Medieval Kings of England and their Times
Edward the Confessor, 1042 to 1066
Brought up in Normandy, the reign of the Confessor saw the beginning of a close alliance with Normandy. Many Norman barons were brought into England to control the Welsh Marches and castles were first built in the kingdom. It would seem likely that Edward promised the Crown to Duke William of Normandy in 1051 during his initially successful dispossession of the Godwin family.
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. A great warrior he had successfully invaded Wales in 1056 and 1063 and decisively defeated the last Viking invasion of England in 1066 at Stanford Bridge. 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. When 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.
King William II, Rufus, 1087 to 1100
Second son of William the Conqueror, William had the sternness and military ability of his father, but not his sense of justice. His court was renowned for its brutality and licentiousness and the king was often at variance with the church. 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 also saw the loss of much of Gwynedd and Powys, but the overruning of Deheubarth.
King Henry I, 1100 to 1135
As able as his brother, Rufus, but with a keener sense of justice. The royal administrative corps really came into its own in his reign. The first seven years of Henry's rule was spent in protecting England and then conquering Normandy from his eldest brother, Duke Robert. He 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 and fortified the new borders of Wales with many castles. The Welsh princes generally recognized Henry’s suzerainty, and Henry was happy with this show of obligation. The end of his reign was dominated by a succession crisis where Henry forced his barons to support his daughter, the Empress Matilda of Germany, as heir.
King Stephen, 1135 to 1141
The favourite nephew of Henry I, broke his oath and assumed the kingship of England with the 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 and England and Normandy slipped into Civil War and Deheubarth was retaken from its Norman rulers.
Empress Matilda, 1141 to 1142
Only legitimate daughter of Henry I to whom the Crown was promised in her father's lifetime. On her father's death Stephen was elected. In 1139 her half brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester, and Miles Gloucester rebelled from King Stephen in her favour. Stephen was defeated by the rebels and Welsh 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 brutal manner 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 in 1144, both titles passing to their son, another Henry, in 1151.
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 ineffectual rule. 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 two sons, Eustace and William.
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 an iron rod and was the first king of England to add Ireland to his domains. With his fiery red hair and equally fiery nature, probably inherited from his mother, the Empress, 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 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 of Deheubarth. Henry was hounded to his death at Chinon by his eldest surviving son in the summer of 1189.
King Richard I, Lionheart, 1189 to 1199
Second 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 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 Wales was not held by his justiciars who intervened repeatedly in Wales, launching major campaigns in 1190, 1195 and 1198.
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 1204 he fought increasingly losing campaigns to hold onto his Continental possessions. In England he 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.
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, William Marshall. 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 died and Henry in 1246 overthrew his nephew, Prince Dafydd, who had succeeded his father Llywelyn and claimed for the first time the title Prince of Wales. Towards the end of the 1250's 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 of Gwynedd, the grandson of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. 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'. Unfortunately 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 passed away 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.
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 and 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 Wales Edward began a massive castle building project 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 Caernarfon or Harlech are to be found in Scotland, where Edward had to content himself more with wooden peels like the one he built at Lithingow. 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.
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. His 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. 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.
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. In 1330 he struck, 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 100 year's war which was the major feature of the reign. 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.
Richard II, 1377 to 1399
The 10 year old Richard succeeded his grandfather in 1377 and immediately his regency council faced all sorts of problems, economic, social, political and constitutional which 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 and by right of conquest. Richard passed on to a bitter end at Pontefract castle, either by smothering or self-starvation.
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 1413 and passed it on to his son, Henry V, though their relationship was always uneasy.
Henry's reign is also a convenient point to stop our short review of the monarchs of England, for his reign effectively ended all military use of castles in England and Wales, though many were forced into service again during the Civil War of 1642-48.