english kings

English History #

The first inhabitants of England were likely Celtic tribes including Britons and Picts. Archaeologists have found evidence indicting advanced metalworking, pottery, weaving and a warrior culture.

The Druids, members of the learned class among the ancient Celts, acted as priests, teachers, and judges. The earliest known records of the Druids come from the 3rd century BCE. Their name may have come from a Celtic word meaning “knower of the oak tree.” They left many ritualistic sites, including the impressive Stone Henge.

There is little evidence of any centralised governance.

While Julius Caesar was the first Roman General to cross the English Channel to attempt to set up Roman empire in Britain - he failed.

From 43 A.D. Romans added to the mix of tribes and set up cities including Londinium, introducing their culture, language, religion and legal system. They also built lasting roads, aqueducts and Hadrian’s Wall built in a futile attempt to keep out the Picts.

The Romans met a lot of resistance, including Queen Boudica who in 61 A.D. lead a rebellion of the Iceni. After burning down Colchester, London and St Albans, Boudica was eventually defeated at the Battle of Watling Street.

After the Romans Empire collapsed, there is little evidence of unified governance until the invasion of the Angles and the Saxons from northern Europe.

Monarchies #


EGBERT 827 – 839, followed by AETHELWULF 839-856, travelled to Rome with his son Alfred to see the Pope in 855 and on his return was forced to abdicate by his eldest son, AETHELBALD 856 – 860 and four years later, succeeded by his brother, AETHELRED I 866 – 871, struggled with the Danes who had occupied York in 866, establishing the Viking kingdom of Yorvik.

ALFRED THE GREAT 871 – 899 – son of AETHELWULF was well educated and is said to have visited Rome on two occasions. He had proven himself to be a strong leader in many battles, and as a wise ruler managed to secure five uneasy years of peace with the Danes. Alfred established Saxon Christian rule over first Wessex, and then on to most of England. To secure his hard-won boundaries Alfred founded a permanent army and an embryonic Royal Navy. To secure his place in history, he began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

EDWARD (The Elder) 899 – 924 succeeded his father Alfred the Great. Edward retook southeast England and the Midlands from the Danes.

ATHELSTAN 924 – 939 extended the boundaries of his kingdom at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

EDMUND 939 – 946 succeeded his half-bother Athelastan. He re-established Anglo-Saxon control over northern England.

EADRED 946 – 955 followed in the family tradition of defeating Norsemen, expelling the last Scandinavian King of York, Eric Bloodaxe, in 954.

EADWIG 955 – 959 was about 16 when he was crowned king. Legend has it that his coronation had to be delayed to allow Bishop Dunstan to prise Eadwig from his bed, and from between the arms of his “strumpet” and the strumpets’ mother.

EDGAR 959 – 975 Edgar had been in dispute with his brother concerning succession to the throne for some years. Following Eadwig’s mysterious death.

EDWARD THE MARTYR 975 – 978 crowned king when aged just 12. A dispute between rival factions within the church and nobility almost led to civil war in England. He was murdered at Corfe Castle by followers of Aethelred, after just two and half years as king. The title ‘martyr’ was a consequence of him being seen as a victim of his stepmother’s ambitions for her own son Aethelred.

AETHELRED II THE UNREADY 978 – 1016 Unable to organise resistance against the Danes, earning him the nickname ‘unready’, or ‘badly advised’. He became king aged about 10, but fled to Normandy in 1013 when Sweyn Forkbeard, King of the Danes invaded England.

Sweyn was pronounced King in 1013 He died just 5 weeks later.

EDMUND II IRONSIDE 1016 – 1016 Edmund had led the resistance to Canute’s invasion of England. He was chosen king by the good folk of London. The Witan (the king’s council) however elected Canute. Following his defeat at the Battle of Assandun, Aethelred made a pact with Canute to divide the kingdom between them. Edmund died later that year, probably assassinated.

CANUTE (CNUT THE GREAT) THE DANE 1016 – 1035 The son of Sweyn Forkbeard, gained favour by sending most of his army back to Denmark. Legend has it that he wanted to demonstrate to his subjects that as a king he was not a god, he ordered the tide not to come in, knowing this would fail.

HAROLD I 1035 – 1040 He was illegitimate son of Canute. He claimed the English crown whilst his half-brother Harthacanute, the rightful heir, was in Denmark fighting to protect his Danish kingdom.

