Medieval Kings of England and their Times
Edward the Confessor, 1042 to 1066
The son of Æthelred the Unready (d.1016) and Emma (d.1051) the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy (d.996), Edward was brought up in Normandy. His upbringing meant that his reign saw the beginning of a close alliance with Normandy. Many Norman barons were brought into England to control the Welsh Marches and castles like Clavering, Dover, Ewias Harold, Hereford, Herefordshire Beacon, Howton and Richards Castle were first recorded in the kingdom. It is possible that Edward promised the Crown to Duke William of Normandy in 1051 during his initially successful dispossession of the Godwin family. Edward died childless and apparently on his deathbed passed the kingdom onto his most powerful earl, Harold Godwinson.
King Harold II, 1066
Harold Godwine had been the power behind Edward's throne since 1055 and was elected King of the English by most of the English noble classes. At this time there was no theory of primogeniture and English Crown has always theorhetically been elective. Harold was a great warrior. He had successfully invaded Wales in 1056 and 1063, decisively defeated the last Viking invasion of England in 1066 at Stanford Bridge and came close to beating William at Hastings. He was also responsible for building ‘English' castles at Dover, Longtown and possibly the Herefordshire Beacon.
King William I, the Conqueror, 1066 to 1087
King William "inherited" the English throne as heir to Edward the Confessor, with, after the battle of Hastings, substantial support from the remaining English nobility. Until 1071 the reign was spent suppressing English rebellions and building castles. After that date, by which time much of the English nobility had been eliminated, William had mainly Continental problems to deal with. The conquest of much of Wales was undertaken in the years 1070 to 1085, with the king advancing as far as St Davids and building a castle at Cardiff in 1081. His reign may also have seen the penetration of the Welsh foothills with fortresses being begun at Abergavenny, Dinas, Rhuddlan, Swansea and St Davids. William's son Robert also led an invasion of Scotland in 1072 which resulted in the Scottish king paying homage to the Conqueror in return for estates in Cumberland. One of William's greatest triumphs was using the English administration to compile the Domesday Book in the year 1085 to 1086. When King William died the chronicles generally agreed that he was a good, but stern king. It had been possible during his reign for a man to walk with his pockets full of gold from one end of William's realm to the other with no-one touching him through their fear of the king. William died aged about 60.
King William II, Rufus, 1087 to 1100
William was the second son of William the Conqueror. In his will the Conqueror bequeathed his inheritance of Normandy to his eldest son, Robert (c.1053-1135) and England to Rufus (c.1059-1100). William had the sternness and military ability of his father, but was given a bad reputation by his religious chroniclers for his alleged brutality and licentiousness. Certainly the king was often at variance with the church and they rejoiced at his untimely death in an alleged hunting accident in the New Forest when he was aged about 41. He faced major rebellions in 1088 and 1095 though he succeeded in crushing them, largely due to the loyal support of the English. His reign saw a major attempt to control Wales, but a great revolt in 1094 lead to the loss of much of Gwynedd and Powys and the loss of all the castles built there. Fighting was recorded in North Wales at the castles of Aberlleiniog, Bangor (meaning Aber?), Caernarfon, Montgomery, Rhuddlan and Tomen y Mur. In the old Welsh kingdom of Deuheubarth only Pembroke and Carmarthen survived, while further castles were built in the borderlands to the SE of that kingdom, like Brecon and probably Ogmore and Kidwelly. The situation in North Wales could not be turned back despite two major royal campaigns in 1096 and 1098. Indeed the baronial rebellion against Rufus in 1095 may well have been caused by the king's indifference to his barons' losses in Wales. Regardless of the loss of Gwynedd and Powys, Norman control remained firmer in the south in the old Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth. In 1092 William had built Carlisle castle when he annexed Cumberland. He was also responsible for campaigns in Normandy which included the founding of Gisors castle.
