Tag Archives: Queen Elizabeth I

Victoria and Elizabeth

I can’t say that I think the newest PBS series Victoria is very good, but yet I still seem to be watching it: it’s cozy, just what we need for winter and these anxious times. I also can’t put my finger on what I dislike about it: the acting and consequently the characters draw one in, but the world in which the latter live seems somehow airbrushed and empty, hardly the colorful milieu of Victorian London. Victoria should not be thrust into the arcades and slums of course, but when there is a ball at Buckingham Palace more than twenty people should be in attendance. So far, it seems like a 1980s miniseries to me, with less anachronistic hair and clothes. The “downstairs” scenes and storylines seem so contrived, and so desperately anxious to remind us of Downton Abbey. I will say that the second episode piqued my interest, because it touched on something I’ve been curious about myself: the “relationship” between Victoria and the first long-reigning English queen, Elizabeth I. Victoria is wondering about her romantic future, and she gazes upon the coronation portrait of the Virgin Queen and wonders aloud to ever-present sexy Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewall–who probably is the major reason I’ve kept watching) that perhaps she should abstain from marriage as well. Later on she dresses as Elizabeth for a masquerade ball (at which, again, there are maybe 30 people in attendance). Did this ever happen? I don’t think so, but I do know that there were lots of comparisons made between Victoria and Elizabeth in the popular press, both at the beginning of the former’s reign, and later on, when they were “two great queens”.

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Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria in Elizabethan fancy dress.

The comparisons began with Victoria’s coronation procession in 1837, and continued until the end of the century, coinciding chiefly with moments when the Queen had to exercise her limited political powers, such as during the debate over the Irish Church Bill in 1869, or when there was a general concern about her presence, or lack thereof. The later 1860s was clearly a time to summon Elizabeth, the strong queen who ruled alone, in order to compel Victoria to come out of the prolonged mourning state she had been in since the death of her beloved Albert in 1861: in “A Vision” (third from the top): a “frowning” Elizabeth tells Victoria that she has “let grief prevail over duty”. Newspapers with anti-Republican leanings could use the Virgin Queen as a patriotic symbol and make their points without carping editorials. I’m not quite sure what the Hamlet allegory means, but the depiction of Prime Minister Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, descendant of Elizabeth’s Cecil ministers, and favorite of Victoria, as a modern-day Walter Raleigh would have been a rather obvious comparison, I think. Ultimately the first great queen (looking very mannish I must say) bows to the second, at the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

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Elizabeth and Victoria in British periodicals from 1837, 1843, 1868, 1869, and 1887, ©British Museum and ©National Portrait Gallery.

 


The Golden Age of Gift-Giving

Before the Victorians and the twentieth century transformed Christmas into the extravaganza that it is today, New Year’s Day–in the midst of an extended Christmastide– was the occasion for offering and receiving gifts. We know a lot about the meaning and materiality of gifts in Tudor England because of some extraordinary records, and several recent works which have transcribed and interpreted them for all of us, most notably Jane Lawson’s momentous transcription of 24 surviving Gift Rolls from Elizabeth’s reign, The Elizabethan New Year’s Gift Exchanges (2013) and Felicity Heal’s The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (2015). These two complementary volumes are really interesting and useful (though expensive–fortunately I received one as a gift!). I’m sure you can imagine how valuable and variable these sources are–as Elizabeth received a lot of stuff from her courtiers: pounds of gold coins in little bags made of luxurious fabrics and embroidered, beaded and embellished, books, jewels, articles of clothing, as well as more unique items. Let’s just look at one year’s haul, recorded in the roll from 1578-79 entitled New Yer’s Guiftes giuen to the QUENE’S MAIESTIE at her Highnes Manor of Richmond, by these Persons whose Names hereafter do ensue, the First of January, the Yere abouesaid, which has been digitized by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Our sources: the gift rolls are quite literally ROLLS.