HARTHACANUTE 1040 – 1042 The son of Cnut the Great and Emma of Normandy, Harthacanute sailed to England with his mother, accompanied by a fleet of 62 warships, and was immediately accepted as king. Perhaps to appease his mother, the year before he died Harthacanute invited his half-brother Edward, Emma’s son from her first marriage to Aethelred the Unready, back from exile in Normandy. Harthacanute died at a wedding whilst toasting the health of the bride; he was aged just 24 and was the last Danish king to rule England

EDWARD THE CONFESSOR 1042-1066 Edward restored the rule of the House of Wessex to the English throne. A deeply pious and religious man, he presided over the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. Edward died childless, eight days after the building work on Westminster Abbey had finished. With no natural successor, England was faced with a power struggle for control of the throne.

From this time forth, whoever rules is determined, not so much by hereditary legitimacy, but by brute force of intrigue through murder, mystery and short lived triumph.

HAROLD II 1066 Despite having no royal bloodline, Harold Godwin was elected king by the Witan (a council of high-ranking nobles and religious leaders).

The election result failed to meet with the approval of one William, Duke of Normandy, who claimed that his relative Edward had promised the throne to him.

Harold defeated an invading Norwegian army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, then marched south to confront William of Normandy who had landed his forces in Sussex.

The death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings meant the end of the English Anglo-Saxon kings and the beginning of the Normans. From then forth, all Monarchs of England have had foreign origins.


WILLIAM I (The Conqueror) 1066- 1087

Also known as William the Bastard (but not normally to his face!), he was the illegitimate son of Robert the Devil, whom he succeeded as Duke of Normandy in 1035. William came to England from Normandy, claiming that his second cousin Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne, and defeated Harold II at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066.

William swore an oath to uphold the laws laid down by Edward the Confessor. However he claimed to own all the land in England and the right to distribute it at his will to loyal subjects.

In 1085 the Domesday Survey was begun and all of England was recorded, so William knew exactly what his new kingdom contained and how much tax he could raise in order to fund his armies.

All Churches were changed from Anglo Celtic to Norman charters and architectural styles. Religious leaders were forced to comply. 21 Monks who resisted, were summarily shot to deter others.

William died at Rouen in 1087, after a fall from his horse whilst besieging the French city of Nantes. He is buried at Caen.

His three son’s inheritance was divided into Robert granted Normandy, William Rufus, (gay) England, while Henry granted £5000. The three disputed the will, each wanting the other’s share. Robert left for a Crusade, and William and Henry went hunting where William is suspiciously killed by a stray arrow, leaving Henry in charge. When Robert returns from the Crusade, Henry has him imprisoned.

England contiued to be subject to constant raids by the Scots and the Welsh. During Stephen’s reign the Norman barons wielded great power, extorting money and looting town and country. A decade of civil war known as The Anarchy ensued when Matilda invaded from Anjou in 1139.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Westminster ,1139, Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet would succeed to the throne when Stephen died.


HENRY II of Anjou 1154-1189 was a strong king. A brilliant soldier, he extended his French lands until he ruled most of France. He laid the foundation of the English Jury System and raised new taxes (scutage) from the landholders to pay for a militia force. Henry is mostly remembered for his quarrel with his best friend, Thomas A Becket, and Becket’s subsequent murder in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170. Becket wanted the Church to have the supreme power.

When 100,000 pilgrims came to mourn A Becket’s death, Henry realised his error, did penance by prostrating himself and whipped by a monk.

John of Salisbury became a controversial figure when he criticized King Henry II’s methods of raising funds for a war against the French. In order to raise an army, Henry disproportionately taxed church property. John was an ardent defender of the church’s traditional liberties, including its exemption from certain taxes.

In Policraticus, The Statesmen’s Book, John discussed a wide variety of topics, including his justification for tyrannicide, the nature of law, and the behaviour of a just king.

“nought is so splendid or magnificent that it does not need to be tempered by moderation.”

He believed that flattery put the commonwealth at risk because the king would pursue policies advantageous to certain individuals rather than to society as a whole.

“It is necessary to have the garb of pretence in order to be pleasing.” John scolded members of the court, stating that flattery is always “accompanied by deception, fraud, betrayal, and the infamy of lying.”

All must obey the dictates of justice, as “all are accordingly bound by the necessity of keeping the law.” Kings are not exempt from law either; John argued “in the teeth of all the world, that kings are bound by this law.”

Therefore, true friendship can only be nurtured by people committed to seeking and adhering to the truth, something immoral people consistently ignore. He emphatically concluded that:

“those who are vulgar and base flatterers are not admitted among friends.” “better the chastisement of a friend than the fraudulent kissing up of a flatterer.”

Henry II got English people to run the country. The Church courts became supreme, with churches a sanctuary from civil law.