King Henry I, 1100 to 1135
Henry was as able as his brother, Rufus, but better understood the feelings of his religious community and his need to keep them onside. The royal administrative corps really came into its own in his reign and the first surviving Pipe Roll dates from Michaelmas 1129. The first seven years of Henry's rule were spent in protecting England and then conquering Normandy from his eldest brother, Duke Robert (d.1135). Henry ruled with an iron fist like his father and looked secure both in England and on the Continent until 1120 when his only legitimate son and heir was killed in a naval tragedy. He settled the Welsh rebellion of his brother's reign by recognising the Welsh princes of Gwynedd and Powys (as Rufus had probably done in 1094) and fortified Wales with many castles. The Welsh princes paid Henry homage and he was happy work through them to ensure his peace ran throughout Wales. In the North Gruffydd ap Cynan (d.1137) of Gwynedd and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn (d.1111) mainly kept the peace for Henry, although both sufferred from Cadwgan's unrully son, Owain ap Cadwgan (d.1116). In 1114 Henry was forced to lead a massive, but ultimately pretty bloodless campaign to bring his northen princes back to their fealty. Henry also suffered a revolt in South Wales where the defeated king of Deheubarth attempted unsuccessfuly to regain his patrimony in 1116. The end of Henry's reign was dominated by a succession crisis where Henry forced his barons to support his daughter, the Empress Matilda of Germany (d.1067) and her Angevin husband, Geoffrey of Anjou (d.1151), as heir. Henry died in December 1135, probably aged about 67. Contemporaries noted his castle building abilities.
King Stephen, 1135 to 1141
Stephen was the favourite nephew of Henry I. However he broke his oath and assumed the kingship of England with the elective assent of the barons of England and Normandy. His character soon showed severe flaws for a king and as the English put it, he was found 'to be soft'. From 1136 onwards crisis followed crisis as England and Normandy slipped into Civil War. In Wales the Welsh princes abandoned their alliegence to the English king and campaigned with their Angevin allies as far afield as Lincoln. In Deheubarth, aided by the sons of Gruffydd ap Cynan (d.1137), the descendants of the former kings retook much of the province and overran castles such as Aberystwyth, Cymaron, Llandovery, Llanstephan, Painscastle and Ystrad Meurig. Stephen's reign was almost brought to an end by the earl of Chester and his Welsh allies at the battle of Lincoln on 2 Februay 1141 where Stephen was captured.
Empress Matilda, 1141 to 1142
Matilda was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I to whom the Crown was promised in her father's lifetime. On her father's death her cousin Stephen was elected king. In 1139 her illegitimate half brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester (d.1147), and Miles Gloucester (d.1143) led a revolt against King Stephen in her favour. After 2 years Stephen was defeated by the rebels and captured in February 1141. Subsequently Matilda, the widow of the Emperor of Germany, began her short reign as Empress of the English. Her ill temper and arrogance, plus the fact she was a woman, soon exasperated many of her subjects and she was chased out of London. By the end of 1142 she had been reduced to controlling only the less prosperous North and West of England. King Stephen, released from captivity, continued his reign improving his lot in the more economically advanced Midlands and South East. Normandy was taken from Stephen by Matilda's second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou (d.1151) in 1144, both titles passing in 1151 to their eldest and son, who was named after his grandfather, King Henry I.
King Stephen, 1142 to 1154
By 1147 the civil war in England had effectively ended with most of the important, industrious and populated parts of the kingdom remaining under Stephen's rule, while much of the NW passed to the control of the king of Scots. In 1153, Duke Henry of Normandy, the son of the Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, invaded the kingdom for the third time and was finally recognised as Stephen's heir in place of his surviving son, William. Henry then withdrew from England and Stephen suddenly died, aged around 58, on 25 October 1154 in Dover castle.
