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British monarchs: the good, the bad and the incompetent

By Maggie Hall

Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of Humanists UK, Humanists International and the Humanists UK Dialogue Network. She is also a Humanists UK School Speaker.

The British monarchy is still very popular and many people are looking forward to the forthcoming coronation of Charles III. In this article, Maggie wonders if they would have been as happy with some of our past monarchs.

On the 6th May, a lavish spectacle of a kind not witnessed for seventy years will dominate the air waves, the print media and social media alike. At a cost of an estimated £100 million, King Charles III and Queen Camilla will be crowned in Westminster Abbey. Unsurprisingly, the forthcoming display of pomp and pageantry inspires much enthusiasm among fans of the Royals, but also a certain measure of disapproval, not to say criticism, from those of a more egalitarian temperament.

A coronation is not necessary in order for someone to become monarch. Charles inherited the crown immediately upon the death of his mother, but coronation ceremonies of a mainly religious nature have been the tradition for centuries. However, they do not always go according to plan.

The nine-year-old Henry III was crowned at Gloucester Cathedral in 1216 – London being occupied by rebel barons at the time. Instead of an actual crown, a circlet belonging to his mother was used in the ceremony (a circlet being a circular band, typically made of precious metal, and worn on the head as an ornament) because the crown jewels had been lost when a baggage train belonging to his father, King John, overturned in a bog. A second coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey took place four years later with new, specially commissioned regalia.

When George IV was crowned in 1821, his estranged wife, Queen Caroline, had been banned from attending the ceremony. The Queen was so incensed by this that she turned up and started banging on the doors of Westminster Abbey, demanding to be let in. However, the guards, who had strict instructions from the King that she should not be admitted, stood firm and she was turned away.

CHARLES ROBERT LESLIE (1794-1859) Queen Victoria Receiving the Sacrament at her Coronation, 28 June 1838 (Royal Collection)

At the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, the Archbishop of Canterbury had failed to realise that the ring he was required to place on her finger was sized for her little finger, so he crammed it with great difficulty onto her ring finger instead. The 19-year-old Queen had to put up with a pinched finger throughout the remainder of the ceremony and had to soak it in ice water afterwards in order to get it off. The five-hour long ceremony was not at all well organised, being entirely unrehearsed. At one point, disaster was only narrowly avoided when an elderly peer came a cropper on a flight of steps. The Queen recorded the incident in her diary: ‘Poor old Lord Rolles, who is 82 and dreadfully infirm, fell, in attempting to ascend the steps. Rolled right down, but was not the least hurt. When he attempted again to ascend the steps, I advanced to the edge, in order to prevent another fall.’

Even the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II, often held up as a fine example of well-organised British pageantry, was not without its mishaps. The Abbey carpet had been laid with the pile running the wrong way, which meant that the Queen’s gold fringed robe got caught and prevented her from moving forward so that she was obliged to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to ‘get me started’.

There is no doubt that Queen Elizabeth was one of Britain’s most popular monarchs, her sense of duty and aloofness from scandal endearing her to many people. The Queen’s father, George VI and her mother, Queen Elizabeth, were also popular, largely due to their refusing to leave London during the blitz. In fact, Britain has been very lucky with most of its monarchs for the last century or so, but one cannot help but wonder if the monarchy would remain as popular should the crown be inherited by someone of a similar character to some of the monarchs of the more distant past.

King Stephen, who reigned between 1135 and 1154, was rather a weak king. When Geoffrey of Anjou seized some of his holdings in France in 1137, he led a retaliatory expedition to Normandy which ended in failure and he was forced to make peace with Geoffrey in exchange for an expensive annuity. He also failed to prevent his cousin, the Empress Matilda, who had landed in England to claim the crown for herself, from travelling to Bristol, where she was able to gain support, plunging the country into a lengthy civil war and a period of anarchy, with a breakdown in law and order, bands of plundering knights roaming the country and local lords extracting money through kidnap and torture. At the end of his reign he sued for peace with the Empress’s son, Henry, in exchange for naming him as his successor, passing over his second son, William who, due to the death of his elder brother, Eustace, would otherwise have inherited the throne.

King John signs the Magna Carta. (Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96) (Wikimedia Commons)

King John acceded to the throne in 1199 and in 1200 began a series of wars which became known as the Normandy Campaigns, triggered by his marriage to Isabella of Angoulême, disregarding the small problem that she was already betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. He continued to make himself unpopular, with the Church by appropriating Church revenues, and with everyone else by raising taxes in order to fund the wars in France. Eventually, the barons in England became so fed up with the irrational behaviour and bad judgement of the king that they rebelled and he was forced to make the famous journey to Runnymede and to sign the Magna Carta, restoring the rights of the barons and the Church.

