Ten Monarchs We Should Learn More About | Sarah Stook
We all know the Tudors and Victoria from the history books, but we’ve had plenty of fascinating monarchs over the years. Here are ten leaders of England, Scotland, Wales and Great Britain that deserve more credit.
Æthelflæd of Mercia (r. 911-918)
Ok, we’re slightly cheating as Æthelflæd wasn’t a leader of any of our constituent kingdoms, but she did rule in the Saxon era. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd, like many in her time, was married off in order to secure an alliance. Her husband was Æthelred of Mercia. Mercia at that point was made up of what we today know as the Midlands. The pair had one daughter, Ælfwynn. Æthelred was often sickly and it is believed that Æthelflæd took over proceedings when this happened. Edward, Æthelflæd’s brother, would often join Æthelred in fighting.
Æthelred died in 911. Upon his death, Æthelflæd became Lady of the Mercians. Along with Edward, Æthelflæd was a fighting force against the Danes. She personally led troops into battle, capturing places such as Leicester. Along with Edward, Æthelflæd helped launch the Battle of Tettenhall. This led to the defeat of the Danes as well as the eventual unification of England.
Æthelflæd died suddenly in 918. Ælfwynn took over Mercia briefly, but Edward had her captured and took over the lands himself. What happened to her after this is unknown.
Æthelflæd was a brilliant leader, tactician and fighter. She was not afraid to fight on the battlefield along with her men and it seemed she was tough enough to survive. Her leadership of Mercia allowed our country to become what it is today. She was beloved by the Mercians, so much so that they happily made her ruler despite not being a blood relation and a woman.
If you want to learn more about her, check out The Last Kingdom on Netflix. She’s one of my favourites in the show.
The eldest son of Edward, Æthelstan had an illustrious pedigree that included Alfred the Great as a grandfather and Æthelflæd as an aunt. His aunt raised him, as she was concerned about her brother and the favouritism he had for his younger sons. Not too much is known about his life between his birth and ascension, but we assume he was educated and trained in Mercia.
The death of Edward in 924 created a succession crisis. Despite being the eldest legitimate son, it seemed that Æthelstan was being pushed aside by his half-brother Ælfweard. Edward had not made his succession clear- he didn’t say who would inherit, if both kingdoms would come together or if there’d be two rulers. Either way, Ælfweard died only two weeks later.
Though the way had been cleared, it took Æthelstan to ascend and be crowned, though many still did not support him. One year later, Æthelstan invaded the northern kingdoms and got them to bend the knee. He also inherited Wales, who had previously sworn allegiance to Æthelflæd. Æthelstan fought many battles to maintain and expand his kingdom.
Among his many accomplishments as King, Æthelstan successfully created laws that we still know about today. He seemed most concerned about crime, especially theft, and corruption. The King was merciful when it came to the young, who he gave lighter sentences, and helpful to the poor, who he ensured received welfare paid for by taxes. Æthelstan died at about the age of 45. He left no heirs, so the kingdom went to his half-brother Edmund.
Æthelstan was not only the first King of the English in title, but also in spirit. His reign expanded its borders, brought wealth and security, codified laws, strengthened the military and brought the country closer to the church. It was a good thing that he was brought up by Æthelflæd and not Edward.
Æthelstan is also portrayed on The Last Kingdom.
David I of Scotland (r. 1124-1153)
As the eighth son of Malcolm III, it’s fair to say nobody expected David to ever wear the crown. Fortunately for him, a succession of older brothers dying helped him along the way. His early life was spent in both Scotland and England, the latter of which was ruled by his brother-in-law Henry I. David inherited the south of Scotland upon the death of brother Edgar in 1107. In 1110, he married the extremely wealthy Maude, Countess of Huntingdon. Following the death of his other brother Alexander in 1124, David inherited the consolidated kingdom.
He did have to fight for the throne though. His illegitimate nephew, Malcolm, had support. Malcolm had strengthened his claim by marrying the sister of an important noble. He was defeated in 1125 by David’s army. In 1130, Malcolm sprung again whilst David was out of the country. Fortunately, David’s forces beat him again.
One of Scotland’s most famous kings, David greatly reformed the kingdom. He invited monks to settle in Scotland and built many abbeys. Nobles were given large plots of land in exchange for military service, with David also encouraging them to trade. He streamlined the tax service by having one sheriff in each area responsible for collecting them. David centralised the government and created a new royal mint. Deeply religious, David prioritised diplomacy over war, but was not afraid of using his military.
