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Ranking the Royals

Another week of anniversaries, as each and every week is. For followers of the British monarchy, it was the week of Elizabeths, with Queen Elizabeth I’s birthday (September 7) and Queen Elizabeth II assuming her well-deserved title of longest-reigning British monarch on September 9. In my day-job capacity as an English history professor, I thought I would make up a list of BEST British Monarchs and contrast it with the longest-reigning ones to see just what the overlap might be. Of course this is a ridiculous exercise, as the first list is completely subjective and the second one completely objective. But I was waiting for my car to be serviced at the dealer and bored with all the other administrative tasks before me. Let’s start with the longest-reigning kings and queens, and the amazing picture of Her Majesty that Buckingham Palace released to mark the occasion. I just love it! The (royal) red briefcase!!

Elizabeth II

So here is the list of longest-reigning monarchs of either Great Britain or England: 1) Elizabeth II (1952-; 63 years, 218 days and counting); 2) Victoria (1837-1901; 63 years, 216 days); 3) George III (1760-1820; 59 years); 4) James VI of Scotland and I of England (1567-1625; 57 years); 5) Henry III (1216-1272; 56 years); 6) Edward III (1327-1377; 50 years); 7) Elizabeth I (1558-1603; 44 years); 8) Henry VI (1422-1471, with a break, 38 years); 9) Aethelred II (978-1016, with a break, 37 years); 10) Henry VIII (1509-1547; 37 years).

British Monarchs

In very random order, the longest-reigning British and English monarchs.

And now is my list of “best” monarchs according to my completely subjective opinion–I invite you to offer up your own candidates. I must state a very big qualification, a result of my training and expertise: all my monarchs reigned before 1688: the “revolution” and constitutional documents of that year and the next dramatically limited the powers of the monarchy and so I don’t think post-1688 monarchs rate. Just my opinion: obviously the British monarchy has a role to play that is extra-political.

My top ten: 1) Henry VII (1485-1509–the first Tudor and the first modern king, in my opinion. Courageous and clever. I’ve definitely bought into the “Tudor Myth”); 2) Elizabeth I (1558-1603–need I say anything? Just accept countless words of praise); 3) Alfred the Great (871-899–warrior, scholar, the first English king); 4) William I “the Conqueror” (1066-1087–another militant unifier, through conquest, but he gave us the greatest primary source in medieval history); 5) Henry II (1154-1189–I know, Becket, but his legal reforms were important; 6) Henry V (1413-1422–it’s hard for me to see him apart from Shakespeare (and Kenneth Branagh) but still, he won it all, and then died, which makes him tragic and interesting); 7) Edward I (1272-1307–I’m giving him credit for all those castles); 8) James VI and I (1567-1625–a rather wasteful king but an interesting man, and anyone who could condemn smoking in the early seventeenth century is worthy of note); 9) Edgar “the Peaceable” (959-975–another builder); 10) Charles II (1660-1685–a lovely personality that reunited England after the long Civil War; a page-turner.

Best British Monarchs

The best? Only according to me.

So there is not much overlap between longest-reigning monarchs and my best monarchs: only Elizabeth and James. No doubt this is partly due to my exclusion of monarchs who ruled after Charles II. No Henry VIII for me: too much waste, too much squandering of the considerable legacy left to him by my favorite king, Henry VII, as well as his own talents. Despite the English Reformation, which he bought into for selfish reasons, I would rank him near the bottom. But that is a list for another day.

Henry VIIIs Nightmare

Buckingham Palace by Assaf Frank

Henry VIII’s worst nightmare and Buckingham Palace © Assaf Frank.

A Kingdom for a Horse

This is the time of year that every teacher, at every level, is in a back-to-school mentality. I don’t feel like I’ve been out of school this particular summer, but nevertheless I am preparing for my fall classes with that usual sense of expectation–thank goodness. I haven’t taught a graduate course for a while, and this semester I’ll be teaching one of my favorites, a readings course on early modern England. I see some great students on my roster, I’ve chosen some of my favorite books old and new, and I expect that the entire experience will be a welcome weekly escape from my daily chair duties. For those of you who are not familiar with European historiography and chronology (which generally, with some variations and accommodations, incorporates English historiography and chronology), the early modern era begins around the turn of the sixteenth century, which means that early modern England begins with the Tudor Dynasty. And the Tudor Dynasty began today, 530 years ago, when Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and last Lancastrian standing, defeated King Richard III and his force at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard was killed in the battle (the last English king killed in action) and Henry was crowned shortly thereafter, right on the field.

Richmond crowned after the battle of Bosworth Field. Illustration from History of England by Henry Tyrrell (c 1860).

