Article: 25 British Monarchs … and Their Scandals!: HowStuffWorks
25 British Monarchs … and Their Scandals!
Image: Wiki Commons by Queensland State Archives
About This Article
British monarchs did not suddenly come into existence in 1066. Following the invasion of William the Conqueror, Norman historians decided to mark time as though it began with their arrival on British shores, calling all time before 1066 "time immemorial." To number the post-1066 British kings starting with the number one, they gave the Anglo-Saxon and Danish kings appellations like "The Just" or "The Martyr." In this way, the Norman kings and those who followed them could brand themselves as the sole owners of England, and eventually, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
As a result of this, the scandals of British monarchs are not limited to just the recent past, or indeed just England. There was a time when "England" did not exist as such. There were monarchs with scandals surrounding their romantic proclivities, and monarchs who overreached in their quest for total control. There were monarchs whose scandals may be apocryphal, and there are monarchs whose scandals were only considered scandalous because of the age in which they lived. Some scandals were mostly private, while others became very public. Get ready to learn how some of the strangest scandals in British history came from monarchs whom you would never associate with such salacious stories.
Vultures Descend on the Court of the King
In his autumn years, Edward III was famously taken advantage of by the people surrounding him. From his mistress, against whom parliament moved when she was showered with gifts of money and of land by the King, to the King's Chamberlain, to the King's Warden of the Mint, both of whom were accused of accepting bribes and using their positions for self-serving ends.
"Who Will Rid Me of This Turbulent Priest?"
Henry II learnt that those in power need to choose their words with care. Upon hearing the King lament, the actions of Thomas Becket with the sentiment above, two of his men murdered Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. When responsibility for the murder was laid at the King's feet, the King tried to avoid punishment. Still, the Pope ruled that he was responsible for his men's actions, as the wishes of powerful men are expected to be fulfilled when given voice.
Jacobites Spread Rumours of This King's Sexual Preferences
William III was not gay, but unlike many Kings of England, he did not have dozens of mistresses. When his Jacobite enemies needed a scandal with which to tar William III, they settled on rumors of his homosexuality. The King had many close male friends, some of them from Holland, to whom he granted titles, favour and most importantly, his time. This made him an easy target, though historians do not believe the rumours.
"Once you have paid him the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane."
King Aethelred I of England (the other was of Wessex) was not a cruel king, or a stupid king. His state was better organized than it had been any time before. He was simply the unlucky target of fate. His ancestors benefited from the Vikings' focus on the continent, but under Aethelred, the Vikings began raiding in earnest, and he paid them "Danegeld;" what would be called protection money in today's parlance. It didn't work.
The King Renounces His Throne After One Month
Edward VIII was always at odds with convention. He did not like much of how the monarchy worked, nor did he have patience for those willing to correct him. One month into his reign, he proposed to the woman he loved, an American named Wallis Simpson, who was twice divorced, with two ex-husbands still alive. He renounced his throne, ceding it to his little brother, who became King George VI.
The King Who Tortured and Executed "Witches"
The history of Europe had periods when it was heretical to believe in the existence of witchcraft, and times when it was heretical not to. Into this confusing mix of rules enter the period of the witch trials, starting in 1450 and going well into the 1700s. James VI and I was an enthusiastic proponent of rooting out witchcraft, supervising "interrogations" and publishing written works intended to convince others of the danger of witchcraft.
"The Martyr"? Maybe Not So Much
Edward the Martyr's name derives from two sources. The first is that Norman historians wanted to bury the Anglo-Saxon kings in the past, so the Normans could be "Richard I," "William I," "Edward I" etc. The ridiculous story about Edward's martyrdom comes from the fact that from the time he was a boy, Edward was violent, attacking his own bodyguards. He was stabbed while visiting his mother; no one knows by whom.
The King Who Didn't Know to Quit While He Was Ahead
One would think that being King of England would be enough to make one happy, but Charles I wanted to be an autocrat. He presided over an expensive war, had subjects with strong religious disagreements with him and his wife, and in his displeasure with parliament, he dissolved it three times. Due to his unwillingness to compromise at all, there was a civil war that only ended when his head was struck from his shoulders.
Whiling Away the Years Producing Illegitimate Children
No one would say Charles II had an easy life. He watched his father's fall and was banished to an unfriendly continent without allies or funds. When, after the death of Cromwell, Charles was invited to return to England to inherit the throne, he had cause to celebrate and celebrate he did. Making up for his suffering, one imagines, he had many mistresses and produced no fewer than 14 illegitimate children.
The Queen Who Posed for a Racy Painting
One need only visit any major British city to find evidence of Queen Victoria's love of her husband, Prince Albert, as the nation is dotted with monuments to their relationship. For Prince Albert's 24th birthday, Victoria commissioned a painting of herself posed with her hair down, neck and part of her chest exposed. This was meant as a private gift, and those who knew of it were scandalised.
Is It Possible for an Entire Life to Be a Scandal?
Henry VIII's name conjures so many scandals, it could be said most of his life was plagued by one scandal or another. He was named "Defender of The Faith" for opposing Protestantism, and then broke with Catholicism. When he could not produce male heirs, he would find reasons to divorce, and in one case, decapitate his wives. He spent much of his life with a chronic injury that posed a constant threat of infection. Henry VII was the King of Scandal.
