The English philosopher Bertrand Russell memorably said that the greatest of the British Kings were the Queens. Setting aside the waspishness of the double meaning, it must be admitted that few of the male gender in the list of the monarchs of England and later Great Britain compare favourably with the ladies in the same list. Alfred (the only King called ‘The Great’ in English history) perhaps, but this war leader and creator of organised education was King only of a part of England. Edward Ist perhaps, but his kingly reputation is blemished (for some) by the bloodiness of his reign, especially in lawless Scotland. Edward Ist was not known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’ for nothing. He was also responsible for Edward II, not known for anything much except for his male favourites, and the cruel manner of his demise in Berkeley Castle.
His son Edward III took the throne back from the murderous Mortimer, killed him, and reigned for a long time. He achieved much, but he also locked his mother (Mortimer’s mistress) away in a fortress/nunnery, and allowed his mistress Alice Ferrers too much power as he approached his dotage.
Henry as Prince of Wales was a drunken, whoring young slob, but when his usurping father (Henry IV) died he became Henry V and rushed off to conquer France at Agincourt. He married the French King’s daughter Katharine and promptly died, thus leaving us with mixed thoughts about what kind of King he might have made.
Henry Tydder was a bastard in a line of bastards who usurped the throne from Richard III. The latter had a very bad press from the Tudor historians when Tydder emerged as the first of the Tudor dynasty – Henry VII. Henry is best known for in the invention of a state-financed secret service, the quiet assassination of any remaining sprigs of the Yorks and Lancasters, and the introduction of a system of taxation called (then) ‘Morton’s Fork’. It was later renamed ‘Income Tax’ – equally hated but respectable.
Charles I was courageous but stupid. As Prince of Wales he was courageous and stupid enough to fall in love with the portrait of a Spanish Infanta, and ride off only accompanied by the Duke of Buckingham across Europe to distant Madrid to propose marriage to her (see a part of the excellent Spanish film Alatriste). She was a full head taller than the amorous prawn and said “¡No!”. So Charles rode and sailed back to England, became King, and lost his head when he claimed the Divine Right of Kings made him more important than his Parliament.
Charles II was romantic, just, muddle-headed and preferred intercourse with any one or two of his royal mistresses. He managed to make seventeen bastards, but not one legitimate male heir. The Hanovarian Georges were German, and one of them, the IIIrd, lost the Thirteen Colonies, causing the invention of the United States. He was the only Hanovarian George to be rather nice, however. The other three ( I, II and IV) were night soil.
Edward VII was a typical British King because he preferred tupping to governing. His son George V got himself hopelessly involved with his cousin the Kaiser, helping bringing about the First World War. He also started the tradition of rearing his princes and princesses laxly and thoughtlessly. Edward VIII was brainless, proud, foolish, and governed by his penis. He threw away an Empire to ‘marry the woman he loved’.
No, it is the ladies in the royal list who win, every time. Let us start with the Queen of the Iceni, called Boadicea by some, and Boudicca by the politically correct. She died around 60 a.d., but we are not sure exactly when she was born. We do know where however; she was born in East Anglia, that mighty geographical bulge pushing into the North Sea to the north-east of London. Boadicea succeeded her husband (Prasatugas). He had managed to leave his Kingdom to his daughters and the Roman Emperor. He might have been one of the inspirations for Shakespeare when he wrote King Lear. The Romans were behaving badly in England at the time, brutally too, and Boadicea found her former kingdom reduced to one impoverished tribe. Being who she was, she organised defences, led her own and borrowed (Trinovante) soldiers against the Romans when they unwisely invaded Wales.
Boadicea always led from the front, and was as useful with her great sword and spear as any of her soldiers. She became known for the clever ruse of using curved scythes fixed to the wheels of her chariot, which did great damage to the unprotected legs of her enemies. She attacked, took and burnt Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulanium (St. Albans) and Londinium.
This great Queen of the eastern part of Britain was at last defeated by the tribune and governor Suetonius Paulinus, but he could never capture her. She killed herself first, and became a legend with the British to this day.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (circa. 1122 – 1204) was a French Duchess, probably the richest woman in France. She could ride in a carriage across six hundred kilometres without leaving her lands. Her title as Duchess was in her own right, but she became Queen of France by marrying Louis VII. Eleanor was another of those tough ladies who did not stay home and weep when her husband when to war. She accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade (1147) and lived the same life on campaign as the King and his armies.
Louis was not quite enough for Eleanor, who was after a more masculine kind of chap, quite unlike the foppish Louis. The Pope annulled the marriage, and Eleanor married the Count of Anjou who was also Duke of Normandy. Matrimiony with this stormy, brilliant, very masculine man was bound to be tempestuous – and it was – mostly because Eleanor herself was stormy, brilliant and very feminine. Her beauty was legendary, her tongue viperish.
Henry became the 2nd of England, ruling with Eleanor territory from Scotland to the Mediterranean Sea. The Queen had no less than ten children by Henry, counting among them Richard the Lionheart, John Lackland and Geoffrey Plantaganet (see a first-class Anglo/American film called The Lion in Winter). When Eleanor’s son Richard was banged up in a castle prison by some of his fellow crusaders, it was Eleanor who organised the gathering and payment of his ransom.
