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Monstrous monarchs

Richard I
Are there too many awful rulers to pick the worst?
With the pressure of ruling and the stress of succession, perhaps it is no wonder that so many of Britain's kings and queens have made a mess of their reign.

On Tuesday, Today spoke to historians taking part in a debate organised by English Heritage, which seeks to answer the question of which British monarch should be considered the biggest failure.

Their nominees - Edward II, George IV and Mary, Queen of Scots - are certainly contenders for the dubious honour of Britain's worst monarch.

But following the programme, listeners emailed us to disagree with the selection.

It seems there is barely a name in the royal lineage - from Vortigern to Victoria - not considered by someone as an utter failure.

Perhaps the only way to avoid controversy is to rule in the style of Edward VII who, as historian John Cannon says:

"Loved uniforms, was good on names and didn't outstay his welcome."

The contenders

There were calls for William the Conqueror to be added for conquering England and Harold for being conquered.

Victoria got a mention for being miserable and Richard the Lionheart for being absent (and spending all England's money on crusades).

Alexander III ruined a good reputation by falling off his horse at an inopportune moment and Lulach the Simple was nominated for, well, being simple.

So who did you nominate? The top three contenders in our highly un-scientific survey are as follows:

Henry VIII
An egotist who murdered two wives for failing to provide a son, who destroyed an entire culture to satisfy his own desires and launched failed, unnecessary wars
Robbie, Blackburn

Among the most popular contenders is Henry VIII.

Ironically, he was in the frame for last year's debate on the best British monarch.

However, in his personal life he did little to secure public popularity.

Historian John Cannon, editor of the Oxford Companion to British History, agrees with our emailers' sentiments.

"He is a horrid beast. It turns one's stomach over a bit - when he loses his taste for a wife he has their head cut off.

"He is then marrying and dancing within a week. Perfectly dreadful," he says.

Cannon says that Henry inherited a kingdom in rude health with no debts and little conflict. He left it split, bankrupt and, the worst crime for any monarch, without a clear successor - leading to a long and destructive battle for the throne.


Charles I
In the 17th Century, it took an unprecedented combination of deviousness and political incompetence for a king to end up tried and executed as a tyrant, murderer and public enemy
John, London
Another popular choice, not mentioned by the panel, is Charles I.

He was a monarch who believed so fervently in his divine right to rule that half the country rose up against him.

Eventually, of course, Charles was beheaded on 30 January 1649. Called martyr by some, many Today listeners branded him incompetent instead.

Historical biographer Lady Antonia Fraser agrees he should have been included on the list.

"He was a weak king in a situation that demanded a strong one.

"He was ended by his own actions, making inevitable a civil war that brought no great good to anyone," she says.


Mary I
She was a religiously bigoted tyrant full of prejudice and narrow mined religious fervour. Her reign held terror for any that did not conform to her ideals
Jane, Derby

And who could ignore the ignominious reign of Mary I?

After attempting to return England to Catholicism, she unleashed vengeance on unlucky Protestants so fierce she earned the title 'Bloody Mary'.

Professor David Loades can understand why Mary I is still so unpopular.

"She burned about 285 protestants in the course of three and a bit years.

"When you consider that the Spanish inquisition probably burned about 30 or 40 it was a very severe persecution.

"No-one at that time had any scruples about burning heretics, but she did burn rather a lot," he says.

On Tuesday's programme the panel of experts taking part in the English Heritage debate nominated their worst three monarchs.

Here are the charges against Edward II, Mary Queen of Scots and George IV.

Edward II
After being forced to abdicate, Edward was imprisoned and brutally murdered

Edward ruled from 1307-1327. In that time he not only lost the war with Scotland that his father started but was also imprisoned by his estranged wife and forced to abdicate on grounds of incompetence.

Historian Alison Weir nominated Edward II. The charges are as follows:

  • A poor soldier during the war with Scotland.
  • Saw English defeat by Robert the Bruce in 1314, therefore failing to realize his father's dream of a united Britain.
  • Irritated the nobility by lavishing money and rewards on his male favourites.
  • Forced to abdicate on grounds of incompetence following imprisonment by his own wife's army.

Mary Queen of Scots
Mary was next in line to the English throne at the time of her execution

Scotland's queen from 1542 to 1567 managed to be implicated in murder and treason, forced into exile, imprisoned for 19 years and executed.