His sons turned against him, even his favourite John. Richard revolted against his father, defeating him in battle.

RICHARD I (The Lionheart) 1189 – 1199

Richard was the third son of Henry II. By the age of 16, he was leading his own army putting down rebellions in France. Although crowned King of England, Richard spent all but 6 months of his reign abroad, preferring to use the taxes from his kingdom to fund his various armies and military ventures. He was the leading Christian commander during the Third Crusade. On his way back from Palestine, Richard was captured and held for ransom. The amount paid for his safe return almost bankrupted the country. Richard died from an arrow-wound, far from the kingdom that he so rarely visited. He had no children.

One of the many illusions of political performance is that leadership success can be measured by objective criteria. Greatness, friends, is a matter of comparison. England’s King Richard I was a French-speaking antisemite “with a reputation for violence, cruelty and rape”, yet culture remembers him as “Richard the Lionheart” because the reputational competition was the truly, duly despised King John.

JOHN 1199 -1216

John Lackland was the fourth child of Henry II. Short and fat, he was jealous of his dashing brother Richard I whom he succeeded. He was cruel, self-indulgent, selfish and avaricious, and the raising of punitive taxes united all the elements of society, clerical and lay, against him. The Pope excommunicated him.

On 15th June 1215 at Runnymede the barons compelled John to sign Magna Carta, the Great Charter, which reinstated the rights of all his subjects.

Only a few weeks later, King John appealed to Pope Innocent III to cancel the Magna Carta, which he promptly did.

In August, the Pope called the document:

“illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people” and declared it “null, and void of all validity for ever.”

John died – from dysentery – a fugitive from all his enemies. He has been termed “the worst English king”.

HENRY III 1216 -1272

Henry was 9 years old when he became king. Brought up by priests he became devoted to church, art and learning. He was a weak man, dominated by churchmen and easily influenced by his wife’s French relations. In 1264 Henry was captured during the rebellion of barons led by Simon de Montfort and was forced to set up a ‘Parliament’ at Westminster, the start of the House of Commons.

Simon De Montfort’s Parliament (1265) was the first instance of a parliament in which representatives from towns and the shires were summoned together to discuss matters of national concern.

Wholly French by birth and education, Montfort revived the claim to the English earldom of Leicester. from his father’s mother, Amicia, He became close to King Henry III, one of the committee of 12 appointed to handle the acute crisis of 1244 between Henry and his angry barons.

In 1248 Henry asked Simon to pacify the English-held duchy of Gascony, in southwestern France.

Simon then governed England for one year, by calling representatives of both shires and boroughs to Parliament (1265) to counterbalance his lack of baronial support. Edward isolated Simon behind the Severn, destroyed the large army coming to his rescue, and trapped Simon’s little force at Evesham (Aug. 4, 1265), slaying Simon and most of his followers.

The most outstanding English personality of his day, Simon is remembered as an early advocate of a limited monarchy, ruling through elected councillors and responsible officials, and of parliaments including county knights and burgesses as well as the great nobles.

Simon de Montfort is likely the first martyr for democracy in England.

EDWARD I 1272 – 1307 Edward Longshanks was a statesman, lawyer and soldier. He formed the Model Parliament in 1295, bringing the knights, clergy and nobility, as well as the Lords and Commons together for the first time.

“In the Parliament of 1300, Edward conceded that

‘many more evildoers are in the land than ever there were, and innumerable robberies, arsons and homicides are committed, and the peace is less well kept’. And in a memorandum to his justices of 1306, he referred to ’the riots and outrages … which were like the beginning of war’. …

“In 1304, Edward appointed special commissions to inquire into crime and disorder, known as commissions of trailbaston, from the clubs, or ‘bastons’, used by highway robbers.

The following year, more such commissions were appointed, this time with the authority to hear and determine cases. This was the first time any King of England had mounted such a deliberate and concerted campaign to tackle crime on a nationwide scale. And, in keeping with Edward’s policy of making royal government more respon­sive, the crown had also begun to issue ad hoc commissions of oyer et terminer. These provided for the appointment of nominated local justices and knights to ‘hear and determine’ specific cases in the localities in response to individual complaints or petitions. This was a major step in the process which would, over the fourteenth century, see much of the crown’s routine legal jurisdiction devolved to the great and good of county society as justices of the peace.

“However, for all the sound and fury surrounding law and order, it is hard to gauge the true extent of the problem; as with all crime statistics, there are difficulties of interpretation.

