney's Robin Hood.) He slept with everything, but the screwing that really mattered was what he did to the economy and the empire. John was not only unpleasant, but he was also an idiot. He wasted his parents' work in France and bit by bit, the French crown was able to push the English out of her territories in France. John also abused his own subjects, in much the same way as he abused his gorgeous second wife, Isabelle. (When he died, she capered off back to France to marry her childhood fiance.) Like his attitude to Isabelle, John took from his subjects without asking. For centuries, the power of the monarchy in England had been absolute; it had been theoretically unchecked. The kings of England could do anything they liked, as long as it didn't directly violate the teachings of the Catholic Church. That was the theory. But every king before John had been smart enough to realise that they also had to offer their subjects projection and not abuse their royal power. (Even the genocidal William the Conqueror had only struck once a rebellion had occurred.) John, however, took whatever he wanted and generally so abused the liberty of his people that in 1215 he faced a massive rebellion against his rule. That rebellion was successful and it resulted in the power of the monarchy being limited for the first time. The rebels forced their hated king to sign a document known as Magna Carta which set out the principle under English law that there is a direct relationship between government and governed: in return for their taxes, subjects have certain inalienable rights that it's the government's job to protect and defend. 

Admittedly, Magna Carta was only concerned with the rights of the aristocracy and the church, but it established a principle that was to define English law in the long-run and haunt John's family in the short-term. When he died in 1216, his nine year-old son became King Henry III. As an adult, Henry was seen as incompetent and dominated by his greedy French wife, Eleanor of Provence (above.) Henry's leadership and Eleanor's scheming helped push the King's brother-in-law, the Earl of Leicester, into leading yet another rebellion against royal rule. Afterwards, Henry III was eventually forced to concede to the regular meetings of his subjects' representatives, who would debate on how much taxes they would pay to the government in future. It was the beginning of parliament in England and, as the centuries wore on, this crucial financial power they had would help turn the parliament into the dominant force in the country's politics. At the time, of course, no-one yet deviated from the idea that the King was chosen by the hand of God; they just felt it was parliament's job to keep the king's feet planted a little bit more firmly on the ground.

When Henry III died in 1272, his son became King Edward I. Known as Longshanks because of his height, Edward had been devoted to his father and remained loyal to him throughout the rebellions. However, he was made of much stronger stuff than his father and he was determined to recapture the monarchy's prestige after the humiliations of the last sixty years. But whilst could be no going back to the days before Magna Carta, when the monarchy had ruled supremely, just because the monarchy's wings had been clipped did not necessarily mean that it had to lay down and die. England would be great once again and it would be her king that led her to it. Unfortunately, the methods Edward chose to employ to reach his goal have earned him the hatred of generations of historians. To begin with, he banished the entire Jewish community from his kingdom, after extortionately taxing them in order to pay for his wars. He conquered Wales. He also pursued a bloody vendetta against the Scots (his tomb proudly bears the inscription that he was Edward, "hammer of the Scots.") In his defence, he lived in a violent era in which exploitative military warfare was the order of the day. Even knowing that however, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that Edward I was a monumentally unpleasant individual. 

When Edward I died in 1307 - en route to start yet another war against the Scots - he was succeeded by his son, Edward II. Edward was the first member of the royal family to be called the Prince of Wales, following his father's conquest of the country; it started a tradition which lasts to the present day, by which the eldest son of the monarch is known as the Prince of Wales. Edward II is today best known for the fact that he was almost certainly gay or bisexual. Whilst he did father four children with his unbelievably gorgeous wife, Princess Isabella of France, he was also openly besotted with the handsome Earl of Cornwall and allegedly spent four days locked in his bedroom with a sailor called Adam - having what I can only assume was a riotously good time. (Ahoy sailor, etc.)  In the 1995 Mel Gibson movie Braveheart, Edward was played by the Irish actor Peter Hanly. In it, he was shown as weak, prone to crying and effeminate. As historical portrayals go, it tells us far more about our attitudes to gay stereotypes than it does to Edward II. The real Edward II was physically active (he horrified his courtiers by enjoying "lower-class" pursuits like rowing, swimming and digging); he was also tall, well-built, handsome and blond. (Most of Braveheart is, in fairness, fantasy. A lord's right to deflower his tenants - the so-called droit de seigneur - is an invention. Had anything of the kind existed in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church would have had apoplexy and fired out excommunications left, right and centre.)

