Henry VII, by an unknown artist, (cropped) 1505; in the National Portrait Gallery, London
The story of Britain can’t be told without its kings—that small group of men who sat on the throne through a series of wars, cultural upheavals, diplomatic crises, and domestic catastrophes. Five of them stand out as pivotal figures who redefined and reset the future course of their country.
Historian and Tudor scholar Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger traces England’s history through the reigns of those transformative sovereigns. She considers how prevailing cultural, religious, social, and political forces converged to maintain the British monarchy through changing times, from the early Middle Ages to the present.
May 19 William the Conqueror
It’s hard to imagine the impact of the final great invasion of England when William the Conqueror defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William left a permanent stamp on England, building the Tower of London and other great castles, setting up a Norman government and a lasting (and complicated) relationship with France, introducing chivalry to England, and rebuilding all the major churches in the country.
May 26 Edward III
Edward III could be considered an ideal medieval king. He was devoted to his wife and provided an heir and several spares, filling the royal family with children and arranging strategic marriages to strengthen England’s position in the world. As a warrior king, he joined forces with Prince Edward, his son and heir, achieving great success in the Hundred Years War with France. But in the final years of his reign, he experienced losses at home and abroad—and his ultimate legacy would be the seeds of the Wars of the Roses. Learn about the shifts in power and politics in this turbulent time.
June 2 Henry VII
After 14 years exiled in France, the then-unknown Henry Tudor marched into England, escorted by an army of mercenaries and discontents. No one could have imagined what lay ahead. Against all odds, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, became King of England, and married Elizabeth of York. He started a dynasty that would define England for centuries. The first of the Tudors, Henry VII did more than put his own family on the throne: He reimagined the monarchy that comprised the most famous royals of all time. This unlikeliest of kings reshaped English government for years to come.
June 9 George III
One of America’s most well-known British kings, George III is typically associated with the years surrounding the American Revolutionary War. In fact, his long reign saw significant shifts in British Parliamentary politics, brought about in part because of his often-unwelcome involvement in government. He was a devoted family man and believed strong character was necessary for a strong monarchy, but his sons were mired in scandal and earned the distinction of being referred to as the “most unloved generation in English history.” Trace the impact of George III’s reign through the Hanoverian dynasty and beyond.
June 16 George VI
George VI became king after the short and tumultuous reign of his brother Edward VIII, who famously abdicated the throne. People wondered whether the monarchy could even survive with the shy and awkward George VI on the throne. In fact, the new king was exactly what the country needed. He was devoted to his nation and his family, and his steadiness during World War II was exemplified by his reviving the tradition of royal Christmas broadcasts to the nation. George VI improved the perception of the monarchy and prepared the way for the long success of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
Lloyd-Stanger is a former manager of visitor education at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
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