It’s a long roll, organized by the titles of the gift-bearers, from Earls to Gentlemen, and the value of their gifts, a perfect illustration of currying favor. Elizabeth’s long-time favorite, the Earl of Leicester, offered up a very fair jewel of gold, being a clock fully furnished with small diamonds pointed, and a pendant of gold, diamonds, and rubies, very small; and upon each a lozenge diamond, and an apple of green and russet enamel. From the Earl of Ormond, a very fair jewel of gold, wherein are three large emeralds set in which and red roses, one bigger than the other two, all the rest of the same jewel garnished with enameled roses and flowers, furnished with very small diamonds and rubies; about the edge very small pearls; and in the bottom is part of a flower-de-luce garnished with small diamonds, rubies, and one sapphire, with three mean pendant pearls, two of them small; the backside a green-enameled flower-de-luce. More jewels, lots of gold coin, and embellished apparel, including girdles and kirtles, mantles, “forepartes”,”scarfs”, petticoats, caps, mufflers, gloves and handkerchiefs  in cloth of gold, satin and velvet. Very detailed descriptions: you can easily see why these rolls are so valuable to historians of clothing and accessories, as well as to those attempting to piece together the intricate and dynamic relationships that formed the Elizabethan Court.

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A crop of Elizabeth and the Three Goddesses by Hans Eworth (1569), ©Royal Collection Trust: a rare image of the Elizabeth wearing gloves, a common New Year’s Day gift. A fragment of Elizabethan blackwork, often referred to in the Gift Rolls, ©National Trust; Elizabeth received at least one “swete bag” to fill with sweet-smelling herbs to guard her from the plague in 1579–this embroidered example is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Rather than additions to Elizabeth’s vast and well-studied wardrobe, I tend to look for more unusual items in these records, especially household furnishings.The Earl of Hertford gifted the queen with a small pair of writing tables enameled with a grasshopper, all of gold, enameled green on the backside, and a pin of gold having a small pearl at the end thereof.  From Lady Thockmorton, a large bag to put a pillow in or moire satin, allover embroidered with gold, silver, and silk of sundry colors, with 4 tassels of green silk and gold; and a cushion cloth of network, flourished over with flowers of gold, silver and silk of sundry colors, lined with white satin. Elizabeth also received  contemporary examples of things we might receive today (on Christmas Day): books, stationery, sweets, flora and fauna, including eighteen larks in a cage from one Morris Watkins, on New Year’s Day of 1579.

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Elizabethan Cushion Cover, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


They were what they Wore

This past week we were examining some social trends in my Elizabethan course, and I used several watercolor illustrations by the Flemish refugee artist Lucas de Heere to “color” some of my presentations and our discussions. De Heere (1534-1584) was a Ghent-born painter and poet, the son of well-established artists, who converted to Protestantism upon his marriage and therefore was inclined to flee the war-torn Low Countries with the onset of the Dutch Revolt. He came to England in the later 1560s, worked steadily, and apparently became very rich. One of de Heere’s English works, The Family of Henry VIII: an Allegory of the Tudor Succession, is justly famous, but his first important commission (and connection) came from Edward Lord Clinton, the High Admiral of England, who desired a series of murals of “national costumes” to adorn the walls of his London house. The murals do not survive, but a couple of illustrated manuscripts in which de Heere engages in an anthropological/materialistic narrative of Europe in general and Britain in particular fortunately do: Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel par Luc Dheere peintre et sculpteur Gantois (available here) and Corte Beschryvinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland (British Library MS Additional 28330). This examination of national character through costume is nothing new in the sixteenth century, but de Heere includes some interesting comparative commentary in his manuscripts, and while the Description’s opening illustration is a rather conventional image of Queen Elizabeth, the Théâtre‘s most distinctive image is of a naked (almost–and also very hairy and/or dirty) Englishman, holding a shred of cloth and scissors, apparently wondering what to wear!

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Lucas de Heere

Quite a contrast of de Heere images: Queen Elizabeth from the Beschryvinghe, and the “naked Englishman” from the Théâtre.