A rather romanticized Victorian view of the crowning of Henry over Richard’s dead body, from Henry Tyrell, A History of England for the Young (1860)

I don’t like to consign history to big battles but this was a big battle, a definite turning point. And even though Richard’s reputation has been somewhat restored by the recovery of his body from under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 (revealing 10 wounds to his head sustained during the battle) and its ceremonial re-internment this past spring, I doubt that he can ever rise above the characterization bequeathed to him by Shakespeare in his Tragedy of King Richard the Third, written in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I and the Tudor dynasty. While watching the dignified re-internment ceremony (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch–apparently a distant relation), I couldn’t help but think: all this for a ruthless child murder? On the other hand, the physical deformity which represented the rot within for Shakespeare only made him seem more human–and therefore vulnerable–when his skeleton was revealed. In any case, one Bosworth anecdotal episode that’s never going to go away, even though it is Shakespeare History rather than History, are his last moments and words, when, unhorsed, his character cries out in frustration: A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a Horse! These words are enduring because they are so Shakespearean universal: I’ve got ALL this but I really need THIS. Even the very biased Bard was willing to give the last medieval English king a bit of humanity/vulnerability at his/the very end.

Bosworth Garrick BM

Bosworth Garrick BM2

Bosworth Garrick VA

Bosworth Forrest LC

Bosworth Jefferson Davis 1864

Bosworth Yost LC


The fame garnered by David Garrick (1717-1779–buried right next to Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey) in the role inspired many representations of Richard giving his “horse” speech: here are late 18th and early 19th century prints from the collections of the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum; the prominent American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest in the role as depicted in an 1855 print, Library of Congress; obviously such drama inspired satire, as seen in the Lincoln Campaign Dial for November 1864 (available here) portraying Jefferson Davis as Richard III and in George Yost Coffin’s political cartoon from the 1890s, Library of Congress; a neat photomanipulation by George Goodnight, aptly titled “My Kingdom for a Horse”.

Botanical Sisters

My garden looks like it might have survived our harsh winter so I’m starting to turn my thoughts outward–slowly, and in a rather detached manner. There’s still quite a bit to do inside as the end-of-semester end game is pretty busy, and once I get fixated on the garden I become less productive in the interior realm! The other day I was showing my students a beautiful painting of a famous Royalist family, the Capels, whose prominent garden is featured in the background. While my eyes were lingering on the garden, their questions were about the children in the foreground: what were their fates after their father followed King Charles I to the execution block in 1649? I couldn’t account for every Capel child in the picture at the time (now I can) but I could relay the horticultural history of the two Capel girls on the right, Elizabeth and Mary. I don’t think this kind of information was what my students were looking for, but they were quite polite about it.

NPG 4759; The Capel Family by Cornelius Johnson

Mary and Elizabeth Capel Lely

Cornelius Johnson, The Capel Family, c. 1640, National Portrait Gallery, London; Peter Lely, Mary Capel, later Duchess of Beaufort, and her sister Elizabeth, Countess of Carnarvon, c. 1658, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As you can see in both paintings, the youngest Capel sister, Elizabeth (who is on the left of her elder sister Mary in the Johnson portrait and the right in the Lely) is associated with flowers in both her childhood and her adulthood. She is extending a rose to her baby brother Henry above, and below she holds one of her own flower paintings–a noted personal preoccupation during her relatively short life (1633-1678). Around 1653 she married Charles Dormer, the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, with whom she had four children. During their marriage she maintained the Dormer residence at Ascott House in Buckinghamshire, and continued to explore her interest in flowers through both gardening and painting. One of her botanical compositions, a Dutch-inspired still life, is in the Royal Collection. Mary Capel, later Seymour, then Somerset and the first Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), moved well beyond her sister’s aesthetic interest in plants into the realm of scientific botany, becoming an avid collector and cataloger of the vast collection of worldly plants she assembled for the Beaufort gardens and conservatories at Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. She commissioned both a 12-volume Hortus Siccus, comprised of dried specimens of her plants, many “pressed by the Duchess herself”, and a two-volume florilegium to document her collection, ensuring her reputation in the long line of notable British plantswomen.

Elizabeth Carnarvon Painting RC

Duchess of Beauforts Hortus

Vase of Flowers by Elizabeth, the Countess of Carnarvon, 1662, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014; Specimens from the Duchess of Beaufort’s Hortus Siccus, Natural History Museum, London.

