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



History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be