King Rubbish the Awful

Last time you got a top 5 best English monarchs, but in the interests of balance and fair representation, it is worth remembering that the monarchs of England and Great Britain, like those of just about every other country, were on the whole a bunch of feckless idiots who hadn’t the faintest idea how to rule and were distinctly underqualified for the job. And here, to represent them as best (or worst) as possible is a Top 4 (because seriously, this post is long enough already without having to pick another one of the morons), distilling from a long and competitive list the four worst rulers ever to sit upon the throne of England. Or Great Britain.

Once again, we proceed in chronological order…

Ethelred the Unready*(978-1016) 

In his ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples’, Winston Churchill describes Ethelred as ‘a weakling, a vacillator, a faithless, feckless creature’, and by all accounts that wasn’t a bad description. One of the few kings whose bad reputation doesn’t come from having fallen out with the Church or a subsequent King, Ethelred’s utter uselessness almost single-handedly ended Anglo-Saxon rule in England- twice.

Ethelred came to power at a time when Vikings had, after being kept out first by Athelstan and several subsequent generations of Saxon kings, began once again to pillage the coast of England. However, whilst other kings had faced down the invaders with an army at their back, when Vikings landed on Ethelred’s shores he simply paid them to go away. These ‘Danegeld’ payments were made in 991, 994 and 1002, costing England 56,000 pounds in total to buy a peace that kept being broken. On their own, this might have been fine, as even Alfred the Great had bought the Danes off to buy him time, but they utterly failed to stop the raids and Ethelred for his part did not prevent them from still coming. Rather than preparing for the inevitable open war that would surely result he instead became paranoid and made one of the most horrific and downright cowardly orders in history; that every single Dane living in England, even Anglicised Danes who had been living there for years, was to be assassinated on the same day. The St. Brice’s Day massacre was pure bloodthirsty genocide, as Ethelred’s men even burnt down churches full of people in one of the world’s most horrible displays of the savage side to human nature. One-third of the Danish population of England are estimated to have died, including a noblewoman called Gunhilde. Gunhilde’s brother, Swein Forkbeard, happened to be King of Denmark, and next year he came across the north sea and attacked England. Twice in the next ten years Ethelred paid the Danegeld again, costing a total of 84,000 pounds this time, before finally he was uprooted from the throne and replaced with Swein’s son Canute.

That wasn’t the end of the invasions Ethelred brought to England. He had married Emma of Normandy, who later married King Canute and, when neither of his sons produced heirs, this allowed the throne to pass back to Ethelred’s son Edward the Confessor. However, Emma’s brother Robert would later produce a son who would rise to become Duke of Normandy. It was this loose link to the Ethelred (Edward was his second cousin), that gave his claim to the English throne legitimacy, and led William, Duke of Normandy to invade and become William I of England.

Although that one can’t really be judged his fault.

*Ethelred’s nickname ‘the unready’ is actually a mis-translated play on his name; ‘red’ or ‘raed’ means ‘counsel’ in old English, and Ethelred roughly translates to ‘noble counsel’ (or ‘good advice’). His Old English nickname was actually ‘Unraed’, which roughly means ‘no counsel’ or ‘bad advice’. His name is, therefore, the Old English equivalent of a pun; ‘Good counsel the no counsel’ (jokes were very much in their infancy back then). Whether ‘no counsel’ should be taken to mean ‘ill-advised’ or ‘bad planner’ is unclear, but it illustrates the point that, whether he or his advisors were to blame, Ethelred’s reign was not a good one. Although, admittedly, he did apparently make some good legal reforms; just a shame about all the Vikings getting in the way.

