UK Monarchs: The Top 10
- Elizabeth II (1952 – 2015+) 63 years 9 months*
- Victoria (1837 – 1901) 63 years 7 months
- George III (1760 – 1820) 59 years 3 months
- Henry III (1216 – 1272) 56 years 0 months
- Edward III (1327 – 1377) 50 years 4 months
- Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) 44 years 4 months
- Henry VI (1422 – 1461;1470-71) 39 years 0 months
- Henry VIII (1509 – 1547) 37 years 9 months
- Henry II (1154 – 1189) 34 years 6 months
- Edward I (1272 – 1307) 34 years 4 months
- George II (1727 – 1760) 33 years 4 months
*as at 6 November 2015
She’s top of the charts….
Her Majesty may never have aspired to it, but finally this year she did make it to No.1.
Thirty years ago, in June 1985, she climbed into the Top 10 of English monarchs. She has been steadily working her way to the summit ever since.
The Top 10 throws up several points of interest.
Firstly, being an English monarch has historically offered more job security than may have been imagined. Ironically, the position seems to have been even more secure during the belligerent and regicidal Middle Ages. Four of the Top 10 monarchs are Plantagenets, two are Tudors, one is from the House of Lancaster and only three are from more recent lineages: two from the House of Hanover, and one, the Queen, from the House of Windsor.
Of course, those medieval monarchs did enjoy a significant advantage over their modern successors: the non-availability of tobacco. All UK monarchs between Victoria and our own Queen died prematurely as a result of smoking-related illnesses.
Half of the top six are women. In view of the fact that the Succession to the Crown Act, which scrapped the historic law of male primogeniture, was passed only in 2013, this is truly remarkable.
Clearly, III is a highly desirable regnal number; all the Kings in the top five are IIIs.
Henry III assumed the throne after Magna Carta and his father’s (King John’s) failures. He stumbled through defeats abroad (to the French) and at home (losing the Battle of Lewes to Simon de Montfort and the barons), oppressed the Jews and lasted an improbably long time. Shakespeare didn’t consider him worthy of a play and, as Wikipedia puts it, he now has ‘only a minimal role in modern popular culture’.
Edward III led England into the Hundred Years’ War and saw parliament divided into two houses, with the Commons meeting separately from the clergy and nobility. In order to address the labour shortages caused by the Black Death he passed the Statute of Labourers that led, four years after his death, to the Peasants’ Revolt.
George III lost the colonies in the United States, although his subjects appeared much more grateful that he defeated the French, both in the Seven Years’ War and then in the even longer struggles with Napoleon.
So: Charles III? Perhaps, though the rumours are that he regards both the previous Charles as having set such poor examples of kingship (the second, the Merry Monarch who fathered twelve illegitimate children; the first, the ultimate loser whose defeat in the English Civil War led to the abolition of the monarchy and his own execution for high treason) that he would prefer to become George VII.
Prince Harry – or, to give him his correct title, Prince Henry of Wales – is now only fifth in line to the throne, so presumably these matters will never be of personal concern to him; but, if ever they were, he’d be encouraged to note that Henrys seem to have staying power; four of them have made it into the Top 10.
The Top 10 would be significantly altered if account were taken of the actual time that the ruler reigned, and as a fully compos mentis monarch, rather than the simple accession-to-death timespan.
For example, when the Queen became Elizabeth II she was abroad in Kenya, but she straight away returned to the UK.
By contrast, when Edward I heard his father had died in 1272 he was on the ninth crusade to the Holy Land. He didn’t hurry back. If his term was calculated from the time when he did set foot in Britain again, two years later, he would be relegated from the Top 10.
Nevertheless, as things stand, he and his father, Henry III, hold the record for the longevity of two consecutive reigns (ninety years). Astonishingly, it is a record that has lasted more than 700 years.
That record, though, would also have a whole decade shaved from it if the length of Henry III’s reign was measured from when he actually assumed control, in January 1227, rather than when he became King as a nine-year-old in 1216.
