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St. Paul’s Cathedral: Wren’s Crowning Achievement

St. Paul’s Cathedral: Wren’s Crowning Achievement

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412 Part VIII: The Part of Tens

Winchester Cathedral: Saxon Power Base

Winchester was the capital of England before William of Normandy

arrived in 1066 and won the English throne. Before 1066, Saxon kings

were crowned not in London but in Winchester Cathedral, a tradition

that William continued — although he had himself crowned in London’s

Westminster Abbey as well. To this day, the caskets of some of the preConquest Saxon rulers of England rest in Winchester Cathedral. You also

can find the grave of the early-19th-century novelist Jane Austen here.

Winchester Cathedral boasts the longest nave (the main central space

in the interior) in Europe, at 556 feet, but its massive foundations were

built on nothing more than a raft of logs laid on a bog. By 1900, the building was sinking. William Walker, an underwater diver, worked beneath

the foundations for five years (in water so black he couldn’t see his

hands), removing the decayed wood handful by handful so that the

cathedral could be underpinned with concrete. For more on Winchester

Cathedral, see Chapter 16.

York Minster: England’s Largest Gothic Church

When missionaries from Rome arrived in the late sixth century to convert England, York in the north, like Canterbury in the south, was established as an archbishopric. The importance of York as a city is reflected

in the overwhelming size of its church. The largest Gothic church in

England, York Minster has more rare medieval stained glass than any

other church in the country. Many English cathedrals are built on the

sites of earlier churches, but York Minster was built over a Roman military headquarters. If you visit, go down into the undercroft (the rooms

below the church), where excavations have revealed Roman walls and

streets. I describe York and its magnificent church in more detail in

Chapter 21.

Chapter 26

Ten Important Royals —

Past and Present

In This Chapter

ᮣ Meeting a few notable royals

ᮣ Noting the changes over two millennia


am not a royalist, but the kings and queens of England fascinate me.

These are people who lived lives of penultimate power and humiliating defeat, people who killed to stay on the throne and were killed by

others who wanted it, people who inspired their subjects and treated

them like dirt, people who sometimes changed the course of history and

sometimes disgraced the nation they ruled.

Choosing just ten is difficult, but in the thumbnail sketches that follow,

you can get a glimpse of how the rulers of England — and the rule of

England — has changed over the past 2,000 years.

Queen Boudicca (A.D. 30?–60):

Braveheart of the Britons

I’ve always thought Boudicca’s story would make a fantastic film, but

who would play this fierce Celtic queen who painted her face blue and

led 100,000 British troops again the invading Romans in A.D. 60?

Angelina Jolie?

Boudicca’s story goes back to the earliest period of Britain’s recorded

history. She was probably born about A.D. 30. In A.D. 48, she married

Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, and bore him two daughters. The Iceni

were a Celtic tribe that had been made a Roman client state in A.D. 43.

When Prasutagus died, he left his kingdom — as required by Roman law —

to the Roman emperor. But hoping to provide for his two daughters, he

left a portion of his personal estate to them. For the Romans, that was a

perfect excuse to confiscate all of Prasutagus’s belongings and punish

the Iceni for “disobeying” Roman law. Just days after her husband’s

414 Part VIII: The Part of Tens

death, Boudicca was publicly whipped, and her teenaged daughters

were raped by Roman soldiers.

The outrages committed by the invading foreigners changed Boudicca’s

life forever. As more Roman troops arrived to begin the job of conquering all the native Britons, Boudicca managed to raise an army among formerly warring local tribes. The Celts were much feared by the Romans

because Celtic women fought alongside the men, painting their faces blue

to frighten the enemy and uttering terrifying shrieks as they attacked with

swords, axes, and clubs. Boudicca and her army destroyed Roman forts

and killed their inhabitants. Finally, at a site that was probably somewhere

in the West Midlands, Boudicca faced the army of Suetonus Paulinus, the

Roman governor of Britannia. She had more troops, but Suetonius and his

legionnaires had the discipline that helped Rome conquer the Western

world. The Romans slaughtered the Celts under Boudicca. It’s not known

what happened to Boudicca herself. Some accounts say she took poison.

The alternative, had she lived, would have been worse. She would have

been paraded in chains at a public triumph in Rome and then publicly

tortured in the Coliseum.

