I know this thread is about kings only, and those of England, but here's a related article with both kings AND queens in it, including those of Britain.
Included amongst our worst monarchs is the bigoted Protestant-murderer Mary I; the corrupt King Stephen; the psychotic Henry VIII; and James I, the big-tongued, dribbling Scotsman who sent an English hero to the scaffold to appease the Spanish. Our worst monarch? Britain's spoilt for choice...
By Andrew Roberts
(click name for more of his articles)
16th July 2008
They include, among their number, the vain, the greedy and the downright corrupt. There are adulterers, swindlers and cowards. Yet this group also shares one thing in common. In their own lifetimes, they were the most powerful individuals in the land.
English Heritage has just conducted a poll to find Britain's Most Useless Monarch and it's a pretty crowded field. The eventual 'winner' has just been announced as George IV. His lazy, spendthrift nature and unpleasantness to his wife Queen Caroline seems to have won him the accolade.
But so terrible have many of our kings and queens been that a closer look at their misrule serves to illustrate just how blessed we are to live in a more enlightened age. So here, in ascending order of uselessness, is my own list of those who have disgraced the throne. Morally suspect monarchs: King Stephen (l) was corrupt, Mary Tudor (c) was bigoted, and Henry VIII (r) was psychotic
No. 10 is James I, who has been described as a 'foul-mouthed, conceited pacifist without royal dignity'. This was particularly proved when he kissed one of his male favourites full on the lips during his own coronation. It couldn't have been a pleasant experience, because historians report that due to some physiological abnormality the king's tongue was too big for his mouth, and kept lolling out.
It was James who sent the great Elizabethan seafaring hero Sir Walter Raleigh to the scaffold in order to appease the Spanish, and filled his government with Scottish friends he had brought south with him, to the exclusion of better-qualified Englishmen. (Remind you of anyone in power today?) If anyone deserved a Gunpowder Plot against him in 1605, it was James.
But we are often better off with the devil we know. Because coming in at No. 9 is James's grandson, James II, who failed to learn the lesson of the English Civil War - which had cost his father, Charles I, his head - and continued to believe in the Divine Right of Kings.
By trying to force Roman Catholicism on to the British Isles, he deservedly lost his throne in 1688, and in a fit of pique he dropped the Great Seal of England into the River Thames as he fled London for France, idiotically believing that this would somehow prevent his son-in-law (and nephew) and daughter, William and Mary, from governing successfully.
At least James II did not manage to plunge his country into a particularly long civil war, like No 8 on my list, King John (1167-1216), who fought against his own barons, on one occasion so disastrously that he lost his baggage train in quicksand in the Wash. Two more candidates for Britain's Most Useless Monarch: George IV (l) was indolent, while Edward VIII (r) was petulant
'John was a bad character,' writes one chronicler. 'His country had some experience of his selfcentred double-dealing. Nobody with sense trusted him. It followed that his unsanctioned promises were worthless.'
He is best remembered for the Magna Carta, which enshrined many freedoms we still enjoy today but which he had to be forced to sign by his nobles.
Yet at least John stayed on the throne, unlike our No. 7, Edward VIII, a profoundly irresponsible monarch who put his love affair with Mrs Simpson before his duty to the Empire.
Knowing that he was going to abdicate the next month, Edward nonetheless outrageously told the unemployed miners of South Wales in November 1936 that: 'Something should be done to get them at work again.' This raised hope among them that the Government might save their jobs, which Edward knew was not the case.
Edward VIII was not a psychopathic murderer, however, unlike No. 6, an appropriate position for Henry VIII as it was also the number of wives he had, most of whom he harried, bullied and generally maltreated. To behead not one but two wives, and to invent the whole concept of divorce in order to get shot of two more, would win Henry a place in any list of rogues.
But it was his cruel, cynical brutality towards everyone who crossed him in life - male as well as female - that makes Henry VIII particularly unpleasant. When he knew he was dying, he had the handsome, intelligent young poet the Earl of Surrey executed beforehand, supposedly for treason, but really because he was jealous of his looks, talent and charm.
Henry was a strong monarch, however, unlike the utterly pathetic bisexual Edward II and Richard II, who tie for fourth place. Edward II scandalised the court and angered his father Edward I by his passionate attachment to the courtier Piers Gaveston, whose greed and arrogance was plain to everyone, except the besotted Edward.
After Gaveston was assassinated by the nobles, Edward became infatuated with another courtier, Hugh Despenser, on to whom he lavished land and riches.
When finally Despenser fell from power in January 1327, Edward II was captured and killed at Berkeley Castle, reputedly by the insertion of a red-hot poker into his rectum, in order to conceal the murder. A nasty way to go, but if anyone deserved it, it was he.
Tying at joint fourth is Richard II, who just like Edward II, fell under the influence of a disastrous favourite, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who historians record was 'a silly, vain, irresponsible man'.
It was in Richard II's time that disastrous foreign adventures bankrupted the government, causing him to try to raise the hated poll tax, which led to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
And so we arrive at the finalists in our royal gallery of shame. In third place comes English Heritage's top choice, George IV, whose self-indulgence, hatred of his kindly father, 'mad' George III (who wasn't actually mad but suffered from the blood disease porphyria), swinishness to his (admittedly dreadful) wife Princess Caroline, and appalling over-spending during straitened times, meant that the newspapers openly celebrated his death in 1830.
Indolent and obese (he was nicknamed 'the Prince of Whales'), his scandalous private life - he married his mistress illegally - and his refusal to allow his wife to attend his 1821 coronation (she hammered on the closed doors of Westminster Abbey begging to be let in) held up the monarchy to widespread ridicule.
In second place comes Mary Tudor (1516-1558), who cruelly burned at the stake no fewer than 300 Protestants - each execution having her personal sanction. A puppet ruler for her hated religious fanatic husband, Philip II of Spain, Bloody Mary was responsible for the burning to death of the saintly Bishop Nicholas Ridley and the preacher Hugh Latimer. For these and other crimes, she deserves the dishonour of being our worst ever queen.
In my opinion, however, the most useless British monarch of all time was someone of whom few have even heard. King Stephen usurped his uncle Henry I's throne in 1135, outmanouevring both his own elder brother Theobald and the rightful heir, Henry's daughter the Empress Matilda.
He seized the Treasury, crowned himself, gave Cumbria to the Scots to buy them off, paid Danegeld to appease the Danes and then plunged England into a series of four civil wars (known as The Anarchy) between 1138 and 1154. These left the country ravaged, impoverished and weaker than at any other time before or since.
It is a doleful list of cruelty, disaster and failure. But we should remember that monarchy is, by its very nature, something of a lottery. And just as Britain has had the misfortune to endure some very bad rulers, so too have we enjoyed some truly great ones.
Indeed, we are particularly blessed to have a reigning monarch today who undoubtedly stands in the top five, alongside such illustrious predecessors as Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Edward III, George V and George III. Hard-working, devout, dutiful, good-natured and respected throughout the world, the Queen is everything a nation looks for in a head of state.
If she has her mother's longevity - and there is every indication from her state of health that she does - she will beat Queen Victoria's record reign of 63 years, seven months and three days on the throne, on September 16, 2015.
If monarchy's a lottery, our age may just have struck the jackpot.
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