King Henry II, 1154 to 1189
Henry succeeded King Stephen in October 1154, apparently after surviving a poisoning attempt by Stephen's supporters. He ruled his Empire of Britain, Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Poitou and Aquitaine with the iron rod of law and was the first king of England to add Ireland to his domains. With his fiery red hair and equally fiery nature, Henry proved a king to be reckoned with and for 35 years he dominated Western Christendom as the most influential monarch of the day. His masterfulness was seriously challenged by the Thomas Becket murder [in reality a fight between the forces of semi-democratic law and spiritual mysticism] and the subsequent rebellion of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and sons in 1173-74. During this time North Wales was left pretty much to its own devices, while from the 1170's onwards the king made concessions and agreements with the princes of South Wales, in particular the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd (d.1197) of Deheubarth. Soon after taking the throne Henry was faced with baronial revolts which were rapidly crushed. The king then forced the new king of Scots to abandon his gains in Cumberland and the north-west of England. Finally, after the defeat of King William the Lion (d.1214) at the battle of Alnwick, Henry negotiated the feudal subjection of the Scots to his rule in 1175. After his years of mastery Henry was finally hounded to his death at Chinon castle by his eldest surviving son, Richard, in the summer of 1189, aged just 56.
King Henry III, 1170 to 1183
Henry was the second son of King Henry II, his elder brother, William dying young in 1156. He was crowned king of England in his father's lifetime in 1170, but denied reall power, firstly due to his youth and as he aged, due to this incompetence. William Marshall (d.1219), the future earl of Pembroke, was assigned to him as tutor in 1170. This was probably a mistake as William had no head at all for government, being a typical 'robber baron' in mentality. In 1182 Henry tired of William and exiled him from his court, according to William's family for flirting with Henry's queen, Margaret of France (d.1197), but more likely for his arrogance and greed. In the meantime Henry's mother and Earl William had united with him in opposing the rule of his father in 'The Young King's Rebellion' of 1173-74. In this the rebels were soundly defeated, even though supported by King Loius VII of France (d.1180). The Young Henry opposed all that his father worked for. While Henry II was a thinking king who hated war, Henry III was bold, feckless and reckless. While Henry II planned and gave law to his subjects, Henry III played the playboy and spent up to £200 a day on tournamenting. In 1183 he twice attempted to have his father murdered during the war he was waging against him with his brothers. Henry III also pillaged his own lands far and wide claiming that he was doing this to stop their ruination by his father. After contracting a wasting disease on campaign, probably dysentry, he died at Martel near Limoges, his father refusing to believe the reports of his impending death due to his earlier attempts on his life. Although popular with the knightly class for his expesive love of 'chivalry', the sober chronicler William Newburgh wrote of him that his popularity was only explained by the fact that ‘the number of fools is infinite'. He died aged 28.
King Richard I, Lionheart, 1189 to 1199
Third and eldest surviving son of Henry II, Richard had little interest in Britain, except for using it as a bank to finance his Middle Eastern and Continental ambitions. As soon as he had succeeded his father, Richard began selling the offices of state and even Scotland to raise money for his cherished crusade. England during his time was run by a series of justiciars who in effect were regents. Richard only returned to his kingdom once in 1194 to put down the rebellion of his brother Prince John and to be crowned a second time. The rest of his reign was spent in incessant wars in the Holy Land and France. The king’s lack of interest in Britain was not held by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or his justiciars who intervened particularly in Wales, launching major campaigns in 1190, 1195 and 1198. In Normandy he was responsible for building the superlative Chateau Gaillard. Richard was finally killed by a crossbow bolt while besieging the minor castle of Chalus-Chabrol in the Limoges. He was just 41.
