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A Brief History of the British Monarchy
Jack Dixon looks back over nearly one thousands year's of monarchy in the United Kingdom
Monarchy is tied to the UK’s identity in a way very different to other nations. We are so intertwined with our royal heritage that Britain wouldn’t be the same without it.
After the incredibly sad passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, we go into her royal heritage and remember the history of all royals which puts the great into Great Britain.
After the fall of Rome, Britain entered the Dark Ages and many called themselves King. England was not a single state but was broken up into smaller kingdoms. When the Vikings invaded we had the introduction of Norse Kings in the North who were often at war with southern kingdoms. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex dreamt of a single England under one rule. However, Alfred despite his great military victories over the Vikings was never able to see a united England.
His grandson King Æthelstan pursued Alfred the Great’s dream and ruled over a singular England and is known by historians as the first King of England.
This Anglo-Saxon line ended with King Edward the Confessor who died without an heir. Three people wanted the throne that would define the monarchy forever. William, Duke of Normandy, Harold Hadrada, a Viking King, and Harold Godwinson a Saxon lord. William of Normandy was experienced in military matters after fighting rival provinces in northern France. The Normans were different to other French peoples because they were descended from Vikings, when Vikings began to invade France they were given Normandy as an offering to stop them from taking other land.
Once Edward the Confessor died Harold Godwinson seized the throne before defeating Harold Hadrada and the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. William of Normandy sailed across the English Channel and defeated and killed Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William was crowned King and became known as King William I the Conqueror.
King William I famously conducted a national census known as the Doomsday book, an early form of data collection. He introduced the feudal system as a form of social control which the British class system can be traced back to.
King William I is the Monarch that all current British royal lines can be traced back to.
Medieval Britain was mired by constant civil war and war with France. The main medieval royal families were the Normans, Plantagenets, Lancastrians, and Yorkists.
The first Queen is debated to have been Matilda. She was the oldest child of Henry I who didn’t have any male heirs and Henry I was adamant he wanted Matilda to be Queen. However, when Henry I died English lords did not want a female ruler and put her cousin Stephen on the throne which led to civil war. Matilda fought hard and was able to seize the crown for 209 days in 1141 becoming England’s first Queen despite it being brief. Even though she did not hold the crown for long she fought hard and made sure her son Henry II was able to become King after the death of Stephen. Matilda represents the first powerful woman within the British Monarchy which set a precedent of powerful royal women.
The medieval period is where the evolution towards liberty began with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. The Magna Carta was an agreement between King John and the Barons of the time which made the monarchy more accountable and was a check on divine authoritarian rule which many believe was a foundation for future freedoms.
Famous medieval monarchs include Richard I the Lionheart, Edward I (Longshanks), and Henry V.
The medieval period saw Wales being added to the kingdom under Edward I who wanted a single united kingdom. Edward I tried to bring Scotland into the kingdom but was extremely brutal in his invasion and was never able to hold it.
Henry V was able to invade France and famously beat the French at the Battle of Agincourt. His son Henry VI was crowned king of England and France but becoming King at the age of nine months old the French crown was lost.
The War of the Roses
The War of the Roses was an English Civil war between two families both with royal claims to the throne, the house of Lancaster and the house of York. These two families fought in an extremely bloody civil war and exchanged the throne multiple times.
The civil war ended when Henry Tudor from the house of Lancaster defeated King Richard III of York at the Battle of Bosworth. To end the war Henry Tudor, now King Henry VII, married Elizabeth of York to unite both houses and form the House of Tudor.
The Tudors represented the start of strong royal women in British politics. Famous Tudors included Henry VIII and his six wives. What changed dramatically under Henry VIII was that England and Wales left the Catholic Church and Henry VIII started the protestant Church of England. The Church of England and the monarch being its head is still a tradition to this day and is a vital part of the British constitution and state.
During the Tudors people began to move around more and act with slightly more freedom which saw the emergence of many new traders, merchants, and bankers, with many commoners making their fortunes in rags to riches stories. Thomas Cromwell grew up poor but due to working in finance he grew up to become Henry VIII’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. This represented an accessible government to people from poor backgrounds.
