Thursday, September 03, 2015

Worst King Evah

Well this is a load of old bollocks isn't it?
More than 60 writers were surveyed by the Historical Writers Association (HWA), with Henry VIII taking 20% of the vote to find the worst monarch and criticised for a wide range of crimes: he was “obsessive”, “syphilitic” and a “self-indulgent wife murderer and tyrant”, according to respondents.
Henry may have been all these things, but they make him (in the useful shorthand of 1066 and all that) a Bad Man, rather than a Bad King. Henry's reign was definitely chequered - his debasement of the coinage was a far more serious fault than any mentioned above - but there were achievements to put in the balance against the flaws. His generally disastrous foreign policy can be set against his work in establishing the Royal Navy as a permanent force. His break with Rome may have been largely accidental, but in establishing the Church of England Henry ranks as one of our more consequential monarchs.

In short, Henry VIII may not be the best monarch (or even one of the best) but he is definitely not the worst. The reason he's ranked there, I suspect, is that he's well known and has eye-catching personality flaws. So, who is the worst English monarch? I used to be a historian, so I'll start as all historians should: by defining the terms. What it shouldn't mean is whether you are a bad person (it doesn't matter, and for the most part we don't know). What it should mean is the impact and effect the monarch had on the country.

This is why I really don't understand the HWA list, which includes entries such as:
 “Though never crowned, [Matilda] was effectively Britain’s first female king, and refused to conform to expectations demanded of the ‘gentle sex’,” said Liberty’s Fire author Lydia Syson.
Girl power and all that, but Matilda (although nominated as heir) was never King of England and was certainly not Britain's first female king (that would be Aethelflaed) . More importantly, the period when she claimed the throne was a total disaster for England - civil war raged between Stephen and Matilda for 20 years, law and order broke down completely and the country was impoverished. That really should be criteria for naming her (and Stephen to be fair) as among England's worst ever monarchs despite her having a vagina.

Anyway, my pick for worst English monarch is Richard I. Despite the romantic nickname, and military genius his reign was a disaster for England. For a start he was almost entirely uninterested in England except as a source of taxes to pay for wars in France and crusades in the Holy Land. It's estimated that he spent about 6 months as King in England in his 10 year reign mostly to arrange his coronation (marked by a pogrom against the Jews). To wage his wars in France he raised taxes to an eye-watering level (despite the coffers having been full on his accession, thanks to Henry II's Saladin tithe). Then, to top it all off, he got himself captured in Europe and England was compelled to stump up a ransom of 150,000 marks.

This ransom is usually given as £2-3bn in modern money, but that entirely fails to convey its scale. A better way of looking at it is that 150,000 marks was about 3 times England's annual revenue, and that to raise it, a tax was levied that confiscated a quarter of both clergy and laymen's wealth. A more comparable figure might therefore be the equivalent of 3 times the UK's annual revenue - so very roughly £1.5 trillion.

Richard I bankrupted England, while not caring a tuppenny damn for the place. I'm open to suggestions, but he sets a very high standard for worst English monarch. I agree with William Stubbs:
A bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler, and a vicious man.


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