History of the Monarchy
The British crown has changed hands (and heads) plenty of times, each holder profiting from or being profligate with the resources available to them. Some have reigned longer than others, while the current monarch, Elizabeth II, is rapidly approaching her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne.
James I: 1603 – 1625
Son to Mary, Queen of Scots, James I was also king of Scotland for over thirty years before he bagged the English crown as well. He tried to unite the two countries under governance but, at the time, it was too early. Not exactly the most successful king, despite his moderate reign, James I would row in Parliament over financial uncertainty and foreign policies. He did, however, employ the building of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and have a version of the bible named after him. His death in 1625 left his kingdom on the brink of war with the Spanish.
Charles I: 1625 – 1649
Following suit to James I’s money worries, Charles I was greedier where James was unprofessional. He’d spend too much on fine artistry and his own court. To make things worse, he caused two civil wars in England and, when foreigners launched attacks, Charles couldn’t summon enough defences. All this led to his eventual execution outside James I’s Banqueting House. Charles was beheaded on the 30th of January, 1649. He asked for warm clothes before he put his head on the block to stop the crowds thinking he was shaking out of fear (which he probably was).
Charles II: 1660 – 1685
Things didn’t really look up when Charles II took the throne. First of all, in 1665, a deadly plague swept the country, taking with it the lives of 77,000 people. There was a war with the Dutch that year too and, because of yet more poorly-administered military personnel, an attack on the Thames was launched. A year later, the Great Fire of London ravaged the city of many buildings, including the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral. However, being an associate of Sir Christopher Wren, Charles II helped commission the re-building of St. Paul’s, and the construction of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
James II: 1685 – 1688
No airborne viruses or arsonists blighted James II’s three-year-reign. He actually held a strong position with a couple of million pounds to his name as well as a 20,000 strong army. His men were attacked but the enemy swiftly thwarted, leading to the consequential employment of Roman Catholic officers. This didn’t go down well thanks to the fear of Catholicism among his countrymen and led to conflict with Parliament, dismissal of those in opposition, and employment of more Catholics to fill the gaps. Alienation and a failed attack on the Irish after leading a French army saw James II exiled until 1701 where he later died.
Anne: 1702 – 1714
She was the Protestant younger daughter of James II and his first wife, and war and political argument dominated her reign. There was the birth of two Parliamentary parties, Scottish Whigs (who preferred to support religions over the monarchy), and English Tories (who felt supporting the monarchy and the Church of England was the better option). Such bitter disputes between the two parties led to an eventual union in Parliament, meaning one British Parliament would sit at Westminster, and there would be a united coin and flag (the Union Flag). Anne never produced an heir, so James II’s cousin and George I’s niece, Sophia of Hanover, was chosen.
George I: 1714 – 1727
Sophia died two months before Queen Anne, meaning she couldn’t succeed the throne. Instead, George I inherited it but was challenged by James II’s Protestant son – his challenge failed and he gave up. George was hardly an influence throughout his reign. He lacked a grasp of the English language (speaking fluent German and French), rarely attended Cabinet meetings, and didn’t have knowledge of English customs. His ministers basically made the decisions on his behalf, and even appointed the first Prime Minister in 1721, Robert Walpole. In 1727, George died on a trip to Hanover.
George II: 1727 – 1760
18 years into his reign, George II’s position came under threat by the Jacobite cause (born of James Stuart and afterwards his son, Charles Edward Stuart), however, Charles was defeated in Scotland by George’s armies, eliminating subsequent attacks. George went on to sow the seeds of the industrial revolution thanks to a quickening increase in population, and new levels of production increase in the coal and ship-building industries. In 1760, George died leaving his grandson to inherit the throne as his son, Frederick, died nine years earlier.
George III: 1760 – 1820
The Madness of King George, that’s what his legacy was remembered as. After losing the American colonies which led to America’s independence in 1776, George suffered from serious illnesses in the dying years of the 1780s. By 1810, he’d gone completely loopy and was in no fit state to rule during the last decade of his reign. However, what he lacked in royal influence, he made up for in academia. He was the first king to study science within his education (a collection of his instruments can be seen at the Science Museum), and he paid the initial expenses for the building of the Royal Academy of Arts.