Karel van Mander, a former student of de Heere’s apparently asked his mentor about this latter image a few years later, as he included the following passage in his collective biography of the most eminent Netherlandish and German artists, Het Schilderboeck (1604):

It once happened that when de Heere was in England he obtained a commission to paint in a gallery for the Admiral in London in which he had to paint all the costumes or clothing of the nations. When all but the Englishman were done, he painted him naked and set beside him all manner of cloth and silk materials, and next to them tailor’s scissors and chalk. When the Admiral saw this figure he asked Lucas what he meant by it. He answered that he had done that with the Englishman because he did not know what appearance or kind of clothing he should give him because they varied so much from day to day; for if he had done it one way today the next day it would have to be another–be it French or Italian, Spanish or Dutch– and I have therefore painted the material and tools to hand so that one can always make of it what one wishes.

This is so interesting, but to what can we ascribe the Englishman’s sartorial flexibility? In class, I went with the relative “openess” of the English elite and social mobility in the merchant and gentry orders of Tudor society. The peerage are depicted in their ceremonial robes by de Heere in the Beschryvinghe, but gentlemen, gentle ladies, and “bourgeois” ladies testify to shifting fashions: he also distinguishes between “a London merchant’s wife” and a rich London merchant’s wife” and between city and country dwellers. As is so often the case, it often takes an outsider view to see things clearly, or at least comparatively.

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Lucas de Heere’s Englishmen and Women: peers, gentlemen and ladies, London aldermen, bourgeois and merchant’s wives, city women and country woman, Ghent University MS BHSL. HS. 2466 and British Library MS Additional 28330. See also de Heere’s interesting triple portrait here.

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Scent of a Queen

While I was looking for spring wine concoctions in A Queen’s Delight the other day I came across a recipe for “Queen Elizabeths Perfume”: Take eight spoonfuls of Compound water, the weight of two pence in fine powder of Sugar, and boil it on hot Embers and Coals, softly, and half an ounce of sweet Marjoram dried in the Sun, the weight of two pence of the powder of Benjamin to make a sweet, long-lasting perfume. As you can see, other delights are in there, including a rose and cypress perfume supposedly utilized by her brother Edward, and a toothpaste made of Mother of Pearl.

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This herbal scent seems a bit more complex (and long-lasting) than Elizabeth’s other perfume, recorded in C.J.S. Thompson’s Mystery and Lure of Perfume (1927) and the inspiration for the “perfume garden” designed by Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins which won a Gold Medal and the title of “Most Creative” at the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show. I wish I had seen this garden–which presented the evolution of Elizabeth’s perfume from plant to bottle in a “polysensorial” way–but we can all buy a bottle of the finished product at the Historic Royal Palaces gift shop (oh no, they only ship to the U.K). I think I might prefer the marjoram-based scent anyway; rose damask is a bit cloying.

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Sketch and photograph of the award-winning Perfume Garden, 2009, from a portfolio here; Elizabeth’s inspirational rose damask eau de toilette, available (in the U.K.) here.

Speaking of cloying: neither of these perfumes contains the exotic ingredient found in so many recipes for scented sachets, pomanders, and waters in the sixteenth and seventeenth century: musky secretions from the anal glands of the civet cat (not a cat at all), which could mask all unpleasant odors and serve as an aphrodisiac. Shakespeare gave King Lear a civet reference–Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination–but a century later it was fortunately out of fashion if Samuel Cowper’s rhyme is any indication: I cannot talk with civet in the room, a fine puss-gentleman that’s all perfume.

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Another perfume recipe from A Queen’s Delight and an Elizabethan perfume bottle from the “Cheapside Hoard” and the Museum of London; the Elizabethan pouchoir print by Georges Barbier from Richard Le Gallienne’s Romance of Perfume (1928).