There does appear to have been some increase in crime, much of it stemming from Edward’s own wars. The taking of ‘prises’ (supplies commandeered for the king’s wars) caused disputes which often turned vio¬lent; and the purveyors who seized them were often accused of theft. Soldiers frequently turned to brigandage, forced to steal in order to feed themselves because of the difficulties and delays in organising prises. And campaigns ended with the discharge of large numbers of men who had got into the habit of living by plunder and ransom. Indeed, many were already felons, for it was Edward who first ini¬tiated the grand tradition of filling the ranks of English armies with criminals. In June 1294, pardons were offered to outlaws, fugitives and prisoners who were prepared to serve in [the wars in] Gascony. Typically, Edward justified this as a pub¬lic good, sparing criminals from punishment because we are moved to pity for that so many and divers men of our kingdom so often incur the loss of life or limb … with the hope of the betterment of such malefactors and for the quiet of the people of our realm.

“In fact, he was putting a good face on an expedient forced on him by difficulties in recruiting for an unpopular cam¬paign. Nevertheless, the measure proved so successful that it was repeated on a regular basis for future campaigns.”

EDWARD II 1307 – deposed 1327

Edward was a weak and incompetent king. He had many ‘favourites’, Piers Gaveston being the most notorious was assassinated. Dispenser then replaced him, likely as a lover. He was beaten by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Edward was deposed and held captive in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. His wife joined her lover Mortimer in deposing him: by their orders he was murdered in Berkley Castle – as legend has it, by having a red-hot poker thrust up his anus! His beautiful tomb in Gloucester Cathedral was erected by his son, Edward III.

EDWARD III b: 1312, reigned 1327 – 1377

Son of Edward II, he learned from his father, what not to do – be overbearing and authoritarian. Though he was well educated, he preferred the outdoors and felt the ability to lead his people in battle was paramount.

Succeeded to the throne at 15, the power was held by his mother Isabella and Mortimer for almost 3 years until Edward had Mortimer executed and his mother retired to a castle. Considered to be one of the best kings, he reigned for 50 years. His ambition to conquer Scotland and France plunged England into the Hundred Years War, beginning in 1338. The two great victories at Crecy and Poitiers made Edward and his son, the Black Prince, the most renowned warriors in Europe, however the war was very expensive. Calais was taken in 1347 and held until 1558.

It was the introduction of the long bow, replacing the more clumsy cross bow that gave the English an advantage over larger armies of the French. His claims to territories in France led to the most significant battles of the 100 years war. He also was the first to introduce the canon in western Europe.

Edward III introduced the Order of the Garter as part of Royal honours.

The outbreak of bubonic plague, the ‘Black Death’ in 1348-1351 killed half the population of England. The Bourbonic Plague was spread by fleas from rats originating from the Genoese merchants. England fared better because of quick mass graves, quantines, and emphasis on sanitation.

To combat the labor shortages he introduced the Statutes of Labourers in 1351 to regulate the wages to pre-pandemic levels. When social unrest developed he gave more power to the Justices of the Peace in each county avoiding the Peasant’s Revolt until 1381.

In 1351 he also introduced gold and silver coins as legal tender.

Under his rule, the English language, a hybrid of Norman and Saxon emerged. Through the Statute of Pleading, English became the official language of the law courts and of Parliament in 1363.

Chaucer began as a page boy in the court of the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt. Later he became a personal attendant of the King as his “beloved valet”, before being promoted to the position of esquire where his duties included entertaining the court.

At the age of thirty he was sent overseas on diplomatic missions for the next 8 years, spending time in Southern France and Italy. When he came back to London, King Richard II granted him a life time lease of the Gatehouse at Aldgate and he became a wealthy man, renown for his urbanity and affability.

He became a patron of John of Gaunt, a connoisseur of the arts, encouraging his early writing.

When John died, his son Bolingbroke in France, Richard confiscated his whole estate, ending Chaucer’s career and seriously upsetting the political order.

Edward III had seven sons ( 5 legit) which meant his heirs would fight the War of the Roses to claim the right to rule. It wasn’t his seven sons who would fight over the heavy crown, it was his grandsons.

Any assessment of his reign must avoid imposing our values. He was born and lived in times of warfare. The moral concerns of later generations make little sense.

RICHARD II 1377 – deposed 1399 The son of the Black Prince, Richard was extravagant, unjust and faithless. In 1381 came the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler. The rebellion was put down with great severity. The sudden death of his first wife Anne of Bohemia completely unbalanced Richard and his extravagance, acts of revenge and tyranny turned his subjects against him. In 1399 Henry of Lancaster returned from exile and deposed Richard, becoming elected King Henry IV. Richard was murdered, probably by starvation, in Pontefract Castle in 1400.