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English History, Kings and Queens

I'm Lynne Quarrell and one of my interests is history. I'm currently presenting a series of half hour programmes which cover the period from the Norman conquest to the present day.


In a society where most people weren't literate and personal records are limited, history is often the story of kings and queens and the wealthy and powerful nobles who surrounded them, intermarried with them and fought for and against them. We know very little about poor people, or even those of moderate means, but I guess then as now the rich had the opportunity to have more interesting lives if not always longer ones.


There have been 35 monarchs since the Norman Conquest if you count William and Mary separately although they held the throne jointly until her death. You could stretch it to 37 if you include Louis Capet who was invited over by the barons when they fell out with King John and turfed out after a few months but since John was in place throughout I don't think Louis should count nor have I included poor Jane Grey who only lasted days before Mary Ist imprisoned her and who died on the block at seventeen for she never had the support to make her a viable contender. I have excluded Oliver Cromwell, and his son Richard, from this list but they will get their mention in the series because although not royalty, both undoubtedly ruled the country during the period known as the Commonwealth.


There are only 14 different names at most:: Edward 8 , Henrys 8, Williams 4, Richards 3, James 2, Charles 2, Mary 2, Elizabeth 2 and one each of John, Matilda, Anne and Victoria, Louis and Jane. Not much imagination there, and pretty confusing when you get 3 Edwards or 3 Henrys on the run as well as their relatives and rivals with the same name!. Some were born abroad and not all spoke English. In the early days literacy was considered optional as Kings had other people to do the writing for them but all of the above were literate to some degree and some like the Tudors, highly educated.


28 were male. People didn't like the idea of female monarchs. Part was sheer prejudice as they believed women to be inferior in intellect, morals and resolution and part was self interest. If you eliminate half the population from a contest you have a much better chance of winning, and part of it was practical. First people believed that a woman couldn't rule alone so there was hot competition to marry them. If they married a foreign prince people feared England might fall under foreign domination but if they married an English noble all the others would be jealous. Elizabeth Ist. solved this dilemma by encouraging all manner of suitors, English and foreign, and marrying none of them. While there was a chance of getting the throne by marriage they were less likely to try to take if by war and while they bickered and speculated she got on with running the place.


Another problem was war. Tradition demanded the monarch personally take a lead in battle and the last English monarch to personally lead his troops was George the second. The prestige of both ruler and country was based on their degree of success because war was a business and fortunes could be made. William Marshall and the French knight Bertrand de Guesclin rose from relatively humble beginnings to wealth and influence, commanding armies and in the case of William Marshall to the guardianship of a future king. This was not a role that it believed that women could fulfil and certainly frequent pregnancy was a barrier although some queens still accompanied their husbands on campaign. Nerve wasn't necessarily lacking. Elizabeth Ist rallied her troops at Tilbury on the eve of the Armada and some female consorts like Margaret of Anjou and Isabella of France took the field themselves, the first on her husband's behalf and the second in opposition, although they didn't necessarily do any actual fighting. Some of our kings were a lot less feisty.


The thing about vast wealth and almost unlimited power is that it lets you be yourself. Many kings and queens had big personalities. The Plantagenets were generally intelligent, energetic, capable and brave. They often looked regal mainly being tall with reddish hair and aquiline features but they were very bad tempered. Edward Ist. reportedly gave his son and heir a public hiding on more than one occasion. Henry 2 nd was so uncontrolled that he would lie on the floor and chew the rushes in rage, not a good idea with Medieval standards of hygiene, yet both these men were able and effective rulers. The Tudors also were given to striking out and throwing things but nobody doubted their capacity.


They dressed to impress. People might ridicule the exaggerated fashions of Richard II's court but not where he could hear them. He is credited with inventing the handkerchief while the infamous King John was said to have invented the dressing gown, described as 'a robe for when the king got up in the night'. Apparently he was fussy about cleanliness had to pay extra waged because of the number of baths he took. Unfortunately cleanliness wasn't next to Godliness by all accounts .Edward IV th spent a fortune on clothes and jewellery and at six feet and three inches in height could carry it off. His grandson, Henry VIII resembled him in height and build both being lean and athletic in youth but too fond of food. They both liked women a bit too much too though Edward didn't marry them all.


Almost all married. To ensure an orderly succession and stability within the realm they needed a heir, preferably male, and some would go to extreme lengths to get one. Richard IIIrd. was rumoured to have hastened his wife's demise and considered marrying his niece. Henry VIII th famously married six times and didn't hesitate to execute two of his wives to clear the way for the next. Ironically Richard left no heir and Henry only the ailing Edward VI, th and the two daughters he had pushed to one side in order to get a son. Edward died young and both the girls succeeded with Elizabeth Ist being one of the most successful monarchs in our history but none reproduced and the throne went to the Stuarts.


Too many children could be a problem too. Edward IIIrd, a man notably faithful to his wife, at least by the standards of the time, had twelve. All had to be provided with titles and estates or glorious marriage Not so far down the line this abundance of ambitious and acquisitive people, all with some sort of claim to the throne, led to the Wars of the Roses only ending when Henry VIIth, whose claim was pretty shaky, returned from exile to defeat Richard IIIrd the last of the old Plantagenet line.


Not all managed to hang on to the throne. Seven were deposed. Three abdicated none willingly. Six were, or might have been murdered. Often the cause of death remains unknown but given the amount of time they spent at war relatively few died as a result of fighting and only one actually in battle. Gangrene and dysentery accounted for a few but most died of natural causes with heart problems and strokes being common. Given the abundance of meat and the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables it isn't that surprising. Some were said to have died of a surfeit meaning that they had eaten too much of something. For one it was lamprey, a kind of primitive fish, for another the unwise combination of peaches and beer, but illness originating in the poor hygiene of the time is the probably culprit. Mary Ist probably died of uterine or ovarian cancer, Mary II nd of smallpox and Anne of kidney failure.


Until the use of lead caskets the treatment of the dead had more in common with ancient Egypt than modern embalming but in case you're squeamish I'll keep that for another occasion and you can choose whether to read it or not.


There's a lot more to tell but I don't want to spoil all the surprises so if this whistle stop tour has whetted your appetite please listen in.