John Dee, Renaissance Man

The first ten or so years of my teaching career I would bring up John Dee (1527-1609) in one of my classes–he’s relevant to most of them really, whether it’s English history, or Atlantic history, or my courses on the early modern witch trials or the Scientific Revolution–and my students would look perplexed:  who? Once I told them a bit about the “Arch-Conjurer of England” they definitely wanted to know more, but they had no prior knowledge. That all changed about a decade ago when the first book in Michael Scott’s adolescent novel series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel was published, which features John Dee as a central character (Joan of Arc, Machiavelli and Shakespeare also show up as the series unfolds): now I’ve got a generation of students who know all about John Dee, or at least they think they do: in any case, the stage has been set.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Anonymous English Artist, John Dee, c. 1594. Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For me, Dee represents one of the last generations of men who could pursue “magic” and “science” at the same time: his life’s work represents just how blurry the line was between these two endeavors in the sixteenth century. He’s also a great example of the multi-faceted Renaissance Man, or at least an English example thereof. It’s really difficult to confine Dee’s interests and activities to a short blog post, but I’ll try: he was first and foremost a mathematician, but this foundational field drew him into so many others: astrology, astronomy, alchemy, geography, cartography, linguistics, cryptography, optics. He started out his professional life, while still in his teens, as an academic, but clearly sought to be a courtier, and enjoyed a close relationship with Elizabeth I, who at one point called him “hyr philosopher”. This connection gave him security, prestige, and influence, which he used to advocate for a stronger imperial policy for England; indeed he is generally credited with coining the term “British Empire”. It must have enriched him too, as he spent considerable money (and time) amassing a huge library which he installed at his primary residence at Mortlake, just outside London. He was an avid manuscript-hunter, pursuing and collecting all written knowledge on “high” (learned) magic, predominately alchemy and cabalism. But written, human knowledge was never enough for Dee: he came to believe that all of his questions could be answered only by beings of a higher order: angels. His pursuit of communion with the angels ultimately drove him down a path that threatened both his livelihood and his reputation, as a Renaissance magus practicing learned, “white” magic had to be very careful not to cross the line into the “black” arts of divination and necromancy in this age of intensive witch-hunting. Dee died a natural death, but lost his fortune, and his complex character was reduced to that of Prospero and Dr. Faustus by his contemporaries Shakespeare and Marlow.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Victorian View of Dee as Conjurer: Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment before Queen Elizabeth, c. 1880,Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Apparently the skulls in the original painting were painted over at some point!

Modern scholars (as well as authors of adolescent fiction) love Dee and have restored much of his complexity, but it is a difficult task to reconcile the scientist and the spirtualist. And now there is a new exhibition of materials (and instruments) from his own library at the Royal College of Physicians Museum in London: Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Dee to “speak for himself”: the RCP website states that: “Our exhibition explores Dee through his personal library. On display for the first time are Dee’s mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts, many elaborately annotated and illustrated by Dee’s own hand. Now held in the collections of the Royal College of Physicians, they reveal tantalising glimpses into the ‘conjuror’s mind’.” I’m bringing students in my Tudor-Stuart class over to London during spring break this year, and this is on my itinerary–I think we can build on Nicholas Flamel a bit.

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John Dee’s own illustration of a page of the complete works of Cicero. (‘Opera,’ published Paris, 1539–1540) (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase);  A horoscope chart scribbled in the lower margin of Claudius Ptolemy’s Quadriparti, Venice, 1519 (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase); another great Dee doodle of three bearded faces in the margin of a treatise on alchemy (Arnaldus de Villanova, ‘Opera,’ published Venice, 1527) (© Royal College of Physicians / Mike Fear). You can see more items from the exhibition here.


