Introduction

Britain is one of a number of countries today that is a monarchy - in other words, the head of state isn’t elected like the Presidents of the United States or France, but inherits the job from their parents. It sounds like an old-fashioned system, and it is - kings and queens have ruled in Britain for around 1600 years.

Everywhere you go in Britain, you find evidence of this long history. When you visit a stately home, the guide will tell you that ‘Queen Elizabeth slept here’. If you travel around the country, you’ll see the castles that monarchs built as strongholds and the sites of battles where kings fought for power. And you’ll find towns and villages with royal names like King’s Norton, Charlton Kings, and, of all things, Queen Camel.

And the royals are still very much around. The British press and TV news reports often feature items about Queen Elizabeth meeting foreign heads of state or Prince Charles extending his organic farm or speaking out about architecture or the natural environment. British soldiers still fight ‘for queen and country’, people who talk about the language sometimes refer to ‘the queen’s English’, and in courts of justice, the senior barristers are called ‘Queen’s Counsel’.

The monarchy is still at the heart of British life.

About This Book

This book tells the colourful story of Britain’s monarchy, from the earliest times to the present day. It explains how the monarch’s role developed from that of warrior-king who had absolute power over his subjects and owned all the land in his kingdom to that of constitutional monarch with limited powers but considerable influence. It’s a story that features great personalities like King Edward I and Queen Victoria, national heroes such as Robert Bruce and Owain Glyndwr, and characters like Kings Stephen and Edward II, who were disastrous as rulers and whose reigns saw their country undergo strife and upheavals that changed the course of history.

The story of the monarchy is interesting enough for these characters alone. But it’s also the tale of how Britain has been governed - how rulers have worked with the people - nobles, Members of Parliament, and everyone else - and has sometimes tried to ignore the people’s wishes and needs. And it’s the story of how Britain gradually got more democratic, but managed to hang on to an inherited monarchy, too.

Of course, not everyone likes the monarchy. It’s a bastion of privilege and doesn’t seem right in the modern age. There have been some very able kings and queens, but no matter how good they are, you can’t throw them out by voting for someone else, so they fail the ultimate test of democracy. But there they still are: They’ve lasted for 1,600 years or so with only one short break in the 17th century when there was an experiment with republicanism. If you’re going to understand Britain, you need to understand their story.

Conventions Used in This Book

People - even British people - get confused about the terms used to talk about the country of Britain. Or is it England, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom? Well, actually, it’s all three. The whole country is called the United Kingdom, or, to give it its more long-winded name, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That mouthful means the nation is made up of the separate former states of England, Scotland, and Wales, plus Northern Ireland and all the islands around the British coast from the Isle of Wight to Shetland. That’s the country over which the monarch reigns.

But it hasn’t always been like this. For much of Britain’s history, the various ‘component countries’ had separate rulers. Many of the characters in this book were rulers of England or Scotland. England conquered Wales in the Middle Ages, so you see a few princes of independent Wales, too. So in the early part of this book, the text talks about kings of England or Scotland, not of Britain or the United Kingdom.

In 1603, King James IV of Scotland became James I of England as well. From this point on, England and Scotland have had the same ruler. But only with the formal Act of Union in 1707 did the two countries come fully together - only after this date does it make sense to talk about kings and queens ‘of Britain’.

Northern Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom for still less time and the earlier history of Ireland, a complex subject that deserves a volume of its own, lies outside the scope of this book. Even so, this book touches on the history of Ireland in a few places - when the rulers of England tried to dominate Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, by encouraging

English settlers to live there. British monarchs ruled Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, just as they ruled all kinds of other countries that made up their huge worldwide empire. But in the 20th century, the southern portion of Ireland became independent, and only the North remained as part of the United Kingdom.

In addition, the dates I normally give for kings are the dates when they reigned. To discover the dates they were born and died, see the Cheat Sheet at the front of this book.

What You're Not to Read

In this book, you’ll see many paragraphs accompanied by a small icon in the margin with the phrase Technical Stuff. The text next to this icon gives you interesting bits of technical information that will fill out the background of the main story. You don’t have to read these paragraphs in order to understand the rest of the text. But if you do read them, you’ll find out some interesting stuff about how the monarchy worked at different points in history.

Foolish Assumptions

It’s a funny job being an author, having to write books with readers in mind, but with no idea who those readers are or what they know. So writers make assumptions about their readers. When writing this book, I assumed that you’re vaguely familiar with the British monarchy, but don’t know that much about it. You know that Britain still has a royal family, and you know some of their names, but you’re not too clear about what they actually do all day or how much power they really have.

In the words of the old song, you probably ‘don’t know much about history’, either. But you’ve likely come across some of the historical sites linked with the monarchy - places like Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. You may even have visited them or seen pictures of them on the Web.

How This Book Is Organised

This book is arranged chronologically, starting with the first kings and queens in Britain and ending with the present day. I’ve divided the book into parts. Part I gives you basic information about what the monarchy is and how

it works. Each subsequent part deals with one period of history. Within the parts, the text is further split up into chapters. Most chapters tell the story of one ruling dynasty or family - for example, you’ll find chapters on the Normans, who ruled in the 11th and 12th centuries, and on the Tudors, who came to power in 1485 and stayed on the throne until 1603.

You can read this book in one go, from start to finish, to get a broad history of the British monarchy. Or you can read just the chapters on the eras or monarchs you’re especially interested in. The following sections give a quick summary of the information you can find in each part.

Part I: All About the Monarchy

What do kings and queens actually do? And how much power do they really have? This part answers these questions. It tells you how, in the early centuries of the British monarchy, rulers had lots of power. They made the laws and everyone had to obey them. Partly because kings and queens were so powerful, lots of people wanted the job, and rulers often had to fight for power - and to fight some more to hang on to it. They also had to plan for the future, by making sure that they had a suitable heir to carry on their work when they died.

