The History of The British Royal Family
The Royal Family has been in the press a lot lately due to the unfortunate passing of Queen Elizabeth II. She was an admirable Queen and she ruled gracefully for over 70 years. However, with all the talk about successions now, there are many who are wondering how the Royal Family even came about. It took a long journey for the Royal Family to get where they are now, and if you are interested in that journey, read through this gallery to see where it all started.
The Viking Raids and Alfred the Great
After the Viking Raids and settlement that occurred in the ninth century, Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, became the dominant English kingdom. The kingdom of Wessex was secured by Alfred the Great, who also successfully dominated western Mercia, and assumed the title of King of the English.
Alfred the Great laid the groundwork for the creation of a unitary kingdom that is roughly the same size and shape as modern-day England, which was ruled by his grandson, Athelstan. The difference is the little regions that made up the kingdom retained their own identities.
The conquest of England
By the 11th century, the whole of England had achieved more stability despite the wars with the Danes that led to a one-generation Danish monarchy. However, in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, led a conquest of England that proved to be crucial socially and politically.
He became the new monarch and continued to centralize power as it had been done in the Anglo-Saxon era. Meanwhile, the feudal system of farming and economics continued to develop along with the power centralization drive.
William II and Henry I
The Duke of Normandy, William, was succeeded by two of his sons, Henry I and William II. Of the two of them, Henry made the unusual decision to name his only surviving child and daughter, Matilda, as his successor.
This led to a power tussle as one of William I’s grandchildren, Stephen, became the ruler with the aid of the barons once Henry died in 1135. His ascension to the throne would not go unchallenged though as Matilda challenged him and chaos ensued.
Matilda was named successor to the throne by her father before his death so she challenged Stephen’s ascension once he emerged as ruler. As a result, the kingdom of England descended into anarchy.
Stephen managed to hold on to power for a while but because of trouble brewing in the land from Matilda’s discontent, he agreed to let her son Henry succeed him. So in 1154, Henry II became the first Angevin King of England and the first ruler of the Plantagenet dynasty.
Conflicts and civil strife
The line of the Angevin kings began with the ascension of Henry II, Matilda’s son, but their reign was marred by conflicts and civil strife between the nobles and the kings. Henry II had to overcome rebellions from his own sons, including John and Richard I, who would later rule as well.
Despite the resistance and rebellions he faced, Henry II managed to capture new territories and expand his territory, creating the Angevin Empire.
Richard’s ascension to the throne
Henry II’s legacy was remarkable but then he died, and Richard, who was his oldest surviving son, ascended the throne. Richard had not been in the kingdom for most of Henry II’s reign because he had gone to fight in the Crusades War.
Unfortunately, he was killed during a siege on a castle, paving the way for John to emerge as king. John was, however, a zealous ruler whose reign was characterized by clashes with the barons, especially on matters of the limits of power.
Magna Carta in 1215
Under pressure from the barons, who wielded significant power as well, King John was forced to issue the Magna Carta, the Great Charter in 1215. The purpose of the Great Charter was to create specific rights for the nobles and guarantee those rights as well.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to create peace or sustain it, so a couple more disagreements led to the First Barons' War. The link of the war to John’s rule is emphasized by the fact that the war ended after his death in 1216.
Nine-Year-Old Henry III
John’s death and the end of the First Barons War led to the emergence of his nine-year-old son, Henry III, as the new king. Unfortunately, like his father, Henry III’s reign was marred by another confrontation with the barons, causing the Second Barons' War, led by Simon de Montfort.
This time around, the royals clearly won, and lots of rebels were killed, but the rebels managed to make the king summon a parliament in 1265. The war marred Henry III and he wasn’t able to expand as he would have liked.
Edward Longshanks’ rule
Henry III was succeeded by Edward Longshanks who became monarch and was a lot more successful at holding on to power. Edward conquered Wales and tried to ensure England dominated Scotland too, but his success in Scotland was lost during the reign of Edward II, who succeeded him.
Edward II also had to cope with the nobles. He went to war against them and lost so he was coerced into relinquishing his powers to a baronial ordainers committee until he regained power in 1322.
Edward III and the wars with England
Despite overcoming his foes, the barons in 1322, Edward II was nonetheless deposed by his wife, Isabella, five years later. This allowed his 14-year-old son to become Edward III, who had bigger ambitions than most rulers before him.
