Who are Britain’s worst monarchs?
As Queen Elizabeth II is celebrated for becoming the nation's longest serving ruler, we look at some of Britain's most rubbish rulers
The Queen! She’s great, isn’t she? Isn’t she great? Today, as Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest-serving monarch, the nation unites to say “aw, bless her,” and listen to a series of lofty platitudes from every elderly male historian the BBC can dredge up.
Whatever your view of the monarchy as an institution, you’d have to admit that the Queen has done something right; the royal family are enjoying one of their most popular periods of the past 50 years. As a symbol of constancy and visible public service, Elizabeth II has helped reinstate the monarchy as a popular institution. But one can’t say the same about all her ancestors.
So what better way to celebrate the Queen’s success than by comparing her to some of the most forgettable or just plain rubbish monarchs Britain has ever had? Here are six particularly ineffective ones.
Edward II (King of England, 1307-1327)
The first English King to be forced to abdicate, Edward’s reign was defined by incompetence. An unconventional character who by many accounts preferred romping around with lusty peasant folk to actually doing any governing, he is best-known for his defeat by Robert the Bruce of Scotland at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. After he and a male favourite alienated his queen, Isabella of France, she invaded England with her own favourite, the Baron Roger Mortimer, and put Edward’s 14 year old son Edward III on the throne. He is presumed to have been executed at Berkley castle in 1327, though the rumour that this was carried out by inserting a red-hot poker into his anus is likely a myth.
Mary Queen of Scots (Queen of Scotland, 1542-1567)
Mary was notable less for ruling a country than for being implicated in basically every murder and plot that happened in it. She was suspected of involvement in the murder of her husband, Henry Stuart, at Kirk o’Field in 1565, following which she married another suspect, the Earl of Bothwell, forcing her to flee to England where she was thought to be involved in a range of plots against the English queen Elizabeth I. She was put to death for treason in 1587 as a result.
George IV (King of the UK, 1820-1830)
“With a personal income ‘exceeding the national revenue of a third-rate power, there appeared to be no limit to his desires, nor any restraint to his profusion,'” such was the verdict of an 1830-1 biography of George IV. From his birth—when he was mistakenly pronounced to be a girl—to his death in seclusion as a constitutional irrelevance, George’s only real contribution to the monarchy was his determined dismantling, via a string of cruel affairs, of the reputation for sexual restraint and family values his father had forged. He spent much of the rest of his time as regent and later on the throne constructing a court to rival Napoleon’s, and by the end of his life had almost become convinced that he was primarily responsible for the defeat of the French emperor, who fell in 1815. Needless to say, he was not.
James II (King of England and Scotland (as VII) 1685-8)
One of England’s shortest-reigning kings, James’s unpopular policies were viewed as the early modern equivalent of political correctness gone mad. A Catholic, he promoted religious tolerance (though was arguably less than tolerant himself towards Protestants and Scottish Presbyterians). When he reissued his “declaration of indulgence,” which granted more freedoms to both Catholics and Protestant dissenters, in 1888, it infuriated the Church of England, usually one of the monarch’s most powerful allies. When he fathered a (Catholic) heir, a group of Protestant nobles decided enough was enough and invited William of Orange to invade, who ultimately deposed James in the “glorious revolution.”
Edward VIII (King of the UK, January-December 1936)
The current Queen’s uncle didn’t distinguish himself to the same extent as his daughter. While popular before his short reign for his tours of the Empire and visits to areas of economic deprivation, he had a series of scandalous affairs with married women. Ultimately, this was to be his downfall as a monarch; he fell in love with Wallis Simpson, the wife of an American businessman. When she got permission to divorce her husband, Edward, by then King, wanted to marry her, but marrying a divorced woman was deemed impossible for a British monarch. Edward abdicated as a result.
William Rufus (II) (King of England 1087-1100)
Writeups don’t come much worse than this King’s, who was described by one chronicler as “hateful to his people and odious to God.” Known for a ruddy complexion to match his furious nature, he spent much of his reign waging war against his older brother, Robert, despite Robert only having been given the Duchy of Normandy by their father, William the Conqueror, when William Rufus had been given the throne of England. The time he didn’t spend fighting he spent thinking up more ways to earn money, manipulating both feudal law and the workings of the Church to benefit the royal coffers.
Who have I missed out? Henry VIII was rated the worst British King in a recent poll, but I’ve refused to let his psychotic personal life earn him a place on the list. John is often rated Britain’s worst king, but I’ve always felt he gets a bad press, and in any case you couldn’t necessarily describe him as “ineffective.” Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.
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