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The Instability of the Kings of England

Allegedly, hereditary monarchy provides a clear succession of legitimate authority. In practice, we know that's often problematic: the Roman Emperors were a mess, and Egypt had 30 dynasties in 3000 years. OTOH, some dynasties like the Ming or Plantagenet last for 300 years or so. But what chaos does that conceal? I decided to go through the monarchs of England from William the Conqueror on, and *hoo boy*. Until the rise of Parliamentary supremacy, major rebellions are more common than not, and violent interruptions to the succession are pretty common too. They *do* keep it "in the family" -- every one has been a descendant of William the Conqueror, and most have been descendants of Alfred the Great, too. But peaceful contested succession? Hah.

I'll put in codes at the end of lines. P for Peace, in my opinion; p for challenges to the rule. I don't count foreign wars, or extra-familial foreign invasion. I for the succession passing as Intended, i for not. The latter probably implies a peace failure before or after. ? for ambiguity -- are plots caught by the secret police worth counting as a threat to the peace? If the crown passes to the rightful heir because the heir took it by force I count that as 'i', since no one intends to be killed or deposed.

Noble title meaning refresher: earls were the Anglo-Saxon royal vassals in charge of earldoms or reeves; counts are the Norman royal companion-vassal close equivalent; barons are all the nobles who are vassals to the king (all counts are also barons); dukes start out as royal relatives because the English didn't follow the Ottoman practice of pruning the family tree.

1. William the Conqueror. Kind of unpeaceful by definition. Crown passed to his son. -I

2. William II. Nobles rebelled to united with his elder brother, Robert of Normandy. Died in a hunting accident while unpopular and with his heir-brother present; historians suspect murder. pi?

3. Henry I, got invaded by Robert of Normandy; I count this since they're both sons of the Conqueror, whose will is clearly failing to keep his realms at peace. Names his daughter Matilda as heir, 18 year civil war happens instead. pi

4. Stephen, Henry's nephew, seizes power. When most of your reign is known as 'the Anarchy' you definitely fail at peace. When the crown passes to the son of the person you spent your life fighting, I think you fail at succession, even if you agree to it at the end. Matilda fits in here briefly, whatever. pi

5. Henry II Plantagenet. His own sons rebel, including his heir Richard. He dies of disease while fighting Richard, barely reconciled at the end. pI?

6. Richard I Lionheart. Assassinated but we'll count that as a lone gunman. Brother John rebels against regents; still, relatively peaceful, I think. Crown passes to brother. P?I?

7. John, barons rebel, Magna Carta and all. Crown goes to son. pI

8. Henry III. Barons rebel twice, his son rebels too. pI

9. Edward I Longshanks. Vigorous foreign policy and creates Parliament and has tax fights politically, but seems the first internally peaceful reign since William landed. Note it took us 9 kings and 206 years to get here, Crown goes to son. PI

10. Edward II. Barons kill his regent/lover, deposed by his wife, Parliament forces his abdication. Crown passes to his son but still, pi

11. Edward III. Led coup against his mother's consort at age 17, but otherwise peaceful... at home. Starts 100 year's war over the *French* throne, but I won't count that. Made 5 dukes of his sons; this leads to trouble later. Lives so long crown jumps to his grandson. P?I

12. Richard II. Has a struggle with his nobles, then deposed and executed. pi

13. Henry IV Lancaster, cousin of Richard (I said all those duke-sons would lead to trouble), faces lots of plots, assassination attempts, and outright rebellions. Crown goes to son. pI

14. Henry V. Just one plot at home, dies early, crown to son. P?I

15. Henry VI. Kind of insane, though the good kind. Yorkish rebellion deposes him (those dukes again); War of the Roses begins. pi

16. Edward IV. Has war with Earl of Warwick, but restores law and order. Crown almost passes to his son Edward V but his brother Richard grabs it immediately. p?i

17. Richard III. Rebellions, last king to die in battle, only one killed on home soil since Harold. Decent king otherwise. pi

18. Henry VII Tudor, distant Lancastrian cousin. Kills other claimants, puts down Yorkist rebellions, crown passes to son. pI

19. Henry VIII. More Star Chamber work and execution. Also Catholic rebellions, though I'm almost unsure to count those -- if you try to forcibly change your country's religion you're kind of asking for rebellion, and it almost seems unfair to count those with failures of royal peacekeeping. Crown passes to son (after much work.) p?I

20. Edward VI. More riot and rebellion, popular and religious. Intended heir was his cousin Jane Grey but she isn't even crowned. p?i

21. Bloody Mary, Ed's sister. Deposes Jane, burns protestants and has a rebellion over her marriage to Philip. Crown goes to sister. pI

22. Elizabeth. Plots. Crown to cousin. P?I

23. James I. Some early plots (like Guy Fawkes), otherwise boring, crown to son. P?I

24. Charles I. Scottish war, civil war, loses his head, outright interregnum. With emphasis and prejudice, pi

25. Charles II, son of Charles I after all that. Plots. Spawns a whole lot of bastard dukes, ancestral to Diana and thus the future King William V. Crown to brother. P?I

