In the medieval period, monarchs didn’t simply sit around lording it over their underlings at court. Many would pick up their swords and get stuck into some of the most savage battles imaginable. Here are five such formidable warrior-kings who mounted military campaigns in the British Isles.
It’s unsurprising that William I, aka William the Conqueror, was one of the toughest warrior-kings of his age. Scorned as a young man for being illegitimate (he was nicknamed ‘the Bastard’), his early years as the Duke of Normandy were steeped in blood, with William personally leading military campaigns to consolidate his rule.
Then, in 1066, came the death of England’s Edward the Confessor, and the ascension of Harold II. William claimed that he had been promised the throne by Edward, and mounted an audacious invasion. William personally played an essential role in the ensuing Battle of Hastings, rallying his troops after a shaky start, and eventually crushing Harold’s forces.
William’s show of strength would continue after the battle, with the king ruthlessly crushing rebellions in northern England by destroying crops, burning down villages and slaughtering local people. This campaign, one of the most brutal ever carried out by an English king in his own realm, is remembered as the Harrying of the North.
Thanks in large part to Shakespeare, Richard III has a reputation as one of England’s most villainous kings. While debates still rage over his Machiavellian nature, and whether he was responsible for the murders of his young predecessor Edward V and his brother (the ‘Princes in the Tower’), one thing that’s certain is that Richard III was as much a soldier as a king.
Long before taking the crown, Richard had been active in the Wars of the Roses. In 1471, while still a teenager, he helped his brother Edward IV secure his reign at the decisive Battle of Tewkesbury, where Richard oversaw the execution of Lancastrian leaders.
But Richard’s most famous battle was his last: the Battle of Bosworth Field, which took place in 1485 and saw Richard’s forces take on those of Henry Tudor. Although the king’s army outnumbered Henry’s, it turned out to be Richard’s last stand. Finding himself surrounded but refusing to concede, he reputedly cried out ‘I will win the battle as a king, or die as one.’ He would, in fact, be the last English monarch to die on the battlefield.
Edward established his martial credentials early, fighting in the Crusades before he became king. It wasn’t long before he began to violently assert his authority as monarch. In response to provocations by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the officially recognised Prince of Wales, Edward led a vast invasion force into Wales in 1277.
The campaign escalated into an all-out war of conquest by Edward. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was killed in battle, and the victorious king undertook a dramatic colonisation of Wales.
Edward’s crosshairs would later fall on Scotland, with his infamous conquest of the country commencing in 1296. It opened in savage fashion with the siege of Berwick, where Edward’s wrath led to so many citizens being slaughtered that, in the words of 15th-century historian Walter Bower, ‘mills could be turned by the flow of their blood’.
Edward’s reputation as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ would be cemented by his ensuing campaigns against Scottish rebels – most famously, at the Battle of Falkirk, where Edward personally presided over a victory against William Wallace and shattered Wallace’s standing as a military leader.
Robert the Bruce
At times an ally of both Edward I and William Wallace, Robert the Bruce was embroiled in some of the most tempestuous chapters of Scottish history. He became king of Scotland in violent fashion in 1306, after stabbing a rival claimant for the crown (it’s unclear whether the rival, John Comyn, died from the wound, or was killed by Robert’s supporters).
The newly crowned Robert then had to contend with Edward I, who regarded him as a traitor and had many of his relatives and followers imprisoned and executed. As a fugitive king in his own land, Robert began a guerrilla warfare campaign against the English invaders and the house of Comyn, winning battles and capturing castles.
His crowning achievement as a warrior-king was the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where Robert triumphed over the forces of England’s Edward II. On the first day of the battle, Robert slammed his battle axe into the skull of an English knight, setting the tone for what followed. The victory helped pave the way for Scottish independence in the years that followed and secured Robert’s status as a national hero.
A titan of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry V is synonymous with the Battle of Agincourt. Taking place in 1415, it is famed as one of England’s greatest-ever military victories, with Henry’s forces managing to triumph against the larger French army. This was especially impressive considering that Henry and his men were exhausted after mounting a successful, but gruelling, siege of the port of Harfleur.
Henry famously deployed longbowmen to deadly effect at Agincourt, with the arrows killing and maddening the horses of the French cavalry. Hours later, after the French had been totally defeated, Henry had thousands of prisoners of war executed – an act that some historians have since characterised as a war crime.
Henry would go on to lead further battles and sieges in France, and it’s speculated he died after falling ill at the successful siege of Meaux in 1422. However, it’s the victory at Agincourt, immortalised by Shakespeare, that still defines his career as a warrior-king.