Edward II became King of England in 1307, beginning a disastrous twenty year reign marked by many bungles and missteps, including the failure to beat Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn, despite having an army twice the size of the Scots, and a very close and controversial relationship with his favourite, Piers Gaveston, whose bad influence resulted in his execution by the exasperated barons in 1312. Edward also proved woefully inadequate to the task of dealing with the awful Great Famine of 1315–1317, when the country was wracked by mass starvation and disease, disastrous crop yields and extensive loss of livestock. In 1311, Edward had been forced by the barons to make certain reforms, but following his subsequent close association with his advisers, the Despenser family, particularly Hugh Despenser the Younger, these were revoked. Finally, Edward’s own wife turned against him and fled to France, where, with the help of the exiled Roger Mortimer (the Earl of March) she raised an army and invaded England in 1326, capturing the king and bringing his ignominious reign to an end by execution at Berkeley Castle in September 1327.

Henry VI came to the throne as an infant in 1422. He was known as a pretty ineffectual king, particularly when contrasted with his wife, Margaret of Anjou, who was headstrong and warlike. He tended to delegate his political responsibilities to others but showed very bad judgement in his choices, leading to political squabbles, one Parliamentary impeachment and execution and a bitter quarrel with the Duke of York, leading to the historic Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster. After being captured by the Yorkists and a spell in the Tower of London, Henry was rescued by his much stronger wife with the help of the Earl of Warwick, and regained the throne in 1470, only to lose it again in May 1471, when he was recaptured and executed.

1509 saw the crown on the head of one of the most infamous English monarchs, Henry VIII. His lustful appetites and insane quest for a male heir need little repetition, dispatching wives by means of divorce or execution left, right and centre for the crimes of failing to provide a son and, in the case of the divorce of poor Anne of Cleves, for being too ugly. Personally, I think Anne dodged a particularly nasty bullet. Henry is, of course, the reason that we have the reigning monarch as the head of the established Church of England, due to his split with the Catholic Church.

A painting of Queen Mary I ('Bloody Mary') by Antonis Mor, 1554 (Wikimedia Commons)

If you thought Henry was bad, his daughter, Queen Mary I, who inherited the throne upon the death of her brother, the young Edward VI, was even worse. During her brief five year reign hundreds of Protestants were publicly burned alive, the Book of Common Prayer was banned and Protestant preachers were executed. Many Protestants were forced to flee the country in fear of their lives. Her brutal regime earned her the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’.

George IV, who came to the throne in 1820, had already built himself a very negative reputation as Prince Regent during the long illness of his father, George III. He was gluttonous, greedy, sexually promiscuous and generally debauched. As a result of his gambling and profligacy he built up a large debt which had to be paid for by Parliament. He opposed many major political reforms, disagreed with the prime ministers of his reign and argued with Parliament about foreign policy. Due to his heavy drinking and gluttonous appetites he became morbidly obese and eventually died from a ruptured blood vessel in his stomach in 1830.

George IV's coronation banquet was held in Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster in 1821; it was the last such banquet held. (Unknown artist, Creative Commons)

A photograph of King Edward VIII by an unknown photographer, 1936 (Wikimedia Commons)

Our most recent dodgy monarch was Edward VIII, famous for his abdication in 1936 in order to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, and infamous for his association with the Nazis, being photographed visiting Germany, shaking hands with Hitler and making the Nazi salute. After the Second World War, Nazi documents were discovered which outlined plans to restore Edward to the throne as the leader of a fascist Britain. The abdication of the traitor king is now viewed as a narrow escape for the country.

Why have we had so many bad monarchs? The answer is simple: it’s because when it comes to our head of state nobody gets any choice –neither the people nor the monarch him/herself. There is never more than one candidate and that candidate is not interviewed or examined in any way for their suitability to rule and certainly not consulted about their willingness to rule. Leadership is a quality that is not given to everyone, so it is hardly surprising that sometimes a monarch who has no leadership qualities and no will to lead fails at a job they didn’t want in the first place. The crown was a very good fit for the late Queen Elizabeth II and I have no doubt that Charles will undertake his duties with the same competence and conscientiousness, as I’m sure his heir, William, will. But who knows what future monarchs will be like? If you want a good argument for republicanism just look at Edward VIII and imagine what kind of Britain we would be living in if he had not abdicated.

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