Why I like Wolf Hall

How many times have I read this story, taught this story, seen this story? Countless, yet I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Wolf Hall faithfully and fervently these past two Sundays, despite some stiff competition. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Hilary Mantel’s novels have focused a trans-Atlantic public attention on the juicy story of Henry’s “great matter” yet again, resulting in adaptations on both the small screen and the stage right now. I like the language, the characterizations, and the details of the books–and these attributes carry over onto the screen as well, but the latter also gives us both more and less. So this is what I like about Wolf Hall:

1) Cromwell-centrism: as the Protestant product of a Catholic-Episcopalian union, I have admired Thomas Cromwell since I was a teenager, so Mantel’s “revisionist” perspective pleased me in the books and continues to do so on screen, especially as presented by the amazing actor Mark Rylance. It’s a timely corrective, after years of the reign of the heroic heretic-hunter Thomas More, whom Mantel depicts as a pompous prude.

2) Stillness: everything is so quiet, in stark contrast to all of the other recent Tudor films with their booming soundtracks. Too often contemporary music is utilized to strengthen a film that has weak dialogue or transitions–this is not the case here. You can hear every well-chosen word, the papers crackling and the birds singing.

3) Naturalism: though the Tudors admired material embellishment, for the most part it was based on nature, and this was a time in which people were much, much closer to nature than we can ever realize. Wolf Hall takes place primarily indoors, but nature is always present. So many animals! Just in episode #2 alone, we see just-born kittens, greyhounds black and white, Thomas More walking around with a white rabbit which he passes to our hero Thomas Cromwell, a monkey on the More table, and of course lots of horses. Cromwell pinches a flower as he walks to a stable-conference with yet another Thomas, Cranmer.

4) Spareness: of words, of spaces, of “action”. Restraint (and dim light) rules, and each excess points to a consequential problem.

5) We are spared Henry and Anne Boleyn together: of course, I’ve only watched the first two episodes, so this will change, but the Cromwellian perspective places the two “central” characters in this oft-told story on the margins for quite awhile. This is refreshing, and spares us all the “romance” and bodice-ripping of more predictable and commercial versions of this tale. Quite literally, the change in perspective enables us to see things in an entirely new light.

Mark Rylance Thomas Cromwell Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell during filming for the BBC/ PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC/Company Productions Ltd.

The Knight’s Tale

Every single day this week Geoffrey Chaucer came up in discussion, and only once in class! So it seemed like no coincidence when an old textbook I was consulting for something else entirely reported that on this very day in 1397 he first read the Canterbury Tales at Richard II’s court. I’m not sure this is true, but as Chaucer was already on my mind I indulged myself a bit more. I use many of the Tales in my courses to illustrate various aspects of late medieval culture and society, but I read them for pleasure as well–and a few translated lines from The Knight’s Tale even made their way into my wedding ceremony. This is the tale that my students favor–even as I push the Pardoner and the Franklin on them, but of course their “veray parfit gentil knight” is Heath Ledger! I can’t blame them: I like that movie too, as its egalitarian spirit seems vaguely late medieval (and I prefer blatant anachronism to what passes for “accurate” historical dramas). But The Knight’s Tale and its companion stories were not rediscovered only in the 21st century: every generation seems to have their Chaucer, from the 80+ manuscript versions produced shortly after his death, to William Caxton’s printed versions, seventeenth-century theatrical productions, or the beautiful texts and images of William Blake and William Morris, for as Blake noted in 1809, Chaucer’s characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one of the characters; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer.”

Knight's Tale Ellesmere

Knight's Tale Caxton BL

Knights Tale Kyngston


William_Blake_-_Chaucer's_Canterbury_Pilgrims 1810

Knight's Tale Kelmscot

Knights Tale 19th

Canterbury Tales 1968

Canterbury Tales 2013 Penguin

Cropped leaf from the  “Ellesmere Chaucer” MS., c. 1400-1405, Huntington Library; page from William Caxton’s 1483 edition, British Library; 1561 edition printed by John Kingston for John Wight; a 1634 theatrical adaptation of the Knight’s Tale by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare; “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims”, engraved and published by William Blake, 1810; Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the “Kelmscott Chaucer”: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted. Kelmscott Press, 1896; Illustration by William Clark Appleton from Percy Mackaye’s The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. A Modern Rendering in Prose, of the Prologue and Ten Tales, New York, 1904; Poster for the “bawdy” musical, 1968, Victoria & Albert Museum; Penguin Clothbound Classic cover by Coralie Bickford-Smith, 2013.

The Historiscope

I’m fascinated by a visual device produced by Milton Bradley in the later nineteenth century called “The Historiscope:  A Panorama and History of America”. Swann Auction Galleries has one for sale in their upcoming auction. Here’s the description and an image: Printed hand-colored box, 5 1/4 inches tall, 8 1/4 inches wide, 2 1/4 inches deep, with long paper scroll on two spindles within, and mounted on a later(?) painted board; lacking wooden crank pieces and rear cover with caption information, otherwise moderate wear to exterior. The scroll is difficult to turn and has not been examined in full; sold as is. (MRS) [Springfield, MA?]: [Milton Bradley & Co.], circa 1870.

