And so on Thursday the ‘Second Elizabethan Age’, the era of the second Elizabeth, came to an end in the United Kingdom. The first lasted from 1558 to 1603 (this Elizabeth was Queen of England and Ireland by the way) and was at least as eventful as the seventy years Elizabeth II served as head of state.
It is the custom in English/British historiography to indicate periods by the name of the monarch who held sway at the time. And so we also know Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian eras. These stickers are not only applied to the political history of that period, but also, for example, to fashion and architecture.
Bloodcurdling novel series
Who was the first king in this centuries-long series? Historians argue about this, of course, but the best candidate is Æthelstan (894-939). He was the grandson of the legendary King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Bernard Cromwell wrote the blood-curdling novel series about their lives The Last Kingdom which is also available on Netflix.
Those looking for hard facts about Æthelstan’s life have a harder time, because they are scarce. An important source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was kept by monks between the 9th and twelfth centuries. Also the Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of English Kings) by William of Malmesbury from the twelfth century tells us much about Æthelstan, who conquered Nothumbria from the Vikings in 927. He himself already ruled Mercia and Wessex as king, and with his northern campaign he united England under one monarch for the first time. For those who find primary sources too heavy, there is a fine biography of Æthelstan by the fluently writing historian Tom Holland.
A carpet as a comic strip
And then there was 1066, the year every British schoolchild knows. In that year, Duke William of Normandy crossed the Channel and defeated the last Anglo-Saxon king at the Battle of Hastings. That king’s name was Harold Godwinson and he was on the throne for a very short time, from January 5 to October 14, 1066. Duke William believed that Harold had promised him the English throne during a visit to Normandy. not amused when Harold took the seat himself after all.
William personally commanded the army that destroyed Hastings Harold and his followers. The best-known account of this battle is, of course, the Bayeux Tapestry, a seventy-metre-long comic that tells the story of the Norman conquest of England with a needle and thread. The depiction of Harold with an arrow in his eye is well known, but there is a lively debate about whether he was killed in this bizarre way, or was ‘just’ cut down with swords.
Study of the thread from which the arrow is made shows that it was later added to the cloth (although older holes can be seen where the arrow was located). So it could be that an arrow was already there, or that the arrow was added to it as a humiliation for Harold. The eventful year surrounding the battle of Hastings is beautifully written in the historical novel The Last English King by Julian Rathbone.
A Lion Heart
The next major development in the history of the English royal family took place in 1154, and again came from France. In that year, the Earl of Anjou became King Henry II of England. He came from the house of Plantagenet, which occupied the English throne until 1485.
The Plantagenets provided a long line of illustrious kings, the best known of whom is Richard the Lionheart (1166-1216). This king fought against everything and everyone – his own family, French, Cypriots, Mohammedans – and was a legendary figure during his lifetime. Ben Kane has completed a thrilling novel trilogy about his life this summer.
It was under the rule of Richard’s brother John the Land that English nobles first succeeded in limiting the king’s power. In the Magna Carta from 1215 the liberties and rights of (some) English subjects were recorded for the first time. That was the first important step in a centuries-long process of what you might call democratization.
For those who want to read a smooth history about this royal house, there is The Plantagenets from Dan Jones. The same historian also wrote a book on the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), the civil war in which kings succeeded each other in rapid succession until no Plantagenet was left alive.
The English also fought the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) with France during this time. Much can be read about this (and the Wars of the Roses) in Shakespeare’s historical plays. Jonathan Sumption wrote the historical reference work on this conflict in four volumes. The lover of primary sources can visit theChronicles by Jean Froissart.
The king of six wives
After the Plantagenets killed themselves, the Welsh house of Tudor took the throne. The second king of this line was Henry VIII, a man whose love life and religious criticism have shaped English kingship to this day.
Hendrik divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Because the Pope did not approve of this, Henry embraced the Reformation and thus stood at the beginning of The Church of England, of which King Charles III (actually Karel in his Dutch) is now the patron. In the end, Hendrik would marry six times.