John (1199-1216)

Everyone knows about king John and his general awfulness, even if their image is straight out of Robin Hood. The signs weren’t good from before he even took the throne; acting as caretaker ruler whilst his brother Richard (who almost made this list himself) was fighting the crusades, he both attempted (and failed) to rebel against him and then, when Richard was captured he (allegedly; the Church may have made this up) sent a message to the Holy Roman Emperor offering him a large sum of money not to let him go. An even larger sum eventually bankrupted England and got Richard home again, whereupon he promptly set off to France to get killed in a siege and landed John on the throne. This annoyed a lot of his French barons, who promptly switched their allegiance to John’s twelve year-old nephew Arthur instead, and when John had Arthur captured and killed he successfully alienated the king of France and most of his barons. With noble after noble allying themselves with the French, John lost all the French possessions his father Henry II had won, and then crowned the catastrophe by losing Normandy to the French as well. It was this that earned him the nickname ‘Softsword’.

Not content with merely losing half of modern France (and spending a ton of money in the process, and pissing everyone off with his heavy-handed attempts to keep the economy afloat, and dropping the Crown Jewels in quicksand for good measure), he then proceeded to argue with the Pope too. This, more than anything, cemented his dreadful reputation, since the Church wrote the history books; the Vatican effectively excommunicated the entire country and declared all baptisms that occurred illegitimate, and John responded by nicking a ton of Church land in an attempt to drum up some much-needed cash. This got John himself excommunicated, and under any other circumstance he would surely have been replaced in no time. However, with no other proper claimant to the throne, it was John’s barons who took the initiative, forcing him to sign the Magna Carta to ensure he toed to a line of some sort. Not that it worked, and the First Barons War started as a result. And the country got a French prince on the throne for a year.

Richard II (1377-99)

The reign of this most unmemorable of Richards (the only one of England’s 3 thus far not to die in battle) started with such promise. When the most famous of England’s peasant revolts took place in London in 1381 (in response to some particularly harsh post-Black Death economic measures), killing several officials at the Tower of London, the fourteen year old king was ‘volunteered’, presumably by his terrified advisors, to go and meet with their leader Wat Tyler. Upon being presented with a list of demands that would have made Lenin look like a Tory, Richard made the smart move (from both a political and a ‘keeping-your-neck-intact’ perspective) of simply agreeing with them and asking to meet the next day and go over the details. In that meeting, Tyler was killed, Richard was able to calm everyone down and the mob were dispersed without any of their demands met.

Unfortunately, Richard failed to utilise any of this tact and manners when dealing with his nobles, and as he grew older he grew particularly bad-tempered and unpopular (some historians believe he may have been schizophrenic or have some other personality disorder), particularly among his barons. Richard believed in the absolute royal right to rule and disliked having to appease his other landed gentry; this was not unusual at the time, but Richard was a vain man (the first to insist on being called ‘your majesty’) and lived expensively, wasting most of the money saved by peace. His belief in his own power also led him to become increasingly tyrannical. He packed the court with his favourites (and possibly a gay lover too) rather than the person best suited to the job, and lavished money on them; when asked by his barons to sack his Chancellor Michael de la Pole, he refused to dismiss ‘a scullion’ on Parliament’s wishes, and war was imminent. Richard lost, was returned to the throne (minus his favourites, many of whom were executed) by his uncle John of Gaunt*, spent eight years brooding about it and then started nicking the land of all the nobles who’d rebelled against him. When he finally took the land of Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son and heir to the throne, the country rallied to Henry and swept Richard from power (becoming Henry IV). He died in prison a year later, and history remembers him as another king who pushed Parliament too far.

*John of Gaunt was the dominant political figure of Richard’s age and was so called, for some reason, because he came from Ghent. His main claim to fame comes from the oft-quoted claim that everybody in Europe today is, statistically, his descendant.

Charles I (1625-49)