But nowadays, things are different, so this part of the book also looks at how the modern monarchy works. Today Britain’s ruling family has nothing like the power it used to have. Laws are made by the democratically elected Parliament, and the queen simply advises the government and approves the new laws. But the ruler still has a busy time doing all kinds of work, from representing the nation as a ceremonial figurehead to supporting the activities of countless charities. Being monarch is certainly a full-time job.

Part II: Early Rulers

This part tells you about the first monarchs to rule in England during the period after the Romans, who’d been ruling Britain as part of their huge empire, got fed up, and left in the early fifth century. Most of these rulers were Anglo-Saxons and came over from northern Europe to fill the power-vacuum left by the departing Romans. Loads of these Anglo-Saxon monarchs ruled mostly quite small areas of the country, and they came and went quite quickly.

Part II covers the most important and famous monarchs, especially those who were able to extend their territory and rule over a large region - or even, now and then, all of England. They were alive a long time ago, but some of

them had an amazing influence that lasted for centuries - King Edgar, for example, spearheaded a revival of monasteries that transformed England’s religion, while King Alfred promoted the English language, commissioning books and translations into English - and more or less inventing English literature.

Part III: The Middle Ages

In 1066, a dramatic change happened to the monarchy in England. William I, from Normandy in northern France, crossed the Channel, invaded, and became king. This part of the book looks at the 400-plus years that followed; the period known as the Middle Ages or medieval period. It was the time of knights and castles, which were the tools that medieval kings used to stay in power. It was a time when the Christian church became extremely influential, partly by playing a key role in king-making ceremonies, such as inaugurations and coronations, and effectively giving monarchs spiritual, as well as worldly, power.

And it was a period when England had a special, but stormy, relationship with France - English kings either ruled large chunks of France at this time or spent much of their lives fighting to win power there. Many of the most famous medieval kings were warriors - William I who conquered England, Edward I who won control of Wales, Henry V who beat the stuffing out of France. It all sounds disreputable today, but in the Middle Ages, if you were a successful fighter, you became a hero.

Part IV: The Kings of Scotland

This part looks at Scotland, which was a totally separate country from England before the 17th century. Just like England, Scotland began divided into a number of miniature kingdoms until some rulers eventually lost power to their neighbours, and a united country emerged.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing because the Scots had to protect their southern border from the English. Border scrapping occurred all through the Middle Ages. Some of it was just local trouble - local families stealing each other’s sheep and cattle. But sometimes the fighting was on a much larger scale - English kings Edward I and Edward II tried unsuccessfully to take over Scotland, and Edward III got involved in the dynastic trouble between two of Scotland’s most powerful families, the Bruces and the Balliols. Eventually one dynasty, the Stewarts, became Scotland’s most successful royal family, reigning from the late 14th to the early 17th century.

Part V: Kingdoms United: Tudors,

Stuarts, and Hanoverians

I cover three of the most influential royal dynasties - the Houses of Tudor, Stuart, and Hanover - in this part, which follows the history of the monarchy from 1485 all the way to 1901. This was a time of huge change, seeing England and Scotland united and the English crown playing a major part in the government of Ireland, too.

It was also the period in which Britain’s influence spread all around the world - a process that began with voyages of exploration under the Tudors in the 16th century and came to a climax with the growth of a huge British empire, which, in the 19th century, stretched from Canada to India.

The rulers who presided over these changes were some of the most outsize personalities in the history of the monarchy - Henry VIII, who divorced and even beheaded his wives in his desperation to get a male heir; Elizabeth I, who was a multitalented Renaissance woman; Charles I who lost a war with Parliament, making his country a republic for a while; George III, who had an illness that affected his sanity but was much loved; and Victoria, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

Part VI: Modern Royals: The House of Windsor

The monarchs of the 20th and 21st centuries have had to adjust to the most rapid period of change in the history of the planet. Two World Wars, economic upheavals, the loss of the empire, and a more democratic system of government have brought huge changes for everyone in Britain - and huge challenges for the monarchy. This part tells the story of how the country’s rulers have coped with these challenges.

It’s a story of the shrinking of royal power. But this shrinkage hasn’t meant that the monarchs have a less prominent part in the life of the nation - far from it. The monarchs of the 20th century gradually reinvented themselves, as advisers to their Prime Ministers, as national symbols and figureheads, and even as media personalities.

The British monarchy is still highly traditional - it respects titles, old wealth, old-fashioned courtesies, and privileges rooted in centuries of history. But it’s also active in more ways, and in more corners of people’s lives, than ever before.

 

Part VII: The Part of Tens

Here are some fascinating bits of royal trivia. This part covers royal homes and other places with links to royal history. They’re mostly places you can visit, so the story of the monarchy comes alive here. You also find out about groups of royals who don’t always get their time in the spotlight of history - the consorts (wives and husbands) of some of the rulers and the Princes of Wales. Some fascinating characters - some of whom are famous for eccentricities or special interests, some of whom were real ‘powers behind the throne’, men and women who influenced British history in their own right - reside in this part.

Where to Go from Here

Wherever you open this book, you’ll find it’s divided into small sections that are designed to be easy to find and give you access to information about separate topics. So you don’t have to read the whole book.

If you’re interested in the recent history of the monarchy, read Part VI. If you want to find out about the Tudors, you can just read Chapter 13. But whichever bit of British royal history grabs your attention, it’s not a bad idea to read Part I first. This part gives you a brief low-down on the background to monarchy, how the system has worked over the years, and what being a king or a queen actually entails. After that, read what you want - if you want to know the whole story, you can even read the whole book!

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