His decision to lay claim to the French crown set off a long-standing war with France. Edward III managed to conquer some French territories but all his gains were lost by 1374. Meanwhile, in England, his reign was marked by more development of parliament which would then be divided into two houses.
Richard II’s Ascension to the Throne
Edward’s death in 1377 allowed his grandson, 10-year-old Richard II, to ascend the throne. Richard couldn't get along with the nobles very well either, especially since he wanted to concentrate power for himself, which resulted in conflicts with the nobles.
While Richard II was away campaigning in Ireland, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke laid claim to the throne, and as a result, Richard was deposed and tossed in prison for a while until he was murdered. His cousin Henry became King Henry IV.
The House of Lancaster Dynasty
The man that ousted Richard and became King is Henry IV, grandson of Edward III, and the son of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. Therefore, his dynasty is called the House of Lancaster, but like most of his predecessors, Henry IV’s reign was marred by rebellions and plots.
Fortunately, he had his son, future Henry V, a skilled military commander on his side. He helped his father overcome the schemes and plots to retain power until it was his turn to ascend the throne.
Henry V Became Ruler in 1413
Henry V himself became the ruler of England in 1413 and after helping his father overcome those plotting to overthrow him, Henry V’s reign was mostly free of domestic rebellions and wars so he was able to devote resources to the Hundred Years’ War in France.
His military skill enabled him to achieve victory in that war as well but then his sudden death in 1422 brought some uncertainty to the kingdom once again. Henry V’s infant son, Henry VI, ascended the throne, so France was easily able to overthrow England’s rule over them.
Henry VI’s Ineffectual Leadership
Henry VI was essentially a toddler when his father died and left him to rule, so things were a bit murky for the entire kingdom at that point. It didn’t help that his councilors and consort, Margaret of Anjou, were unpopular and that his leadership was ineffective.
The House of Lancaster became significantly weaker during his reign, leading to the emergence of the House of York who sought to challenge the Lancastrians because Richard, Duke of York was waging war against the Queen.
The Yorkists’ Victory in 1461
The Duke of York died in battle in 1460, so his eldest legitimate son, Edward IV, took over control of the House of York. Edward would then lead the House of York to victory over the House of Lancaster in 1461, overthrowing Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou in the process.
Edward IV’s emergence didn’t signify a lot of stability either because he was battling the Lancastrians, and his own councilors weren’t very pleased with him after he married Elizabeth Woodville.
Edward IV prevailed over his foes
Despite rebellions from within his own circle, Edward IV prevailed over his foes and won back the throne after killing Edward of Westminster, the Lancastrian heir. Next, he captured Margaret of Anjou and sent her into exile; he also killed Henry VI, who was his prisoner in the Tower.
However, none of that led to the end of the War of Roses, which continued during his reign and that of his son Edward IV, and his sibling Richard III. That war led to the disappearance of Edward V.
The Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485
The Wars of Roses raged on and on, and in the end, it led to victory for the House of Lancaster who were led by Henry Tudor. They managed to make Edward V disappear, and in 1485, they emerged victorious from the Battle of Bosworth Field in which Richard III was killed.
What was left of the Yorkist forces were neutralized by King Henry VII, who consolidated power by marrying Elizabeth of York, an heir in the House of York, so their union brought some peace.
Absolute supremacy under Henry VII
King Henry VII was quite a skilled ruler, and with his abilities and skills, he was able to assert absolute supremacy in the kingdom. Unlike the kings before him, there were no conflicts with the nobles during Henry’s reign.
He effectively set the tone for the rule of the second Tudor King, Henry VIII, whose reign marked great political change for the kingdom. Henry VIII’s reign was characterized by disputes with the Pope and religious upheaval. It didn’t help that he only had one child from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
The church of England
The religious upheavals and disputes with the Pope during Henry VIII’s reign ended when he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church to create the Church of England.
He also divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn around this time, and Wales, which remained a separate dominion even though it had been conquered, was officially annexed to England under the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542. His young son and successor to the throne, Edward VI, sustained the religious reforms drive.
Lady Jane Grey’s reign and Mary I
Edward VI’s sudden death in 1553 left a gap to fill in the kingdom. He had been skeptical about letting his Catholic half-sister, Mary I, ascend the throne after him, so Edward VI created a will in which Lady Jane Grey would rule after him.