When we’re talking about pushing Parliament too far, it’s hard to trump the sheer idiocy of Charles I. Like his father James I, Charles was brought up to believe in the divine right of kings; that God had placed him on the throne and no man had the right to challenge his authority. Again like his father, he was also sympathetic to the Catholic cause, and was married to a French catholic. This was not sensible in a country such as England, where a hard line Puritan Parliament was a noble’s main source of funding and power and Catholicism was reviled across the land; but this might have been tolerated as it was for his father and son had Charles not taken to his role with such sheer arrogance. Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and arresting nine men after they disagreed with him, which was seen as downright tyrannical, and then attempted to rule without Parliament for 12 years, something even his father hadn’t dared try. With this major income source cut off, Charles embarked on a series of deeply unpopular, often inefficient and in places straight up illegal moneymaking techniques, which did nothing to improve his PR. When he attempted to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland without asking anyone first, the resulting backlash ended in military defeat and he was finally forced to call Parliament again. A month later, amid massive financial argument, Charles dismissed his Parliament, got trounced by the Scots again, and was forced to recall it. After getting half his advisers convicted of treason and Parliament granting themselves a sharp increase in power just to put two fingers up to Charles, Ireland chose that moment to erupt into religious civil war. Charles’ power was falling about around his ears, but not even this was enough to persuade the English to do something so bad-mannered as to rebel against their arrogant, unpopular, Catholic-sympathising king.

Indeed, had it ended there, Charles’ reign would probably have been almost a carbon copy of King John’s; military failure followed by disagreement with Church and nobility forcing Charles to hand much of his power over to the latter. Here, however, Charles played his trump card of insanely dumb ideas; marching into Parliament armed with 400 soldiers and attempting to arrest his five main opponents- which would have been fine were freedom from arrest within the chamber not one of the fundamental rights of Parliament, and the fact that they hadn’t done anything illegal. Having successfully alienated pretty much the entire country, Charles then proceeded to lose the English Civil war, become the only English king ever to get beheaded  and put the Puritan Taliban (sorry, Oliver Cromwell and co.) in charge of Britain. So thanks a balls ton.

And the worst part is, there’s even historical proof that it was all unnecessary. Charles’ son, Charles II, was also anti-Parliamentarian (digging up those who had executed his father and re-hanging their dead bodies, among other things), a Catholic sympathiser and a frequently absentee monarch, but when he remembered to recall Parliament his charm was such that he was cheered through the House of Commons and invited the members to the royal wine cellar for a drink. Charles II was a likeable, friendly character who disagreed with parliament about everything and still managed to enjoy 25 peaceful years in power. Charles I was an arrogant twerp who nobody liked, and we got one of Britain’s bloodiest wars out of it.

 

A final note; developments in my personal life mean that, at least for the moment, I’m going to have to once again drop the post count. For the immediate future, posts will be on Saturdays only

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Top 5 ‘Upper Class Idiots In Charge’

In his excellent book ‘An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain’ (which I use as partial source material for far too many of my history-based posts), author John O’Farrell offers us the subtitle of ‘Two Thousand Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge’. As a description of Britain’s, and indeed most of the world’s, political history, it is an almost depressingly accurate sobriquet; only in the last hundred years (and some would argue not even nowadays given who currently sits in No. 10) have ‘commoners’ been given the chance to rule our little island, and not since King William III has any effective power rested with anyone other than the hereditary monarch. However, just as with elected Prime Ministers, some of these upper-class idiots have done a significantly better job than others at running our country, and since I love a good arbitrary list as much as anyone I thought I would dedicate this post to detailing my Top 5 English* Monarchs. Oh, and a quick apology; this is going to be a long one.

*Because I am not all that familiar with pre-Union Scottish, Irish or Welsh history, my list will be drawn from the line representing the English monarchy that began in 927 and later became the Kingdom of Great Britain under the ‘rule’ of Queen Anne. Technically, therefore, some of the monarchs considered will be British, rather than English, but to dub this a list of British monarchs would a) be doing the other kings of this isle who do not form part of this line and who I am unfamiliar with a severe disservice and b) make the job of choosing just five one hell of a lot more complicated. OK, let’s begin, in chronological order:

Athelstan (927-39)

