The History and Power of the British Monarchy

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  • 1:04 The Norman Invasion
  • 2:08 The Magna Carta
  • 2:56 Lancaster, York, and Tudor
  • 4:25 Challenges for the Monarchy
  • 6:03 The Modern Monarchy
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the history of the British monarchy from its early days to modern times. We will pay special attention to the ways in which the monarch's power has changed throughout the centuries.

An Ancient Institution

My name is William I, but you probably know me better as William the Conqueror because I conquered Britain in 1066 C.E. and became a powerful king. I'm here to take you on a whirlwind tour of the history and changing power of the British monarchy. Don't worry if you don't remember every monarch I talk about - just get a feel for the overall patterns and powers of the monarchy. You'll end up remembering more than you think.

Let's start at the beginning. The crumbling Roman Empire pulled out of Britain in about 408 C.E., leaving behind a scramble for power among the rulers of various little kingdoms throughout the island. Soon kings stepped up who were strong enough to consolidate their power and expand their domains. Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871-899 C.E., was one of these. He was part of the House of Wessex, and his descendants continued the process of uniting Britain, but they were never fully successful.

The Norman Invasion

That's where I, William the Conqueror, stepped in. I knew an opportunity when I saw one, and in 1066, Britain had a brand new, very weak king by the name of Harold. He was not too hard to brush out of the way, and I came over from Normandy, in France, and did just that, defeating him at the Battle of Hastings.

I was crowned on Christmas Day of 1066, and I immediately proceeded to increase my power, confiscating land from stubborn nobles, maintaining an army, compiling the Domesday Book, which was a survey of lands for tax purposes, creating lots of knights and keeping people loyal, helping the Catholic Church take a firmer hold on Britain, working to improve the legal system, and setting up a bureaucracy.

I made myself a king in the truest sense of the word. I was an absolute monarch, for my word was law, and everyone swore allegiance to me. Unfortunately, my dynasty only lasted a bit under a hundred years, through a couple of sons, a nephew, and a granddaughter. Those young whippersnappers just didn't know how to rule.

The Magna Carta

Next came the monarchs of the Plantagenet family. There were 14 of them from Henry II, who ruled in 1154-1189, all the way up to Richard II, who ruled in 1377-1399. The famous Richard the Lionheart, that great crusader, was one of the Plantagenets, as was John Lackland, who wasn't well liked at all. In fact, John had a tendency to tick off the nobles, and they rebelled quite successfully.

In fact, on June 15, 1215, they forced John to sign the document that would become known as the Magna Carta. It put some major limits on old John's power, making the king subject to the law, providing protections for his subjects, and assuring the nobles that they would keep their lands and have a say in the government.

Lancaster, York, and Tudor

Over the next 200 years, three royal houses dominated and frequently fought over the British throne. The Lancaster family ruled from 1399 when Henry IV took the throne from his Plantagenet cousin Richard II. The War of the Roses, which lasted from 1455-1487, pitted the Lancasters, symbolized by a red rose, against the York family, represented by a white rose. The Yorks came out on top for a couple decades, beginning with Edward IV, who snatched the throne in 1461.

After his death in 1483, his brother, the brutal Richard III, stole the throne from Edward's son, leading to the famous story of the two little princes locked up in the Tower of London and brutally murdered. Richard, however, got his comeuppance from the young Henry VII, who killed Richard at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, and established the reign of the Tudor family. You've certainly heard of them.

They provided some big-name monarchs: Henry VIII, the fellow who kept divorcing and beheading his wives because he wanted a male heir and who broke with the Catholic Church and made himself head of the Church of England; Mary I, the Catholic queen who killed so many Protestants that she earned the nickname 'Bloody Mary;' and Elizabeth I, the powerful queen who ruled during the height of the British Renaissance in the days of Shakespeare and empire building.

Challenges for the Monarchy

Elizabeth, however, died without heirs, and the Scottish King James I of the Stuart family assumed the throne in 1603. His descendants faced a rocky road. His son Charles I was beheaded in an uprising of Parliament and the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell in 1649. For a while, England didn't even have a monarch; it had a Protectorate under Cromwell, but that fell apart when Cromwell died. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.

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