If we are to trust Roman sources, Britain had monarchs governing the land before the legions of Emperor Claudius set foot on the isle. And it is also in these early sources that we find one of the defining features of monarchic rule in Britain: that it’s the women rulers who make a more lasting impact on the kingdom. 


For instance, it is in these early sources that we learn about Boudicca, a queen of the Iceni, one of the tribes of 1st century AD England, and her fight against the Romans. This fierce queen of East Anglia led a revolt in 60 AD, rising up against the Romans in revenge for their brutal treatment of her daughters. Despite some initial successes, which included the destruction of Londinium, she was finally defeated by the Romans and she took her own life — by drinking poison — to avoid capture. 

Like the rest of Europe, Britain started having monarchs as protagonists of its history after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the late 5th century AD. In the Early Middle Ages, after the Angles and the Saxons came from what is now Germany, there were plenty of kings in Britain. Their kingdoms were not very large, and most of their time was spent fighting with each other.


The most memorable king of the early Middle Ages would have to be Alfred, aptly known as “the Great”. He was initially the king of Wessex, one of these smallish kingdoms that peppered the isles in medieval times. But he went on to become the king of all the Anglo-Saxons in the late 9th century. He managed to get the Angles and the Saxons to stick together (for a while) in the face of a common enemy: the Vikings. The Norse invaders had been ravaging Britain for decades, but they would eventually Christianize, and they would also be among the claimants (and occupants) of the throne of England. 


In fact, one of the best-remembered monarchs in British history, William the Conqueror, was a descendant of these Vikings. Born in the North-West of France, he was known as the Duke of Normandy, but in fact the name of this region came from the name “Norman” given to the “Norse man” or Viking. 

Anglo-Saxon Kings (924-1066)

Even though Alfred the Great is the most important of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs, the role of Edward the Confessor was also decisive for the future of the island. He was remembered as a pious king who achieved sainthood, but also  as a man who had no offspring. This gave grounds to claims by three different men for the English throne: Harold Godwin, William of Normandy and Harold Hardraade, king of Norway.

Norman Kings (1066-1154)

The most well-loved Norman king was probably Richard the Lionheart— he would be the good king on the legend of Robin Hood —, but it was the frailty of his brother, John (known as “Lackland”) that led to the drafting and signing of the most important charter in British political history: the Magna Carta. This document specified the duties and obligations of the monarch, his noblemen and the Church. It was signed on the 12th of June, 1215.

Shakespeare’s Kings

From Blackadder to The Crown, the British royal family has provided plenty of material for popular drama over recent decades. But the fascination with royal intrigue is nothing new. William Shakespeare absolutely loved a royal story. In the late 1500s, under the reign of Elizabeth I, he wrote eight history plays about five real English kings.

Given that Queen Elizabeth I had a habit of executing anyone who criticised her, Shakespeare was careful not to write about the royal family from the time he was living in. Instead, he looked back to the 15th century for historical inspiration. His eight most famous history plays — Richard II, Henry IV (in two parts), Henry V, Henry VI (in three parts) and finally Richard III — are set between around 1400 and 1485. The plays were all based on historical records, but Shakespeare was a dramatist not a historian, so he took plenty of liberties with the sources, cutting or adding events and characters as he liked.

The plays have been so influential that a lot of what think we know about the five kings is probably pure Shakespeare. For example, Shakespeare depicted Richard III as an evil psychopath with a hunched back. Was he really? No! And yet that’s the image that has stuck. In Henry V, Shakespeare paints a vivid picture of the young Prince Harry, who prefers getting drunk with his friend Falstaff to the responsibilities of royal life. But later, when Harry becomes king (with the name Henry V), he is a model monarch. It didn’t happen quite like that in real life, but Shakespeare went for the drama every time. Just imagine what a fabulous play he could have created from the latest intrigues of Meghan and today’s ‘Prince’ Harry!

