George III, Charles II, William I, James I and others


George III (1760-1820 AD)

George III was born in 1738, the first son of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Augusta. He married Charlotte of Mecklinburg-Strelitz in 1761, to whom he was devoted. The couple produced a prolific fifteen children: nine sons and six daughters. George was afflicted with porphyria, a maddening disease which disrupted his reign as early as 1765. Several attacks strained his grip on reality and debilitated him in the last years of his reign. Personal rule was given to his son George, the Prince Regent, in 1811. George III died blind, deaf and mad at Windsor Castle on January 29, 1820.

George III succeeded his grandfather, George II, in 1760 (Frederick, Prince of Wales, had died in 1751 having never ruled). George was determined to recover the prerogative lost to the ministerial council by the first two Georges; in the first two decades of the reign, he methodically weakened the Whig party through bribery, coercion, and patronage. Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder was toppled by Whigs after the Peace of Paris, and men of mediocre talent and servile minds were hand-picked by George as Cabinet members, acting as little more than yes-men. Bouts with madness and the way he handled the American Revolution< eroded his support and the power of the Crown was granted again to the Prime Minister.

The Peace of Paris (1763) ended the Seven Years’ War with France, with the strenuous, anti-French policies of the elder Pitt emphasizing naval superiority in the colonial warfare. Great Britain emerged from the conflict as the world’s greatest colonial power. England thrived under peacetime conditions, but George’s commitment to taxing the American colonies to pay for military protection led to hostilities in 1775. The tax situation, coupled by a belief in the colonies that the Parliament was not listening to American concerns, lead to Revolution. The colonists proclaimed independence in 1776, but George obstinately continued the war until the final American victory at Yorktown in 1781. The Peace of Versailles, signed in 1783, ensured British acknowledgment of the United States of America. The defeat cost George dearly: his sanity was stretched to the breaking point and his political power decreased when William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister in 1783. George reclaimed some of his power, driving Pitt from office from 1801-04, but his condition worsened again and he ceased to rule in 1811.

The peace following the French war settlement was short-lived. A mere ten years later, England joined a continental alliance against French revolutionary forces who, after gaining power in France, sought total French hegemony across Europe. By 1797, the largest part of Europe was under French dominance, with England standing alone against the revolutionary Republic. The British Navy again proved decisive, defeating French forces at Camperdown, Cape St. Vincent, and the Battle of the Nile in 1797, and finally at Copenhagen in 1801. Peace was negotiated at Amiens in 1802, with the French supreme on land and the British at sea. Napoleon Bonaparte seized supreme power in France at the turn of the century and renewed attacks against England in 1803. Hostilities with France lasted until 1814 taking several forms. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, led the land attack; the navy, commanded by Lord Horatio Nelson won the decisive battle off Cape Trafalgar, and imposed a blockade of Europe to offset Napoleon’s ” continental system” which was forbidden from importing British goods; and the younger Pitt guided the government through the hardships of total war. In addition to the continental conflict, England went to war again with the United States between 1812-14, over the British practice of pressing American seamen into service in the British Navy. Both conflicts were resolved in 1814; Napoleon was deposed and England agreed not to abscond with American sailors. Napoleon returned to Europe briefly in 1815 but was soundly defeated by continental forces led by Wellington.

Other events and people also marked the reign. A second Act of Union was passed in 1801, bringing Ireland under the umbrella of Great Britain until the Government of Ireland Act (1920) established the modern arrangement. Slave trade was abolished in 1807, although slavery continued in British colonies until 1833. Population increases, improvements in agricultural and industrial methods, and a revolution in transportation spurred British economic growth. English literature was graced by some of its best-known authors: Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats were among the writers of the era.