When Henry I of Scotland died in 1135, David supported the claim of the Empress Matilda. He sent forces south of the border to help her gain the north, but was sent packing in 1138. A treaty years later with Henry, Matilda’s son, allowed Scotland to hold onto territories such as Northumberland.
David died in 1153. His son had predeceased him, so he was succeeded by his grandson Malcolm.
Holding the throne for just under thirty years, David left behind a richer kingdom than he’d inherited. His reformation of the abbeys created a new religious culture and the use of feudalism allowed new trade. He gambled by supporting Matilda for the throne, but he won out in the end.
Empress Matilda (r.1141-1148)
Another bit of cheating here, as Matilda is a bit of a disputed monarch, but we’ll roll with it. The only legitimate daughter of Henry I- and one of only two children born into wedlock- she was first married at age 12. At only 14, Matilda was playing a prominent role as Queen. She spent over a decade alongside her husband, fighting battles and attempting to consolidate their reign. In 1125, Matilda was widowed.
Five years earlier, Matilda’s only legitimate brother William Adelin drowned in the White Ship disaster. William nearly survived, but went back to rescue his drowning half-sister, killing them both. This left Matilda’s father Henry in a bit of a pickle. He had nine sons but they were all illegitimate. He married again in hopes of fathering a legitimate son, but this did not happen. A year after Matilda was widowed, Henry announced that she was his chosen successor.
Matilda was married off to Geoffrey of Anjou, who was only a boy at 13. They had three sons but did not particularly like one another. In 1135, Henry I died. Matilda attempted to seize power, but the barons were not thrilled with her husband or the fact she was a woman. The barons had insisted that Matilda only marry outside of the realm with their consent. Her maternal cousin, Stephen of Bois, took the helm. Despite this quick translation, it was not a smooth one. Matilda was still the legal monarch and was not about to let that go. Thus began ‘The Anarchy,’ a period of civil war in which the two sides fought. There was a stalemate for years until Matilda’s son Henry managed to successfully invade in 1153.
Peace was eventually reached. Henry was to become Stephen’s heir, now that his eldest son had died. Stephen died a year later and Matilda’s role was consolidated through her son. She continued to influence matters in England and kept a hold on his continental Europe. She remained in Normandy and died there in 1167.
Matilda was forced to play the long game, but it worked out in the end. She was a shrewd, intelligent woman who was ruling a kingdom whilst she had barely gone through puberty. Matilda knew that she was the rightful heir and she wasn’t going to stop. Her escape from England and many of her battles are deeply interesting. To Matilda, our first (disputed) Queen regnant.
Henry II (r.1154-1189)
The son of Geoffrey of Anjou and the Empress Matilda, Henry came to the throne after the death of his mother’s cousin, Stephen. He’d managed a successful invasion in 1149 after allying with David of Scotland. This had forced Stephen to make Henry his heir.
Two years before he became king, Henry controversially married the older Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’d been married to Louis of France, but the marriage was annulled after they had no sons. Eleanor and Henry married very soon after the annulment, so many thought they’d been having an affair.
As king, Henry managed to expand their territories on the continent. He did this through war, his own marriage and the matches of his children. Some of his territories included western France, Sicily, Castile and Germany.
Llywelyn the Great (r. 1195-1240)
Llywelyn was born in around 1173. As a boy the nation of Wales was ruled by several of his uncles, his father having died when he was a baby. With a strong claim to the throne, Llywelyn was a threat to them from an early age. He began his plot to power as a child, but was exiled by his uncle. Llywelyn has his revenge when he usurped said uncle and was named Prince of Gwynedd in 1195.
He wed Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John, in around 1204/1205. Llywelyn attempted to gain southern Wales from the English in 1208, prompting an invasion by John a few years later. He was forced to agree to John’s terms, but allied himself with other Welsh princes and regained it. Llywelyn allied himself with disgruntled Welshmen and the English barons who opposed John. This was one of the triggers for the signing of the Magna Carta.
Henry III, John’s son and successor, initially supported Llywelyn’s claims to Wales. He later changed his mind and forced Llywelyn into the northern borders. Despite this, he was still recognised by the Welsh princes of the south. Llywelyn died in 1240 and was succeeded by his son Dafydd ap Llywelyn, the first man to hold the title of Prince of Wales.