King John, Lackland, 1199 to 1216
King John, also known as Lackland by his father and Softsword by his enemies, was the youngest son of King Henry II. Between 1200 and 1203 he fought increasingly losing campaigns to hold onto his Continental possessions. In 1204-05 the French king finished annexing Normandy and spread powerully into the Loire region, taking the great castles of Chinon and Loches. In England John was responsible for refining the government and was instrumental in the spread of literacy. King John, despite his bad reputation, was possibly one of the most learned of all the English kings. He was a keen historian and lawgiver who enjoyed nothing more than to stand in judgement on his peoples. This keen sense of involvement in the running of the kingdom no doubt helped antagonise his baronage, who quite rightly thought that their many privileges were under threat. Magna Carta was the work of an admittedly unwilling King John and his impressive legal advisors, not the rag tag army of discontented barons who faced him at Runnymede. In 1216, when faced by the invasion of a French army, he refused to fight them on the coast as, we are told, his history books told him of the fate of a previous king in 1066 who did just that! John's refusal to risk all on one decisive battle led to the civil war of 1216-8. He died of dysentery at Newark in October 1216 after the infamous loss of his treasure in the Wash. The troubles at the end of John’s reign allowed his son-in-law, Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of Gwynedd, to effectively master Wales and his ward, King Alexander of Scotland, to effectively break away from English domination. In Ireland John had shown his mastery and this state of affairs carried on into the reign of his son and grandson. He was just 49 years old at the time of his death.
King Henry III, 1216 to 1272
Henry III came to the throne aged only nine years old and immediately was placed under the tutelage of what should be recognized as a regency council led by the old warrior, Earl William Marshall of Pembroke. The first years of his reign saw the country brought back to his fealty until by 1220 most of the land and even Wales was peaceful. The death of the old Earl Marshall did not materially change the set up of Henry's government, and always a weak man he tended to appoint 'strong men' to run the country. Henry's inability to rule as his barons thought fit brought about sporadic rebellions against his ministers of which the outbreak of 1233-34 was one of the worst. In 1240 Prince Llywelyn of Wales died and Henry in 1246 overthrew his own nephew, Prince Dafydd, who had succeeded his father, Prince Llywelyn and claimed for the first time the title Prince of Wales. Towards the end of the 1250s discontent with Henry's weak rule was focussed in the Marches of Wales where the Marchers had been having a hard time from the attentions of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (d.1282) of Gwynedd, the grandson of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (d.1240). In 1258, at the Mad Parliament of Oxford, the barons led by the earls of Gloucester and Leicester commenced the reformation of the government which effectively shackled the absolute monarchy of Henry III and his predecessors with a more or less democratically elected council. This new design worked sporadically until 1263 when Henry, aided by barons who no longer wanted the burden of running the country thrust upon them, helped the king 'regain his independence'. This led to a bloody civil war known as the Barons' War which lasted until 1266 by which time Henry III had been effectively superseded in the running of the country by his eldest son and heir, the Lord Edward. Henry, wounded at the battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265, contentedly allowed Edward to install a regency government when he left the country in 1270 on Crusade. Henry died peacefully in November 1272, leaving the government of the kingdom in the hands of the regency council until the return of Edward two years later. He was 65 when he died.
Edward I, The Hammer of the Scots, 1272 to 1307
Edward was a far different character from his father and soon put the country on a footing he preferred. In 1276-77 he brought Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, recognized as Prince of Wales since 1267, to heel as well as putting the finances of the country back in order after the disasters of the previous reign. In 1282 he was surprised by a Welsh revolt, but by the April of 1283 he had overrun Llywelyn’s principality, killing Llywelyn and capturing his brother Dafydd. Even this proved insufficient to totally overawe Wales and Edward faced further revolts in 1287 and 1294-95, though neither were as serious as the wars of 1277 and 1282. With the conquest of much of independent Wales, Edward began a massive castle building project with keepless fortresses like Caernarfon and Conway, that is still rightly seen as one of the wonders of the thirteenth century. Towards the end of his reign Edward became increasingly embroiled in bringing Scotland under his direct rule in a similar manner to that which he had achieved in Wales and this proved by and large to be his undoing. The Welsh campaigns had made heavy drains on the Exchequer and Edward turned more and more to imposing unjust taxes on his peoples and antagonizing his baronage. The conquest of Scotland failed largely because of Edward's success in Wales, he had spent his money and this is why no military masterpieces like Rhuddlan or Beaumaris are to be found in Scotland, where Edward had to content himself more with wooden peels like the one he built at Linlithgow. His problems were antagonised by the French who invaded and occupied Gascony in 1294, forcing the king into a Continental war to add to his Scottish and Welsh wars. An increasingly beleaguered Edward, abandoned in some of his campaigns by some of his previously most loyal barons, died crossing the border into Scotland again in 1307 at the age of 68.