George’s madness ultimately left the fate of the crown on his eldest son George, Prince Regent. Prince George was put in the daunting position of attempting to govern according to the increasingly erratic will of his father. A letter received by novelist E. M. Frostier from his aunt, Marine Thornton, describes the situation: “… there he was sitting on the Throne with his King’s Crown on, his robes scarlet and ermine, and held his speech written out for him, just what he had to say. But, oh dear, he strode up and made a bow and began “My Lords and Peacocks’. The people who were not fond of him laughed, the people who did love him cried, and he went back to be no longer a king, and his eldest son reigned in his stead”.

Charles II (1660-85 AD)

Charles II, second son of Charles I and Henrietta Marie of France, was born in 1630. He spent his teenage years fighting Parliament’s Roundhead forces until his father’s execution in 1649, when he escaped to France. He drifted to Holland, but returned to Scotland in 1650 amid the Scottish proclamation of his kingship; in 1651, he led a Scottish force of 10,000 into a dismal defeat by Cromwell’s forces at Worcester. He escaped, but remained a fugitive for six weeks until he engineered passage to France. Charles roamed Europe for eight years before being invited back to England as the Commonwealth dissolved. He married Catherine of Braganza, but sired no legitimate children. His oldest child, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, made a failed bid to capture the crown at the time of his father’s death and was executed by James II, brother of Charles II and Uncle to Monmouth. Charles II died in February 1685 from complications following a stroke.

Charles arrived in London to claim the throne on his 30th birthday, May 29, 1660. He was extremely tolerant of those who had condemned his father to death: only nine of the conspirators were executed. He was also tolerant in religious matters, but more from political wisdom than overwhelming morality. England was overjoyed at having a monarch again. However, royal powers and privileges had been severely limited by Parliament. He was forced to fund his administration from customs taxes and a healthy pension paid to him by France’s Louis XIV. Royal prerogative, the soul of the Tudor monarchs, James I and Charles I, had all but vanished. This moment was a turning point in English political history, as Parliament maintained a superior position to that of the king, and the modern concept of political parties formed from the ashes of the Cavaliers and Roundheads. The Cavaliers evolved into the Tory Party, royalists intent on preserving the king’s authority over Parliament, while the Roundheads transformed into the Whig Party, men of property dedicated to expanding trade abroad and maintaining Parliament’s supremacy in the political field.

The first decade of Charles’ reign was beset by many problems. Defeat at the hands of the Dutch in a mishandled war over foreign commerce cost him domestic support. The Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in the following year left much of the city in ruins. In 1667, the Dutch sailed up the Medway, sunk five battleships and towed the Royal Charles back to Holland. King and Council were ridiculed for not having enough interest in the affairs of government.

The 1670’s saw Charles’ forging a new alliance with France against the Dutch. French support was based on the promise that Charles would reintroduce Catholicism in England at a convenient time – apparently, that convenient time never came, as Charles did nothing to bring England under the Catholic umbrella, although he made a deathbed conversion to the Roman faith. The Whigs used Catholicism to undermine Charles; England was in the throes of yet another wave of anti-Catholicism, with the Whigs employing this paranoia in an attempt to unseat the heir apparent, Charles’ Catholic brother James, from succeeding to the throne. Titus Oates, a defrocked Anglican priest, stoked the fires of anti-Catholicism by accusing the queen and her favorites of attempting to murder Charles; ten men fell prey to false witness and Oates’ manipulation of the anti-Catholic movement, and were executed. Many accused Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury and founder of the Whig Party, of inciting the anti-Catholic violence of 1679-80; this has remained one of the greatest mysteries in British history. The Whig-dominated Parliament tried to push through an Exclusion Bill barring Catholics from holding public office (and keeping James Stuart from the throne), but Charles was struck down by a fever and opinion swayed to his side. His last years were occupied with securing his brother’s claim to the throne and garnering Tory support.