When "Clean Up Your Act" Means "Marry Your Cousin"
As a Prince, George IV liked to gamble and had a secret wife and children. He found himself without funds and turned to his father for relief. King George III told his son to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. George IV abandoned his wife and children, and married his cousin, but carried on with mistresses, openly mocking Caroline's appearance. They separated. While George happily cheated on his wife, he was furious at stories of her moving on with her life in Italy and kept the news of her mother's death from her.
A Future King's Sins Earned Him Blame for His Father's Death
It can be difficult to live up to expectations, especially when one's parents are Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. When Edward VII was a young man, he visited a military camp, and had what would be the first of his many "romantic" conquests, this one with the "camp prostitute." When word reached his parents, they were horrified, and when Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria openly blamed her son's lascivious act for her beloved's death.
The Queen Who Was Abused by Her Stepfather
When Elizabeth I was was just 13 years old, 38-year-old Thomas Seymour proposed. She turned him down. Shortly after that, he married Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's widow, putting all three under the same roof. Privy Council records cite accounts from Elizabeth's servants that Seymour would appear in her bedroom "barelegged," and would terrify her with very inappropriate touching. Her experiences with Seymour are often excluded from the conversation about the fact that she never married.
Twisting a Victim Into a Perpetrator
Following the death of her French husband and her move to Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots married a Scottish Lord who forced her into the marriage through abuse of social conventions and a personal violation. Later, while imprisoned in England by Elizabeth I, a cynical, hardened and jaded Mary plotted with the French, Catholic monarchy to assassinate Elizabeth I and usurp her throne.
The King Whose Downfall Was Marked by Two Male Lovers
Edward II was the first monarch named Prince of Wales before the coronation. He was also very likely gay or at least bisexual. He had a very close relationship with Piers Gaveston, a boy his age who was subsequently banished to France when they were teens. Once King, Edward II brought back Piers, giving him a title. Angered lords attacked Gaveston's castle and decapitated him. Edward turned to another favourite, Hugh Despenser the younger, a lord noted for stealing land and piracy, and being Edward's other lover. Despenser was hanged, drawn and quartered.
The King With Three Names
According to the "Henriad," King Henry V was not always as we imagine a king. Believed to be historically accurate, Shakespeare's account describes a young man who spent his youth with men and women of much lower rank, drinking and carousing. To signify these stages in his life, King Henry goes by three names in Shakespeare's plays: Hal, when very young, Harry, when an adolescent, and Henry, as a man.
The Second King Since the Norman Conquest to Marry a Subject
Elizabeth Woodville was by no means a commoner, but she was not of high birth and had no inheritance. Still, King Edward IV was smitten by her beauty and decided to marry her despite the whispers. Unfortunately for both Edward and Elizabeth, their union earned the enmity of the Earl of Warwick, who abandoned them in favour of Lancaster.
The Mad King
King George III presided over a tumultuous period of British history. Napoleon. The American War of Independence. Pitt the Elder's struggles against the slave trade. The scandal that could have destroyed King George III was his "madness." It is not clear exactly what form of illness he had. Still, there is speculation that it was either syphilis, bipolar disorder or a disease called porphyria, in which a buildup of organic compounds can cause confusion and seizures.
The Pen Was Mightier Than the Sword
King John is noted for losing things. He lost claim to lands in France, and he lost a war with his own barons. This civil war resulted in John being forced to sign a document preventing him from holding all the power in the nation, and by "forced," we mean "at the point of a sword." The name of this document is Magna Carta, the most significant political document in British history.
The King Who Became More Deformed in Death
Richard III imprisoned princes in The Tower who deemed a threat to his claim, but there is no evidence that he murdered them, or that they were even murdered at all. Still, his detractors used that and various other stories to wreck his reputation. One of them was that Richard had one shoulder slightly higher than the other, which by Shakespeare's time, had transmuted Richard into a club-footed hunchback.
There's No Royal Scandal Like Dying Without a Plan of Succession
Edgar the Peaceable was an Anglo-Saxon king so named because his reign was marked by the distinct lack of Viking invasions. Little did the Britons know that this was because the Vikings were in the midst of wars with the Holy Roman Empire, and each other. Edgar was a violent man, whose death is only described in the chronicles as "violent," and he died without any plan for succession, meaning his two legitimate sons had to contend with dozens of illegitimate ones.
The Illegitimate King of England
William The Conqueror (who was never called this in his lifetime) was the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and Herlava of Falaise, Robert's mistress. When Robert could produce no legitimate heirs, he named William his heir, forcing his subordinates to acknowledge this. Of course, nothing confers legitimacy like becoming king by one's own hand.
The King Who Lived in Sin for Decades
There is such a thing as living down to expectations. William IV was not expected to become King of England, as he was third in line. As this was his situation, he followed his heart, living for 20 years with his great love, Dorothea Bland, an actress from Ireland. Together, they produced 10 illegitimate children. The monarchy's need for him coincided with him running out of money, and so his debts were paid, and he abandoned his partner and children to be king.
The King Famous for Being a Rubbish Chef
King Alfred, the Great of Wessex, laid the foundations for what would become the monarchy of England, but one of the few things for which he is best remembered is a legend about his failure. It is said that the King was laying low in a house in wartime, and was asked to pull his weight in the kitchen. The result? He burned the cakes so badly that there is now an ugly fungus named for them.
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