The Tudors brought us two female Queens, Mary, and Elizabeth, where we experienced the first Elizabethan age. When Mary I died Elizabeth took the throne and for the first and only time in history the sentence “the Queen is dead, long live the queen was spoken”. Elizabeth presided over a golden age of English history, defeating the great Spanish Armada, and preventing rebellion. Her reign experienced much culture including famous playwrights Marlow and the great William Shakespeare.
Stuarts and the English Civil War
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and had no children - she was known as the Virgin Queen. She chose not to marry to keep the realm strong. James I from Scotland became King and united England, Wales and Scotland. James I wrote the King James bible which is still to this day the main bible used by protestants. James famously avoided assassination during the gunpowder plot where Guy Fawkes and fellow plotters attempted to blow up parliament with James I inside but they were caught at the last minute. We now celebrate this every year on the 5th of November as ‘Bonfire Night’.
Charles I inherited the crown of James I. Charles struggled to get on with parliament and after poor financial management and increasing taxes the relationship became untenable. Charles I attempted to arrest outspoken critics in Parliament but failed to do so which started a long brutal civil war. On one side you had those loyal to the crown named ‘Royalists’ and on the parliamentarian side they were often named ‘Roundheads’ who were led by Oliver Cromwell.
Oliver Cromwell was a strong military commander and defeated the ‘royalists’ and captured Charles I. Charles was the first and only ever king to be tried and executed and power was given to parliament. Oliver Cromwell ruled as a dictator and was an extremely strict puritan which made him extremely unpopular so on his death the country re-established the monarchy and crowned Charles II as king.
Charles II’s successor James II came out as Catholic which caused political turmoil. The protestant parliament decided to invite William of Orange over to become king who was married to Mary, next in line after James, and she was made Mary II with William of Orange as acting ruler.
William and Mary ruled and secured Ireland as part of the realm with William defeating James II in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne which is still controversially celebrated by Irish Protestants today.
The Georgian reign of monarchs named after the names of the kings ‘George’. The Georgian period was the emergence of parliament being the power of the country and the emergence of capitalism as we know it today.
Britain grew into an empire and became a global power becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Major events during this period were the American War of Independence, Jacobite rebellion, and the Napoleonic Wars. George II was the last British king to fight in battle.
Queen Victoria became Queen at the age of eighteen and reigned over one of the most iconic periods in British history. She became Empress of India and was the monarch over the largest empire in the world.
She oversaw huge economic growth as well as huge social reforms such as multiple reform acts to give more people the vote and make the electoral systems fairer.
During her reign Britain experienced many scientific advancements which made Britain resemble the country it is today.
She famously married Prince Albert, a German Prince who she loved dearly and when he died she went into a long period of mourning until her death as, did the nation where it became fashionable to wear black. Whitby, the town in northern England super compressed coal to produce black shiny gems known as Whitby Jet and you can still go to Whitby today and see the jewellery Victorians wore to honour Prince Albert.
20th Century Monarchs
The 20th century started briefly with the Edwardian period that lasted until 1910 then George V became king. George V was King during the First World War which caused the death of millions and changed the social fabric of Britain dramatically. He also oversaw women being granted the vote as well as all working class men. The 1920’s saw an economic boom and then crashed into the Great Depression which was the worst economic recession in history causing untold issues on the nation’s poor.
George V's son Edward was only King for a year; he fell in love with a woman who had been divorced, Mrs Simpson. This was against royal protocol so was forced to resign from the throne where his younger brother George VI became king. George VI’s speeches helped the nation through World War 2 and helped build morale to get people through the tough times.
Unfortunately, he died soon after World War 2 from cancer where our beloved Queen Elizabeth II became Queen at 25.
Queen Elizabeth II ruled at a prosperous time in Britain. History will remember her as one of the greatest monarchs in British history.
The monarchy isn’t just a family, but they are our history, and they are a part of who we are as a nation. They have been a constant through the good and the bad and have been the stability that we have needed, and we love them for it.
Rest in peace my Queen and God save the King.
Written by Jack Dixon