Royal history is a key part of British culture. Every year there are an abundance of books, TV shows and movies about the kings and queens of our past. Even those with little interest in history know something about these unique men and women. While some of our monarchs are known for their kindness, skill, or sense of duty, others have gone down in history for the wrong reasons.
1. Edward II (King of England)
Edward II’s kingship looks particularly bad compared to the successful tenures of his father and son, and historians now regard him as one of the worst monarchs in British history.
Edward’s military campaigns were far from satisfactory, especially with regard to the Wars of Scottish Independence. In June 1314 he arrived at Stirling with one of the largest armies ever assembled. Although they had a two to one advantage, the English were crushed by Robert the Bruce and his Scottish army.
Things were not helped by the Great Famine (1315-1317). The floods led to a poor surplus harvest. Infections spread among farm animals. Food prices have skyrocketed. And many people died of malnutrition or disease.
Despite the dire state of his country, Edward was too selective with his political advisers. He spent much of his time in the company of Hugh Despenser the Younger, which eventually led to a baronial revolt – known as the Despenser War – against the king.
Angered by her husband’s behavior, Queen Isabella traveled to France and plotted his downfall with her new lover, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. They raised an army and invaded England in September 1326. Edward was captured and killed the following year.
2. Henry VIII (King of England and Ireland)
The misadventures of Henry VIII and his unhappy wives are part of British history, and it’s easy to see why.
After becoming King of England in 1509 (he was not King of Ireland until 1542), Henry married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. But he still cheated on Catherine with various mistresses. And to make matters worse, the queen was unable to provide her husband with a male heir. She gave birth to only one daughter, who became Mary I.
Frustrated, Henry divorces Catherine without the Pope’s approval by creating his own church, the Church of England. He then married a dark-haired beauty named Anne Boleyn, who also failed to produce a male heir. So, without any strong evidence to back up his claims, Henry accused his wife of adultery, and she was beheaded in May 1536.
Although Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, bore him a son, she died shortly after giving birth. Hungry for more male heirs, Henry agreed to marry Anne of Cleves. But he called off the wedding after six months because he didn’t think Anne was attractive enough.
The fifth marriage was even worse. Catherine Howard turned out to be an unfaithful wife, so Henry had her beheaded in February 1542.
At that time, the king was massively overweight. He was so big he had to be carried in a sedan chair. Despite his less than ideal appearance, Henry married a sixth and final time in the summer of 1543. But Catherine Parr bore Henry no more sons, leaving him with only one male heir: Edward VI.
3. Mary I (Queen of England and Ireland)
No one can deny that Henry VIII was a selfish and bloodthirsty king, but his daughter was even worse.
Following the untimely death of Edward VI, Mary became Queen of England and Ireland in the summer of 1553. As a devout Catholic, she believed that God had put her on the throne for one reason only: to overthrow the Protestant Reformation.
She brought back Catholic rituals, banned Protestants common prayer book, and began to execute all those who rebelled against Catholicism. Indeed, groups of Protestants were routinely burned in front of large crowds. By the end of his five-year reign, 300 Protestants had been burned alive.
Many Protestants fled the country to avoid persecution, while others expressed outrage as more people were executed. Catholicism soon became synonymous with brutality and immorality. The dead became martyrs and some of their bodies were kept as sacred treasures by the Protestant community.
Because of her viciousness, Mary deserved more than her notorious nickname: Bloody Mary.
4. George IV (King of Great Britain and Ireland)
George IV spent his days pursuing one thing: pleasure. During his teenage years, he rebelled against his parents’ sobriety and developed a craving for drinking, eating, gambling, and sexual exploits.
This did not change when the young prince reached adulthood. His colorful social life resulted in a large debt (which Parliament had to pay) and he had many illegitimate children with his mistresses.
In 1810 the King sank into a decade of decline due to various health problems, and George became the Prince Regent. This increased level of responsibility did not change his attitude. The prince continued to lead a lavish life while Parliament ruled the country.
George eventually became King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1820. He had a succession of prime ministers, most of whom he disagreed with. With the Duke of Wellington, he fervently opposed major political reform and quarreled with Parliament over foreign policy.
Although George had a series of lovers throughout his life, he was a sad, lonely and overweight king at the end of his reign. He died in 1830 and was succeeded by his younger brother, William IV.
5. Edward VIII (King of the United Kingdom)
Like George IV, Edward VIII liked to misbehave. He rebelled against his father’s discipline and had little interest in politics. The young prince also embarked on a series of love affairs, developing a taste for older married women.
In 1931, he met Wallis Simpson, an American socialite who had just married a second time. The two grew closer over time, and in 1935 Edward wanted to marry her.
After the death of George V, Edward became King of the United Kingdom and he still intended to marry Wallis. But it wasn’t that simple. The potential marriage was frowned upon by the government and the Church of England. They did not want the king to marry a divorced woman whose previous husbands were still alive.
Torn between duty and love, Edward finally opted for the latter. He abdicated in December 1936, less than a year after becoming king. His brother, George VI, was forced to take up the mantle instead. Edward, now freed from the burden of royalty, married Wallis the following summer.
In October 1937, Edward and his new wife traveled to Nazi Germany. He was photographed alongside Adolf Hilter and even performed the Nazi salute several times. After World War II, the Allies discovered documents outlining the Nazis’ intention to restore Edward to the throne at the head of a fascist Britain.
Due to Edward’s connection to the Nazis, historians argue that his abdication was actually a blessing in disguise. If he had remained king, the British monarchy would have been irreparably tainted.