Charles’ era is remembered as the time of “Merry Olde England”. The monarchy, although limited in scope, was successfully restored – the eleven years of Commonwealth were officially ignored as nothing more than an interregnum between the reign of Charles I and Charles II. Charles’ tolerance was astounding considering the situation of England at the time of his ascension, but was necessary for his reign to stand a chance at success. He was intelligent and a patron of scientific research, but somewhat lazy as a ruler, choosing to wait until the last moment to make a decision. The British attitude towards Charles II is humorously revealed in this quote from 1066 and All That: “Charles II was always very merry and was therefore not so much a king as a Monarch. During the civil war, he had rendered valuable assistance to his father’s side by hiding in all the oak-trees he could find. He was thus very romantic and popular and was able after the death of Cromwell to descend to the throne.”

James I (1603-25 AD)

James I was born in 1566 to Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. He descended from the Tudors through Margaret, daughter of Henry VII: both Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Stewart were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor. James ascended the Scottish throne upon the abdication of his mother in 1567, but Scotland was ruled by a regent until James reached his majority. He married Anne of Denmark in 1589, who bore him three sons and four daughters: Henry, Elizabeth, Margaret, Charles, Robert, Mary and Sophia. He was named successor to the English throne by his cousin, Elizabeth I and ascended that throne in 1603. James died of a stroke in 1625 after ruling Scotland for 58 years and England for 22 years.

James was profoundly affected by his years as a boy in a Scottish court. Murder and intrigue had plagued the Scottish throne throughout the reigns of his mother and grandfather (James V) and had no less bearing during James’s rule. His father had been butchered mere months after James’ birth by enemies of Mary and Mary, because of her indiscretions and Catholic faith, was forced to abdicate the throne. Thus, James developed a guarded manner. He was thrilled to take the English crown and leave the strictures and poverty of the Scottish court.

James’ twenty-nine years of Scottish kingship did little to prepare him for the English monarchy: England and Scotland, rivals for superiority on the island since the first emigration of the Anglo-Saxon races, virtually hated each other. This inherent mistrust, combined with Catholic-Protestant and Episcopal-Puritan tensions, severely limited James’ prospects of a truly successful reign. His personality also caused problems: he was witty and well-read, fiercely believed in the divine right of kingship and his own importance, but found great difficulty in gaining acceptance from an English society that found his rough-hewn manners and natural paranoia quite unbecoming. James saw little use for Parliament. His extravagant spending habits and nonchalant ignoring of the nobility’s grievances kept the king and Parliament constantly at odds. He came to the throne at the zenith of monarchical power, but never truly grasped the depth and scope of that power.

Religious dissension was the basis of an event that confirmed and fueled James’ paranoia: the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes and four other Catholic dissenters were caught attempting to blow up the House of Lords on a day in which the king was to open the session. The conspirators were executed, but a fresh wave of anti-Catholic sentiments washed across England. James also disliked the Puritans who became excessive in their demands on the king, resulting in the first wave of English immigrants to North America. James, however, did manage to commission an Authorized Version of the Bible, printed in English in 1611.

The relationship between the king and Parliament steadily eroded. Extravagant spending (particularly on James’ favorites), inflation and bungled foreign policies discredited James in the eyes of Parliament. Parliament flatly refused to disburse funds to a king who ignored their concerns and were annoyed by rewards lavished on favorites and great amounts spent on decoration. James awarded over 200 peerages (landed titles) as, essentially, bribes designed to win loyalty, the most controversial of which was his creation of George Villiers (his closest advisor and companion) as Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was highly influential in foreign policy, which failed miserably. James tried to kindle Spanish relations by seeking a marriage between his son Charles and the Spanish Infanta (who was less than receptive to the clumsy overtures of Charles and Buckingham), and by executing Sir Walter Raleigh at the behest of Spain.

James was not wholly unsuccessful as the king, but his Scottish background failed to translate well into a changing English society. He is described, albeit humorously, in 1066 and All That, as such: “James I slobbered at the mouth and had favourites; he was thus a bad king”; Sir Anthony Weldon made a more somber observation: “He was very crafty and cunning in petty things, as the circumventing any great man, the change of a Favourite, &c. inasmuch as a very wise man was wont to say, he believed him the very wisest fool in Christendom.”