Despite strong challenges from his grandfather, Alfred the Great (who was unfortunately ruler of Wessex, rather than England) and the Viking king Canute, Athelstan takes his rightful place here as the greatest pre-Norman king of England. This is partly thanks to the fact he created the title; in 924 he inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and immediately embarked on a campaign to throw the Vikings out of the Danegeld (the land north of the old Roman road Watling street) that had been allocated to them by Alfred. It should be mentioned that this was less a ‘liberation’ than a land grab, but nonetheless he was one of the most staggeringly effective military leaders in British history; he conquered all the land between the Midlands and Northumberland (including the historic Viking capital of York), defeated the King of Scotland, marched back down south to take control of Wales (hence why the ‘English’ throne has always incorporated Wales) and the inconveniently titled West Wales (Devon & Cornwall), and finally defeated a coalition army of pretty much all of the above to become recognised as the undisputed king of all England (and a few other bits besides) in 937. Little is known about his domestic policy (this was the Dark Ages after all), but he nonetheless deserves credit as being a truly ‘great’ leader in the classical sense of the word.

Henry II (1154-89)

Henry II was not really an English monarch; he was a Frenchman, head of the Angevin Empire that stretched from Scotland to the southern tip of France, incorporating France’s entire Atlantic coast and control of both sides of the English channel. This owed much to his cleverly strategic marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, de facto ruler of much of western France at the time, and it is a tribute to his sheer energy that he was able to manage all of it with such aplomb. So impatient was he to get on with the day’s work, he reportedly chose his chaplain based on who could get through mass the fastest.

During his reign, Henry made some quite staggering achievements, controlling his barons (who would later force his son John to sign the Magna Carta) to great effect, reconquering the land won back by the Scots and Welsh from his predecessors’ rule, revolutionising the justice system with the creation of the offices of sherriff and coroner and generally micromanaging the realm to within an inch of its life with great effect, both military and economic. In fact, he only made two notable mistakes during his entire reign; the first was an invasion of Ireland that set the two countries on course for an 800 year long dispute that would cost thousands of lives, and the second concerned his attempts to bring the ultra-powerful Church under his control. When his hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, began to stop toeing the Henry line, the infamously hot tempered king shouted an order that was misinterpreted by a group of his knights to walk into Canterbury Cathedral (holy ground, upon which blood was not allowed to be spilt) and bash Becket’s brains out then and there. The Church milked the scandal for all it was worth, making Thomas a saint and vilifying Henry to the highest degree. Even today, many only know Henry because of the ‘Becket incident’.

Edward III (1327-77)

During his half-century reign, Edward III made a major impression in just about every part of England and English life at the time. Whilst his father Edward II had lost to the Scots at Bannockburn, enabling them to establish independence, Edward III was quick to march back over the border and quickly won victory over Robert the Bruce’s son David II at Halidon Hill, forcing him into exile and replacing him with the more compliant Edward Balliol, who promptly gave back all the land Robert had taken from the English. This was, in fact, a preferable situation to having the Scots under English rule, where they would simply rebel, as the subsequent half-century of political muddling over Scotland’s future prevented it from mounting a threat to English lands. With Scotland out of the way, Edward made the slightly more dubious decision to begin the Hundred Years War (had he known that was going to be the title, he might have considered against it) to enforce his claim to the French throne, and in doing so won stunning victories at the Battles of Sluys (at sea, in which the court jester was forced to break the humiliating news to the French king by saying how the cowardly English didn’t dare jump into the sea like the brave Frenchmen) and Crecy (on land, in which his bowmen and infantry soundly defeated the French cavalry, shattering the supposed invincibility of the mounted knight and beginning the slow demise of the knight in warfare). Had the Black Death not had the discourtesy to come along in the middle and wipe out nearly 40% of the European population (in turn utterly changing the balance of power in Europe), the Hundred Years’ War might have all but ended there with England’s victory over the French (although that would require the war to get a new name). Especially since he’d captured the French king.

But it was not just on the battlefield that Edward had success. He founded the Order of the Garter, still the highest office in the British Honours system, to maintain the chivalric code a little longer, cleared corrupt officials out of government to create an efficient, profitable taxation system and government, strengthened the legal system and Parliament (making the House of Commons and Lords separate entities) whilst increasing the monarchy’s importance and authority, and fostered a sense of Englishness in his country for the first time; St George, for example, became England’s patron saint. It is worth noting in relation to this latter point that this was also the era of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales would become among the most significant works in history by establishing English as a written language for the first time.