Edward II was not a popular king. He lost the war with Scotland and his sexuality was repeatedly used to "prove" that was an unfit leader. In 1327, his wife Isabella fled back home to France, where her brother was king, and took a lover in the form of Lord Roger Mortimer. The two of them raised an army and invaded the country, shoving Edward off the throne and putting his young son in his place as Edward III. Edward II was quietly murdered in prison and Isabella held onto power herself until her son came of age. She turned out to be as greedy and unpleasant as she was beautiful. She kick-started her time in power by having her husband's ex-favourite, Lord Hugh Despenser, publicly castrated and hacked into pieces in Hereford marketplace, whilst she and her ladies watched and enjoyed a mid-afternoon picnic. 

Edward II was the first king since 1066 to be deposed and it was a move that changed everything. For the first time, rebellions could aim to change the king, rather than simply change the way he ruled. It was yet another dent in the monarchy's aura of divine prestige and this dent would haunt the monarchy, and its subjects, for the next century and a half. In 1399, Edward II's great-grandson, Richard II (above), was overthrown, imprisoned and murdered by his cousin, the Duke of Lancaster. There had been rumours, too, about Richard's sexuality - probably unfounded. But the rumours helped link him in the public's mind to Edward II and it gave the aristocrats rebelling against him a useful set of references. Richard had been a proud and haughty king, but he had understood the importance of display and dignity. He had turned his court into a centre of the arts and along with his wife, Anne of Bohemia, he had put on a dazzling royal show for the best part of a decade. But he was also overbearing, paranoid and dictatorial. He mismanaged the aristocracy and in 1399, he paid for those mistakes with his life. His cousin became the new king Henry IV, but it looked as if royal depositions were becoming a habit, rather than an unfortunate one-off. Henry himself apparently spent the rest of his life tortured by what he had done.

The fifteenth century was therefore a time of instability. There were great kings - like the warrior Henry V - but when he died young in 1422, it led to another period of instability. Poor Henry VI was deposed and then murdered after suffering a heartbreaking spell of catatonic schizophrenia; Edward IV was deposed and then restored in 1471; young Edward V was deposed by his own uncle in 1483 and then vanished into the Tower of London, never to be seen again; finally, Richard III was killed in battle by a distant cousin in 1485. These events known as "the Wars of the Roses," proved how integral a strong monarchy was to the nation's well-being. It also produced a generation of the upper-classes who were, almost without exception, mad, bad and dangerous to know. The horrors of so much political instability, war, rebellions, changing loyalties and distrust warped their minds and morality; they didn't know who to trust and, in turn, became chronically untrustworthy themselves. Today, novelists and history enthusiasts still get their panties in a twist picking sides between people like Edward IV, Cecily Neville, Richard III, Lord Hastings, Elizabeth Woodville, Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort or Marguerite of Anjou. But perhaps the best assessment comes from an old history professor of mine: "Richard III was a total bastard. But then, they all were."

Richard III paid the price for a life-time of such behaviour and for belonging to an unpleasant generation of backstabbing intriguers when he lay dead on the soil of Bosworth Field in August 1485. His death brought his distant cousin, Henry Tudor, to the throne as King Henry VII (above). Henry VII, the first Welsh-born king of England, was not the kind of man you'd want to go for a drink with. He was tight with money, cold and manipulative. He was also an excellent monarch, who restabilised the monarchy and ended the political uncertainty of the last generation. He did this by raising taxes, reducing the power of the aristocracy and winning the support of the Catholic Church. When he died in 1509, he left a secure and very wealthy throne to his 17 year-old son, Henry VIII. As with all of his potential, Henry VIII wasted it. 

Henry VIII is, let's face it, essentially famous for being fat. But he started his reign as quite the hotty. The Tudors tried to get this across, but they cast Jonathan Rhys Meyer, who doesn't quite capture the fact that Henry was tall and exceptionally well built. He was also immensely popular and this has led to some historians being quite spectacularly stupid in saying that Henry only became a massive prick of a human being later in life. But even in 1509, when he came to the throne, and when people like Thomas More and Lord Mountjoy were squealing like schoolgirls about how perfect their new king was, there were warning signs of what he was capable of. He had two of his father's closest advisers executed on false charges of treason, because they were responsible for overseeing his late father's tax hikes and he therefore knew that their deaths would win him more popularity with the people. 

