Delenda Est Carthago

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Top Ten Day: My favorite English monarchs

I mentioned in passing that I might do this as a Top Ten list, and Chris Black encouraged me to do so, so here it is! I should point out that these are not necessarily the monarchs I think are the best people to rule England and the other British kingdoms, but these are the monarchs who ruled during the times I find most interesting. That's why you'll find quite possibly the two worst English kings on this list! So, in chronological order:

1. Alfred the Great, ruled 871-899. Technically, Alfred was only king of Wessex, because this was before "England" existed, but by 870, the Vikings (Danish ones) had overrun the other independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and only Wessex remained. Alfred managed to hold off the Danes during his kingship and even expanded his borders at their expense. He also encouraged literacy in his kingdom, learned Latin, and established a series of "burhs" - fortresses - throughout the land, whence we get the word "borough." He promulgated a law code (which wasn't that big a deal, as kings promulgated law codes as often as they bathed - say, once every five years) and tried hard to establish a bureaucracy so that the government could function better. He's also the only English king to be called "the Great."

2. Æthelstan, ruled 924-939. I'm not sure why I like Æthelstan so much (it might have something with the cool dipthong at the front of his name, but probably not). I remember reading about him when I was in school and thinking he was pretty neat. He's generally regarded as the first king of "England," as he united some of the independent kingdoms left over after the Danes got through with them and expanded the boundaries of Anglo-Saxon rule to their biggest extent at the time. He also defeated an alliance of Vikings and Scots at the Battle of Brunanbruh, which secured Anglo-Saxon dominance over the island and forced the Scots to remain up north, holding all the shitty land.

3. Stephen, ruled 1135-1154. I became interested in Stephen after reading Sharon Kay Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept, which is a novelization of the time period. Stephen is in the running for worst English king ever, but there seems to be something likeable about him, which ill-suited him for kingship. He wanted people to like him, but he couldn't get people to respect him. His rival for the throne, Matilda (the daughter of Henry I), battled him for years in a civil war (England has had more civil wars than just the one we call the English Civil War), and eventually secured the throne for her son, Henry II. He's next!

4. Henry II, ruled 1154-1189. Henry is the founder of the so-called "Angevin Empire," because he was not only heir to the throne of England (after negotiating with Stephen for that), but he was count of Anjou as well (his father was Geoffrey of Anjou). Even before ascending to the crown of England, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, making him lord of most of southern France and more powerful than the French king. Henry's reign is fascinating because of his marriage to the strong-willed Eleanor, one of the most interesting people in history, and his subsequent troubles with his sons, Richard and John. Henry began the long conquest of Ireland and quarreled with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to Thomas's murder in the cathedral in 1170. Much of English history, for good or bad, stems from Henry's reign (the struggled for supremacy between crown and church; the Irish mess; the involvement with French politics). And, of course, it led to a great movie, The Lion in Winter. What more can you ask for?

5. Henry III, ruled 1216-1272. Henry is probably the absolute worst king in English history, but all this means is, like Stephen's reign, the time he ruled is very, very interesting. He became king at the age of 9, which is often not a good thing, and showed himself relatively unsuited for rule by the time he seized control of the crown, in 1227. He was extremely pious and got England involved in papal politics, which led to some very foolish ideas on his part, like accepting the crown of Sicily and trying to seize the island. He also tried to ignore Magna Carta, which led to the first great rebellion in English history of the barons against the monarchy, led by Simon de Montfort. I have spoken of my interest in de Montfort before, as he did more for the establishment of English parliamentary democracy than almost anyone else without receiving much credit, probably because for a time, he ruled England as autocratically as anyone ever did. Henry's reign is interesting largely because of the power politics between de Montfort and Edward, who became king in 1272.

6. Edward III, ruled 1327-1377. The seven Edwards who have ruled England are all fascinating in their own rights (except Edward V, who was deposed and died pretty quickly), but the third is my favorite of them. Edward I fought wars against the Welsh and Scots, Edward II got a bit too friendly with his male advisors and ended up with a hot poker in an uncomfortable place, but Edward III started the Hundred Years' War, which is quite interesting to study. At Crécy in 1346 he unleashed a new weapon of mass destruction, longbow archers, who cut down the French in waves and heralded a new, more egalitarian form of warfare (Crécy is one of those battles that changes history but is often ignored, not by military historians, but by people who want to talk about Agincourt all the time), and ten years later, his son, Edward the Black Prince (who died a year before his father, which caused no small amount of grief for the English because the succession was thrown into a bit of a tizzy), captured the French king Jean II and held him for ransom. It had been two hundred years since England had so dominated France, but it didn't last. Edward is also well-known for founding the Order of the Garter, and apparently he was fascinated by King Arthur and the Round Table stories.

