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.
The problems didn't end there. Charles' son, James II, had one horrible flaw in the eyes of the British: he was Catholic. He was bumped off the throne in the Glorious Revolution by William and Mary in 1688. The next year, the new monarchs signed the Bill of Rights, creating a constitutional monarchy in which royal power was limited and the monarchs were compelled to work in conjunction with Parliament.
The 1701 Act of Settlement placed further restrictions on the monarchy. It limited succession to Protestants only, so when the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, died in 1714, the throne passed to the Protestant Hanover family of Germany. The next king, George I, didn't even speak English.
The next couple centuries were an era of strength for Britain. Even though the nation lost its American colonies in the American Revolution, its empire grew and its power flourished. In 1837, the last of the Hanovers, the great Queen Victoria, assumed the throne and reigned over several prosperous decades of progress in industry, science, and technology.
The Modern Monarchy
Victoria died in 1901, and was succeeded by her son Edward VII, who ruled until 1910. At that point, George V, Edward's son, assumed the throne. Later, he took the family name Windsor. The Windsors reigned through the trials and troubles of two world wars, and while their political powers steadily declined, they increasingly became symbols of national unity and morale, true faces of the British nation. Queen Elizabeth II of the Windsor family assumed the throne in 1952.
Let's review. Remember, you don't need to know all the names mentioned in this lesson, but you should recall these main points:
- After the Romans left Britain, the rulers of many small kingdoms scrambled for power.
- I, William the Conqueror, consolidated power after my 1066 conquest, creating an absolute monarchy.
- The Plantagenet family ruled next. In 1215, one of its members, John Lackland, signed the Magna Carta, which limited the monarch's power and offered protection for his subjects.
- The Lancasters and Yorks battled for the throne during the War of the Roses in 1455-1487.
- The Tudor family provided some big-name monarchs like Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.
- During the Stuart family's era, Parliament and the Puritans rebelled, and for a while, Britain didn't even have a monarch.
- William and Mary took the throne after the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The next year, they signed the Bill of Rights, which created a constitutional monarchy.
- The 1701 Act of Settlement limited succession to Protestants only and led to the reign of the German Hanover family. The last Hanover was the great Queen Victoria.
- The Windsor family is the current royal family.
I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of the history of Britain's monarchy, guided by me, William the Conqueror.
Once you are done with this lesson you should be able to:
- Explain how William the Conqueror was able to take over the British crown
- Describe the Magna Carta
- Recall the two families involved in the War of the Roses
- List some of the more famous monarchs from the Tudor family
- State the circumstance that led to an empty throne in England
- Discuss how England became a constitutional monarchy and the purpose of the Act of Settlement
- Name the current ruling family of England