Henry VII (1485-1509)

As every schoolboy knows, Henry VII became the first Tudor king after victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but that was to be the last significant military action during his reign (and indeed, the last time an English king won their throne in battle). Unlike many of his ‘great’ predecessors, Henry gains a place on this list by being one of the most effective, if unglamorous, of all British rulers on the domestic front. Soon after Bosworth Field, the Lancastrian Henry married the Yorkist Eleanor of York, both bolstering his claim to the throne and uniting the two houses that had fought so viciously during the wars of the roses and ensuring his heir would be regarded as legitimate by all. He then, somehow, managed to persuade all the barons to obey his edict that banned their keeping the private militias that had so helped him on his rise to power, and then started milking off most of the resulting cash generated as part of his highly effective taxation system. That he managed to stay on the throne of a country full of immensely powerful barons who he was then able to gain control over and squeeze money out of based on a rather weak claim without any significant bloodshed is as good a testament as any to his interpersonal and management skills, and he spent the next two decades amassing the biggest fortune of any English king to date (in spite of his decision not to grant Columbus a royal charter to sail across the Atlantic, a deal that would net Spain all the gold of South America). It’s a shame his son Henry VIII would go on to spend nearly all of it on rather wasteful ventures, but that was hardly his fault

Elizabeth II

OK, a bold call I’ll admit, but hear me out. The English monarchy can be argued to have passed through three stages in its long and illustrious history; the pre-feudal phase, when a mixture of an elective council, assassins and armies were the ultimate decider of who was on the throne, the medieval phase (post William the Conqueror) in which Britain was a fairly typical feudal monarchy run by its hereditary monarch, and the Parliamentary phase (post William III) where the monarchy became more and more of a ceremonial role with all real power coming from Parliament (some would date this period from Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s rule, but there was significant power jostling between monarch and Parliament for the rest of the Stuart era until the monarchs finally assumed a subservient position). Of  my previous four picks, three has been from the medieval phase and one from the pre-feudal, but the very nature of the monarchy during this third period means that ‘greatness’ doesn’t really spring up in the traditional sense. However, I felt this period needed some representation, and our current Queen has adapted to the role of a monarch during this period better than any other, fulfilling her symbolic role whilst not arrogantly attempting to pretend to power. Not only that, but she has had to do so during what must be the most tumultuous period of change experienced in any monarch’s reign, and has coped with this change magnificently. Whether you think that her role or the concept of a monarch should exist at all, it is hard to deny that she has done her job. Which is more that can be said for most of her ancestors.

Winston

Throughout Britain’s long and chequered history, it has acquired a great deal of heroes, names that have rumbled down the ages. The likes of Boudicca, Alfred the Great and Queen Elizabeth I have (rightly or otherwise) cemented their place in the folklore and culture of our little island- but one stands head and shoulders above all of them. To the eyes of the general public, he is a hero unlike any that our country has produced before or since; he has been voted numerous times as the greatest ever Briton and his name looks set to still be revered centuries from now. I am talking, of course, about Sir Winston Churchill.

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born to an aristocratic family in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (the name comes from his ancestor John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and his famous victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704) and, as was fairly customary among his class of people at the time, became an officer in the British Army. After serving in Cuba, India, Sudan and South Africa, he turned his attention to politics and became the MP for Oldham in the 1900 general election. It was not a successful tenure, ending four years later when he switched from the Conservative to Liberal parties, but during his time in office a successful speaking tour of the USA not only brought in some much-needed cash (by both Parliamentary and aristocratic standards, Churchill was not a rich man) and demonstrated his superlative ability as a charismatic, powerful orator and public speaker. In 1906 he stood for Parliament again, won the seat, and within two years was promoted to the cabinet of Herbert Asquith. Most of this period of his career, in which he did some of his most significant work in the domestic sphere of government, was spent in the shadow of the political giant of the day, David Lloyd George (who would later go on to redefine the relationship between the state and its people and lead Britain through the second half of WWI), and Churchill’s reputation wouldn’t really start to get going until the onset of the First World War.