William conquered England in 1066, killing the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold II, in the Battle of Hastings, on the south coast of England just across the English Channel. William, who unified the kingdom once again, spoke French, as did his descendants. In fact, French was the language of the kings and the elite for three hundred years. The French connection also led to the involvement in the conflict over the right to rule the Kingdom of France known as the Hundred Years War. The war, which actually lasted 116 years, only ended in 1453, after Joan of Arc turned the tide of the war in favour of the French. 

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Not long after this eternal war abroad, England had a bitter conflict within its own shores. The Wars of the Roses saw the houses of York and Lancaster pitted against each other with the crown as their ultimate goal. In an unexpected plot twist, the Tudor house, a noble lineage with its origins in Wales, was ultimately the winner. Even though the Tudors’ grip on the throne only lasted for 118 years, they are one of the dynasties that had the longest-lasting effects on the crown. For a start, due to Henry VIII’s obsession with a male heir, he separated the English Church from the Catholic Church in Rome, in order to have religious approval for his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Ironically, it would be his daughter Elizabeth I, born from his second marriage to Anne Boleyn, who started the long process of turning the small island kingdom into a world power. It was under her reign that the Spanish were defeated in their attempt to conquer Britain, and it was because of her agreement with the Stuarts, the Scottish ruling house, that the two kingdoms were united, after she died without heirs, having refused to marry.

House of Plantagenet (1154-1485)

The Plantagenets reigned during most of the 13th and 14th centuries. Out of the five kings of this dynasty, Edward I embodied the ideal of the medieval king, for better and for worse. He was known as “Longshanks” (long legs) due to his height (about 1.90m). He was also known as “The hammer of the Scots” because he inflicted heavy defeats on his northern neighbours. He was equally cruel to the Jews, who were expelled from England. 

 Tudor Dynasty (1485-1603)

Henry VIII has been one of those kings that has never ceased to fascinate centuries after his reign. He certainly had a colourful love life, marrying six times, but the execution of two wives and separating the English Church from Rome just to divorce his first wife turned a complicated personal life into a change with long-lasting political consequences for the kingdom, and the wider world. His daughter Elizabeth I asserted England as a major global power.


The 17th century was an eventful one for the British: there was a foiled plot to kill the king — the Gunpowder Plot —, a revolution, a beheading, and a reinstatement. The Stuarts would eventually be substituted in the 18th century by the House of Hanover, with unequivocal German origins. In the 19th century, the last and greatest Hanoverian monarch, Victoria, became the empress of a gigantic empire, mostly thanks to its naval power. With the arrival of the 20th century, the monarchy had its last change of owner. It now took the name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, after Victoria’s husband Albert. This name did not last long: this dynasty had to endure two World Wars against Germany, with the first one leading the royal house to change its name to Windsor, to distance the monarch from its German origins, an unwelcome link when young Britons were dying by the thousands under German fire.


For most of the 20th century and these first twenty years of the 21st, Britain has only had one queen: Elizabeth II. She has had her fair share of rocky events, including an annus horribilis in 1992, but she remains a well-loved figure in many British homes. It remains to be seen if she’ll manage to bequeath this affection to her son Charles.


House of Stuart (1603-1714)

The Stuart house had been reigning in Scotland since 1371, and in 1603 it became the ruling house of England as well under James I. Soon after the beginning of his reign, the Gunpowder Plot was revealed in 1605. Among those involved in this Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament and kill the new king in order to change the religion of the state was the infamous Guy Fawkes. Religion would prove to be an important factor in the destinies of the Stuarts.

House of Hanover (1714-1901)

This house ruled Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, a period that saw the British rule over a large part of the world. But it was also during the reign of Hanoverian monarch George III, that a large part of the American colonies became an independent country: the United States of America. This same monarch caused a constitutional crisis when it became apparent that his mental state was far from stable.

House of Windsor (1917-today)

This house has been ruling for the past 103 years, with four monarchs so far. But it is clearly Elizabeth II, the ruling queen, who has made it possible for the institution to survive. She has ruled for sixty-eight years and has seen her family overcome divorces, tragedies and scandals. Should he be the one to inherit the throne, her son Charles, now seventy-one years of age, would be the oldest monarch ever to rule the kingdom.