It worked as he wanted, but only for a short while as Jane’s reign ended after nine days as she was deposed by Mary who was remarkably popular and who had the support of the masses.
Philip of Spain
Mary I declared herself the lawful ruler of the kingdom once she’d deposed Lady Jane Grey. She quickly married Philip of Spain and declared him co-ruler and king. They would have different ambitions as she wanted to return England to Roman Catholicism and he waged disastrous wars in France.
Mary even labeled protestants heretics and burned them at the stake, so her reign was characterized by a protestant uprising and the war of Catholics against protestants. Unfortunately, Mary and Philip didn’t have an heir to ascend the throne.
When Mary I died in 1558, she didn’t have an heir to ascend the throne so her protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I, ascended the throne. In terms of religion, Elizabeth predictably returned England to protestantism as Mary was gone and there was no one to assert England’s return to Catholicism.
The masses were as well in support of abandoning Roman Catholicism so there wasn’t a lot of resistance during her reign. Politically, she continued the nation’s growth as a major world power, exploring the New World and consolidating military power.
The Picts, the Britons, and the Gaels
Just as it was in England, monarchies emerged in Scotland after the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain. Scotland was primarily populated by three groups at the time, the Picts in the northeast, the Britons in the south, and the kingdom of Strathclyde.
Then the Gaels or Scotti, for whom the kingdom was named, lived in the Irish territory of Dal Riata in the western region. The first person to be viewed as the king of a united Scotland is Kenneth MacAlpin.
The Custom of Tanistry
The early kings in Scotland did not inherit the throne directly, but rather, the custom of tanistry was employed. In this system, the monarchy was rotated between the different branches that made up the House of Alpin.
The implication of this system is that different dynastic lines clashed with each other, often killing each other in the process. Seven consecutive rulers were murdered in battle from 942 to 1005 as a result, leading to the emergence of Malcolm II, who had overcome lots of foes.
The ruthless Malcolm II
The killing of consecutive monarchs meant that only the strongest and fiercest could rule Scotland. It was in this environment of death and betrayal that Malcolm II became the monarch, having killed lots of his foes without flinching.
He would however die in 1034, with his grandson, Duncan I, ascending the throne rather than his cousin, which is how it should have been done. This led to battle, and in 1034, Duncan lost in battle to Macbeth, who was then killed by Duncan’s son some years after.
Malcolm III’s ascension
Malcolm III succeeded in avenging his father, Duncan I, by killing Macbeth in 1057. He also succeeded in killing Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, a year after, before ascending the throne as Malcolm III.
The deposing and battles didn’t end there either as they waged on and on until one of Malcolm's brothers and five of his sons became king too. In the end, his youngest son, David I, became the king. David was in turn succeeded by his grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, who became the longest-reigning King of Scots.
William the Lion’s Rebellion against England
William the Lion led Scotland in a rebellion against England and King Henry II but he failed and was captured by English forces. William was then coerced into acknowledging King Henry as his feudal overlord in exchange for his freedom.
However, that arrangement was terminated in 1189 in exchange for some money he needed from William for the Crusades. William would then die in 1214, and his son, Alexander II, ascended the throne. Both Alexander II and Alexander III tried to take over the Western Isles from Norway.
The Treaty of Perth
Alexander II and Alexander III’s attempts to wrestle the Western Isles from Norway led to an unsuccessful invasion of Scotland by Norway. This in turn led to the Treaty of Perth, which recognized the Western Isles and other disputed territories as Scottish territories.
Alexander III’s death in a riding accident in 1286 set the stage for an unprecedented succession crisis in Scotland as the rightful heir couldn’t be determined. The leaders of Scotland turned to King Edward I of England for help, and he chose Alexander’s Norwegian granddaughter, Margaret.
Margaret died at sea in 1290
Margaret, the successor to the Scottish throne chosen by the King of England himself, died at sea on her way to Scotland in 1290. This led to the emergence of 13 rival claimants to the throne, and Edward was again asked to intervene in the succession crisis but he couldn’t solve the problem this time.
This led to the creation of a court, and after two years, John Balliol was pronounced King of Scotland. John was treated as a vassal by Edward, who tried to dominate Scotland once again.
The Wars of Scottish Independence
As a result of King Edward’s drive to exert his dominance over Scotland, King Balliol renounced his kingdom’s allegiance to England. Balliol’s decision forced Edward I to invade Scotland, and the Wars of Scottish Independence broke out.
