William I, 1066-1087
William I (William Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror)
In person, William I was said to be a man of great stature with the thundering voice one might expect from one of historys most remarkable figures. William became Duke of Normandy when he was just 7 years old, and by age 24 he was the mightiest feudal lord in France.
In 1066 William seized the English crown at the momentous Battle of Hastings. During his reign, William established a social order that would endure for centuries, and would become known as the feudal system. Although never popular with the English Saxon population, Williams iron rule brought order and stability. William ordered the creation of the Domesday Book an exhaustive census of all of Englands people and property.
William died in 1087 while warring with Philip I in France.
William II (William Rufus) 1087-1100
During his rule from 1087 to 1100, William II, called Rufus (Red) because of his ruddy complexion, was not a popular man. One Anglo Saxon chronicle says that he was hated by almost all his people, and abhorred by God. He every morning got up a worse man than he lay down, and every evening lay down a worse man than he got up.
From his father, William Rufus received the English crown while his brother Robert was given Normandy.
Throughout his reign, Rufus was known for selling off church offices or keeping them unoccupied so that he could collect their revenue for himself. While hunting in the royal forest, Rufus was killed, probably accidentally, by an arrow through the head. He was succeeded by his brother, Henry I.
Henry (Henry Beauclerc) 1100-1135
Henry I was present when his brother, William Rufus, was killed, and he immediately claimed the throne. Henrys rule is remembered primarily as one of peace and order, although in 1125 he found 94 of his 97 moneyers guilty of debasing the coinage, and ordered a hand chopped off of each one, and nailed to the owners office door.
During his reign, Henry declared a law that no baron could fortify his dwelling without a royal decree, a move that reveals the crowns fear of revolt as well as the growing importance of castles.
In 1106, Henry defeated Duke Robert of Normandy, thus establishing his own authority on both sides of the English Channel. In 1120, his son William drowned and, according to legend, the King never smiled again.
King Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, came to the throne in controversy. Before Henry I died, he had named his daughter Matilda to be his successor. But Matilda was across the Channel in Anjou when her father died, and Stephen claimed the crown. Twice was Stephens rule challenged by Matilda and her followers, who nearly succeeded in driving him out in 1141.
Stephen was never a strong ruler. Throughout his reign, lawless barons fought private wars in an effort to expand their powers. When Stephen died in 1154, the people were ready for a king who would assert his power and bring order to a troubled land.
While Stephen and Matilda quarreled almost non stop, Stephen relaxed the grip on the feudal barons that Henry I had held so carefully. The barons ran wild, building thousands of stone castles at an enormous rate. Thus secured behind their stone walls, the barons ignored royal decrees, made alliances with each other, and conducted private wars to the great detriment of the land and the peasants who lived there. One form of economic warfare was to slaughter all an enemys serfs, depriving him of the income from his fields, while leaving the fields themselves unharmed.
Henry II, 1154-1189
After the chaos of Stephens reign, the people of England needed a strong leader, and they found one in Henry II. The son of Henry Is daughter Matilda, Henry II was called Plantagenet, because of his habit of wearing in his hat a sprig of broom plant, or planta genista. After him the Plantagenet line of kings would rule England for 245 years.
Henrys greatest achievement was the reform of the law courts. He standardized the courts by sending out specially trained justices to sit in the county courts. The legal principles these circuit justices helped to promote became known as the common law.
One unfortunate effect of this effort was the conflict with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, over the question of whether church officials should fall under the jurisdiction of the Kings Court, or Curia Regis. Becket was murdered by the Kings men, and subsequently became a martyr and a saint.
Henry IIs last years were embittered by the rebellion of his sons, in conjunction with the King of France. He died, old and sick, in 1189, muttering, shame, shame on a conquered king.
Henry reasserted the former monarchic power over the barons by systematically razing the countrys castles. As his grandfather before him, Henry II realized that a proliferation of castles insulated ambitious barons from the authority of their king.
Richard I 1189-1199
The life of Richard the Lion Hearted is the stuff of legend. Tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed, a brave warrior as well as a lover of poetry and song, Richard won the hearts of his countrymen despite the fact that he spent only a few months of his ten-year reign in England.