26. James II. Rebellion by his bastard nephew. Then the Glorious and allegedly mostly bloodless Revolution, aka a "Dutch invasion" by his son-in-law/nephew William. p??i

27. William III and Mary II. Some plots. The Bill of Rights, aka major limitation of royal prerogative. History, if defined as excitement over the English throne, pretty much ends here; having deposed two kings in 50 years Parliament is clearly in charge. P?I

28. Anne, Mary's younger sister. Last monarch to veto a bill. No surviving children, so Parliament digs around in the couch for a spare heir and the crown passes as Parliament intends. PI

29. George I of Hanover, great-grandson of James I. Jacobites, son. P?I

30. George II. Last king to lead troops in battle (over in France.) Bonnie Prince Charlie; crown to grandson. P?I

31. George III the nutter. Jacobites have died out. 'History' has even more thoroughly ended. PI
32. George IV, son, Regent. Parliament pretty much takes over choosing PMs. PI
33. William IV, brother. Last monarch to appoint a PM contrary to Parliament. PI
34. Victoria, niece. PI
35. Edward VII, son, abdicates. PI
36. George V, son. PI
37. Edward VIII, son. PI
38. George VI, brother, PI
39. Elizabeth II, daughter, PI

So, with the Glorious Revolution, we get 12 peaceful successions, and peaceful reigns apart from Jacobites. Before that the longest sequence was 5, from Henry II to Edward II, and that's counting Richard taking over from his father after bitter fighting. If we also count Edward III, despite his father being deposed, we get up to 7 successions, Henry II to Richard II. Only 3 of those 8 reigns can be counted as peaceful. If we don't count Henry-to-Lionheart or Edward III, the longest chain of intended successions is 4, in 622 years. You don't get two internally peaceful (by my estimate) reigns in a row until Elizabeth and James. That's 22 kings and almost 500 years after the Conqueror.

Depending on what baronial rebellions are like, maybe things weren't so bad for the common people. I've seen multiple sources say the Wars of the Roses may not have been so bad: cities didn't refortify, and the nobles knew they were fighting over the people so avoided sieging them, having pitched set-piece battles instead. Lots of the nobility got killed off, which might have helped later stability, as did Henry VII cracking down on private armies of the magnates.

Even if you discount some of the smaller rebellions, I think the "democratic" (more like oligarchic, even today) period of Parliamentary supremacy is clearly far more peaceful and orderly than the hereditary succession of strong monarchy.

I note that I'm not counting Irish wars and eventual independence, despite being part of the greater kingdom; I'll view it as an overseas colony, no matter what the crown claimed.

So, this is just England after William; maybe Anglo-Saxon England, or France, will be cleaner? I doubt it...

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/384695.html#comments


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2014 07:32 am (UTC)
Ah yes, I've read those. Don't think the first has anything relevant, but the second:

"And of Roman Emperors, only about thirty of eighty-four died of even remotely natural causes, according to this List Of Roman Emperors In Order Of How Hardcore Their Deaths Were."

Though the list of Chinese rebellions isn't that extensive. Only one for the Ming, nothing for the Song? Either incomplete or much better than England...

But yeah, lots more good stuff in section 2.4 and 2.5 and so.
Jan. 24th, 2014 01:38 pm (UTC)
Either incomplete or much better than England...

In complete. Definitely incomplete.

For example, there are entire "dynasties" which are nonstop wars. Just off the top of my head:
1. All during Qin, Western Han, & Xin, and Eastern Han (221 BCE - 220 CE). Westerners tend to call this entire period the Han Dynasty but it wasn't interrupted and even when the Han were in control there was almost non-stop internal fighting.

2. Three Kingdoms, 220-265. That's not even one person's lifetime.

3. Five Dynasties, 907-960.

4. Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911. But in the last century of rule almost nonstop fighting, including the Boxer Rebellion, the Western Powers taking over, and the Republican Rebellion. Followed almost immediately by the effective dissolution of the Republic of China when the country was ruled by Warlords, then the Chinese Civil War (Republicans vs. Communists) which itself was interrupted by World War II.
Jan. 24th, 2014 10:18 am (UTC)
Nice work listing them -- a very interesting read.

One and a half nits to pick: whenever someone calls Mary I "Bloody Mary" I feel the need to point out that she was given that name by the Protestant agitators of the time following her death (who had no problem at all with Elizabeth I executing Catholics). Modern historians have, I believe, disproved charges of Mary being particularily bloodthirsty or tyrannical (some of that did go with the job description in those days). Maybe it's time to let that sobriquet die.

There is also Edward's (Edward II) alleged homo-/bisexuality, but ah well.
Andy Bradford
Jan. 24th, 2014 04:11 pm (UTC)
I laughed far too hard at:
"...so Parliament digs around in the couch for a spare heir and the crown passes as Parliament intends."
Bravo, sir.
Jan. 24th, 2014 04:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'd been happy with that thought myself, then forgot it at first write-up and had to edit it back in.

OTOH I'd never realized before how close William and Mary were to the throne. Mary is James II's actual daughter, and William is his nephew via a sister. So W&M are first cousins, and both have strong claims if James is removed -- Mary's stronger, which worried William. Not like the Hanoverians found in the back of the fridge (to use the other obvious metaphor.)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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