Despite setbacks dating back to the day he was born, Llywelyn kept winning. He fought numerous battles to hold onto his land and despite losing some of it, he won out in the end. Llywelyn managed to hold onto Wales for forty five years, which was pretty impressive considering the volatile political climate.
Henry V (m.1413-1422)
Henry was the eldest son of Henry Bolingbroke, the cousin of King Richard II and the man who would become Henry IV. When Henry was 13, his father joined a group of rebels against Richard. The rebellion failed and he was exiled. Richard, however, did not punish Henry and instead invited him to court. One year later, Bolingbroke and a group of rebels managed to overthrow Richard. Henry was in Ireland as part of the king’s retenue and was recalled to England. He was now heir to the throne.
For eight years, Henry’s main role was fighting for the Welsh. He managed to survive an arrow to the face due to groundbreaking surgery, though he was left with scars. In 1413, Henry became Henry V after the death of his father. His reign was immediately unstable, as rebels plotted to unseat him in favour of the previous heir Edmund Mortimer. Henry defeated the rebellion and executed its leaders.
Meanwhile, things were heating up between England and France. The French had ceded part of its lands in a 1360 treaty, but Henry wanted more. His invasion was planned meticulously and shows why he is regarded as one of the nation’s best warrior kings. His most famous victory was at Agincourt, where the massively outnumbered English managed to beat the French. This made Henry famous in Europe and he secured huge support. Henry attacked in 1417 once again, forcing Charles VI of France to sue for peace. In 1420, the Treaty of Troyes was signed. This made Henry the heir of France and allowed him to marry Charles’ daughter Catherine.
Henry and Catherine married in 1240. Catherine bore him an heir in 1241, but Henry was away in France. Henry died of dysentery on the 31st August 1242. His nine month old son, Henry was now king. Only a month later, Charles VI died. This made Henry VI the King of both England and France, though the latter was disputed.
Henry V is remembered for his intelligence, military prowess and sheer bravery. His plan to take France was meticulous and he took every necessary step to ensure it was pulled off. It was only his early death that stopped his plans, but he did a lot in his 35 years of life.
Edward IV (r.1461-1470, 1471-1483)
Edward was the third child and eldest surviving son of Richard, Duke of York and his wife Cecily. His father Richard was a descendent of two previous Kings and was seen as the natural heir to Henry VI. In 1453, Henry VI fell catatonic after a mental breakdown. The Duke of York took over the government. After several negotiations, it was decided that the Duke of York would be Henry’s heir over his only son, Edward. Unfortunately, the Duke of York died in battle soon after.
In February 1461, Edward won the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. This was followed by the Battle of Towton. Henry VI escaped with his life and was in hiding. With Henry’s son Edward still around, the now Edward IV was in a precarious position. He married a widowed Englishwoman named Elizabeth Woodville, controversial because it was believed he needed to marry a foreign princess. As the years rolled on, Edward gained enemies. In 1470, his rivals gained French support and invaded England. Edward slipped out of the country and escaped to the Continent. Henry VI was reinstated.
A year later, Edward reinvaded with Flemish support. Several of his rivalries switched to his side and fought in his stead. Henry VI was captured before the Battle of Tewksbury. The teenage heir to the throne, Edward, was killed in that battle. With Henry captured, Prince Edward dead and many of their allies executed, Edward was crowned once again.
Angered by the French support for his enemy, Edward continued his plan to invade the country. He worked with his ally, the Duke of Burgundy. Like Henry V, Edward planned it meticulously but found that Burgundy wasn’t a fantastic ally. The French offered to buy him off. After the Treaty of Picquigny, Edward made out like a bandit. He was now independent from parliament’s money.
Edward proved to have a great financial mind. He used ancient laws and loopholes to raise funds. His treaties and trades left the country richer than he’d found it. He also focused on cracking down on Wales and its rebellions. As he got older, he decided that his brother Richard would be the protector of his sons Edward and Richard. Edward IV died in 1483. His eldest son Edward took the throne, but he and young Richard disappeared. Richard III then took the throne. Edward would have the last laugh, as his daughter Elizabeth married Henry VII.