Hilary Mantel wrote a novel trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s most important advisor. The first two parts were awarded the Booker Prize and Mantel has masterfully managed to describe the excruciating tension of life at the court of an uninhibited king.
The English have better memories of Hendrik’s daughter Elizabeth. We encounter the reign of the ‘Virgin Queen’ in a famous novel series by Philippa Gregory, which begins in Hendrik’s time with The Other Boleyn Girl (also painted). Numerous biographies have been written about the first Elizabeth herself, of which John Guy’s (2016) focuses mainly on the last years of her life, which on closer inspection are just as exciting as the beginning of her career.
The king beheaded
After the Tudors, the Stuarts followed. King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England and Ireland in 1603. His son Charles (Karel) I collided hard with parliament. He had called it together because he needed money, but the delegates mainly used the meeting to annoy the king. Charles arrested a number of parliamentarians, after which a civil war broke out. It ended in 1649 with the beheading of the king – the only time in history that this happened. (There were plenty of other kings who were killed by violence.) Charles was succeeded by Oliver Cromwell, who called himself Lord Protector.
Much has been written about Charles, pro and con. the recent The White King by Leanda de Lisle received good reviews, partly because it focused on women in his life. An older biography of the prolific writer Christopher Hibbert is also worth reading.
After Cromwell’s death, the Stuarts returned to the throne: this period is The Restoration named. In 1688 the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange appeared in England. He was married to Mary Stuart and came to the Anglo-Irish-Scottish throne through the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Luc Panhuysen writes about it in his Orange against the Sun King.
Crazy or sick?
In 1707 arose with the Acts of Union the Kingdom of Great Britain, under Queen Anne. None of her seventeen children reached adulthood, so the second British king had to be fetched in Germany. It was George I of Hanover. He was the first of three consecutive Georges. This period of history is therefore called the Georgian Age.
George III (1738-1820) remained in power for no less than sixty years. (In 1801, the name of his state was changed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.) Under George’s rule, the country lost its colonies in North America, which became the United States. George III became mentally incompetent in the course of his life. In his recent biography, Andrew Roberts argues that the King was not insane, but suffered from severe bipolar disorder.
Even longer than George III, Victoria (1819-1901) was on the throne, more than 63 years. Her life is totally intertwined with the Victorian era that bears her name. It was a time when Britain developed into the global superpower and traded all over the world – gun in hand. The Queen even became Empress of India in 1876.
Victoria has numerous biographers, most of them women. Lucey Worsley. Helen Rappaport and Julia Baird recently described her life. The latter claims, incidentally, that the queen was not quite as prudish as the adjective ‘victorian’ now suggests. Daisy Goodwin let her imagination run wild about this in a historical novel and was also the brain behind the TV series Victoria from 2016.
Divorced American Lady
George V had been on the throne for 25 years when he died in 1936. He was succeeded by his son Edward VIII. His time on the throne was short, as a huge scandal broke out around him. Edward wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, an American lady who was about to get divorced for the second time. The British press kept the matter secret for a long time, but American and European journalists knew how to deal with this affair.
British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin informed Edward that he could not remain king if he chose Wallis. His role within the church did not allow that. Edward then decided to give up the throne after only 326 days. It makes him the shortest reigning British monarch. Edward and Wallis paid another visit to Adolf Hitler in 1937, including a Nazi salute, with which they again failed to win over the British people.
Philip Ziegler wrote the definitive biography of this black sheep. Anna Pasternak recently spoke up for Wallis Simspon, who would not have been so cunning if she has been handed down in British historiography.
After the abdication of Edward VIII, Elizabeth’s father George VI came to the throne. He stuttered, as we know from the movie The King’s Speech, but led the United Kingdom through World War II along with Winston Churchill. He died in 1952 and was succeeded by Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday. She was the twelfth British and 61st English queen, about whom numerous biographies have been published. It appeared this year Queen of Our Times by Robert Hardman is a huge bestseller.
It is now up to Charles III to write the next chapter in this millennial history.