Thursday, 1 November 2012

Uneasy Lies the Head... the ten shortest reigns in English history

At the time of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh's ninetieth birthday, I posted two posts about the longest- and shortest-serving royal consorts in English history. This is a list of the ten shortest reigns on Saint Edward's throne since 1066.

1. Jane ("Lady Jane Grey") (July 1553) Jane's reign was so short that it became her historical nickname - "the nine-day queen." She was placed on the throne by a palace coup in the summer of 1553, when the death of her teen cousin, Edward VI, threatened to end the Protestant Reformation in England. Edward's presumed successor was his sister Mary, a devout Catholic. However, on his deathbed, Edward altered the succession laws in favour of his sixteen year-old cousin, Jane. Jane was intellectually brilliant and certainly one of England's most intelligent rulers. She was also a fiery "born-again" Christian, who despised the Catholic religion and who could be counted upon to nurture the growing extremism of the Edwardian reformation. However, the chop-and-change attitude to the succession did not please the common people, who rallied to support the Princess Mary in overwhelming numbers. Jane was deposed after less than two weeks on the throne, as Mary entered London at the head of a triumphal army. Offered her life if she would abandon her Protestant faith, Jane refused and she was executed at the age of seventeen in February 1554. Victorians were obsessed with her story and portrayed her as the quintessential sacrificed young maiden. Modern research indicates that Jane was a good deal feistier than the romantic legend of her life suggested. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, she was regarded as a Protestant martyr. Her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, was beheaded on the same day as his wife. Her father and father-in-law had already been executed for their part in putting her on the throne. 

2. Edward V (April - June 1483) Edward V was twelve years-old when his father, King Edward IV, unexpectedly died. Since the King was still technically a junior, his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, was appointed as his guardian. The Duke used this position to make himself king instead of Edward and he was proclaimed King Richard III in June 1483. Edward V's two-month reign thus ended in him being deposed and declared illegitimate by his guardian. Separated from his mother, the ex-queen Elizabeth Woodville, the former king was placed in the Tower of London, along with his brother, the young Duke of York. The two boys vanished from the documentary records in September 1483, leading any rational person to the inescapable conclusion that they had died. Two hundred years later, two skeletons were found beneath the stairwell of the Tower, in almost the exact location suggested by the earlier historian, Sir Thomas More, with pieces of velvet (almost unknown before the fifteenth century.) Immortalised as one of the "Princes in the Tower," Edward V was almost certainly murdered on his uncle's orders or by someone acting on the new regime's behalf.

3. Harold II (January - October 1066) Harold II was the Earl of Wessex and one of the most powerful aristocrats in Anglo-Saxon England when he was elected by the Wittan (an Anglo-Saxon council) to succeed his pious brother-in-law, King Edward the Confessor, in January 1066. Harold had once been shipwrecked in Normandy, where he had lived as a cross between a guest and a hostage of William, Duke of Normandy, and his duchess, Matilda. In return for his freedom, Harold had allegedly promised to support William's claim to the throne, once King Edward was dead. If this was true, he nonetheless disregarded his oath once he was safely back in England. During his ten-month reign as king, Harold defeated an attempted Viking invasion of his kingdom, but a few weeks later he was defeated and killed at the famous Battle of Hastings, which saw William take the throne and go down in history as King William the Conqueror. Harold II's death was perhaps one of the most significant deaths in British history, because it precipitated the downfall of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, which was then brutally replaced by the culture of the invading Normans.

4. Edward VIII (January - December 1936) The uncle of the current Sovereign, Edward VIII was the first member of the British royal family to embrace the emergent modern phenomenon of celebrity. During the 1920s and 1930s, the handsome Prince of Wales was obsessively followed by the world's media, who turned him into a tabloid darling. Well-dressed, charming and an incorrigible womaniser, Edward was also selfish, unreliable and spoiled. When his father, the conservative King George V, died in 1936, Edward was already hell-bent on marrying the twice-divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson. Opposed by the Establishment, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward VIII scandalised the Empire (and his family) when he abdicated in December 1936, saying he was doing it for "the woman I love," in one of the most famous radio broadcasts in history. His younger brother became King George VI. The ex-Edward VIII was given the title of the Duke of Windsor and lived in exile for the rest of his life, where allegations of Nazi sympathies and outrageously indolent extravagant stalked him until his death in 1972. The rift with his family was never fully healed, particularly with his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, our late Queen Mother. Whether Edward's actions in 1936 were the result of "the greatest love story of the twentieth century" (a view taken by the recent biopic of him, directed by Madonna, below) or of near-unimaginable selfishness and a desire to live a life of entitlement, devoid of responsibility, is still a matter of personal opinion.

