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:
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
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.