7. Richard III, ruled 1483-1485. Richard, the last king of the House of York, remains a fascinating character because of his potential and the fact that he has been so besmirched by Tudor propaganda it's difficult to separate fact from fiction with regard to his reign. It appears, after years of people trying to resurrect his reputation, that there's little doubt he had his young nephews (aged 13 and 10) killed in the Tower of London, but whenever people start calling him a monster, they should remember all the other kings who had children put to death for similar reasons and are remembered as "good" kings (I'm not saying it's right, I'm just pointing out that he wasn't the only one who did it). Richard appears to have seized the throne for all the right reasons and quickly grown power-mad, despite some reforms during his reign. If he had managed to defeat Henry Tudor at Bosworth in 1485, history would have been much different. It's a great counterfactual of England, and makes Richard, despite his problems, an interesting tragic figure.

8. Elizabeth I, ruled 1558-1603. There's not much I can say about Elizabethan England without writing several thousand books, so let's just say her reign is a favorite because of all the neat things that happened during it. I wrote a research paper on the Elizabethan secret service once, and that's a hundred books right there.

9. Charles II, ruled 1660-1685. Charles Stuart is interesting for a number of reasons, most of them seemingly contradictory. Maybe the most famous thing about him is his libertine lifestyle and patronage of the arts, which clashed with his autocratic nature. He had dozens of illegitimate sons but no male heir, which left the throne to his brother, James. That didn't go well. He may have secretly been a Roman Catholic, and he definitely converted on his deathbed. He apparently liked wars, even though his father had been executed in one and he had been forced to flee. I know little about Charles's reign, and always think I should learn more. How can he be a favorite if I don't know much about him? Because he intrigues me, which is more than the Hanoverians do.

10. Victoria, ruled 1837-1901. Yes, I know it's boring to have Elizabeth I and Victoria on a list like this, but come on! Victorian England and the world of the mid- to late-nineteenth century is endlessly riveting, and Victoria stands at the center of it. Whether it's arguing with prime ministers, covering up the Jack the Ripper crimes (she'd never do that, would she?), having wild sex with a Scottish attendant, or just being the sun in the English universe, Victoria and her age are always interesting.

So that's my list. Yes, it's a bit medieval-heavy, but hey, I'm a medievalist. Just be glad I didn't list Penda of Mercia or Offa (of Offa's Dyke fame) or the greatest English monarch ever, Æthelred the Unready! Now there's a king!

Who's your favorite English monarch? You know you have one!

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Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

Oliver Cromwell. He turned down the monarchy because it's an inherently stupid, demeaning and divisive concept.

All the ones who accepted it were some combination of elitist, vain and power-hungry.

6/10/06 1:36 AM  
Blogger layne said...

Darn, I was gonna be clever and say Cromwell, too!
Any chance of that secret service paper(Or at least an excerpt) showing up on the blog?

6/10/06 8:01 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Cromwell was a tad power-hungry as well. Sure, he wasn't a king, but he was a dictator!

I don't know, Layne - I had never thought of it. I'm not sure where it is, but if I dig it up, maybe. I'm sure the audience for that would be HUGE!

6/10/06 9:42 AM  
Blogger Onlinefocus Team said...

A good (and learned!) selection. By the way, forgive my ignorance, have you ever been to our pleasant shores?

So here are some of my favourite monarchs:

Sigeberht II, King of Essex 653-660. He was murdered by his brothers for being too friendly towards Christianity.

Alfred the Great King of Wessex 871-899. As you say, a great king and a scholar. I'd love to see what kind of a man he's be if he was reincarnated in the modern world.

Stephen - interesting guy, I know him best from the Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters.

Charles II - perhaps the monarch who'd be most fun on a night out. Intelligent too.

I'd love to write some more, but need to get some sleep!

6/10/06 12:52 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Chris - I was in England almost 30 years ago (holy crap, that long?), when I was but a wee lad. It was probably 1978, so I would have been 7. Unfortunately, I've never been back, and I'm sad about that.

6/10/06 6:06 PM  
Blogger Kelsey Ward said...

Hi I love your article! But what about Richard? the first and second. And of course King John? I was very interested in what you wrote!

20/10/06 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way the grapheme combination at the beginning of your number 2 does not represent a diphthongal pronunciation. It would represent the 'a' sound in 'cat'. But good choice nonetheless.

25/1/07 7:12 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Whoops. My bad. I always get dipthongs confused. Thanks!

25/1/07 7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you wanted to say 'Digraph', that would be ok!

26/1/07 3:57 AM  

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