oyal history is a key part of British culture. Every year, there’s an abundance of books, television shows, and movies about the kings and queens of our past. Even those with little interest in history know something about these unique men and women. While some of our monarchs are known for their kindness, their skills, or their sense of duty, others have gone down in history for completely the wrong reasons.
1. Edward II (King of England)
Edward II’s kingship looks particularly bad when compared with the successful tenures of his father and son, and historians now regard him as one of the worst monarchs in British history.
Edward’s military campaigns were far from satisfactory, especially when it came to the Wars of Scottish Independence. In June 1314, he arrived at Stirling with one of the largest armies ever assembled. Though they had a two-to-one advantage, the English were crushed by Robert the Bruce and his Scottish army.
Matters weren’t helped by the Great Famine (1315–1317). Flooding led to a poor crop surplus. Infections spread amongst farm animals. Food prices skyrocketed. And many people died from malnutrition or disease.
Despite the dire state of his country, Edward was too selective with his political advisers. He spent much of his time in the company of Hugh Despenser the Younger, which eventually led to a baronial revolt — known as the Despenser War — against the king.
Angered by her husband’s behavior, Queen Isabella traveled to France and plotted his downfall with her new lover, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. They raised an army and invaded England in September 1326. Edward was captured and killed the following year.
2. Henry VIII (King of England and Ireland)
The misadventures of Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives are a notorious part of British history, and it’s easy to see why.
After becoming King of England in 1509 (he wasn’t King of Ireland until 1542), Henry married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. But he was always cheating on Catherine with various mistresses. And to make matters worse, the queen was unable to provide her husband with a male heir. She only gave birth to one daughter, who grew up to be Mary I.
Frustrated, Henry divorced Catherine without the Pope’s approval by creating his own church, the Church of England. He then married a dark-haired beauty named Anne Boleyn, who also failed to produce a male heir. So, without any solid evidence to support his claims, Henry accused his wife of adultery, and she was beheaded in May 1536.
Though Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, provided him with a son, she died shortly after giving birth. Hungry for more male heirs, Henry agreed to marry Anne of Cleves. But he annulled the marriage after six months because he didn’t think Anne was attractive enough.
The fifth marriage was even worse. Catherine Howard proved to be an unfaithful wife, so Henry had her beheaded in February 1542.
By this time, the king was massively overweight. He was so fat he had to be carried around in a sedan chair. Despite his less-than-ideal appearance, Henry married for a sixth and final time in the summer of 1543. But Catherine Parr didn’t provide Henry with any more sons, leaving him with just one male heir: Edward VI.
3. Mary I (Queen of England and Ireland)
No one can deny Henry VIII was a selfish, bloodthirsty king, but his daughter was even worse.
Following the untimely death of Edward VI, Mary became Queen of England and Ireland in the summer of 1553. As a devout Catholic, she believed God had put her on the throne for one reason: to reverse the Protestant Reformation.
She brought back Catholic rituals, banned the Protestant Book of Common Prayer, and started executing anyone who rebelled against Catholicism. Indeed, groups of Protestants were regularly burned in front of large crowds. By the end of her five-year reign, 300 Protestants had been burned alive.
Many Protestants fled the country to avoid persecution, while others expressed their outrage as more and more people were executed. Catholicism soon became synonymous with brutality and immorality. The dead became martyrs, and some of their bodies were kept as holy treasures by the Protestant community.
Due to her wickedness, Mary more than deserved her notorious nickname: Bloody Mary.
4. George IV (King of Great Britain and Ireland)
George IV spent his days pursuing one thing: pleasure. During his adolescence, he rebelled against the soberness of his parents and developed a lust for drinking, eating, gambling, and sexual exploits.
This didn’t change when the young prince reached adulthood. His colorful social life led to a serious amount of debt (which Parliament had to pay for), and he had many illegitimate children with his mistresses.
In 1810, the king sank into a decade-long decline due to various health issues, and George became the Prince Regent. This increased level of responsibility did nothing to change his attitude. The prince continued to live a lavish lifestyle while Parliament managed the country.
George finally became King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1820. He experienced a succession of Prime Ministers, most of whom he disagreed with. Along with the Duke of Wellington, he fervently opposed major political reform and quarreled with Parliament about foreign policy.
Though George had a string of lovers throughout his lifetime, he was a sad, lonely, overweight king by the end of his reign. He died in 1830 and was succeeded by his younger brother, William IV.
5. Edward VIII (King of the United Kingdom)
Like George IV, Edward VIII liked to misbehave. He rebelled against his father’s discipline and had little interest in politics. The young prince also embarked on a series of love affairs, developing a taste for older, married women.
In 1931, he met Wallis Simpson, an American socialite who had just married for a second time. The two of them became closer and closer as time went on, and by 1935, Edward wanted to marry her.
After the death of George V, Edward became King of the United Kingdom, and he still had every intention of marrying Wallis. But it wasn’t that simple. The potential marriage was frowned upon by the government and the Church of England. They didn’t want the king to marry a divorced woman whose previous husbands were still alive.
Torn between duty and love, Edward ultimately opted for the latter. He abdicated in December 1936, less than a year after becoming king. His brother, George VI, was forced to take up the mantle instead. Edward, now free from the burden of kingship, married Wallis the following summer.
In October 1937, Edward and his new wife traveled to Nazi Germany. He was photographed alongside Adolf Hilter and even performed the Nazi salute on several occasions. After the Second World War, the Allies discovered documents outlining the Nazis’ intention to restore Edward to the throne as the head of a fascist Britain.
Due to Edward’s connection with the Nazis, historians argue that his abdication was actually a blessing in disguise. If he had remained king, the British monarchy would have been irredeemably tainted.
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