Surprising facts about England's lesser-known kings and queens

KIng William
What a silly Billy: William IV in garter robes painted by Martin Archer Shee | Wikimedia | Public Domain

In the long history of English – and later British - monarchs, there are the superstars and there are the ones that, if not exactly forgotten about, are less well-remembered and just there to make up the numbers. For every Henry VIII, there’s a Henry IV; for every Queen Elizabeth, there’s a Queen Anne. These are the monarchs that aren’t remembered for Armadas or having multiple wives or for not being amused by anything. Here we take a look at some of our lesser-known monarchs and uncover a few surprising facts about them that you may not know.

William I went out with a bang

Think William I and the Norman Conquest and the Domesday Book immediately spring to mind. However, what’s less well known about this formidable king is what happened to his body after his death. The king died on September the 9th 1087 from what is believed to be a rupture in his intestines caused by an accident while the king was riding his horse. As he lay dying, he was attended on his deathbed by various nobles, knights and clergymen who all promptly left when the king breathed his last. The servants who had been attending the king stripped his rooms of everything they could including clothing, linen, royal crests and arms and left William’s dead body lying almost naked on the floor. When William’s body was finally moved to the Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen where his tomb had been prepared, it was found that the morbidly obese king’s body was too large to be lowered into the grave. The priests tried pushing the body into the space, upon which the king’s bloated stomach exploded and released noxious gases into the church that not even the incense and spices burned during his funeral could mask. Retching at the stench, the clergy rushed the funeral to escape the smell and that was how the mighty conqueror was laid to rest – burst open and stinking to high heaven in a monastery in France.

James I wasn’t a pretty sight

While now principally remembered as being the first James to rule England and the sixth to rule Scotland, there’s another interesting fact about the man who succeeded Elizabeth I that has been all but lost to history – the size of the king’s tongue. Contemporaries report that the monarch’s tongue was far too large for his mouth, leading to a speech impediment and an inability to eat and drink without dribbling out of the corners of his mouth. Added to the somewhat comical figure he cut with his broad shoulders, barrel chest and thin spindly legs and his tendency to tell filthy jokes and argue with senior members of the clergy while at the banqueting table, and this was a king who was very, very different to his predecessor, the stately, witty and wise Elizabeth I.

It wasn’t always great being Alfred

The only English king to earn the moniker ‘the Great’, Alfred ruled the kingdom of Wessex between 871 and 886. Throughout his rule, he suffered from a severe and debilitating illness that often left him in crippling pain and unable to leave his bed.

For a long time, Alfred’s condition was put down to intestinal tuberculosis or even colon cancer. However, modern medicine has suggested the most likely cause of the king’s suffering was Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is a lifelong condition that causes the immune system to attack the lower intestine. The disease renders sufferers incapable of carrying out everyday tasks, prone to frequent bouts of diarrhoea and, if left untreated, it can cause severe pain and even death.

Of course, no one in Anglo Saxon England had the faintest idea what Crohn’s disease was and there was no effective way to treat it. So poor Alfred, the legendary king of Anglo Saxon England, had to suffer from a disease for twenty years that would today be carefully managed with drugs and surgery.

The Victorians couldn’t get enough of Edward II’s sex life

Poor old Edward II. Not only was his father Edward I one of the most formidable figures ever to sit on the English throne and a man his mild-mannered and rather useless son couldn’t hope to live up to, but he also had to put up with a wife who despised him and ultimately turned against him, a rebellious nobility who captured and executed his (alleged) lover, and who eventually over thew Edward in favour of his fourteen-year-old son. Plus, if rumours are to be believed, he suffered the final indignity of being put to death in the most horrifying manner imaginable by having a red hot poker inserted up his rectum to burn out his innards. In the annals of English monarchs, Edward really did get a bum deal.

However, what is lesser known about the king is what happened many centuries after his death. The Victorians were notoriously prudish in public while being particularly lascivious behind closed doors. Many revelled in the rumours of Edward’s homosexuality and the focus of teaching and biographies of the king during the 19th Century revolved mainly around what he got up to in the bed-chamber. As Victorian Christian values began to suffocate all forms of lewdness, the focus on Edward’s private life became a cause for discomfort, so much so that by the 20th Century schools were being taught to sweep the king’s sexuality under the carpet. It was only in more enlightened modern times that Edward’s private life was allowed to be discussed.