During the first decade of those wars, there was no monarch in Scotland. Robert the Bruce would however emerge in 1306 and declare himself the ruler of Scotland, he succeeded in gaining control over Scotland, and the independence of Scotland was achieved in 1328.
David II’s ascension and Balliol’s reign
A year after Scotland’s independence was acknowledged, Robert the Bruce died, and he was succeeded by his son, David II, who was only five years old. England found a new excuse to invade Scotland on the pretext of restoring the rightful heir of Edward Balliol.
Unfortunately for Balliol, stability was hard to come by during his reign as he was crowned king, then deposed, restored as king, deposed, restored once again, and deposed for the third and final time before he moved to England.
David II’s 35-year reign and his successors
After Edward Balliol’s final deposition, King David II’s claim to the throne went unchallenged, and he ruled Scotland for the next 35 years. He would however die childless, so he was succeeded by Robert II of the House of Stuart, his nephew.
The thing with the reign of Robert II, and Robert III who succeeded him, is that both their reigns were characterized by a vivid decline in the power of the crown. Regents ruled the country once Robert III died.
James I of Scotland
Robert III’s son, James I, had been taken prisoner when he died in 1406, so the void left by his father’s death was filled by regents. A large ransom was paid for his release, and he returned to Scotland in 1424.
He immediately set about reasserting his authority, adopting brutal methods that included executing a bunch of his known adversaries. That, however, put him at odds with the nobles, and he was eventually killed by some of the nobles. This left a leadership void until his son succeeded him once again.
James II continued his father’s legacy
The policy of subduing and executing prominent noblemen in Scotland was introduced by James I but his son, James II, continued the legacy. However, like his father, his reign was short-lived as well; he was killed in an accident at 30, leaving a power void that was again filled by a council of regents.
His son, James III, would be the one to permanently fill the void but like his father and grandfather, his stint on the throne wasn’t a long one. James III lost a battle against some rebel Scottish earls in 1488, leading to the ascension of James IV.
Ill-Fated invasion of England
James IV was only a boy-king when he ascended the throne but that didn’t stop him from making big moves once he got the hang of things.
He launched an invasion of England in 1513 but it turned out badly for his forces, who had a tough time at Flodden Field, and hundreds of soldiers, noblemen, and the king himself were killed. James V, James IV’s son and successor was only an infant at the time so regents once again took over affairs of the government.
James V’s invasion
James V, like his father, James IV, would also launch a military invasion of England, pitting his forces against English forces in a brutal conflict. And just like his father before him, James V was killed in the war with the English, leaving the throne to Mary, his infant daughter.
As a result, the council of regents were called upon once again to fill the void until Mary was ready to ascend the throne. She was a Roman Catholic so her rule was always going to result in changes.
The protestant ascendancy
Mary’s reign as monarch was characterized by serious religious reforms in Scotland. Reformers like John Knox became more prominent, and a protestant ascendancy became prominent as well.
When Mary decided to marry her cousin, Lord Darnley, in 1565, alarm bells rang in the country because he was Catholic as well. He was assassinated two years later, and she decided to marry Earl of Bothwell and create a union that was even more unpopular because people believed Darnley was killed by Earl.
The nobles rebelled against Mary
Mary’s decision to marry the Earl of Bothwell led to discontent against her rule, and the nobles themselves rebelled against her. They would succeed in overthrowing Mary and forcing her into exile.
Mary fled to England, leaving the throne to her young son, James VI, who wasn’t raised as a Catholic like his mother but was raised as a protestant. Mary would however suffer a horrible fate in exile in England as she was captured, jailed, and eventually executed by Elizabeth, the English queen.
The end of Tudor rule
The death of Elizabeth I in 1603 signified the end of Tudor rule in England. She didn’t have any children or successors so the Scottish monarch and great-grandson of Henry VIII, James VI, succeeded her.
He ruled the whole of England as James I after a period known as the Union of the Crowns. Scotland and England were united under one monarch during this period so James I & VI was able to pronounce himself the King of Great Britain.
Conflicts with the English Parliament
The reign of Charles I, who succeeded James I & VI, was characterized by regular conflicts with the English parliament on matters of parliamentary and royal powers. The power to impose taxes was a particularly delicate one that fueled the conflicts.