George IV: 1820 – 1830
A reign beset by marriage difficulties, debt, and ultimate unpopularity, George IV spent his last years at Winsor in seclusion, dying at 67. Before his death, the monarchy was forced to play a more national role, thanks to the abolishment of religious discrimination. However, throughout his ten-year stint on the throne, he tried to rebuild friendships by visiting Ireland and Scotland, as well as somewhere that hadn’t been visited by its ruler for nearly a hundred years, Hanover. He also transformed Buckingham Palace, thanks to his passion for structural engineering.
William IV: 1830 – 1837
Times were changing rapidly when William IV came to power. The Reform Crisis (which rose when the Tory government lost the general election) had its grip on society and, eventually, William was made to sign the Great Reform Bill when the Tories failed to produce an alternative government. The bill meant, for example, that newer, more industrialised towns were duly recognised, and society was given more of a say in the political process.
Victoria: 1837 – 1901
Victoria became queen at 18. Lively, kind-hearted, and a lover of drawing and diary-writing, she brought the British Empire to fame and dominance – these years were Britain’s years. Sadly, however, at the loss of her husband, Albert, who died at 42, she fell into depression and wore nothing but black from then on. Over time, though, she became more easily coaxed back into the public eye, and began visiting different areas as war raised its head yet again. Towards the end of her reign, having proved determined, even stubborn in her approach to support her country, she visited hospitals and encouraged her troops relentlessly. After the longest reign in British history, Victoria died in 1901.
Edward VII: 1901 – 1910
With a strong interest in foreign affairs, the military and naval issues, Edward VIII was 59 when he became king. He was ridiculed for his social life and upbringing (his mother was very strict and had him taking part in public duties as a child), so it was just as well he preferred being abroad so much; he was related to so many European sovereigns, he became known as ‘The Uncle of Europe’. Edward also brought the medical service for the army back to life, and vastly improved the Home Fleet with more modern technology.
George V: 1910 – 1936
Four years after George V came to power, the First World War broke out. Following this, he made hundreds of visits to British hospitals, as well as to his troops. One of his main concerns was the proper treatment of German prisoners-of-war, and conscientious objectors. In 1924, George put forth the first Labour government but, in 1929, encouraged the Labour leader to head a National Government made up of all parties. This went on to win the election in 1931. Other than this, he produced the first Christmas message in 1932, and received a Silver Jubilee three years later.
Edward VIII: Jan – Dec 1936
His reign lasted just shy of one year, and he was never crowned. Yet, in such a short space of time, Edward VIII appointed a squadron of air vehicles to use as transport for royal duties; he met Wallis Simpson who became his wife in 1937 (because of her two previous divorces, she could not become queen – Edward made the choice to avoid being crowned and marry Simpson instead); finally, having escaped from Paris during WWII, and headed to Lisbon, he became Governor of the Bahamas until 1945.
George VI: 1936 – 1952
Something which George VI was remembered most famously for was the way he dealt with the society of London during WWII. He and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Elizabeth II’s mother), would go out to the war-torn East End of London and visit the families of the worse affected areas. This gained him popularity by the bucket-load in the process. He instituted the George Cross and the George Medal for acts of bravery on the battlefield, and visited as many of his troops as he could during his reign. He also became very close friends with the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, however, the toils of post WWI and the duration of WWII saw George descend into illness, something from which he never recovered, passing away in 1952 following a lung operation.
Queen Elizabeth II: 1952 – present
Happily living the life of a naval officer’s wife – having married Prince Phillip – and paying him several formal visits over in Malta, Queen Elizabeth soon became aware that, thanks to her father’s ever-decreasing levels of health, she was next in line to the throne. In 1952, while staying in Kenya, she received the news of her father’s death together with the news of her accession. Her time in Kenya came to a swift close, and she was flown back to Britain as its new Queen. Since then she has seen the world change in every aspect imaginable and, in June of 2012, she will receive her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years as Britain’s Queen.
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