Henry is also famous for having as many wives as he did daily servings of, I presume, lard wrapped in butter - six. His first wife was his brother's widow, Katherine of Aragon, who is today spoken of like a de facto saint because she had the cojones to stand-up to Henry when he asked for a divorce. Katherine was also vindictive and an enormous snob, but what she did have (in bucket loads) was courage and strength. Like Margaret Thatcher, she was an iron lady - "you turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning," springs Maggie-like to mind when thinking of Katherine. After years of miscarriages and mistresses, Henry fell obsessively in love with Anne Boleyn, the 19 year-old daughter of the heir-apparent to the Irish earl of Ormonde. Anne was a strikingly pretty brunette, with beautiful dark eyes and a trim figure. She was bright, funny, fluent in French and sophisticated. She was also temperamental and ambitious. She didn't think that being a royal mistress was an honour, but rather a deep humiliation to be avoided at all costs. Anne had a very high opinion of herself. Henry's attitude to her was obsessive and, some might say, borderline stalker. He hounded her with visits, letters and presents; eventually, in 1527, he proposed marriage. 

It took six years to get Anne to the altar. In that time, she rose to become one of the most powerful people in Henry's court, with particularly strident views on the church and foreign policy. She was extravagant and glamorous, but she reckoned without the opposition of Queen Katherine and the Pope. Katherine refused to accept the divorce and tenaciously fought it tooth and nail. The Pope, who didn't want to offend anyone, dithered, lied and essentially behaved more like a crooked lawyer than Christ's Vicar on Earth. Anne Boleyn wasn't a Protestant, but she was a liberal Catholic who distrusted the Papacy, opposed the death penalty for religious dissenters and believed the Bible should be available in English, rather than Latin. Henry increasingly began to listen to her and his advisers who suggested he could use the teachings of the new German-born Protestant movement to end the Pope's power in England and, therefore, get his divorce from Katherine. In 1533, Anne was crowned in a magnificent, glittering ceremony in Westminster Abbey and Henry became the Supreme Head of the new, independent Church of England. 

Henry's size now began to swell in direct proportion to both his ego and his power. His slightly unhinged obsession with his second wife resulted in Anne being sent to her death in May 1536 on false charges of treason, adultery and incest. Five men died alongside her, in what one historian has accurately called "one of the most grotesque miscarriages of justice in British history." Henry's marital adventures after her death turned him into the punchline of a bad joke. His third wife, Jane Seymour, died giving him the son he'd always wanted; his fourth, Anne of Cleves, was divorced within six months because the King claimed she was so ugly he couldn't sustain an erection in her presence; his fifth, Catherine Howard, was a sexy teenager who lost her head because she may have committed adultery with a handsome young gentleman of the court and his sixth, Katherine Parr, only saved herself from a similar fate by hurling herself at her husband's feet and tearfully begging him to forgive her if her Protestant faith had offended him by being too radical.

Henry VIII died fat and feared in 1547. He left the country in a complete mess, despite what later patriotic propaganda said. He had separated the country from the Vatican, but didn't know quite how protestant to make the national religion. He had three children by three different wives. He had destroyed the old aristocracy, but replaced them with a far more ambitious and untrained set of new money favourites. He had solidified English control in Ireland and Wales, but his French wars had bankrupt the country. He died in the midst of food shortages and massive inflation. His beloved son, Edward VI, lasted only six years on the throne before dying at the age of fifteen in 1553. The Protestant fundamentalists who surrounded him tried to save Edward's legacy by putting his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, another born again teen, on the throne. But she lasted nine days before Edward's Catholic sister, Mary Tudor, arrived in London a tidal wave of popular support and became Queen Mary I. Five years later, she died with the nickname "Bloody Mary," as a result of burning 283 Protestants to death in her quest to turn England back into a Catholic country.

The last of the Tudors was Mary's half-sister and Henry's daughter with Anne Boleyn - Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was by nature a political pragmatist. She was a liberal Protestant who wanted independence from Rome, but also a church that was sufficiently broad that it could appeal to the largest number of people. The so-called "wishy washy" nature of Anglicanism arose primarily because of Elizabeth's reluctance to define doctrine too rigidly, in case it divided her subjects rather than united them. By far the most intellectually gifted of England's monarchs (she spoke seven languages), Elizabeth I was also one of its most successful. She defeated several rebellions in both England and Ireland, defied expectations that rule by a woman was bound to fail, faced down the threat posed by her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, survived the Pope's excommunication, witnessed the defeat of the Spanish Armada and outlived several assassination plots. She also, of course, presided over one of the most exciting periods in English art, culture and literature, and her forty-five year reign saw the beginnings of the British Empire. 