Following his somewhat bizarre decision to turn up in Belgium and offer to personally take command of the battle currently raging between the British and German forces, Churchill went back to Britain and actually started doing his job as First Lord of the Admiralty, a job he had acquired in 1911. However, he was forced out of the job within a year after masterminding the ill thought-out and generally disastrous Gallipoli landings. The idea was that, if the British could make a breakthrough in the Balkans, they might be able to force Germany to fight on a third front (even though they had no spare men with which to do so) or else get supplies through to their Russian Allies in the east (even though they had no spare supplies to send). To this end, a group of mostly Australian & New Zealander soldiers (ANZACS) were ordered to land at and attack Gallipoli in Turkey, in the middle of the Mediterranean summer, without any landing craft or maps, and with the entire Turkish army aware they were coming thanks to the small clue of a week’s incessant shelling of the coastline. Utterly exposed and with nowhere to run, the Allies never made it beyond ‘Cape Helles’ in eight months of fighting, and finally retreated at the expense of over 40,000 lives and the Eric Bogle song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.

Churchill’s career was at a nadir; the Conservatives hated him for joining the Liberals, the Gallipoli campaign had caused the public to lose all faith in the Liberal party and the last ever Liberal government was dissolved in 1916 (Lloyd George, a Liberal, headed up a coalition government until the end of the war, but much of his support came from Conservatives and the Liberal party fell to pieces around him after it). It didn’t get much better after the war; Churchill was a vehement warmonger, advocating military intervention in Russia (against the Bolsheviks, which in turn lead to a great deal of resentment between the two nations thereafter) and Iraq whilst the rest of the world had decided that, after the bloodiest and most destructive war in western history, the last thing they needed was another one. He soon lost his seat in Parliament, returned to the Conservatives in 1925 with his tail between his legs, became Chancellor, ruined the country’s economy in a disastrous attempt to return to the gold standard, suggested that striking miners be machine gunned during the ’26 general strike, made several impassioned speeches praising Italian dictator Bennito Mussolini, was dropped from the cabinet and spent the early 1930s vehemently arguing against Indian independence, saying “Gandhi-ism… will have to be grappled with and crushed”. Yes, that was Mahatma Gandhi he was talking about.

From about 1915 to 1935, therefore, the career of Winston Churchill was little more than a long string of failures and statements that, were they made today, would probably get you lynched by a rampaging mob of cardiganed liberals; in the early 1930s he (as well as standing up to Gandhi) was a supporter of General Franco, the Japanese invasion of China (in which some of the worst atrocities in the history of warfare were committed) and even (in 1935) Adolf Hitler, despite disapproving of his methods. Churchill was an impassioned opponent of socialism wherever he saw it, and went to outrageous extremes when fighting against it; if he had died then and there, history would have only remembered him as a raving, possibly fascist and almost certainly racist nutter whose only significant political contribution was Gallipoli. Which makes what happened next all the more amazing.

Europe in the 1930s was still gripped with fear at the prospect of another war, and as Germany under Hitler’s rule began to rearm and expand (totally counter to the conditions made in the Treaty of Versailles) most European nations were happy to stick to a policy of appeasement- which basically amounted to letting Germany do whatever they wanted in the desperate pursuit of not having to fight them. Churchill was one of the few ministers opposed to this policy, arguing from as early as 1935 that something had to be done to prevent German rearmament whilst being consistently ignored as the aforementioned raving nutter. However, the issue grew steadily in importance as his dire warnings as to the effects of German rearmament started to come true; the Third Reich first occupied the demilitarised Rhineland zone, then took control of Austria, and then the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After this latest bit of military action, Neville Chamberlain went to meet with Hitler, returning with the famous bit of paper in which Hitler had promised that he had no further territorial ambitions in Europe. Six months later, the rest of Czechoslovakia came under German control and British rearmament started in earnest. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939,  Britain was finally dragged into war. It would prove to be Winston Churchill’s finest hour…