Charles I’s decision to rule without parliament from 1629 to 1640 provoked further resistance, as he levied taxes and adopted religious policies without their input. It didn’t help that his policies were offensive to the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians.
Organized rebellion in Scotland
Beyond his offensive religious policies, King Charles I’s attempts to impose Anglicanism resulted in organized rebellion in Scotland, causing the Bishops Wars, and igniting the Wars of the Three Kingdoms as well.
The conflict between the English parliament and the King climaxed in 1642, leading to the English Civil War which in turn led to the execution of the King seven years after it began. The English monarchy was overthrown during this conflict, and the Commonwealth of England was created.
King of Great Britain in Scotland
After the execution of King Charles I, his son, Charles II, was pronounced the King of Great Britain in Scotland. Charles II was, however, compelled to go into exile after the invasion of England, and his defeat at the Battle of Worcester.
This left a power void that Oliver Cromwell, a prominent military and political leader, would eventually fill by taking power and declaring himself the Lord Protector of the kingdom. Cromwell would rule the kingdom until he died in 1658.
The Lord Protector’s successor
After Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard ascended the throne, but unlike his father, Richard wasn’t thrilled by being the new Lord Protector and he resigned shortly after his rule began.
There was a gaping void once again, and not having a leader tossed the kingdom into military and civil unrest, and within the masses, a desire to have a solid ruler brewed. The monarchy was then restored in 1660, and Charles II found his way back to Britain.
The first modern political parties in England
The reign of Charles II was characterized by the development of the first modern political parties in England. Unfortunately, Charles II didn’t have legitimate children so he was to be succeeded by James, Duke of York, who was his Roman Catholic brother.
In the parliament, there was a thick plot to block James from the line of succession; the group that supported the exclusion was the Petitioners, who would later become the Whig Party. The Abhorrers on the other hand, who were against his exclusion, became the Tory Party.
Ruled without a parliament
The dissolution of parliament in 1681 meant that Charles ruled without the support of parliament until he died in 1685. Charles was then succeeded by James, who created a policy of offering Roman Catholics religious tolerance, a policy that was met with stiff resistance by the protestants.
So many protestants were against his decision to keep the standing army large, and the appointment of Roman Catholics to sensitive military and political positions. James’ decision to imprison the clerics of the Church of England that challenged him did some damage too.
The Immortal Seven
James’ daughter Mary and her husband, William III of Orange, were invited by a group of protestants called the Immortal Seven. The group wanted Mary and William to depose the king, and they got William to oblige their request.
William would then enjoy tremendous public support upon his arrival in England in November 1688. Lots of James’ protestant officials were defecting, so he would eventually flee, paving the way for William and Mary to emerge as the rulers of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
The Glorious Revolution
The deposition of James, called the Glorious Revolution, was one of the most remarkable events in the long history of parliamentary power.
The Bill of Rights of 1689 reasserted the supremacy of parliament and also declared certain rights for the English masses, including exemption from taxes levied on them without the consent of parliament. It also required that future monarchs be protestants, but Mary II would die without a child, leaving the throne to William III & II as the monarch.
The Fear of the Jacobites
Six years after the death of Mary II, a political crisis erupted, and Anne lost all her children in the crisis. She was left as the last in the line of succession but at the same time, parliament was scared of the former James II, and his Jacobites.
They were scared the Jacobites might try to lay a claim on the throne once again so they passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which stipulated the exclusion of both James and his Catholic affiliates from the line of succession.
The Act of Security 1704
The problem of succession once again emerged after Anne’s accession to the throne. The Scottish parliament weren’t thrilled by the fact that they weren’t consulted by their English counterparts on their selection of Sophia’s family as heirs to the throne.
They passed the Act of Security 1704 as a result, and the threat of the union between England and Scotland coming to an end was very real at that point. The English parliament responded with the Alien Act 1705, which would have fleeced the economy of Scotland by restricting trade.
The Acts of Union 1707
The parliaments of Scotland and England would eventually negotiate the Acts of Union 1707, which stipulated Scotland and England as a single kingdom called Great Britain. With this new act, succession would be coordinated under the Act of Settlement rules.
George I, Sophia’s son and the second cousin of Queen Anne succeeded her and consolidated his power by conquering the Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1719. Despite not being as active in government, he nonetheless retained control over German territories which were in personal union with Britain.