But all this came at a cost. By sixteenth century law, a husband all-but owned his wife; he was certainly her superior. If Elizabeth married a foreign prince, this might then mean the end of English independence. (Her late sister's marriage to the King of Spain had been so unpopular it sparked a rebellion.) If she married a native lord, the rest of the aristocracy might rebel through jealousy. So despite the fact that she was a habitual flirt, who was also madly in love with her childhood playmate Robert Dudley, Elizabeth never married and she subsequently turned her enforced virginity into the greatest PR stunt in history. She became the "virgin queen" and boasted that she loved her country so much she had chosen to marry it instead of a man. It was the ultimate form of being married to your career, I suppose, and Elizabeth's public ate it up. There was also no doubt that Elizabeth's sense of patriotism was deep and visceral. Even when aristocrats in the palace began to turn against her, she never lost the love of the general population and, for that, she remained eternally grateful. In one of her last public speeches, she said that she knew there might one day be a monarch more capable than her, but there would never be one who loved their people more.

Romantic sacrifice was not the only one Elizabeth had to make to hold onto power. She nearly suffered a complete nervous breakdown when she was bullied by parliament and public opinion into executing her Scottish cousin Mary in 1587 after a Catholic plot was discovered which aimed to murder Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne in her place. Likewise, she executed two of her relatives - the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Essex - when they rebelled against her, despite the fact that she found it abhorrent to do so. Regardless of all the legends of Elizabeth having lovers and illegitimate children, it's almost certainly the case that she lived up to her own boast and died a virgin. It was the only politically sensible choice to make and Elizabeth lived in neurotic terror of being overthrown and murdered. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Elizabethan era was that Elizabeth managed to hide her fear and insecurity with magnificent displays of public bravado and charisma. She had an Evita-like ability to communicate with the ordinary people of England and by the time she died in 1603, aged sixty-nine, she had become a legend in her own lifetime. By and large, she has remained one ever since.

Elizabeth, obviously, died without children and the heir to the throne was now her Scottish cousin, James VI. James had ruled as king of Scots ever since he was a toddler. Like Elizabeth, he was intellectually remarkable, but unlike her he was lacking in glamour, charisma and tact. Elizabeth could get parliament to do a lot of things it didn't want to by laying on flattery with a trowel. James simply demanded they do what he wanted because he was God's anointed and they were insignificant plebs. It was, needless to say, not exactly the foundations of a successful political partnership.

The monarchy, from March 1603 onward, was a British one. Elizabeth's death had united Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England under one monarchy for the first time in their history. The monarchy Elizabeth left behind had already had a remarkable journey since it first fell to the "kill-'em-all-and-God'll-sort-'em" armies of William the Conqueror. It had enjoyed the kind of absolute power that pharaohs might have expected; it had survived numerous rebellions, two civil wars and the rise of the parliamentary system; it had adapted to the growth, loss and re-arrangement of empires; it had gone from being the most devout of the Catholic flock to creating and controlling its own national religion; it had nurtured the arts and it had created some of the most spectacular castles, palaces and cathedrals in the world. Its kings had been the savage William the Conqueror, the rough and tumble William II, ruthless Henry I, unlucky King Stephen, "the lion" Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, the bad idiot John, Henry III, Edward Longshanks, Edward II, Edward III, obsessive Richard II, Henry IV, the national hero Henry V, poor Henry VI, the impressive but untrustworthy Edward IV, little Edward V, Richard III, money-grabbing Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. By 1603, the monarchy already had a long and impressive history. Its strength lay in its adaptability. Now, it would have to adapt to a whole new set of circumstances - the discovery of imperial potential in Asia, Africa and America; the growing power of parliament, backed by the newfound wealth of the gentry and the rising middle class; the inclusion of Scotland and England under one crown for the first time in history; sectarian troubles in both England and Ireland; the question of what to do with the Catholic minority and the hard-core too-protestant Puritans. James I inherited a proud legacy, but also an uncertain future. It would take a man of real skill and guile to balance this monarchy's political, financial and social responsibilities and, as the seventeenth century ahead would show, the price of failure in any area was very, very high. 


  1. Poor Georg ! Catherine the Great had the same fate (a stroke in the privy, and NOT the horse myth)


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