5. Richard III (June 1483 - August 1485) Uncle of entry number 3, Edward V, Richard III was the younger brother of Edward IV, who seized the throne during the civil war known as "the Wars of the Roses" in 1461. Conscientious and hard-working, Richard was also evidently a ruthless personality, like most of his generation who had grown to maturity during the treachery of the war. After displacing his nephews, Richard struggled to maintain his former popularity and while he was nothing like the monster of amorality suggested by Shakespeare or later playwrights, there can be little denying that (like most of his contemporaries) he was a thoroughly unpleasant individual. His wife and son died within a short space of one another and he was betrayed by his supporters at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. He himself was killed in the battle and succeeded by a Welsh aristocrat, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who became King Henry VII. Recently, remains that may be his were discovered in Leicester - leading to a debate on how they should be buried.

6. James II (February 1685 - December 1688) The last Catholic king of Britain, James II was one of the royal family's most popular members before he converted to Catholicism in the 1670s. Handsome but haughty, James had two Protestant daughters from his first marriage, who were expected to inherit the throne when he died. However in 1688, his second wife - an Italian princess, Maria-Beatrice of Modena - gave birth to a healthy son, who was baptised a Roman Catholic like his parents. By this stage, he was already unpopular because of his support for royal authoritarianism, bureaucracy, high taxation and harsh reprisals against his opponents. However, it was undoubtedly the birth of his son which ultimately brought about James II's downfall. The christening precipitated a constitutional crisis and a vicious smear campaign against the King and Queen, with little regard for the truth. They were overthrown and forced to flee the country, seeking asylum at the court of Versailles. James attempted to regain his throne at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, but he was defeated. He died as a guest of his cousin, King Louis XIV of France, eleven years later. Since the Boyne, the British crown has remained exclusively in Protestant hands. James II's body was buried in France, in the Chapel of Saint Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines. As a sign of respect, the French royal family kept lights burning in front of his tomb for the rest of the century. This lasted until the French Revolution, when the French monarchy itself was overthrown and James's tomb was vandalised by French republicans. He was the grandfather of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie," who attempted to regain the British throne for his family in the failed rebellion of 1745. His direct line of descendants died out in 1807. 

7. Mary I ("Bloody Mary") (July 1553 - November 1558) Henry VIII's eldest daughter, Mary Tudor came to the throne in July 1553 determined to undo the Protestant reformation started by her father and brother. She abolished the Church of England, re-submitted it to the authority of the Vatican and re-introduced the death penalty for religious dissenter. This last policy led to nearly three hundred Protestants being burned to death during her five years as queen. Her marriage to her Spanish cousin, Philip II, was deeply unpopular and precipitated a rebellion against her rule. Capable of great personal kindness and bravery, Mary was also prejudiced and bigoted to a degree that was remarkable even for the sixteenth century. She died at the age of forty-two in 1558 and she was succeeded by her younger sister, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth's reign saw the triumph of Protestantism and those who had suffered under Mary's rule naturally took every opportunity they could find to blacken her name. By the next century, she had become synonymous with tyranny in many English people's minds and that view of her persists, however unfairly, down to the present day.

