Comparing Monarchs: does it work? Does it add anything to our knowledge? Why do we do it?

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

Monarchs are often compared to each other, but does it really accomplish anything, and if so, what? Why do we do it? Elizabeth I and Mary I are often compared to each other as sisters and queens. Elizabeth II is often compared to her namesake, Elizabeth I. The wives of Henry VIII are also compared to each other, particularly the ones which replaced each other like Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.

Comparing monarchs means that individual monarchs are not taken on the basis of their own ideas and achievements, but instead compared with either a namesake or a predecessor. Individual biographies are no longer as popular as they once were as comparative histories come to the fore. Possibly some of the best known historical comparisons are between the wives of Henry VIII, on which countless books have been written of them as a unit. The most notable of these are by the likes of David Starkey, Antonia Fraser and Alison Weir. It means that Anne Boleyn is compared to both Katherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour; and that Anne Boleyn’s supposed guilt is compared to the established guilt of Katherine Howard. These comparisons won’t ever stop.

Mary I 1554 by Antonio Moro
Mary I 1554 by Antonio Moro

Similarly, Mary I and Elizabeth I are always compared. Elizabeth I is seen as the more successful, being on the throne for a much longer period of time, and her reign was known as a Golden Age. On the other hand, Mary I is seen as a destructive monarch, having killed thousands of Protestants. She lost Calais, England’s last foothold in France. She created chaos and left Elizabeth to clear it up. However, there are similarities as both lost their months and they were both declared bastards by their father and unfit to inherit the throne. Their childhood and family circumstances dictated their view of the world and how they conducted their queenship. Mary took an emotional route, which contributed to her failure, while Elizabeth hardened her heart, and made the difficult decisions, like a king would.

Similarly the reigns of England’s female monarchs are always compared because it was seen as disastrous and unnatural to leave the throne to a woman. The Empress Matilda in her civil war with Stephen is a prime example of this disaster, but the only real one in England’s history. Matilda’s example is what pushed Henry VIII to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. It has taken until the 21st century, over fifty years after the accession of Elizabeth II, for the law to be changed regarding female succession. This is even though there have been plenty of examples of successful female monarchs and regents like Isabella I in Spain and Margaret of Austria who acted as regent of the Netherlands. But it takes time for hardened opinions like this one to change.

Edward IV
Edward IV

In times of strife, people are always compared as to how they cope, like our prime ministers Gordon Brown and David Cameron in this current economic crisis. The monarchs in the 15th century (Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII) tend to be compared on how they dealt with the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII is often seen as the most successful of these monarchs as he ended the Wars with his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Richard III is often maligned, having been seen as taking the throne from the rightful king, Edward V and killing the Princes in the Tower, though this has never been proven. Henry VI technically began the wars, although it was more the fact that he was unable to lead rather than that he was bad at it. It is often seen as more the fault of his wife, Margaret of Anjou, than him. Edward IV’s contribution to history is often overlooked. His wife, the Lancastrian commoner Elizabeth Woodville, tends to be the focus. However, Edward’s reign, especially after the death of the Earl of Warwick at Barnet in 1471, was generally a time of peace and prosperity in England, and no doubt the people’s desire for this again helped Henry VII overthrow Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.

We often compare monarchs because it can add to our knowledge. We hope that comparisons will dredge up something new, and that comparisons could mean a new view or argument brought into the historical sphere. Partly, historians compare monarchs because it means a new angle for research. This opens up the future of history, rather than the more traditional biographies and political histories.

Comparing monarchs can give us an insight into which were more successful in some respects, but often the more successful ones seem to be the ones not remembered, as it suggests that the country was at peace and prosperous, rather than at war and notorious. In general, however, you have to take each monarch on their own failings and merits to make an informed opinion based on the times in which they lived, which were different in each circumstance.

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