A man who fought for the throne, Edward was praised as a brilliant military man. He was undefeated in combat and was remembered for being very tall and athletic. His financial sense allowed him to develop a very wealthy nation. Whilst his sons never got the chance to be king, his daughter would eventually be the one to bring their family back to their former fortunes.
Mary II (r. 1689-1694)
Ever overthrown your own father? No. Well Mary II made it into an art form. Born to James, Duke of York and his wife Anne Hyde, Mary’s parent’s’ marriage was controversial. Anne Hyde was a commoner and they’d married while she was heavily pregnant with their first child, Charles. Her uncle was the unpopular Charles II, married to the equally unpopular Catherine of Braganza. Against the wishes of her father, Mary was raised an Anglican. This is because the country disliked the Catholic monarch and his brother, wishing to return to Protestantism.
Mary was fifteen when she married her Protestant first cousin, William of Orange. The early years of the marriage were generally unhappy due to William’s affairs and Mary’s numerous miscarriages. Mary was nevertheless extremely popular with the Dutch people. In 1685, her father became James II/VII. The king was tolerated as he had no male heirs. That changed when his second wife Mary of Modena bore a son, named James, in 1688. Rumours swirled that the baby was a changeling, the son of a common woman. Mary herself believed the baby to be illegitimate.
After the birth of James, a group of English noblemen nicknamed ‘The Immortal Seven,’ wrote to William to request he invade England. William was initially reluctant as he was jealous of Mary. She persuaded him. They sent out an edict calling young James a pretender. When the Dutch invaded in November 1688, the Army and Navy deserted King James. James was captured but purposefully released. He fled to France to live in exile.
William and Mary were made co-monarchs by Parliament. Mary was forced to stay away from politics, but usually led alone as William was often away on the continent. She generally disliked politics and was uncomfortable with making decisions. Mary’s interest remained in the church. Her relationship with William had improved since they first married and they were fairly close. Mary was sometimes estranged from her sister Anne, whilst she was often the target of attacks from her exiled father.
The usually healthy Mary fell ill with smallpox. She seemed to recover but fell ill once again. Mary II died on the 28th December 1694. She had been very popular both in the Netherlands and England and was widely mourned. William in particular was heartbroken by his wife’s death and shared his newfound misery.
Managing to overthrow a monarch, however unpopular, is pretty damn difficult but Mary helped pull it off. Popular throughout her time, she also had to live with how she betrayed her father. She stayed loyal to her husband despite his infidelity and coldness, which worked out due to their later closeness. Not being a mother affected her deeply.
George III (r. 1760-1820)
The second child and eldest son of Frederick, the Prince of Wales, George was the grandson of George II. Unlike his immediate two predecessors, George was born and raised in Britain. He was a kind boy but developed slowly mentally. George was devoted to his family. When he was only 12, his father Frederick suddenly died and he became the heir apparent. His previously ambivalent grandfather now took interest in him and groomed him as the next king.
George’s grandfather died in 1760 and he became king. Seeing that the succession needed to be secure, he asked for a list of suitable Protestant princesses so that he could marry quickly. His bride would be Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a German province of the Holy Roman Empire. Their 50+ year marriage would prove to be extremely happy and loving, with George not partaking in the usual royal adultery. They had fifteen children, thirteen of whom lived to adulthood and ten of whom lived to at least 60. George enjoyed walks in the country and holidays with his family.
The reign of George III lasted 59 years and he oversaw a changing world. Most Americans remember him as a tyrant who oversaw Britain’s oppression, but he was in fact willing to accept their independence even if he did not wish for it. George was quite happy with leaving major decisions up to Parliament. He was also in charge during the Napoleonic Wars, though he was often incapacitated.
George was personally very pious, did not drink to excess and was close to his children. Unfortunately, his mind began to slip. His first bout of mental illness occurred in 1788. He was delirious and confused, so much so that Parliament argued about wrestling power for him. This time, he recovered. By 1810, George was completely unstable. This necessitated the Regency Act of the same year, with his son becoming Prince Regent. Queen Charlotte was made his custodian. His severe illness, both physical and mental, made him unaware of important events, such as his wife’s death. George III died in early 1820.
Despite the reputation of an unstable tyrant, George III was a deeply kind, caring and loving king. He was a perfect family man who eschewed the old ideas of fathers being distant from their children. George was extremely popular with the people due to his unaffected image; this contrasted greatly with the reputation of his lecherous son. He opposed slavery and was deeply religious.