William I, the Conqueror (1066-1087 AD)

William, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, spent his first six years with his mother in Falaise and received the duchy of Normandy upon his father’s death in 1035. A council consisting of noblemen and William’s appointed guardians ruled Normandy but ducal authority waned under the Normans’ violent nature and the province was wracked with assassination and revolt for twelve years. In 1047, William reasserted himself in the eastern Norman regions and, with the aid of France’s King Henry I, crushed the rebelling barons. He spent the next several years consolidating his strength on the continent through marriage, diplomacy, war and savage intimidation. By 1066, Normandy was in a position of virtual independence from William’s feudal lord, Henry I of France and the disputed succession in England offered William an opportunity for invasion.

Edward the Confessor attempted to gain Norman support while fighting with his father-in-law, Earl Godwin, by purportedly promising the throne to William in 1051. (This was either a false claim by William or a hollow promise from Edward; at that time, the kingship was not necessarily hereditary but was appointed by the witan, a council of clergy and barons.) Before his death in 1066, however, Edward reconciled with Godwin, and the witan agreed to Godwin’s son, Harold, as heir to the crown – after the recent Danish kings, the members of the council were anxious to keep the monarchy in Anglo-Saxon hands. William was enraged and immediately prepared to invade, insisting that Harold had sworn allegiance to him in 1064. Prepared for battle in August 1066, ill winds throughout August and most of September prohibited him crossing the English Channel. This turned out to be advantageous for William, however, as Harold Godwinson awaited William’s pending arrival on England’s south shores, Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway, invaded England from the north. Harold Godwinson’s forces marched north to defeat the Norse at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066. Two days after the battle, William landed unopposed at Pevensey and spent the next two weeks pillaging the area and strengthening his position on the beachhead. The victorious Harold, in an attempt to solidify his kingship, took the fight south to William and the Normans on October 14, 1066, at Hastings. After hours of holding firm against the Normans, the tired English forces finally succumbed to the onslaught. Harold and his brothers died fighting in the Hastings battle, removing any further organized Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Normans. The earls and bishops of the witan hesitated in supporting William, but soon submitted and crowned him William I on Christmas Day 1066. The kingdom was immediately besieged by minor uprisings, each one individually and ruthlessly crushed by the Normans, until the whole of England was conquered and united in 1072. William punished rebels by confiscating their lands and allocating them to the Normans. Uprisings in the northern counties near York were quelled by an artificial famine brought about by Norman destruction of food caches and farming implements.

The arrival and conquest of William and the Normans radically altered the course of English history. Rather than attempt a wholesale replacement of Anglo-Saxon law, William fused continental practices with native custom. By disenfranchising Anglo-Saxon landowners, he instituted a brand of feudalism in England that strengthened the monarchy. Villages and manors were given a large degree of autonomy in local affairs in return for military service and monetary payments. The Anglo-Saxon office of sheriff was greatly enhanced: sheriffs arbitrated legal cases in the shire courts on behalf of the king, extracted tax payments and were generally responsible for keeping the peace. “The Domesday Book” was commissioned in 1085 as a survey of land ownership to assess the property and establish a tax base. Within the regions covered by the Domesday survey, the dominance of the Norman king and his nobility are revealed: only two Anglo-Saxon barons that held lands before 1066 retained those lands twenty years later. All landowners were summoned to pay homage to William in 1086. William imported an Italian, Lanfranc, to take the position of Archbishop of Canterbury; Lanfranc reorganized the English Church, establishing separate Church courts to deal with infractions of Canon law. Although he began the invasion with papal support, William refused to let the church dictate policy within English and Norman borders.

He died as he had lived: an inveterate warrior. He died September 9, 1087, from complications of a wound he received in a siege on the town of Mantes.

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” gave a favorable review of William’s twenty-one-year reign, but added, “His anxiety for money is the only thing on which he can deservedly be blamed; . . .he would say and do some things and indeed almost anything . . .where the hope of money allured him.” He was certainly cruel by modern standards and exacted a high toll from his subjects, but he laid the foundation for the economic and political success of England.


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