History by HBO

Much, most, actually all of the last week was spent in bed with the world’s worst cold, which dragged on and on and on. At first I thought fine, I need a break, I’ll just lie here and read, but I was so stuffy and sneezy and miserable that I couldn’t really concentrate on most of the books I had on hand, so I gave in and turned on the television. Hours passed by staring rather blankly at the screen, and my beloved TCM let me down by showing too many Marx Brothers movies and musicals, so I became my own programmer and ordered up a bunch of HBO movies. I know we’re in the (second) Golden Age of Television, but I really couldn’t commit to an entire series–after all, I could have died at any moment. I started with Elizabeth I (2005) which is actually a miniseries, but I have seen it before so I thought I could commit (or live through) four hours–and it always makes me feel better to see or think about Elizabeth. This particular Elizabeth is characterized by a rather plodding narrative of events during the latter half of the Virgin Queen’s reign, but Helen Mirren (of course) gives a tour-de-force performance and the production values are amazing: you don’t feel as if you are jettisoned into Tudor World as completely as with Wolf Hall and its natural light filming, but Tudor texture is definitely there. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly weary of the exclusively romantic focus: the hardest thing to govern is the heart reads the film’s tagline, but that’s not really true.

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Once I left Elizabeth I, I started searching for something that was a bit more foreign to me–and that brought me to films about the twentieth century. I’ve actually watched some of HBO’s films about the very recent past (Recount, Game Change, Too Big to Fail), but I wanted to go a bit further back: the twentieth century is my least-familiar, least-favorite century, so I knew I wouldn’t grind my teeth over every little detail as with a Tudor film. I landed on a rather inanely titled film named Conspiracy (2001) which I had never heard of but which almost immediately caught my attention–and held it, rapt. Conspiracy is about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference which settled upon the Final Solution in a single afternoon, actually only 90 minutes as it was more of an announcement that a settlement. The whole movie is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action: the conversation about “evacuation” happens during a long lunch in the beautiful dining room of a suburban Berlin villa. Not just the idea, but the logistics of the Final Solution are discussed while horrible men (played by wonderful and familiar actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) are eating and drinking. A really chilling film that deserves a less generic title.

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Conspiracy was so good I wanted more, but I didn’t really find anything that came close among my options: John Frankenheimer’s Path to War (2002), about LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, probably came the closest because you felt a bit of a chill (when American generals were talking, rather than German Nazis) but it still seemed like more of a “made-for-television-movie” rather than a film. Michael Gambon as Johnson was riveting, though, as most British actors playing American presidents are. Most, but not all: Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a pre-presidential FDR dealing with his diagnosis of polio in Warm Springs (2005) really pales–I suppose it has to–in comparison with his haunting characterization of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Hangman” and/or “Blonde Beast” and chair of the Wannsee Conference, in Conspiracy. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Mr. Roosevelt and grasped the empathetic development of his social conscience, just like HBO wanted me to. Still in the mood for statesmen, I finished my HBO history film series with two biopics about Winston Churchill: Winston in the wilderness in The Gathering Storm (2002, featuring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) and Winston at war in Into the Storm (2008, featuring Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer). Both were fine, with the first better than the second, which suffered from the Elizabeth I problem: we are not satisfied to focus exclusively on Winston when World War II is on in full force. By that time, even with my foggy brain, I had discerned the HBO formula for a historical film:

  1. A lavish budget: to purchase the services of the best directors and actors, and realistic sets, perfect in every little material detail.
  2. A focus on personalities. “History” is represented solely as the acts or reactions of people, with little or no attention given to larger environmental or intellectual forces, or context. This approach works best with individuals, which is why so much of HBO history is biography. Conspiracy is an exception, as multiple viewpoints are represented, and even though the context is assumed, there is an underlying subtext of SS infiltration of the entire Nazi regime which enhances the complexity of the presentation.
  3. Narrative. Given this biographical approach to history, departures from narrative can be as confusing as multiple perspectives.
  4. The more recent, the better. Because of the reluctance to engage in complexities and the personal approach, the better HBO histories are going to be focused on relatively recent topics and personalities where there is some familiarity or expectation on the part of the audience. This is why, despite all of the above, Helen Mirren, and a reliance on the BBC’s 2005 Virgin Queen series, Elizabeth I seems rather soul-less and unsatisfying.
  5. Intimacy. Ultimately, HBO wants to get us into the room where it happened. And of course, we can’t go there.

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!!

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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.

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Buckingham Palace by Assaf Frank

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


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