The next time you cross Westminster Bridge in London, look up, and

you can see a bronze statue of Boudicca on the north side. Thomas

Hornicraft’s mid-19th-century work shows a wild-haired superwoman

in a horse-drawn chariot with her two daughters.

Alfred the Great (849–899):

A Warrior and a Scholar

You can see a statue of Alfred the Great on Bridge Street in Winchester,

the capital of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Alfred is the only

English monarch to carry the title “the Great,” and that alone makes him

an intriguing character. His story goes back to the ninth century A.D.

when England was being relentlessly attacked and terrorized by the

Danes, more commonly known as the Vikings.

Youngest son of King Ỉthelwulf, Alfred became King of Wessex in 871.

Wessex was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom patched together in southern and

southwestern England after the departure of the Romans in A.D. 410.

Alfred finally and decisively defeated attacking Danes led by Guthorm

at the Battle of Eddington. As a condition of the peace treaty, Guthorm

withdrew his forces from Wessex while Alfred recognized Danish control

over East Anglia and parts of Mercia. This partition of England became

known as the Danelaw, and though the Anglo-Saxon kings soon brought

the Danelaw back under their rule, they did not attempt to interfere with

the laws and customs of the area, many of which survived until after the

Norman Conquest in 1066.

Alfred created a series of fortifications to surround his kingdom and provide security from invasion. Burh, the Anglo-Saxon word for these forts,

Chapter 26: Ten Important Royals — Past and Present


is still recognizable in the modern English place-names ending in -bury.

The reign of Alfred was known for more than military success, however.

He promoted better education and helped make learning important in an

age when education had gone into a decline because of Danish looting of

monasteries and churches, the traditional centers of learning. Alfred was

also a codifier of law and a patron of the arts. A warrior and a scholar, he

translated Latin books into the Anglo-Saxon tongue. With the kind of

leadership he provided, it’s no wonder he was proclaimed “the Great.”

William the Conqueror (1028–1087):

Winner Takes All

The illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, William received the

duchy of Normandy upon his father’s death in 1035. He spent the next

several years consolidating his strength on the continent through marriage, diplomacy, war, and savage intimidation. By 1066, the disputed

succession in England offered William an opportunity for invasion.

When Edward the Confessor died childless, the English crown was

offered to Harold Godwinson (an Anglo-Saxon), even though Edward had

purportedly promised the throne to William of Normandy, his second

cousin. Insisting that Harold had sworn allegiance to him in 1064,

William prepared for battle. But as the new King Harold anxiously

awaited William’s arrival on England’s south shores, Harold Hardrada,

the King of Norway, invaded England from the north. Harold’s forces

marched north to defeat the Norse at Stamford Bridge on September 25,

1066. Two days after the battle, William landed unopposed at Pevensey,

forcing Harold to move south to a new battle. The Battle of Hastings took

place on October 14, 1066. Harold and his brothers died fighting, thus

removing any further organized Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Normans.

The Anglo-Saxon earls and bishops soon submitted and crowned him

William I on Christmas Day 1066.

William’s acquisitive nature never left him. Uprisings were ruthlessly

crushed until, by 1072, the whole of England was conquered and united.

Lands were confiscated and reallocated to the Normans. In 1085, William

commissioned the Domesday Book to survey land ownership, assess

property, and establish a tax base. Although he began his invasion with

papal support, William refused to let the church dictate policy within

English and Norman borders. Ruthless and cruel, the Conqueror exacted

a high toll from his subjects, but he also laid the foundation for the economic and political success of England. Buildings from his reign include

Windsor Castle and the Tower of London (see Chapter 12), but perhaps

the most atmospheric reminder of William the Conqueror is at Battle

(see Chapter 14), where you can visit the battlefield that was William’s

first conquest in England.

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Henry II (1133–1189): Family Plots

Henry II, the first of the Plantagenets, was one of the most effective

English kings. He refined Norman government and created a self-standing

bureaucracy that could keep the country running even if it had a weak or

incompetent ruler. But Henry’s personal life was one unending soap

opera, with more plots and counterplots than I can possibly detail here.

Henry was raised in the French province of Anjou. His vast continental

possessions more than doubled with his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitane,

the ex-wife of King Louis VII of France. Crowned King of England in October

1154, Henry was technically a vassal of the king of France, but in reality, he

owned more territory and was more powerful than Louis.

