From triumphs to turmoil: A historical look at the mixed legacies of British monarchs

To celebrate the coronation of King Charles III, we take a trek through history to list those who have worn the crown well and those who have not.

The crowning of the Sovereign at the start of a new reign is an ancient ceremony, rich in religious significance, pageantry and historic associations.

It has changed little in form since medieval times. To mark the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III, we take an irreverent look at some of the monarchs that have made up the rich tapestry of the history of these islands.

King Canute

Canute I (1016-35 AD)

One of four Danish kings to rule England. In 1015 he had control of virtually the whole country, except for the City of London, but after the death of the Londoners’ chosen monarch, Edmund II, Canute presided over the capital as well.

Canute was an excellent statesman and embraced the emergence of Christianity. This hasn’t prevented him from being misrepresented and ridiculed as the king who tried to hold back the waves. However, Canute’s seaside trip highlights his modesty and wisdom, as the tale symbolises his knowledge of a higher power, in line with his Christian identity, while also tipping a wink to the maritime prowess that helped elevate him to power.

Modest even in his boasts, Canute described himself as ‘King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and some of the Swedes’.

Did you know? Bluetooth technology was named after Canute’s granddad, Harald Bluetooth.

Canute was actually Cnut.

Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Edward the Confessor (1042-66)

The penultimate Saxon king was the first monarch to be interned in Westminster Abbey, the traditional burial ground for Kings and Queens. It was he who commissioned and built the abbey which was completed in 1065.

Edward’s success was built on peace treaties and military power. But he didn’t just rely on that. Edward played up his divine aura, adorned with gold and jewels he cultivated the perception of his saintliness and was the first English king to claim to have healing powers.

One touch of his holy hands restored sight to the blind and cured many other conditions. Edward cemented his power as monarch by cultivating the mystique around himself.

Edward ascended to the throne at Winchester in 1042.

Did you know? Edward remains our only canonised monarch. His healing touch side gig helped build his reputation for piety and charity and Pope Alexander III eventually recognised his personification of the divine mystique of kingship.

Empress Matilda
Matilda evades her enemies at Oxford.

Empress Matilda (1141 AD)

Matilda was supposed to be the first Queen of England but medieval misogyny and her scheming cousin Stephen put paid to that. So, technically she has no place in this list. Although thwarted in her efforts, she ensured her son, King Henry II succeeded to the throne after Stephen’s death.

Matilda had an eventful life. Born into the powerful Angevin dynasty she was packed off to Germany as a child bride at 12, where she was married to Henry V (no, not he of Agincourt fame). She was a formidable political operator and supported Henry to topple the Pope and be crowned Empress of the Holy Roman Empire aged just 23.

The reach of the Plantagenets covered half of France, parts of Ireland and Wales and all of England. Matilda’s attempt to claim the throne didn’t go to plan though and the ensuing power struggle became known as the Anarchy. Matilda experienced several close shaves and once escaped captivity disguised as a corpse and broke out of Oxford castle during a snowstorm.

Did you know? Throughout the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), the throne remained contested. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documented “In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him.”

Richard I - Couer de Lion
Symbol of England? Richard the Lionheart spent little time here.

Richard I (1189-99)

Known as the Lionheart, Richard I spent only six months of his 10-year reign on English soil. The remainder of his time was spent crusading in the Holy Land to fulfil a promise he made to his father.

We have a rather romantic view of Richard that bears little resemblance to his life or contribution to the nation. Indeed, it is unclear whether he could even speak English and there is no evidence to suggest he was mates with Robin Hood despite Hollywood’s best efforts to convince us he was.

At the siege of Chalus-Chabrol in France, Richard was hit in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. On his deathbed, he summoned the archer who had fired the shot. The archer’s name was Bertram. Surprisingly, Richard forgave him and even presented him with 100 shillings as a reward. The benevolent ruler that he was, he let him go free.

Footnote: Richard’s friends were not as forgiving, once the king had died, they had Bertram flayed and hung.

Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth
To the victors the spoils: Richard III was the subject of a medieval ‘pile on’ to destroy his reputation.

Richard III (1483-5 AD)

The historic villain who killed his nephews (allegedly) in the Tower, was the last English king to die on the battlefield. The last of the Plantagenet kings expired in 1485 at Bosworth Field, the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses and the one which secured Henry VII’s position as the new sovereign.

Richard III, like most medieval kings, was driven by self-interest rather than malice. History often lauds victors while rubbishing the vanquished and Shakespeare did his fair share to poison the reputation of Richard III.

Though he suffered from Scoliosis, the popular narrative of a scheming humpback is not correct. Richard was a good horseman and soldier, and showed great loyalty to his brother Edward IV campaigning and beating the Scots. However, when the king died, he declared his nephews – the rightful heir to the throne 12-year-old Edward V and younger brother Richard – illegitimate. The two young princes promptly disappeared.