William IV: What a silly Billy

Sandwiched in between his corpulent brother and his niece Victoria who would lend her name to the period of history that saw Great Britain become the most powerful country on the planet, more people recognise ‘William IV’ as the name of a pub than they do as a monarch.

An amiable man with very little interest in the machinations of power, William IV became king after his brother, George IV, died at the age of sixty-seven leaving no heirs. A member of the Royal Navy from an early age, William was much more interested in all things seafaring than he ever was about ruling the country, and this earned him the nickname ‘The Sailor King’. However, the king is also suspected to be the origin of another, less flattering nickname – ‘Silly Billy’.

William was often seen as a rather silly man in his youth as he could be both erratic, over-excitable and tactless. Initially popular when he ascended the throne in 1830, William became embroiled in the Reform Crisis of the 1830s which turned many people against him, leading him to be described as out-of-touch, dithering and silly. ‘The Government and their people have now found out what a fool the King is,’ noted the political diarist, Charles Greville. ‘They find him rather shuffling and exceedingly silly.’ The nickname ‘Silly Billy’ stuck, though today many people have no idea it has royal connections.

Henry IV was rather flakey at the end of his reign

Remembered mostly for being the man who ousted Richard II from his throne and subsequently allowing him to starve to death (according to some), a much lesser-known fact about Henry IV occurred towards the end of his life. After dealing with a series of rebellions that plagued his reign, Henry was probably looking forward to an easy life in his old age. Sadly, that was not to be.

He was struck down by a debilitating skin disease that many historians think was probably leprosy or a particularly bad case of psoriasis (of the Singing Detective kind as opposed to a slightly itchy elbow that goes away with cream). Left in agony by the illness, many saw the king’s affliction as punishment from an angry God after Henry beheaded a rebellious bishop called Richard Scrope in 1405. That very same year, Henry came down with the mysterious skin disease and continued to suffer bouts until a final case finished him off for good in 1413. Luckily, Henry’s son, the mighty Henry V, didn’t suffer the same itchy fate as his father. Unluckily, he died of a combination of heatstroke and dysentery at the age of thirty-five.

Charles II had a soft spot for thieves

Today he’s best known as the ‘merry monarch’ who was restored to the throne following fourteen miserable years under Cromwellian rule. However, lesser-known is Charles’ reaction to having his crown jewels stolen.

Colonel Thomas Blood was a military leader in the English Civil War who fled to Ireland after Charles returned to the throne. Blood eventually returned to England and lived under an assumed name, posing as a parson. He befriended one Talbot Edwards, Keeper of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. After gaining Edwards’ trust, Blood persuaded the Keeper to show him and some of his friends the jewels. Once Edwards unlocked the door to the room where they were kept, Blood knocked him out with a mallet and stabbed him and set about stealing the jewels. He flattened the crown with the mallet and stuffed the orb down his breeches while one of his companions tried sawing the sceptre in half. At this point, Edwards regained consciousness and started shouting for the guards.

Blood and his accomplices were arrested and an appointment with the gallows was sure to follow. However, Blood demanded to be heard by the king. Charles duly obliged and was so impressed by Blood’s wit and bravado that he not only forgave the colonel but also awarded him lands in Ireland for his troubles!

Queen Anne wasn’t just a pregnancy machine

You have to feel sorry for poor old Queen Anne. Not only did she endure seventeen pregnancies, but not a single one of her children survived either childbirth or infancy. She was also dismissed in her lifetime and for many years afterwards as a useless monarch. Most anyone could say of her was that she was fat, pregnant, stupid and not much else. This is an unfair portrayal that stuck, thanks to contemporary accounts such as that given by Anne’s enemy, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who described the queen as ‘very ignorant, very fearful, with very little judgement’.

In actual fact, Anne’s reign was one of peace and stability as well as being a period of huge advancement. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that Anne’s reputation began to change. ‘Britain became a major military power on land, the union of England and Scotland created a united kingdom of Great Britain, and the economic and political base for the golden age of the 18th century was established,’ wrote Edward Gregg in his 1980 biography of the queen. ‘However, the Queen herself has received little credit for these achievements and has long been depicted as a weak and ineffectual monarch, dominated by her advisers.’ So, not quite the dullard pregnancy machine she has been unfairly painted as.

Written by:

BP Perry