8. Mary II (February 1689 - December 1694) James II's eldest daughter and William of Orange's wife, Mary was married and living in the Netherlands at the time Parliament invited her and her husband to invade England and end her father's rule. Admired for her beauty and her devotion to her husband, Mary's betrayal understandably devastated her father, but she seemed to believe (or claimed to believe) some of the worst rumours against him. Since it was technically Mary who had the direct blood-line claim to the throne but William who had conquered the country at the Boyne, the couple were the first (and so far only) in British history to reign together - as William III and Mary II. Mary was generally politically inactive, however, and ceded most of her authority of her husband. She died of smallpox in 1694, at the age of thirty-two. Her funeral was a huge affair and public grief at her death was widespread. The legal profession allegedly donned black as a sign of respect for the dead queen, which is why they continue to wear dark robes down to the present day. Like her aunt, Catherine of Braganza, who is credited with popularising tea-drinking in Britain, Mary II is alleged to have been the royal who introduced the habit of keeping goldfish as pets. 

9. Edward VI (January 1547 - July 1553) Another of Henry VIII's children, Edward VI's birth in 1537 killed his mother, Queen Jane Seymour. Obsessively protected by his father, he became king at the age of nine in 1547. Power was originally held by his mother's brother, the Duke of Somerset, but he was overthrown and executed by his palace enemies; after that, the government was dominated by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Well-educated and self-controlled, Edward VI was a committed Protestant, despite his young age, and he regularly bullied his elder sister, Mary (see number 7), about attending Mass. One of his favourite past-times was listening to three-to-four hour sermons by radical Protestant preachers - a habit which cannot have thrilled the courtiers who were forced to attend with him. During his youth, there was talk of marrying the King to his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey, his Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots, or to Princess Elisabeth of France. He died unmarried and childless in the summer of 1553, aged fifteen, thanks to a combination of illnesses, which may or may not have included consumption. As he lay dying, he barred his two sisters from the throne and fatally left the crown to Jane Grey, in the hope of securing the continued triumph of the Protestant church in England. When she became queen two weeks later, his sister Mary over-ruled her own beliefs to allow Edward to have a Protestant funeral. A fictionalised version of Edward's life was later created in The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain.

10. William IV (June 1830 - July 1837) Nicknamed "Sailor Bill" due to his early youthful career in the Navy, William IV had lived a scandalous life during his days as the Duke of Clarence. For most of his adulthood, he "lived in sin" with an Irish actress called Dorothea Jordan, with whom he fathered ten illegitimate children. As the third of George III's nine sons, William saw little need to follow in his father's footsteps of respectability and instead he pursued a career in the navy and a life of merriment, until his eldest brother's miserable failed marriage to Caroline of Brunswick made it more than likely that he would one day be king himself. He married the gracious Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, but the marriage unfortunately remained childless. His elder brother George IV died in 1830, meaning that William became king at the age of sixty-four - to date, the oldest accession in British history. As a prince, he had actively supported the cause of Catholic Emancipation, which saw an end to the legal discrimination against Catholics in the British Empire; his time as king saw the abolition of slavery, reform of the election system to make it more democratic, restrictions on child labour in the United Kingdom and an extension of the poor law to tackle poverty. His younger brother, the Duke of Kent, died before him; this left Kent's daughter, Victoria, as the next-in-line. However since Victoria was still a teenager, William feared that his sister-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Kent, would become regent if he died before Victoria's eighteenth birthday. William made many a state banquet particularly awkward by loudly proclaiming that he intended to live long enough to ensure that the sister-in-law he hated never got her hands on the regency. He did; he died four weeks after Victoria turned eighteen. He was the last king to rule over both Britain and the German state of Hanover. Since Hanover only allowed males to inherit, William's niece Victoria inherited the British crowns and his younger brother, Ernest Augustus, inherited the Hanoverian title.


  1. I would have correctly guessed most of the short reigns, except for Edward V (1483) and Richard III (1483-5). Goes to history education only started with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.

  2. Wow, this is just as interesting as the list of longest and shortest serving consorts! I do hope you will be posting a list of the longest serving sovereigns?

    Which brings up the question, will the current Queen, Elizabeth II, be first or second on the list? I know that she is very close to becoming the longest serving monarch, displacing her great grandmother, Queen Victoria.

  3. You'll have the Ricardians on your back soon with such brutal honesty. ;)

  4. The current Prince of Wales is also set to displace the oldest monarch listed to accede to the throne. As there is no reason (publicly known, anyway) to suppose the Queen will not see her 100th birthday, King Charles might finally be crowned when he is over 75 years of age.



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