The Queen’s great strength of character and insistence on her rights (to a great extent she was financing her husband and England) caused terrible rows. Henry did not like any of his children, except perhaps the girls. Eleanor had a firm favourite, Richard, another future King of England, but it was Richard who was disliked the most by his father. Eleanor engaged in plots and conspiracies and was locked up from 1173 – 85 for her pains. Her chief trauma seemed to concern Richard and John, whom she was determined to see crowned as King of England, in any order. Both Richard and John became Kings of England. The First was brave but foolhardy, and John I was vain, thick as two planks, lost England much of the prestige she had earned, and, mistake of mistakes – tried to reign while Robin Hood was causing trouble at Nottingham. Eleanor of Aquitane, queen consort of the first of the Plantaganet Kings of England, died at the great age (for that time) of 82.
Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) was arguably the greatest Queen England has had, despite being a Tudor. She was the only fruit of the possibly bigamous marriage between Henry VIII and ‘That Scarlet Woman’, poor, misunderstood Anne Boleyn. As Queen, she succeeded her half sister Mary, known as ‘Bloody’ because she killed so many people for not being Catholics, and lost Calais to the French, who rightly thought it should be French.
After Thomas Cromwell had organised the downfall of her mother Anne, Elizabeth was imprisoned in a series of castles, and made illegitimate. After her accession, Mary I and the ministers suspected her of being involved in a plot to kill her (The Wyatt Rebellion).
Mary possibly thought she might escape Divine Wrath by marrying El Rey Felipe II de España, but the marriage did not work, and she died in 1558. Elizabeth succeeded and started a reign of forty-five years. She never married.
The Queen was cultured, possessed of a good education, assumed to be Protestant, wise, wily and gifted in the arts and sciences of politics. She was also hard-working. Twenty-hour days were nothing to her, and she expected her always weary councillors to talk, debate, dance, watch plays, hunt on horseback, and intrigue with her every hour.
Together with her chief advisor William Cecil and her tired councillors she established firm government in England, which eanred her considerable popular support. ‘Good Queen Bess’ was loved by most of her subjects throughout her reign. She knew how to handle groups, from her parliament to companies of soldiers, even unruly mobs. England became stable and prosperous. She played foreign ambassadors one against another, especially if the ambassador should be Spanish. She gave special secret licence to pirate adventurers, of which there were many, to attack Spanish ports and ships; especially very large ships sailing bravely from Mexico and Perú back to England full laden with Aztec or Inca treasure. Her large share of the robbed proceedings was contributed largely to the building of a bigger and better navy.
But Elizabeth did not please everyone. Her Anglican Church Establishment (1559 – 63) offended Catholics and Puritans, probably because of its moderate demands. Her constant refusal to marry (despite a crowd of suitors) annoyed her ministers, supporters of a continuous monarchy, and her Members of Parliament. The latter were also infuriated by her indecision over the fate of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, imprisoned but continuously plotting the Queen’s downfall.
After Elizabeth succumbed to the temptation to behead her cousin, Felipe of Spain was filled with righteous images of revenge. He was also tired of Elizabeth’s privateers confiscating treasure his sailors had brought from Central and South America, and the result was the Armada (1588); open and declared war with Spain. This, as we know, failed, and elsewhere on this site there can be found versions of the sorry tale of its failure.
For forty-five years this remarkable woman dominated an exceedingly clever group of ambitious men, and made her country into ‘Fortress England’. The day of her death in 1603 was a long day indeed for her councillors: the Queen sat herself on a high, hard chair in the middle of a vast room, surrounded by her ministers. She advised them to wait until she was dead. Several of them wanted to know who would succeed this tremendous female as Monarch. At the very end, with councillors dropping to the floor from fatigue, hunger and thirst, Elizabeth whispered that her cousin James VI of Scotland should become James I of England. After she died this happened, and thus the United Kingdom was formed.
Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) was Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India from 1876. She was the last of the House of Hanover, German princelings who had started the dynasty with George I, who could not speak English. Victoria was the only child of George III’s son Edward, the Duke of Kent. She became Queen after the death of William (The Sailor King) IV. Her grand coronation was in 1837.
Though Victoria was splendidly guided by her ministers Melbourne, Wellington, Grey, Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli, to mention but six, she remained firm to her principles and convictions, and much worried by any threat to the morals of her people. In her Diaries, she constantly refers to ‘people’s morals’. Though tiny, she was physically and mentally strong. In 1840 she married a clever German called Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and the marriage was happy and fruitful, though Albert was never much liked by the English. Victoria made up for this by marrying off, one by one, all of her children into European royal houses, which explains (to those who are interested) why every royal house still in existence today descends to some degree or other from Queen Victoria and her Albert.
Prince Albert died young (1861) and left Victoria desperate and alone. Still filled with love for her dead husband, she never married again, and semi-retired from public life, until Benjamin Disraeli, a great favourite, persuaded her to return to public duties.
By the 1880s Victoria was fully installed again in the hearts and minds of her people, and the British Empire grew and grew until it encompassed most of the globe. The British Navy sailed (or steamed) in every ocean. Rule Britannia, indeed . . . both Golden and Diamond Jubilees were great occasions, and by the time of her death, the Queen had given her name to the phrases The Victorian Age, Victorian Architecture, Victorian Morals, Victorian Prejudice, Victorian Greatness etc. Britain had become the world’s leading industrial power, a tiny, cold and windswept island in the centre of The British Empire, on which, it was said at the time – ‘the Sun never sets’.