Historian Sarah Gristwood nominated Mary, Queen of Scots. The charges are:

  • Suspected involvement in the murder of husband (and second cousin) Henry Stuart at Kirk o'Field in 1565.
  • Marriage only three months after the murder to the Earl of Bothwell, also a suspect in the murder. This caused Scotland's Protestant Lords to rise against her.
  • Decision to flee to England, where she thought Elizabeth I would protect her, but where she was imprisoned for 19 years.
  • Suspected involvement in numerous plots to assassinate the English queen, eventually leading to a trial for treason - and execution.

Geroge IV
George became obese from eating one too many lavish royal banquets

The Playboy prince ruled Britain as Prince Regent during his father George III's madness and as King from 1820-1830, following his father's death. Despite seeing Britain's victory in the Napoleonic Wars, George's reign was notable mainly for his lavish lifestyle and womanising tendencies.

Historian Martyn Downer nominated George IV. These are the charges:

  • Serial womaniser.
  • Scandals with his mistresses and extravagant spending while Britain suffered the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick to please his father and clear his debts.
  • Barred his (by then estranged) wife from his coronation.

Here are some more of those nominated the worst British monarch.

I nominate King John who as de facto ruler of England whilst Richsrd I was abroad and in captivity cheated on him and pillaged the kingdom, then as King succeded in alienating his baronage, continued exploiting his subjects, murdered his nephew Arthur,Duke of Brittany and into the bargain lost his French possessions to Philip II Augustus of France. A close second as worst monarch is King Stephen who usurped the throne and plunged the country into years of civil war.
Michael Culver, Saint Thois, Finistere, Bretagne.

James II, despite a short reign, tried to turn back the clock, negating Parliament's fiscal control and at the same time put England into France's pocket.

A runner-up? George I - George II - Edward VIII [NOT for marrying Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, but for his fascist leanings].
Jeanne Cummins, Wilsonville, OR, USA

Henry VIII: Undid a lot of his dad's good work and caught the country in a netherworld between protestantism and catholocism that kept no one happy.
John, Newcastle

For me the worst monarch of all time is a close run thing between Richard "The Lionheart" and Henry VIII. Richard hated England so much he spent less time here than any other British monarch letting his people suffer while he went off to fight a unneccessary war in the Holy Land, and eventually being laid to rest in his beloved France.

Secondly Henry VIII brought about civil stife to his subjects on the whims of his lust, causing centuries of religous war in the Britsh Isles.
Brett Michell, Wigan

Lady Jane Grey...What an unproductive nine days!
Jack Summers, Charlotte, NC, USA

To be horribly pedantic, the Unready in Aethelred's name doesn't mean he wasn't prepared, but actually that he was ill-advised. He suffered a lot from foreign invasion during his reign but still ruled for 30+ years, which is pretty remarkable in that period!
AlexMagd, Liverpool

in my opinion- Edward II- mainly due to his failure to unite Britain. but how about Cromwel? altough technically not one of our monarchs he declared himself ruler of england, was a tyrant, drenched ireland in blood and quite literally turned us into a dictatorship!
Greg Hassall, wirral, england

How bout the whole lot of em up until Victoria's death. Their armies killed, enslaved, exploited, pillaged, destroyed civilizations all over the world, and plundered to further the glory of the British Empire or Kingdom.

Don't forget Cromwell too, after what he did to Ireland.
Earnan, Washington, DC

Henry VIII: I can honestly say that I have never hated anyone - except for one man, Henry VIII. He allowed Thomas Cromwell to destroy the monasteries which were the centres of learning of their day. With their destructiom was also destroyed almost all of the history and literature of the peoples of Britain from Roman times onwards together with a wealth of medieval art and culture. These losses endure to this day and can never be replaced.
Joseph Morrison, Woking, England

Charles I, the first and only monarch to be executed by his people. Totally useless as a King...
Gary, Darlington

Either John Lackland, or Bloody Mary, or both should have been on the list.
aelfheld, Weatherford, Texas

I am not a big fan of Henry VII, because I believe he killed the princes in the tower and he was not very interested in his son Henry when he was born.
Jasper Worrallo (aged 7), Sunbury, Middlesex

Edward II was a fair choice but George IV simply is not in the running. What's womanizing and debauchery got to do with job ability (provided one doesn't dress up as a Nazi)? Besides, later he achieved good PR for the monarchy on his tours of the realm. No, the worst monarch of England was probably Henry VI, who lost France, whose imbecility fed the Wars of the Roses and who neatly combined two of the concepts linked by Lewis Carroll's Walrus, those of cabbages and kings. Modern historians have no idea how bad an English monarch can be until they have looked at John, Edward II, Richard II and that dribbling loon, Henry VI.

With regard to monarchs of Scotland, Mary is a clear choice, but, presumably MacBeth would also be a runner.

James Hilsdon, Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire

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