At just nine months, Henry VI was the youngest person ever to succeed to the throne of England. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1429, a month shy of his eighth birthday, and was then crowned King of France, or parts of it, in Notre Dame just after his tenth birthday. However, he was only declared of age in 1437, when he was fifteen.
The Wars of the Roses commenced during his reign, and he was deposed in March 1461 after the Battle of Towton, which was fought on Palm Sunday in a snowstorm.
That was the archetypal knights-in-armour battle and, with 28,000 killed, was the bloodiest ever fought on English soil. Visitors to the site today discover that this momentous occasion in UK history is commemorated by… virtually nothing at all. Heads at the Department of Culture (DCMS) should hang in shame.
Henry was briefly restored to power in 1470, before the Yorkists won the Battle of Tewkesbury and ended the Lancastrian line. Henry was confined to the Tower of London where he was killed, no doubt on the orders of Edward IV.
Still, Henry can derive satisfaction from the fact that he was the only King whom Shakespeare deemed worthy of three plays.
A deeply pious man, he suffered several bouts of insanity, including for the entire year of 1454, so if one deducts those terms, together with the period of his infancy, then he too drops out of the Top 10.
If either he or Edward I were to be demoted, then George II, who lost his place in the Top 10 in 1985, would be restored to it.
In many respects, that seems merited: his coronation still has resonance today, because Handel wrote Zadok the Priest for it; and he was, in 1743, the last British monarch to lead an army in battle. This was at Dettingen during the Austrian War of Succession.
The battle was notable for the fact that each side agreed beforehand that the wounded who fell into enemy hands would be cared for and not maltreated. The agreement was respected and is now held to be the precursor to the Geneva Convention. At the time, however, it stood in complete contrast to the actions of George’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, whose troops behaved mercilessly a mere three years later after their success at the Battle of Culloden.
The other major possibility for change in the Top 10 depends on the view that is taken of George III.
During his lifetime, he actually became No.1, top of the monarchs. But, significantly, he’s known today for Alan Bennett’s work The Madness of George III (the film was retitled for release in the US, lest cinemagoers were put off by having missed the first two in the ‘Madness of George’ franchise).
George III (Nigel Hawthorne in the film) married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Helen Mirren) in September 1761 in St James’s Palace. He’d met her for the first time on their wedding day, and proponents of arranged marriages would no doubt point out that they went on to enjoy a long and happy union. He bought the Queen’s House for her (now known as Buckingham Palace).
But just how long was he actually King for?
His mental illness was so acute in 1788 that parliament passed the Regency Bill. This brought him to his senses and the following year he recovered before it was passed into law. However, by 1810 he was seriously ill again and was effectively dethroned by the Regency Act 1811 when his son, who would become George IV, took over as Prince Regent.
So if adjustments are made for the actual reigns of Henry III and George III, then Edward III would move up from No.5 to No.3 (even if his reign too would lose five years, three from the beginning, as he did not assume personal control until 1330, and two from the end, when he was infirm).
Of the others in the Top 10, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Victoria all remain cultural heavyweights today. What would novelists and film-makers do without them?
However, Henry II, the first of the Plantagenets (although some historians place him and his two sons in the Angevin royal house), has lately fallen from fashion.
He was very big in the 1960s, mainly through two major films, in both of which he was played by Peter O’Toole. The first was Becket, from the play by Jean Anouilh (one of two major plays about Henry’s relationship with Thomas Becket, his troublesome priest, the other being TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral). The other ’60s film was even more successful: The Lion in Winter, about the succession after the sudden death of Henry’s eldest son, in which Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine won her another of her Oscars.
Were all the contentious points to be resolved to public satisfaction, then the Top 10 should not now change for a very long time.
If Charles acts as many of us believe that he should, and now steps aside to enable the monarchy to capitalise on the resounding international popularity of William and Kate, then William V would have every chance of making it to the higher reaches. Further, he and his grandmother would easily be able to break the longstanding record for consecutive reigns.
Of course, that all depends on Charles. Or George.
(A version of this article appears in The Oldie, 328, November 2015)