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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 August 2007, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
England's greatest monarch is...
Queen Victoria, King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I

Who was the greatest king or queen of England? Three historians make the case for Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Victoria, but it's up to you to weigh their evidence and cast your vote.

British history is blessed by skilled and charismatic monarchs, but also tainted by incompetent and even murderous ones.

The argument over which king or queen was the greatest will never be settled - history is about interpretation, after all.

But here a trio of leading contenders are championed by three historians, ahead of a public discussion at the weekend organised by English Heritage.

The merits of King Henry VIII are outlined by Alison Weir, Queen Elizabeth I is endorsed by Sarah Gristwood and Queen Victoria is supported by Martyn Downer.

Read their arguments and vote for your favourite monarch (above right) or for the option of "someone else" if you believe there are more deserving recipients, such as the present Queen.

KEY ACHIEVEMENTS

HENRY VIII: Responsible for the Reformation in England and founded the Church of England with himself as its supreme head.

He also:

  • promoted parliamentary government by extending representation and expanding the privileges of both Houses
  • enhanced standing of the monarchy and helped create a new sense of national identity
  • overhauled machinery of the state, introducing progressive and efficient taxation schemes
  • created the most magnificent court in English history
  • patronised arts to lasting effect and popularised the art of portraiture
  • built or remodelled 70 palaces and erected fortresses along the south coast
  • was first English king to authorise the translation of the Bible into English

ELIZABETH I: The England she inherited was described by one of her own agents as "a bone between two dogs" - France and Spain. Few believed then that she (a mere woman, with a disputed claim) could hold the throne without tying the country to some greater power. Instead, after 45 years of solo rule, she left a realm sure of its place in the world, with the confidence only half a century of stability could give. One that had seen the expansion of its interests, the securing of its borders, and the regularisation of its currency, as well as the great flowering of the Renaissance.

VICTORIA: In 1837 Victoria inherited a throne toppling on the edge of extinction. The crown was in disrepute, while mounting public and parliamentary demand for constitutional change threatened to sweep the monarchy away. Victoria brilliantly responded to the challenge by adapting her role to the modern age. Rather than dictate policy, she sought to encourage, occasionally to caution, her ministers in their business whilst preserving the mystique of her position. Above all, she desired to rule for the people rather than over them. No sovereign has studied their function more closely or worked harder. Victoria transformed the monarchy from a remote, absolutist concept into a public institution which still thrives.

PERSONAL QUALITIES

HENRY VIII: A true child of the Renaissance - a gentleman in the knightly, chivalric sense, an intellectual who read St Thomas Aquinas for pleasure, an expert linguist, a humanist, an astronomer, a world-class sportsman, a competent musician and composer, an accomplished horseman, and a knowledgeable theologian. He could turn his hand to anything from designing weapons to mathematics or technology, from making up medicines to drawing maps or brick-making. But Henry's true greatness lay in his practical aptitude, his acute political perception, and in the self-restraint that enabled him to confine - within limits acceptable to his people - an insatiable appetite for power.

ELIZABETH I: Brave, resourceful, charismatic, clever and extraordinarily cultured; a musician, linguist and poet. A terrible youth (her mother executed on her father's orders; her own life threatened by her sister) unexpectedly bred in her a kind of humanity. She was instinctively merciful; and reluctant, until forced to it, to involve England in the wars of other countries. She counted the greatest triumph of her reign to have ruled with her people's love; and though she could be vain, she was never vain enough to put her own wishes, her own dynasty, above the needs of her country.

VICTORIA: Lengthy mourning for her husband Albert and the constraints of early photography have left us with the impression of a severe, unsmiling woman. The phrase "We are not amused", so often attributed to the queen but probably apocryphal, has hardly lessened this unfair perception. Victoria was serious-minded with a heavy sense of duty yet also was a very loving mother and a devoted friend. She could also be highly entertaining with a particular fondness for risque jokes. The key to her success, however, was her unique ability to combine the majesty of her position - which left ministers quaking - with a motherly homeliness which strongly appealed to her subjects.

