Saturday 3 November 2012

Thy Choicest Gifts in Store: The ten longest reigning monarchs in English history

With a brief eleven-year exception in the middle of the seventeenth century, the British Isles has seen monarchical rule since the days of the Roman Empire. It was not until the aftermath of the Second World War that republicanism would once again make itself felt in the isles, thanks to the proclamation of the independent Irish republic. This is a list of the ten monarchs who have reigned for the longest period of time.

1. Victoria (1837 - 1901) (64 years) Princess Victoria of Kent was eighteen-years-old when she was woken in the middle of the night to be told that her elderly uncle, King William IV, had died and she was now Queen of the United Kingdom. Her first words as queen were apparently, "I will be good." She married her handsome German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and they had nine children together. Victoria's popularity briefly dipped in the aftermath of Albert's death, when her mourning for him was so intense that she withdrew from public life. However, Victoria's reign saw the rapid expansion of Britain's power and wealth and the Queen became inextricably linked with imperial prosperity in most of her subjects' minds. Her Golden Jubilee in 1887 and her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 were extremely popular, proving that the monarchy had recovered from the Queen's earlier breakdown. Respected and admired, she died at the age of eighty-one at her island summer palace on the Isle of Wight in January 1901. She was succeeded by her eldest son, who became King Edward VII. Her grandchildren included King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, Queen Maud of Norway and Queen Victoria-Eugenia of Spain.

2. Elizabeth II (1952 -) (60 years+) The current Queen succeeded to the throne following her father's death from lung cancer in February 1952. Pretty and conscientious, Elizabeth II came to the throne at a time when Britain's empire and economy were collapsing under the after-effects of the Second World War. Her reign has witnessed perhaps some of the most profound social, political, cultural, demographic and economic changes to the country in history; yet, throughout them, the Queen has remained consistently popular. Support for the monarchy has never dipped below 70% during her time as Sovereign. Although respect for the institution did waver in the 1990s, thanks largely to scandals surrounding the Queen's children and their spouses. The marriage of her grandson, the Duke of Cambridge, to Catherine Middleton in 2011 and the national rejoicing surrounding the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 showed the depth of affection that still surrounds the royal family in the United Kingdom. The Queen's Christian faith, tireless work ethic, appreciation for the constitutional limitations on her office and her support for the Commonwealth have also earned her the respect of the country's political leaders and the wider international political community. Should Elizabeth II reign beyond 2016, she will become the longest-reigning sovereign in British history, besting the record of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.

3. George III (1760 - 1820) (60 years) Queen Victoria's grandfather is perhaps best known for being "the king who lost America" or for going mad. Two spells of prolonged mental ill-health dogged George III's later years, but for most of his long reign he remained generally popular with his people thanks to his clean living, interest in agriculture and patriotism. He married a German princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, to whom he was devoted and with who he had fifteen children. Affectionately nicknamed "Farmer George," the King had a relatively benign reputation in Britain, but he was unfairly demonised by the leaders of the American Revolution, who had obvious political reasons for depicting the King as a tyrant in order to legitimise the colonial rebellion against him. Despite his personal horror at the creation of the United States, the King did treat John Adams, the new republic's first ambassador to London, with civility and respect. In later life, he suffered from delusions and failing eyesight. During these periods of incapacity, the executive functions of the monarchy were carried out by his unpopular son, the Prince of Wales. George III died at the age of eighty-one at Windsor Castle in 1820.

4. Henry III (1216 - 1272) (56 years) The son of "Bad King John" and his gorgeous French queen, Isabelle, Henry III came to the throne at the age of nine and inherited a country that distrusted its monarchy, thanks to the misrule of his father. Henry III's reign did little to soothe these difficulties. A great patron of the arts and architecture, Henry was less successful politically and his attempt to install his younger son, Edmund, on the Sicilian throne was costly and deeply unpopular. The King was extremely religious, but indecisive and easily influenced. His queen, Eleanor of Provence, was widely loathed for her extravagance and her generous patronage towards her Savoyard relatives. His reign saw significant long-lasting rebellions against the Crown, known as "the barons' wars," which saw the prestige of the monarchy depleted further. His son, Edward, was a stalwart defender of the royalist cause and he inherited the throne in 1272, when Henry died at the age of sixty-five.

5. Edward III (1327 - 1377) (50 years) Edward III was placed on the throne as a young boy by his ambitious mother, Isabella of France, after she deposed and murdered his handsome but unpopular homosexual father, Edward II. Isabella's greed and cruelty made her widely unpopular, as did her love affair with one of the chief rebels, Roger Mortimer. When Edward reached adulthood, he had Mortimer beheaded and his mother sent to a convent. He wisely married Philippa of Hainault, a decorous and conservative princess who was praised for her piety. Edward had a claim to the French throne through his mother and he used this to start the so-called "Hundred Years' War," which attempted to re-establish the English empire in France. Initially popular, the war soon became ruinously expensive and both Edward and his warrior-sons began to attract the resentment of the populace, who objected to the high taxes that were required to fund the conflict. After Queen Philippa's death, Edward suffered from senility and he became increasingly under the influence of his greedy mistress, Alice Perrers. He died in 1377, with the glory years of his early reign forgotten; he was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II. In later years, the military successes of Edward III's reign helped turn him into an heroic figure for English patriots. 

6. Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603) (45 years) Perhaps England's most brilliant royal ruler, Elizabeth I had an exceptionally difficult path to the throne. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed shortly before Elizabeth's third birthday and she was molested as a teenager by her stepfather, Thomas Seymour. During the reign of both her younger brother and her elder sister, she was the victim of court intrigues against her, but managed to survive them all to inherit the throne at the age of twenty-five in November 1558. When she received the news that she was at last queen, she is reported to have quoted the Psalms in Latin, saying, "This is the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes." Fluent in many languages, intellectually precocious and charismatic, Elizabeth helped introduce a liberal form of state Protestantism and re-established England's international respectability. Her reign saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the beginnings of the British empire in the Americas, the early career of William Shakespeare, a flowering of the arts and architecture, and the suppression of several plots against the Queen's rule. Although she was often undermined by anti-female aristocrats in her own government, the Queen retained her public popularity all her life. She died in March 1603 in her palace at Richmond; she was succeeded by her Scottish kinsman, King James VI, whose accession helped lay the foundation of "Great Britain."

7. Henry VI (1422 - 1461, 1470-1471) (39 years) Henry VI, the son of the famous warrior-king Henry V, came to the throne before his first birthday in 1422, when his father died on military campaign in France. Quiet and holy, Henry was married to the glamorous and beautiful Marguerite of Anjou, but his life was tortured by catatonic schizophrenia. The Queen, who was not popular, attempted to hold the government together, but the King's cousin, the Duke of York, used the King's breakdown and the Queen's unpopularity to try and win the throne for himself. This led to the dynastic civil war known as "the Wars of the Roses." Too timid and too unwell to lead himself, the royalist armies were effectively led by Queen Marguerite, who discovered hidden reserves of tenacity and savagery in defending her husband's cause. In 1461, Henry was overthrown and driven into exile; his kinsman replaced him as King Edward IV, but Marguerite returned at the head of an army in 1470, putting Henry back on the throne in a period known as "the Readeption." It ended less than a year later, as Edward IV and the Yorkist armies re-took the country. Henry was incarcerated in the Tower of London and found dead the next morning. The official line was that he had died of grief, but everybody assumed that he had been murdered on the Yorks' orders. Marguerite was driven back to France and her only son was killed in battle. The Lancastrian claim thereby passed to Henry VI's nephew, Henry Tudor.

8. Henry VIII (1509 - 1547) (38 years) England's most famous ruler came to the throne at the age of seventeen in 1509. At that point, he was tall, gorgeous and muscular; thirty-eight years later, he died fat, embittered and ulcerous. He is most famous for his six marriages. His first marriage to his brother's Spanish widow, Katherine of Aragon, ended in divorce in 1533 - a process which saw England split with the Roman Catholic Church and establish the independent Church of England for the first time in its history. His second wife was Anne Boleyn, the dazzling youngest daughter of the Earl of Ormonde; the marriage ended after three years, with the Queen being executed on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest. Eleven days later, he married the plain and pious Jane Seymour, who ironically died giving birth to the son and heir Henry had always craved. A fourth marriage to the German Anne of Cleves was political and ended in divorce after six months, because the King claimed to find his new wife sexually repulsive and wanted to marry his young mistress, Catherine Howard, instead. That marriage ended in the Queen's execution for adultery in February 1542 and eighteen months later, the King married an attractive Protestant widow, Katherine Parr, who he stayed with until his death four years later. His reign also saw massive religious upheaval, several wars with France, the building of new palaces, the destruction of the monasteries, an increase in parliamentary importance and sustained inflation. 

9. Charles II (1649 de jure - 1685) (36 years) Charles II only ruled for twenty-five years, but he reigned for thirty-six. In January 1649, his father Charles I was beheaded outside his own banqueting house at the end of the civil war, which saw republicanism triumphant and the monarchy abolished. In royalist eyes, Charles I's eldest son now automatically became King Charles II, since the laws of monarchical inheritance were inviolable. Moreover, his claim was supported by his other two kingdoms - Scotland and Ireland - since neither accepted the legitimacy of the new republic to intervene in their affairs. In 1660, the monarchy was formally restored throughout the British Isles and Charles II returned to London, aged thirty. Tolerant and clever, Charles was determined to make the new monarchy work at any cost and also to heal the sectarian tensions being created by anti-Catholic paranoia. He was nicknamed "the Merry Monarch" because of his love of drinking, theatre and pretty women. He had numerous mistresses, including a Cockney actress, a French aristocrat and a rapacious duchess; he fathered over a dozen illegitimate children and joked that he didn't believe God would send a man to hell for having a little fun. In children's literature, Peter Pan's Captain Hook is obsessed with the urbane Charles II and tries to dress like him.

10. Henry I (1100 - 1135) (35 years) The son of William the Conqueror, Henry I was personally unpleasant, but politically brilliant. He helped heal the rift between crown and church, restore unity between England and Normandy, establish the supremacy of the rule of law in England and ameliorate some of the worst discrimination that the Normans had imposed upon the conquered English in the previous generation. Although he fathered nearly thirty-five bastard children with a string of lovers, he was also stringent on matters of etiquette and nicknamed "Beauclerk," because of his love of learning. His first wife was the deeply pious Princess Matilda of Scotland, who liaised between her husband and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and who was arguably Henry's closest political adviser during the first half of his reign. After her death, he married the beautiful Adeliza of Louvain, but she was excluded from politics and never enjoyed Matilda's influence. His later years were beset by a crisis over the succession, between those who thought the crown should pass to the King's only legitimate surviving child - his daughter, Maud - and those who thought the crown should go to his nephew, Stephen, on account of his allegedly superior gender. Henry's fairly successful reign thus gave way to a nineteen-year-long civil war in 1135.


  1. Wow, Gareth, thank you for fulfilling my request to see the list of the longest serving monarchs! Queens who were so great that their names were used to describe the era they lived in - Elizabethan (Elizabeth I) and Victorian (Victoria) - made it onto this list.

    I wonder if anyone will look back on Elizabeth II's reign, and declare another Elizabethan Age? I hope so, because I think she deserves it.

  2. You're welcome! And glad you enjoyed them.


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