At age 15, he helped his brothers in their unsuccessful revolt against their father Henry II. But Richard was more fighter than governor. Shortly after his coronation he set out to help recapture the Holy Land, and became a chief leader of the Third Crusade. After several years Richard began to make his way home. He traveled for some time in disguise through Germany, but was captured by his enemy the Duke of Austria and held prisoner for many months. His ransom paid, Richard again went to war, this time defending his royal holdings in France. There he died in 1199, struck in the neck by a crossbow bolt.
Despite his absence, England fared well during Richards reign thanks to skilled and dedicated administrators like Hubert Walter, who helped to put down an attempted coup by Richards brother John in 1193.
History remembers John as one of Englands worst kings. He is described as vicious, cruel, cold, greedy, and given to frenzied fits of rage. Ironically, his reign produced the momentous Magna Carta, a pivotal document that limited even the role of a king and guaranteed the basic rights of his subjects.
In pursuit of the crown John plotted against his father, King Henry II, and later against his brother Richard. He became king in 1199 and began immediately to push the bounds of his royal power to their limits. In one characteristic maneuver, John conspired to eliminate his young nephew Arthur, who many felt had a legitimate claim to the throne. Arthur ultimately disappeared, and no one is sure what became of him One account said that John ordered his men to capture and castrate Arthur, who subsequently died from the shock.
Johns greed and cruelty served to unite feudal nobles, churchmen, and townspeople. In 1215, a group of nobles forced John to sign the Magna Carta, which spelled out various laws, rights, and official limits. The Magna Cartas great importance lay in its assumption that certain universal laws superseded even the power of the king.
Henry III, 1216-1272
Henry IIIs long reign saw many changes to Englands political landscape, most centered upon the longstanding power struggle between the king and the feudal barons. Henry was crowned in 1216 at age 9, but took effective control over his realm only upon coming of age in 1227.
The pious Henry angered his barons by waging a costly and unproductive war in France, as well as by favoring the interests of the church over those of the landed aristocracy. Such tensions exploded in 1264, when a group of the most powerful nobles revolted under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The Earl managed to overwhelm the kings forces and imprison both Henry and his son Edward, for a time becoming the effective ruler of England. Edward ultimately escaped and rallied sufficient support to put down Simons revolt. The conflict did, however, achieve some lasting reforms, most notably the expansion of the English Parliament.
The monarchy restored , Edwards strong presence overshadowed that of his weak and aging father. In 1272, Henry died, and the throne passed officially into Edwards hands.
Edward I, 1272-1307
Edward I, called Longshanks because of his unusual height, was a strong and decisive king who solidified royal power even as he expanded the role the English Parliament. Edwards greatest challenge was his effort to bring Wales and Scotland under his rule, and among his greatest legacies are the great castles he build to further this effort.
With the end of the Crusades and loss of most English holdings in France, Edward soon turned his eye toward the territories of Scotland and Wales. Edwards incursions into Wales began in 1277, when he challenged the rule of Welsh Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd. A vital part of Edwards Welsh campaign was to build a series a great stone castles along the Northern coast to secure his forces and quell local rebellion. Many of these still stand today, a monument to Edward Longshanks vision of a unified English Island.
Partly because of the kings coffer-depleting castle program in Wales, Edward had less success subduing the Scots. The expansive and rugged terrain of Scotland, coupled with the likes of rebels like William Wallace and Robert Bruce, made the job difficult for a monarch with dwindling resources.
At home, Edward brought many progressive reforms, such as the expansion of the Parliament. He died in 1307 at the ripe age of 68.
Edward II, 1307-1327
Edward II 1307-1327
Despite careful training by his father, the feeble and cowardly Edward II bore no resemblance to his father in the field of leadership. Edward thought to quiet mounting discontent at home by securing the Scottish territory that had eluded his capable father. The result was one the most humiliating military defeats of English history. More than 25,000 English troops, including some 3,000 armored knights were slaughtered by a hardened band of 10,000 Scottish spearmen under the brilliant command of Robert Bruce.
In 1326 the Kings enemies, aided by his wife Isabella staged a revolt. The King was captured, and his young son Edward III was crowned in his stead. Several months later, the deposed King was brutally murdered. It is said that his screams carried outside prison walls as his bowels were burned by red-hot irons as they passed into his body.