From ineffectual military commanders to religious maniacs and full-blown tyrants, we take a look at some of the worst monarchs ever to sit on the throne.
The grandson of William the Conqueror, Stephen seized the throne when Henry I died in 1135. This led to a 15-year civil war between Stephen and Henry’s daughter and heir, Empress Matilda. The war came to be known as ‘The Anarchy’ as England descended into chaos and lawlessness.
Eventually, Stephen agreed to name Matilda’s son as his heir in a negotiated peace settlement after their armies fought themselves to a stalemate, passing over his own son in the line of succession. After years of war, Stephen died in 1154 and Matilda’s son, Henry II, became king.
2. Edward II
Son of Edward I, the fearsome ‘Hammer of the Scots’ Edward II was nothing like his father, relying heavily on the counsel of his unpopular favourite (and suspected lover) Piers Gaveston. This eventually led to Edward being forced by Parliament to agree to a set of humiliating restrictions on his power as well as Gaveston’s execution.
After being defeated by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn and losing the Duchy of Gascony in France, Edward’s wife Isabella turned against him. She invaded England with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and forced Edward to abdicate in favour of his son. Edward is believed to have been murdered while being held prisoner at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire in 1327.
3. Henry VI
The son of the warrior king Henry V and Catherine of Valois, Henry grew up to be timid, quiet and pious, as well as mentally ill. The life of a monk would have suited him more. Unfortunately, his destiny was to be king and it was a role he was poorly suited to.
During his tenure on the throne, Henry lost all of the territory conquered by his father and the country descended into the bloody conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. Deposed not once but twice by his Yorkist rival Edward IV, Henry was most likely murdered on the orders of Edward in the Tower of London in 1471.
4. Richard III
Richard III seized the throne following the death of his brother, Edward IV, in 1483. Before he could do that, there was the little matter of Edward’s children, Edward V and his younger brother Richard, who were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Fortunately for Richard, the boys ‘mysteriously disappeared’, clearing the way for him to take the throne.
His reign didn’t last long. Richard’s army met that of his rival Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard was killed in the thick of the fighting, bringing an end to the Plantagenet dynasty that had ruled England since the Norman Conquest. His bones were long thought to have been thrown in a nearby river, but in 2015 they were found under a car park in Leicester.
5. Henry VIII
One of England’s most famous monarchs was a foul-tempered, gluttonous, bloodthirsty tyrant who, as well as ordering the executions of two of the women who had the misfortune to marry him, had an estimated 57,000 people executed during his 36-year reign.
Despite acquiring vast wealth after dissolving the monasteries and breaking with the Catholic Church, Henry VIII’s extravagant lifestyle and fondness for foreign wars brought England to the verge of bankruptcy on several occasions.
6. Mary I
The eldest daughter of Henry VIII was never meant to ascend the throne. Her father went to great lengths to ensure the country was left in the hands of a male heir. However, Henry’s son, Edward VI, died at the age of 16 and, after the very brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, his older sister, Mary, became queen. It did not prove to be a happy time for the people of England.
Unlike her brother and her younger sister, Elizabeth, Mary was a fanatic Catholic who sought to bring England back into the fold of the Roman Church. Over 280 religious dissenters were burned at the stake during her five-year rule, earning her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. All of her attempts to return England to Catholicism were reversed after her death by her much more popular sister, the ‘Virgin Queen’ Elizabeth I.
7. Charles I
Charles was a man who had an unshakeable belief in the divine right of kings to rule a country as they saw fit. The king’s stubbornness and disregard for Parliament led to the English Civil War in 1642, which eventually led to Charles’s capture, imprisonment, trial and execution.
The monarchy was abolished after Charles’s death, which surely places him at the top of the list of worst English monarchs of all time. After 11 years of unpopular rule by the puritan general Oliver Cromwell and, briefly, by his son Richard, Charles’s son, Charles II, was invited to become king. He proved to be much more popular than his stubborn father.
8. James II
People were prepared to give James II the benefit of the doubt when he ascended the throne following the death of his brother, Charles II, in 1685. However, it was inevitable that the Catholic king would clash with the Protestant country he governed, and that happened with the birth of James’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart.
Following riots in London, James was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange. James attempted to retake the throne in 1690, but was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne and spent the rest of his life as an exile in France, viewed by his former subjects as a tyrant who had tried to impose his religion on a country that had already rejected it following the bloody reign of Mary I.
9. George IV
In his younger days, the witty and culturally refined Prince George was well regarded by the public, earning him the nickname ‘the first gentleman of England’. However, his disastrous marriage to (and subsequent appalling treatment of) Caroline of Brunswick and his incredibly lavish, taxpayer-funded lifestyle that left George morbidly obese and riddled with gout, turned him into one of the most despised monarchs ever to sit on the throne.
‘A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist,’ one of George’s courtiers confided to his diary. ‘There have been good and wise kings but not many of them and this I believe to be one of the worst.’
10. Edward VIII
A playboy with very little interest in court protocols or the constitutional conventions of the United Kingdom, both Edward’s father, George V, and the country’s prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, worried that he would be a disastrous king. He proved them right when, after just 326 days on the throne, Edward VIII abdicated the throne due to his refusal to drop his plan to marry the American divorcee, Wallace Simpson.
Created Duke of Windsor after his abdication, Edward continued to be a liability even after giving up the throne. Suspected of being a Nazi sympathiser who could be a useful pawn for Adolf Hitler, Edward was packed off to Barbados to be the island’s Governor General to get him out of the way. After the war, he lived for the rest of his life in exile, shunned by his family and loathed by many of the subjects he had turned his back on.