Monarchs are often remembered for just one or two events and this paints them as either good or bad for the rest of history. Why do we do this and how do perceptions change if you examine their reigns in their entirety?

Monarchs seem to be remembered for perhaps one or two events or actions that then define them in English history. This doesn’t seem fair, as people have both good and bad inside them, and our actions are often dictated by the circumstances in which we live, and the events that take place around us. Most of our actions have good intentions when we start out, but it doesn’t always end that way. Monarchs who are seen as good have made mistakes, and monarchs who are seen as bad have also done good things. Here I will examine Richard III, King John, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

The most eponymous “bad” monarch is Richard III, most remembered for the mysterious disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, presumed murdered by Richard himself. What people don’t always remember is that the Princes were in fact his nephews, and Richard never showed any previous inclination to take the throne, unlike his brother George Duke of Clarence.[1] The Princes’ mother, Elizabeth Woodville, didn’t seem to hold Richard accountable for their deaths and she emerged from sanctuary, putting her daughters under Richard’s protection. Either that, or she was so ambitious that she didn’t care that her brother-in-law killed her sons, and just wanted some power for herself.[2] However, if this was true, she would be sadly disappointed. Richard did a lot of positive things during his reign – he strengthened the economy and ended the wars with France.[3] He also strengthened ties with the north of England, due to his marriage to Anne Neville, daughter of a northern magnate. The bad is always remembered above the good where applicable, especially where there is so much mystery surrounding an event, like the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.

King John is always most closely associated with the Magna Carta, which we see as the foundation of the legal and political system today. However, it isn’t the triumph of the Magna Carta that is most remembered, but the struggle to get it in the first place. King John was notoriously difficult about giving any concessions – it would take too much power away from him and give some to parliament and the nobles, but the nobles didn’t want to make an agreement with him at all.[4] It was developed in the first place to create peace between an unpopular king and his rebel barons, but it failed as the annulment of the charter led to the First Barons War. King John had an opportunity to make a real difference, but instead caused war and divisions between his own people.[5] However, John was very active in the administration of England, and record keeping continued to improve during his reign. John was also very involved in justice, extending the system of coroners and listening to new legal advice and opinions. It seems that he did make some considered attempts to move England forward, but wouldn’t justify anything that intervened with his own power.[6] We may infer that he was selfish and power-hungry, but also intelligent and fair-minded.

Of all the British monarchs, two names stand out – Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII is best known for his six wives, two of whom he executed, and one of whom died in neglect. We often see Henry VIII as the caricature of his later years – “a petulant, self-obsessed teenager with a loaded revolver”.[7] However, at the beginning of his reign he was seen as a prince of great learning and one of the greatest princes in Christendom. His quest for a male heir was due to the fear of civil war. The Wars of the Roses were still in living memory, and Henry was determined that women couldn’t rule – he needed a son to follow him on the throne. The Break with Rome also came out of this need, and this is the other thing for which Henry VIII is most remembered. He patronised great men like Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell who changed the English legal and political system. Wolsey rose in the church before becoming Henry’s Lord Chancellor, and he was the one who patronised Cromwell.[8] Parliament gained a greater hand in affairs of state during this period, and Henry also embarked on great building projects in the new Renaissance style, some of which are still standing today.[9] His bad characteristics tended to come out of his obsessive quest for a son to succeed him, but it wouldn’t be his son who would be remembered as a great monarch, but his daughter, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth I coronation portrait c.1610 copy of a lost original
Late 16th Century portrait of Richard III, housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

Elizabeth I is perhaps England’s greatest monarch. She proved that women could rule, and didn’t need the guiding hand of a man to aid her. She oversaw England’s development into an important player on the international stage, which had previously been dominated by Spain and France. Her greatest triumph is always seen as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in I588, well-known and documented in the famous Armada portrait.[10] However, Elizabeth’s reign wasn’t all glory. Her romantic relationships caused chaos in England, particularly that with her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Both Elizabeth and Robert were implicated in the death of the latter’s wife in I560, who was found with a broken neck at the foot of a small flight of stairs. It was suggested that one or other of them had arranged Amy Dudley’s death so that they could marry each other.[11] It is my opinion that this event made up Elizabeth’s mind never to marry – she didn’t want to be at the mercy of a man. Elizabeth’s actions also inhibited the view that the royal body and blood was sacred. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots in I587 was regicide, and led to the invasion of the Spanish Armada the next year. As soon as she signed the death warrant she regretted it, but it was already too late.[12] The English people had been crying out for Mary’s death, but for Elizabeth it was more than the death of a contender for her throne – it was damaging to her own image, but it doesn’t really seem to have affected our view of the Virgin Queen, Gloriana.

[1] David Hipshon, Richard III and the Death of Chivalry (The History Press, 2011), p.204

[2] Charles Ross, Richard III (University of California Press, 1983), p.100

[3] Charles Ross, Richard III (University of California Press, 1983), p.178

[4] Catherine Hanley, Louis: the French Prince who Invaded England (Yale University Press, 2016), p. 71

[5] Andrew Gimson, Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs Since 1066 (Square Peg, 2015), p.33

[6] S.D. Church (ed.), King John: New Interpretations (The Boydell Press, 2007), p. 317

[7] Andrew Gimson, Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs Since 1066 (Square Peg, 2015), p.94

[8] Andrew Gimson, Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs Since 1066 (Square Peg, 2015), p.96

[9] Jasper Ridley, A Brief History of the Tudor Age (Constable & Robinson, 2002), p. 98

[10] Jasper Ridley, A Brief History of the Tudor Age (Constable & Robinson, 2002), p. 221

[11] David Loades, The Tudors: History of a Dynasty (Continuum Publishing, 2012), p. 47

[12] Penry Williams, The Later Tudors 1547-1603 (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 314

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