Historiscope Swann Auctions April 14

What fascinates me about this panorama is the early attempt to introduce some interaction into history instruction, although Jennifer Lynn Peterson (in “The Historiscope and the Milton Bradley Company:  Art and Commerce in Nineteenth-century Aesthetic Education, Getty Research Journal, No. 6 (2014): 175-184) informs me that each box came with a script, an “eight-page dramatic description of all the images in the moving panorama, characterized by a lively tone and filled with numerous attempts at humor”. So maybe it was a rather one-way “show”. The other thing that interests me is what the selective/reflective nature of this lens: any historiscope much necessarily reflect the society which produces it rather than the “history” which it purports to reveal. If we could turn the scroll of this Swann lot, we would see 25 iconic images of early American history, including the landing of Columbus in the West Indies, Pocahontas and John Smith, the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, and Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. (Another contemporary Milton Bradley product, the Myriopticon, focuses solely on scenes from the Civil War, or “Rebellion”). Would the same scenes have been chosen in 1920, or 1950, or 2000, or now? I’m fairly certain that Columbus would not make it into our 2015 historiscope, at least not in his circa 1870 characterization.

Historiscope Cover Yale

Historiscope Native AMericans Getty

Historiscope Christopher Columbus

Box cover and scenes (Native Americans in full regalia before the arrival of Columbus and the man himself) from Milton Bradley’s Historiscope, c. 1870, Beinecke Library, Yale University and Getty Museum.

So I guess the theatre-guise of the Milton Bradley Historiscope is appropriate: it projects as well as reflects. Even modern historiscopes function this way, literally: my case in point is the Historoscope de Saint-Laurent project in Montreal, which utilizes architectural projection to tell the story of a neighborhood. I love it, and I think it’s probably the best we can do with this genre while we wait (forever) for the development of a real historiscope, a time-traveling telescope which can reveal the past rather than just scroll or screen it.

P.S. Another Milton Bradley Historiscope is available here, mounted on cute little legs!


Though my primary field is Tudor-Stuart history, occasionally I teach a more general English history survey which spans from Roman era to the seventeenth century. My biggest challenge in this course, which I am teaching this semester, is to refrain from settling into mere storytelling about the characters and exploits of a succession of colorful kings and queens. The students in this course are generally not history majors, and their knowledge and interest in history tends to be quite History Channel-ish, meaning that they are more interested in personalities than structures. I try to balance it all out, and for the most part I think I’m successful, but periodically I must slow down and simply consider the character and reign of a monarch in rather narrative fashion. Such is the case with King Henry II, nicknamed Curtmantle for the shorter French/Angevin mantle he supposedly wore, who was born on this day in 1133. It doesn’t matter how much I dwell on King Henry–they want more, and I’m wondering why? Of course the broad strokes and details of his life are dramatic–the rise to power in the wake of Civil War, his conquest and contests with Queen Eleanor, his family fights, his multi-front wars, the murder of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the penitential consequences–I still think that it’s the popular characterization of Henry rather than the historical one that has captivated my students. Even though they’re far too young to remember Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), he is still their Henry.

Curtmantle O'Toole Becket

Curtmantle Lion in Winter

Peter O’ Toole in a publicity photograph for Becket (1964) and a still from The Lion in Winter (1968).

My students are so young they haven’t even seen or heard of O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II, but when I ask them what they know about him, they describe O’Toole’s portrayal:  now that’s a powerful performance! Once again, we see that history is produced by film (sigh). But I think you have to go further back:  not (of course) to the actual era of Henry II, but to that which produced the characterization that inspired O’Toole’s performance. Henry became Henry because of his hand in martyring Becket, of course, but also because of his women: his wife Eleanor and his mistress Rosamund Clifford, the “fair Rosamund”. Henry’s struggles with the Church in general and Becket in particular appealed to 18th and 19th historians charting secular “liberation”, while their more romantic counterparts in the arts focused on the women: the Pre-Raphaelites in particular seem to have been obsessed with Eleanor and particularly Rosamund, featuring them both individually and together in mythical contest (based on an old fable alleging the Queen tried to poison the mistress). This is all very dramatic stuff, almost equaling the narrative of that dynasty of the (long) moment, the Tudors. I predict a Plantagenet comeback.

King Henry II

Henry II Thornycroft framed

Curtmantle chapbook


Fair Rosamund 1916

Henry II as characterized by Alfred Crowquill’s Comic History of the Kings and Queens of England (Read & Co, c 1860) and Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens (1932). A chapbook of folk ballads with Henry II and the Fair Rosamund on the title page, c. 1815-30, British Museum; Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund by Evelyn de Morgan, 1905, De Morgan Centre, London;The Fair Rosamund by John William Waterhouse, 1916, National Museum Wales.


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