A king has two main jobs:
- Have an heir.
- Live long enough for the heir to inherit the throne as an adult.
As we saw last time, the French monarchy did an exceptional job of this for over 800 years. The English monarchy, on the other hand, was spectacularly awful at it. Let’s start with William the Conqueror. 1
William really did conquer England back in 1066. 2 As Duke of Normandy, his family had had five generations of father-to-son inheritance going back to Rollo, a Viking who was granted land in the north of France if he’d stop invading the rest of it. But as king of England, not great; two of his sons became king but neither produced a an heir, so after the death of his son Henry I came The Anarchy, 18 years of civil war eventually won by Henry’s daughter’s son Henry II. 3
Henry II was the most successful dynast England ever produced. His descendants, known as the Plantagenets, succeeded peacefully for five generations, ending with Edward III. Edward’s eldest son, known as the Black Prince 4 predeceased his father. The Prince’s son was Richard II, who became king at 10, largely in name only, as England was actually ruled by a series of aristocratic councils. After coming of age, Richard eventually wrested power for himself, after which, he ruled so tyrannically and became so disliked that he was ripe for being deposed by his cousin Henry IV.
Even though Henry was also a paternal grandson of Edward III, he gets a new dynastic name, Lancaster. His son Henry V was a great soldier who died young fighting in France. His son Henry VI became king before his first birthday, and like Richard II had to wrangle power away from a series of regents. His reign was a long series of military defeats which drove the English out of France for good and also drove Henry mad. While he was incapable, England was ruled by his cousin Richard of York (also descended from Edward III), leading to the start of the War of the Roses, initially won by the Yorks. 5
By the time Henry VI was deposed, Richard was dead, so his son Edward IV became king. He also died young, and was succeeded by his son Edward V, a 13-year-old who reigned for only a few months before he was declared illegitimate and replaced by his uncle Richard III, commonly portrayed as a scheming, murderous hunchback 6 . He in turn was king for only two years before being overthrown by what was left of the Lancasters. The Yorks have to rank among the least successful dynasties ever 7
What was left of the Lancasters was Henry Tudor. His mother was the granddaughter of an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt (Henry IV’s father). He was also the grandson of Henry V’s widow, given him further Lancaster cred. He became Henry VII, ruled for 24 years, and left a tall, handsome, accomplished 17-year-old heir also named Henry, who very quickly married a beautiful 24-year-old Spanish princess. All looked well.
What came next is that Queen Catherine has a series of pregnancies resulting in only one surviving child: a girl named Mary. Henry, wanting a male heir to make the succession clear, needed a divorce to marry a younger queen. The pope, who was literally a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, was in no position to grant one. Thus the Anglican Church was founded on the principle that kings should be able to marry and divorce as they pleased. 8 Henry eventually went through six wives 9 and was survived by two sons and a daughter.
The son, Edward VI, became king at 9 and died at 15. He was succeeded by Mary, who married her first cousin once removed the Habsburg Philip II of Spain10, playing his family’s usual game of trying to marry into additional domains.11 Mary died young with no children, and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth lived to be almost 70, but neither married nor had children, so that was it for the Tudors.
Going up and down the family tree to find an heir yielded James VI of Scotland, great-great-grandson of Henry VII, who became James I of England and the founder of the Hose of Stuart. His son Charles I was so disliked as king that Parliament literally has his head cut off and the British Isles turned into a republic12. That didn’t survive the death of its original “Lord Protector”13, and the monarchy was restored with Charles II. He failed to have children, and was succeeded by his brother James II, whom no one liked, so after just a few years he was overthrown by his son-in-law14 William of Orange15, who became William III of England and ruled jointly with his wife Mary II. They had no children and so next came Anne, James II’s other daughter. She had only once child who survived infancy, and he was sickly and died at age 11.
Now it was tricky to find a Protestant to be King. 16 There was one possibility: A German prince named George who was James I’s great-grandson. 17 He became George I and split his time between England and the Electorate (later Kingdom) of Hanover. And for a few generations, the Georges did their job, all the way down to George IV. 18 IV had only one daughter who predeceased him without issue, so he was succeeded by his brother William IV. William had no legitimate children who survived infancy, so he was succeeded by his niece, name of Victoria. You might have heard of her.19
Victoria married a prince named Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which was the original name of her descendants’ House but during WWI they changed it to Windsor to sound less German, and those are the same Windsors we read about in the tabloids today. With our modern, more enlightened views about the place of women, the royal name doesn’t change even though the latest ones inherit through their mother20, so they’ll presumably be Windsors as long as the monarchy lasts21.
- That provides roughly the same timescale as starting France with Hugh Capet. Also, going before that, I get lost in the sea of Egberts, Edmunds, and Aethelreds.
- And is clearly the inspiration for Aegon the Conqueror.
- Often played by Peter O’Toole.
- During his lifetime he was called Edward of Woodstock, but was neither of African descent nor a rock musician.
- These names may sound familiar, but GRRM switched things up by making the Lannisters resemble the Yorks and the Stark more like the Lancasters.
- Sound familiar?
- If only they’d thought to invite Henry Tudor to a wedding.
- Sir Thomas More was later martyred for adhering to the older principle that the politics of royal marriages must be mediated by the Pope.
- Two divorced, two executed, one died is childbirth, one survivor.
- For a Habsburg first cousin once removed counted as interracial.
- It’s how his grandfather became King of Spain in the first place.
- Kind of.
- Who was followed by his son, so, you know, nothing like a monarchy
- And nephew. It’s not just the Habsburgs.
- Duke of Florida
- Mary I and James II had been convincing evidence that a Catholic king ruling a country with an established Protestant Church was a bad idea.
- Speaking of dynasties, he could trace his male-line descent back to 11th and 12th century dukes of Bavaria.
- George IV’s father was the George III who was king during our Revolution. Since IV was III’s regent during the last decade of his long life; this period is called the Regency, and it’s when so many romances are set.
- Women couldn’t rule in Germany, so Hanover went to yet another brother.
- Elizabeth II
- Unless some company purchases the naming rights, I suppose. “The Northwestern Mutual Windsors”.