Throughout his reign, Henry instituted reforms meant to weaken traditional feudal ties and strengthen his own position, but in the process, he

became involved in the murder of his best friend, Thomas à Becket. The

church courts instituted by William the Conqueror had become a safe

haven for criminals, and Henry wanted to transfer sentencing to the

royal courts. Becket, named Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, vehemently opposed such a weakening of church courts. He also angered

Henry by opposing the coronation of Henry’s eldest son. When an exasperated Henry publicly voiced his desire to be rid of the contentious

archbishop, four thuggish knights took the king at his word and murdered Becket in his own cathedral on December 29, 1170. (You can see

the exact spot if you visit Canterbury Cathedral; see Chapter 14.)

Henry’s sons, with the encouragement of their mother, repeatedly

rebelled against their father and his plans for dividing his many lands

and titles. Eleanor, equally ruthless and scheming, was kept a virtual

prisoner for 16 years. Henry died in 1189, two days after his son Richard,

with the assistance of Philip II Augustus of France, attacked and defeated

him, forcing Henry to accept a humiliating peace.

Henry VIII (1491–1547):

Take My Wife — Please!

The significance of Henry’s reign is generally overshadowed by his six

marriages. There is something pathological about Henry’s many marriages, even if they were in pursuit of an elusive male heir.

Henry’s first wife was Catherine of Aragon (widow of his brother, Arthur)

whom he married in 1509 and divorced in 1533; the union produced one

daughter, Mary. Henry married his pregnant mistress Anne Boleyn in 1533;

she gave him another daughter, Elizabeth. But Anne was executed in 1536

on trumped-up charges of infidelity, a treasonous charge for the king’s

consort but never for the king. The same month Anne was beheaded, the

lusty monarch married Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to Henry’s

Chapter 26: Ten Important Royals — Past and Present


lone male heir, Edward, in October 1536. After viewing Hans Holbein’s

beautiful portrait of the German princess Anne of Cleves, Henry arranged

to marry her early in 1540. When she arrived, however, Henry found her

so homely that the marriage was never consummated. In 1540, with Anne

of Cleves scratched off the list, he married Catherine Howard, who was

executed for infidelity two years later and reputedly haunts Hampton

Court Palace to this day. Catherine Parr became Henry’s sixth and last

wife in 1543, and provided for the needs of both Henry and his children

until his death in 1547.

So what did Henry do besides bed and wed? Most notably, he altered

England as well as the whole of Western Christendom by separating the

Church of England from Roman Catholicism. The separation was actually

just another byproduct of Henry’s obsession with producing a male

heir. When Catherine of Aragon failed to produce a prince, Henry sought

an annulment from the pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn. When

Cardinal Wolsey failed to secure a legal annulment, Henry summoned

the Reformation Parliament, which passed 137 statutes in 7 years, influencing political and ecclesiastical affairs in a way previously unknown.

By 1536, all ecclesiastical and government officials were required to

approve publicly of the break with Rome and take an oath of loyalty.

Henry’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries filled royal coffers, as

revenues from the sale of church lands went either to the crown or the

nobility. The break with Rome, coupled with an increase in governmental bureaucracy, led to royal supremacy that lasted until the execution of

Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth a century after

Henry’s death.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603): Heart

and Stomach of a King

In contrast to her much-married father, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I never wed

and was known as the Virgin Queen. When she ascended the throne in

1558, the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants tore at the very

foundation of English society. Elizabeth’s Catholic predecessor and halfsister, Mary, along with her advisors, had bled the royal treasury dry

trying to restore the Catholic church’s authority in England.

Instead of being a fanatic like Mary, Elizabeth was strong willed, tolerant,

and intelligent. In religious matters, she devised a compromise that basically reinstated her father’s Protestant reforms. Another volatile problem was her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who gained the loyalty of

Catholic factions and instituted several plots to overthrow Elizabeth.

After irrefutable evidence of Mary’s involvement in such plots came to

light, Elizabeth sadly succumbed to pressure from her advisors and had

the Scottish princess executed in 1587.