Did you know? Richard spent 527 years lying undisturbed in the grounds of the former Grey Friars Church in Leicestershire. His exhumed skeleton showed evidence of 9 separate wounds to his skull, which suggests he lost his helmet at Bosworth.

Edward VI
The child king: Edward VI was 9 when he came to the throne.

Edward VI (1547-1553)

Born at Hampton Court, the only son of King Henry VIII was a sickly child.

Edward was to marry his cousin to mend relations between England and Scotland, but events predictably turned sour. His cousin was the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots and we all know how her life turned out.

Edward was the first English monarch to be raised as a Protestant. He ascended the throne in 1547 but would reign for only six years before dying of tuberculosis. The young king was counselled to exclude his Catholic half-sister (Bloody) Mary from the line of succession for fear she would return the country to Catholicism.

He wrote a succession device naming his cousin Lady Jane Grey as heir to the throne on his death.

Unfortunately for the 17-year-old Jane, Mary was unperturbed by the legitimacy of her claim and she was deposed nine days later. After losing her crown, Jane was sent to the Tower where she would later lose her head.

Did you know? The Imperial crown was too large and too heavy for little Edward, so a special crown was created for his coronation.

Elizabeth I
Does my bum look big in this? Elizabeth forbade the distribution of unflattering portraits.

Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

Good Queen Bess died at the ripe age of 69, after a successful 45-year reign.

Also known as the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth’s reign marked a period of significant cultural, artistic and intellectual achievements in England that continued for several decades after her death. Her strong, independent personality also served as a role model for generations of women who followed her, inspiring them to challenge traditional gender roles and expectations.

Having seen off the Spanish Armada and a fifth column of Catholic conspirators bent on overthrowing her, Elizabeth wasn’t afraid to have a hissy fit about her image rights. Robert Cecil, Secretary of State wrote:

”Many painters have done portraits of the Queen but none has sufficiently shown her looks or charms. Therefore Her Majesty commands all manner of persons to stop doing portraits of her until a clever painter has finished one which all other painters can copy. Her Majesty, in the meantime, forbids the showing of any portraits which are ugly until they are improved.”

As Paul Hentzner, a German visitor to Greenwich Palace in 1598, noted her ‘teeth were black’ probably due to her fondness for sugar. It is safe to say, Elizabeth would not be a fan of Instagram or TikTok.

Did you know? Elizabeth I’s skin was scarred by smallpox after she contracted the disease in 1562. She covered these scars with face paint of white lead and vinegar.

George III

George III (1760-1820)

He was the third Hanoverian king of England but was the first to be born in the UK and the first to use English as his native language. George’s marriage produced 15 children, nine sons and six daughters with his wife, Queen Charlotte to whom he was devoted.

George III is maligned as a tyrant and a mad king, but he wasn’t really either. Some historians argue that King George III was a significant factor in the American War of Independence, as he opposed any concessions or compromises with the American colonists. In truth, all good stories need a villain and George III was made out to be that man. The grievances of the American colonists were genuine but not insurmountable. The would-be Founding Fathers (including Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Franklin) spotted political weakness and opportunity and agitated to sever ties with the monarch and Britain, which they achieved.

George’s ‘madness’ is now thought to have been acute episodes of bipolar disorder followed by dementia in later life. Lacking a sophisticated understanding of his condition, the king’s physicians employed some pretty brutal ‘remedies’, these included restraint by chain and straightjacket, gagging and cupping – the practice of placing hot cups on the skin to create blisters that could later be drained to draw off the malady. In the last decade of his reign; his eldest son – the later George IV – acted as Prince Regent from 1811 and George III saw out his days in isolation at Windsor Castle blind and unaware of his surroundings.

Did you know? The beautiful, eight-horse-drawn Gold State Coach that took Elizabeth II to her coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953 was commissioned by George III in 1760. It cost £7,562 at the time – about £2 million in today’s money.

Balmoral - Queen Elizabeth II
The Balmoral Estate was the favourite residence of Queen Elizabeth II.

Elizabeth II (1952-2022)

When Elizabeth II was crowned queen in 1953, a poll found that more than one-third of those questioned believed she was appointed by God.

The full title of our longest-serving monarch was Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith.

However, Elizabeth was not born an heir apparent to the throne. Her path to succession came when Edward III abdicated so he could marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. His brother Albert, Duke of York succeeded him as King George VI. As a modern-day parallel, Elizabeth started life as a minor Royal like Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice (the current Duke of York’s daughters).

Elizabeth II was served by 15 prime ministers, including heavyweights such as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and a succession of minor figures in the past few years.

She travelled more extensively than any other British monarch in history. Throughout her reign, she made more than 150 visits to countries within the Commonwealth alone.

The Queen was especially fond of Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, spending much of her leisure time in the majestic countryside of Scotland. Queen Elizabeth II passed peacefully at Balmoral, surrounded by her family.

Did you know? The Queen was the only person in the UK allowed to drive without a driving license.


Tags: , , Last modified: May 8, 2023

Written by 7:13 am Home & Lifestyle