Greatest Monarchs in British History
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Greatest Monarchs in British History

Almost 70 monarchs have ruled England and Britain over a period of 1500 years. Well, British history has been blessed with many capable and charismatic monarchs. The decision as to which king or queen should be accorded the title as the greatest monarch of England has been a widely debated issue and will probably be solved. Nevertheless, the following are most certainly prime candidates for the title.

Alfred the Great (849-899)

(Statue of King Alfred at Wantage Market Square) Image source

The ruler of the English kingdom of Wessex from 871 until his death, Alfred is renowned both for his achievements in war and for his love of learning.  He was the first English monarch to improve England's defenses by systematically reorganizing his army and developing a navy in defense of his realm against the Danes, with whom he fought almost without break from 876 until his death.  Alfred also encouraged the arts and was renowned for issuing a law-code.  Just as his military triumphs saved the English nation and culture, so his contributions to learning and the legal system were a major civilizing influence on his people.  He is the only English king to be entitled 'the Great.' 

William I 'the Conquerer' (c. 1027-1087)

(William depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry) Image source

William I was the Duke of Normandy before taking the English crown in 1066.  His cousin, Edward the Confessor, had casually promised to make William his heir, but when Edward died, Harold, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, took the throne.  William defeated and killed Harold at the Battle of Hastings.  After overcoming resistance from Hereward the Wake and others, William ruled capably, creating a ruling class of Norman knights and reorganizing the land-holding system.  In 1085, he commissioned the Domesday Book, a detailed economic survey of England.

Henry II (1133-1189)

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Henry II was king of England from 1154 until his death, and the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty.  An energetic and gifted ruler, Henry controlled nearly half of France but based his empire in England.  He brought to an end the anarchy of Stephen's reign, creating an efficient civil service and introducing a system of common law which has survived until the present day.  His struggle to bring the church under royal control culminated in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170.  Henry II's later years were dogged by vicious family arguments as his sons including Richard I and John, squabbled over their inheritance.

Henry VIII (1491-1547)

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Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509.  Under the influence of his ambitious chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the first part of Henry's reign saw war against France.  When the pope refused to dissolve Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon after her failure to provide a male heir, he broke all ties with Rome and made himself head of the English Church in 1534, ushering in the English Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Henry's costly wars with France and Scotland severely undermined the English economy, but a powerful English navy was created.  Henry had begun his reign as a young monarch with a genuine interest in the blossoming of Renaissance learning, and ended it as a paranoid tyrant who blamed his mistakes on his advisers.  Yet, his reign was important, not only for the reformation of religion, but also for the centralization of national government.

Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

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Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth became queen of England and Ireland in 1558.  Her reign provided a period of stability and prosperity in which the nation flourished politically, militarily and culturally.  A shrewd ruler, Elizabeth restored Protestantism after the reign of the Catholic queen Mary I and ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587).  Elizabeth also encouraged English exploration and colonization of the New World.  Elizabeth never married, and is often called the 'Virgin Queen.'  She craftily cultivated her public image to strengthen her personal rule.  The epithet 'Good Queen Bess' is a manifestation of her popularity with her subjects and the prosperity which England enjoyed under her rule.

Victoria (1819-1901)

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Queen of United Kingdom and its dominions from 1837, Victoria succeeded her uncle William IV during whose reign the political influence of the Crown declined.  By the time of her death, Victoria had restored the popularity of the monarchy.  Her reign saw the benefits of the Industrial Revolution: the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a testimony to its success.  The family life of the monarch became the foundation of the 'Victorian Era,' along with the moral virtues of thrift, industry and respectability, which sprang from the era of prosperity between the 1850s and the 1870s.  By the 1880s, Queen Victoria had become a symbol of the empire, and her golden and diamond jubilees (in 1887 and 1897) were great imperial occasions.  Her death ended in an era in which Britain had become the world's leading industrial power.

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Comments (4)

This is a great article. Well done. I do not have any recommendations to vote today but I will buzz it up.

Thanks for this British history info, very interesting.

Well researched and a nice history lesson.

I enjoyed reading this article, which is also a great review of British History.  Well done!