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The Kings and Queens of England

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David Williamson's text paints a vivid and sensitive portrait of each monarch, revealing the dramatic events and controversies that surrounded them. Enlivened with anecdotes and complemented by a rich selection of images, comprehensive fact boxes and clear family trees, National Portrait Gallery Kings & Queens will appeal to everyone with an interest in history or the British monarchy.

Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (Mammoth Books) The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (Mammoth Books)

Kingship, despite the crown, robes, processions, coaches, trumpets and anthems, has often been an undignified activity – all the more so because it’s supposed to be dignified. Throughout the middle ages, our rulers supposedly had the endorsement of God, which made their failures all the more humiliating. King Alfred, the first king to lay claim to ruling the English as a people and the only English king to have been issued with the epithet “Great”, nevertheless spent a large part of his early reign hiding from the Vikings in a bog – by which I mean a marsh. The psychological impact of this was particularly tough on Henry VI and, at the news of the collapse of England’s position in France, he too collapsed and was reduced to an inert blob, needing to be fed and washed and moved about for over a year. Worryingly the country was better governed during that year than at any other time during the reign.A later ruler, King Stephen, owed his throne to the time he spent quivering in a bog – and in this case I mean a privy. Had he, as an ambitious minor prince, not suffered a sudden, violent bout of food poisoning while on board a ship in Barfleur harbour in 1120, he wouldn’t have disembarked before it headed into the Channel and sank. Everyone on the ship died except for a solitary Norman butcher, and among the watery dead was the heir to the throne. So, when King Henry I died 15 years later, Stephen’s path to kingship had been cleared by diarrhoea. He hurried to Westminster and got himself crowned, then had one of the most unsuccessful reigns in English history, entirely dominated by a savage civil war. The intensity of intra-familial hatred in many periods of royal history makes the William and Harry rift look like a tersely raised eyebrow over a Boxing Day game of Trivial Pursuit.’ Photograph: FD/Francis Dias/Newspix International But this ruthlessness, while showing ambition and vigour, was no barrier to incompetence or vainglorious delusion. For most of the middle ages from the Norman Conquest onwards, the kings of England were obsessed with acquiring or re-acquiring large sections of France. They went so far as to claim that they were in fact the rightful kings of France despite all the evidence to the contrary and repeatedly threw all their resources into mounting military expeditions to ruin the lives of thousands of innocent French residents which achieved, in even the medium term, precisely nothing.

Kings and Queens by Iain Dale | Waterstones

An accompanying poster, showing the family trees and dynastic descent of all the kings and queens of England, is also available from the National Portrait Gallery direct. Perhaps the most undignified English king, though, was John. The extent of his indignity was a surprise to me when I was researching my new book about the kings and queens of England, because posterity has focused so much on how bad he was – bad as in dastardly. And he was dastardly – dishonest and brutal. During the reign of his predecessor, his elder brother Richard the Lionheart, he tried to steal the throne by pretending Richard was dead. Once Richard had genuinely died, he murdered the only rival claimant, his nephew Arthur, possibly with his bare hands, which feels like unnecessary attention to detail. The book begins by charting Celtic Britain before the Roman invasion to the Norman Conquest of 1066: the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the coming of Christianity and the unification of England. The subsequent dynastic struggles of the Angevins and Plantagenets heralded the great age of English kingship under the Tudors and Stuarts, who united the crowns of Scotland and England, before the Hanoverians combined personal rule with parliamentary government, ushering in the modern age and the royalty of today.

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