Edward II, 1307 to 1327
After such a forthright and powerful monarch it was not surprising that his successor should be so weak. Edward II had few of the redeeming features of his father and much more resembled his grandfather, Henry III (d.1272). Edward's idea of a good time was living as a rustic on his own play farm while the government of the kingdom was left to less than honest favourites. As a result his reign was punctuated by sporadic explosions amongst his discontented baronage and the rise of a new movement called the Ordainers, who in many respects were the descendants of the reformers of 1258. The Ordainers were decisively defeated in 1322, but Edward failed to capitalize on his success. Instead he was overthrown by his queen and her alleged paramour, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. The later claim that he was put to death by a grisly 'end' in the dungeons of Berkeley castle by the insertion of a red hot poker from behind has now been convincingly challenged and it is possible that Edward lived out his days in royal retirement after adventures in Ireland in Italy. Edward was 43 when his reign ended in 1327.
Edward III, 1327 to 1377
Initially under the tutelage of his mother and her alleged lover, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, Edward III bided his time, although he too may have been active in promoting his father's downfall. Certain he appears to have been writing to his men that his father was dead before news of his fate could have reached him. In 1330 he struck for his independence from tutelage, seizing Mortimer and having him executed. With this Edward re-opened the war with Scotland and then against France having realised that the defeat of Scotland was not possible whilst they received French aid. This helped start the so-called 100 year's war which was the major feature of the reign and really was just the continuation of the old Plantagent wars from the time of Henry II (1154-89). War of course needed money and to this end Edward reformed the coinage and came increasingly to rely on parliament to organise the economy and deal with law and order within the realm. After gaining all he wanted in France by the treaty of Bretigny in 1360, Edward extraordinarily threw it all away and by the end of his reign maintained just Calais and a much reduced Gascony. Becoming increasingly reclusive he left the running of the kingdom to favourites of whom his alleged mistress Agnes Perrers (d.1400), the wife of William Windsor (d.1384), was the most detested. At the end of his reign disunity amongst his family was showing what was to become the so-called Wars of the Roses. Edward died aged 64.
Richard II, 1377 to 1399
The 10 year old Richard, son of the Black Prince (1330-76), succeeded his grandfather in 1377 and immediately his regency council faced all sorts of problems, economic, social, political and constitutional. This helped lead in 1381 to the Peasant's Revolt. Then for the first time was heard the rhyme "When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?" The revolt was ended with the death of Wat Tyler and the young King Richard making various promises to the rebels. However as soon as order was restored the king went back on his promises with the words "Villeins ye are and villeins ye shall remain". The new king was soon set on a path of tyranny and clashed often with his parliament, being defeated by them in 1388 at the battle of Radcot Bridge. Declaring himself of age he then proceeded to rule by fear and attempted to reduce parliament to a talking shop. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur while the king was in Ireland and rapidly had the country rise in his favour. At the end of September Henry, in English rather than French, declared himself king as heir of Henry III (d.1272) through Edward I's allegedly elder brother, Edmund Crouchback, the forner lord of Grosmont before he became earl of Lancaster, as well as by right of conquest. Richard passed on to a bitter end at Pontefract castle, either by smothering or self-starvation at the age of 33.
Henry IV, 1399 to 1413
Henry's reign was punctuated by repeated rebellions in the North and the Glyndwr rebellion in the West. Despite this, he successfully held the Crown until he died in 1413 aged just 46. The Crown was then passed on to his son, Henry V (d.1422), who reopened the 100 years war.
Henry's reign is also a convenient point to stop this short review of the monarchs of England, for his reign effectively ended all military use of castles in England and Wales, though many remained in use in the north of the kingdom facing Scotland and many throughout the kingdom were forced into service again during the Civil War of 1642-48.
Copyright©1994-2004 Paul Martin Remfry