GLOBAL IMPACT

HENRY VIII: The principal founder of the English navy, the fleet of warships he built was the first standing military force of its time, and the basis for Britain's future dominance of the seas. Without his work, Elizabeth's victory over the Spanish Armada and the development of the English colonies would never have been possible. He elevated England's status in Europe, where he consistently helped to maintain a balance of power between his rivals, Francis I and France, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Through his reforms, Protestantism was able to gain its powerful purchase on the English-speaking world.

ELIZABETH I: The adventures of exploration and trade that later gave Great Britain its prosperity began in Elizabeth's reign, as did the cultural achievements (Shakespeare) on which our reputation in the world still partially depends. She made England a major player in Europe - indeed her support for the Netherlands Protestants, and the Armada victory, made possible a Protestant Northern Europe. Promising to preserve her people from "oppression and wrong", Elizabeth was a ruler whose own refusal "to open windows into men's souls" paved the way for the religious settlement, and the secular state, that we still know today - a model that has since been followed by other countries.

VICTORIA: The empire built in her name inadvertently gave Victoria unrivalled symbolic influence over international affairs. In addition, by the end of her long life the "grandmamma of Europe" also had descendants on many thrones outside her realm, giving her real authority over their affairs too. Sombre proof of her importance as a vital powerbroker behind the scenes came with the devastating world war which followed her death. However, many of the constitutional and legal arrangements which were exported around the world during Victoria's reign are still intact, in many instances forming the basis of modern international law.

LEGACY

HENRY VIII: He changed the heart, mind and face of Britain more than anything between the coming of the Normans and the factory age. In the reigns of his children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, his legend became embedded in the national consciousness, and "Great Harry" was especially lauded for having rescued the English Church from the tyranny of Rome. Today, historians recognise that his reign contributed an extraordinary legacy - modern Britain. Henry began his reign in a mediaeval kingdom; he ended it in what was effectively a modern state. We are still living in the England of Henry VIII.

ELIZABETH I: Without Elizabeth we would not be who we are today - children of a proud (and a Protestant) nation. The Virgin Queen (our first true patriot, after medieval monarchs who treated England as a piece of personal property) is a vital part of our national mythology. Women, from Queen Victoria to Margaret Thatcher, owe her a particular debt. It's hard now to realise quite how unnatural her female rule at first seemed to her contemporaries. Before Elizabeth, no woman had ever successfully reigned over the country. After her, no-one could ever again relegate women to the sidelines so easily.

VICTORIA: No British monarch, or indeed individual, has made such a lasting cultural impact on an age, or inspired such unstinting loyalty and respect from so many millions of people, as Queen Victoria. The failures of her empire and governments were many, but the queen herself never lost the affection of her subjects as witnessed by the many monuments to her which exist in the farthest flung corners of the world. Unlike her predecessors, Victoria did not seek to terrorise, quell or overawe her people. But by dogged perseverance she devised a model for ruling which still works today.


MEET THE PANEL

Sarah Gristwood
Sarah Gristwood is author of Elizabeth and Leicester. After leaving Oxford, she worked as a journalist specializing in the arts and women's issues, and as a broadcaster. Arbella, her historical biography of Arbella Stuart, was widely acclaimed.

Alison Weir
Alison Weir is author of a number of biographies about British kings and queens, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Before becoming an author, she worked as a teacher of children with special needs.

Martyn Downer
Martyn Downer is author of The Queen's Knight: the Extraordinary Story of Queen Victoria's Most Trusted Confidant. An expert in fine art and antiquities, he is writing a history of Britain from the Normans to World War Two as experienced by one family.

The monarchy debate takes place at English Heritage's Festival of History at Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire, on August 11 and 12.




VOTE RESULTS
Who was England's greatest monarch?
King Henry VIII
 13.03% 
Queen Elizabeth I
 48.03% 
Queen Victoria
 19.78% 
Someone else
 19.16% 
20605 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
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