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The persecution of continental Protestants forced Elizabeth into war,

which she desperately tried to avoid. She sent an army to aid French

Huguenots (Calvinists who had settled in France) after a 1572 massacre

in which over 3,000 Huguenots lost their lives, and she assisted Belgium

in its bid to gain independence from Spain. After Elizabeth rejected a

marriage proposal from Philip II of Spain, the indignant Spanish monarch,

incensed by English piracy and exploration in the New World, sent his

much-feared Armada to attack England. “I know I have but the body of a

weak and feeble woman,” Elizabeth told her troops, “but I have the heart

and stomach of a king.” England won the sea battle and emerged as the

world’s strongest naval power.

In many ways, Elizabeth’s reign has come to be regarded as a Golden Age.

Literature bloomed in the works of Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare.

Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh expanded English influence in the New

World. Elizabeth’s religious compromise laid many fears to rest and

sought to prevent murderous strife. Fashion and education came to the

fore because of Elizabeth’s thirst for knowledge, courtly behavior, and

extravagant dress. Good Queen Bess, as she came to be called, maintained

a regal air until the day she died, at 70 years of age and after a very successful 44-year reign. Few English monarchs have enjoyed such political

power while maintaining the devotion of the whole of English society.

George III (1738–1820): “My Lords

and Peacocks . . .”

George III was in no way an exemplary ruler, but I’ve long been fascinated

by him because he was king at the time of the American Revolution and

because he went mad. The only thing he really excelled at was procreation. He married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761, and the prolific couple produced 15 children.

George was descended from the Hanoverian (German) line of succession

that first came to the English throne in 1714. Determined to recover

royal prerogatives lost to the Whig Party by George I and George II,

George III methodically weakened the Whigs through bribery, coercion,

and patronage, hand-picking yes-men of mediocre talent and servile

minds to serve as Cabinet members.

George’s commitment to taxing the American colonies to pay for military

protection led to hostilities in 1775. The colonists proclaimed independence in 1776, but George obstinately continued the war until the final

American victory at Yorktown in 1781. Bouts with madness (attributed

to a disease called porphyria) and the way he handled the American

Revolution eroded the king’s support. The Peace of Versailles, signed in

1783, established British acknowledgment of the United States of America.

Chapter 26: Ten Important Royals — Past and Present


Other major events and people marked George III’s reign. The British

Army under the Duke of Wellington (whose London residence, Apsley

House, you can visit; see Chapter 12) and the British Navy under Lord

Horatio Nelson (honored by Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar

Square; see Chapter 12) defeated French forces under Napoleon. England

also went to war again with the United States between 1812 and 1814, this

time over the British practice of pressing American seamen into service

in the British Navy.

It’s safe to say that by the time he began an address with “My Lords and

Peacocks,” it was time for George to step down. Personal rule was given

to his son George, the Prince Regent, in 1811. George III died blind, deaf,

and mad at Windsor Castle (see Chapter 13) on January 29, 1820. You

can see Kew Palace, his favorite residence, on a visit to the Royal

Botanic Gardens (also known as Kew Gardens; see Chapter 13).

George IV (1762–1830): A Dandy

King for the Regency

George IV, eldest son of George III and Charlotte, was the opposite of his

father (are we starting to see a pattern here?): conservative in his infrequent political involvement and licentious in affairs of the heart. As

Prince Regent, he had many mistresses until he secretly married the

Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert in 1785. When George III found out

about it, he had the marriage declared illegal because his son would

have been ineligible to reign with a Catholic wife. In 1795, George IV married again, this time to his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, who was something of a slob and whom he detested. Caroline took their only child and

moved to Italy, returning to England to claim the rights of queen when

George succeeded his father in 1820. George created one of the greatest

scandals of his reign when he had Caroline barred from his coronation.

Bright, witty, and able on the one hand, indolent, spoiled, and lazy on

the other, George was in some ways the psychological forerunner of

many modern royals. Although he was scandalous with his mistresses

and extravagant in his spending, he was also a patron of the arts and

donated his father’s immense book collection as the foundation of the

British Museum Library. His support for building projects inspired the

Regency style of architecture, at its most fanciful in the Royal Pavilion in

Brighton (see Chapter 14). But his extravagances came at a time of

social distress and general misery following the Napoleonic Wars and

the tremendous changes brought forth by the Industrial Revolution. He

was basically a party boy who couldn’t overcome his sense of royal entitlement to provide true leadership.

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