There were 18 monarchs to receive the Rex Factor and who are now competing for the Rex Factor crown. Each of them has their own dedicated podcast but as a quick (re)introduction, here’s a guide to England’s greatest monarchs and their greatest achievements:
Alfred the Great (871-99) – Saxon
When Alfred came to the throne there was no England but rather a series of kingdoms, of which his kingdom, Wessex, was the last still free from Viking conquest. In 878, Alfred was forced into exile but rather than flee like other kings had done he regrouped in the marshes of Athelney before re-emerging to defeat the Vikings at Eddington and restore Anglo-Saxon England. What made Alfred truly extraordinary was how he built the peace: building burhs (fortified market towns), both to protect from future Viking raids and re-establish urban living, and embarking on a nationwide re-educational programme.
Athelstan (924-39) – Saxon
Athelstan was the first king of all England, taking the Viking city York and establishing his rule in Cornwall, as well as becoming predominant across Britain, acknowledged by the kings of Wales and Scotland as their superior. Although a religious and cultured man, his court becoming a centre for scholars and his reputation spreading across Europe, it was in the Battle of Brunanburh that Athelstan truly forged his legendary status, defeating an alliance of Welsh, Scots and Irish Vikings to maintain English hegemony.
Cnut (1016-35) – Viking
Although his father, Sweyn Forkbeard, had briefly been king, Cnut became England’s first established Viking king after defeating Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Assandun. Rather than rule as a foreign despot, Cnut aimed to be a model Saxon monarch, re-establishing old laws, providing stable government and marrying Aethelraed the Unready’s second queen, Emma of Normandy. He also developed a North Sea Empire, ruling not only England but also Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden.
William the Conqueror (1066-87) – Norman
After defeating Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings, William Duke of Normandy became William I of England and established a new dynasty. When he met with Saxon rebellions, he truly earned the “Conqueror” epithet, defeating all his rivals and brutally suppressing the north in the process. He commissioned the Domesday Book in 1085, an unparalleled recording of all the landholdings in England.
Henry I (1100-35) – Norman
The youngest son of the Conqueror, Henry became king when his elder brother, William Rufus, was conveniently accidentally killed hunting in the New Forest and before his oldest brother, Robert, had a chance to get to England. Henry eventually defeated Robert in battle, reuniting England and Normandy, and gave England a long period of stability with administrative reforms and marrying a descendant of the Saxon kings.
Henry II (1154-89) – Plantagenet
After civil war (known as the Anarchy), England was in a difficult state when Henry came to the throne but he quickly re-established royal control and (through his father) now ruled an Angevin Empire (England, Ireland and the West of France). A tirelessly active man, Henry was constantly on the move at speed to keep his territories together, occasionally stopping to make huge changes to the English legal system, scandalise Christendom with the murder of Thomas Becket and tackle his rebellious children inspired by his formidable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Richard the Lionheart (1189-99) – Plantagenet
One of Henry’s rebellious sons, Richard was an incredible military leader and a legend in his own time. Although failing to retake Jerusalem from Saladin , Richard inspired many great victories in the Crusades only to be taken prisoner in Europe on his return while the King of France stole most of his land. Richard showed his mettle, however, largely succeeding in winning back his territories both being laid low by a crossbow.
Edward I (1272-1307) – Plantagenet
The monarchy might have been remove altogether under Henry III but for his son, Edward, escaping from Simon de Montfort’s clutches and defeating him in battle. A medieval tour de force, Edward was a strong and hard ruler – conquering Wales with his glorious castles, defeating William Wallace in Scotland, as well as making Parliament a permanent body for raising taxes.
Edward III (1327-77) – Plantagenet
Edward was only 14 when his father, Edward II, was deposed by his mother (Isabella of France) and her lover, Roger Mortimer. However, after being freed from Mortimer in a daring rescue, Edward united England’s nobles in a court inspired by Camelot and the Hundred Years War as Edward laid claim to the French throne. Incredible victories at Crecy and Poitiers saw England dominant over much of France despite the inconvenience of the Black Death in the middle.
Henry V (1413-22) – Lancaster
Henry’s father, Henry IV, had deposed Richard II and struggled through his reign against rebellions. In contrast, Henry V was a strong and popular ruler. Seasoned in his youthful battles against Owain Glynwr and Harry Hotspur, Henry resumed the Hundred Years War to even greater success, with a remarkable victory at Agincourt coming ahead of a campaign in which Henry reconquered Normandy, married the daughter of the French king and was named the king’s heir, dying just weeks away from becoming King of France.
Edward IV (1461-70 & 1471-83) – York
Edward won the throne in the Wars of the Roses, deposing Henry VI after the brutal battle of Towton. Edward was 19, incredibly handsome and very charismatic. His marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (the first to an English woman since the Saxons) caused a rift with Warwick the Kingmaker leading to Henry VI’s readeption in 1470, only for Edward to return a year later, defeating both Warwick and Henry’s son. Edward provide stable rule for the next ten years following the chaos of the previous half century.
Henry VIII (1509-47) – Tudor
The maternal grandson of Edward IV, Henry VIII was also a young and handsome king when he came to the throne. For twenty years, little of note happened but a failure to produce a (legitimate) son and a passion for Anne Boleyn led to the most famous divorce in history. Henry broke from the Church of Rome, initiated the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries and worked his way through six wives, becoming the most powerful and famous ruler in English history.
Elizabeth I (1558-1603) – Tudor
Despite Henry VIII’s desperation for a son, it was a daughter, Elizabeth, who would prove to be his most successful heir. Less radical in her religion than her siblings, Elizabeth’s religious settlement created a ‘middle way’ with a more moderate Church of England established. Elizabeth’s reign has been seen as a golden age, with playwrights such as Shakespeare and Marlow, adventurers like Drake and Raleigh, and the (weather-assisted) defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Charles II (1660-85) – Stuart
The English Civil War saw the execution of Charles I and a Republic inaugurated by Oliver Cromwell. Charles II had narrowly escaped death himself, spending 6 weeks avoiding capture trekking across England in disguise, and the Restoration’s success was by no means assured. Charles cannily managed relations with an awkward Parliament whilst reversing Cromwell’s puritanical regime, bringing back theatre, Christmas and jovial debauchery.
William III (1689-1702) – Stuart
Alarmed at the prospect of a Catholic succession, Parliament invited the Dutch ruler, William, to invade England. After James II abandoned the throne, William ruled jointly with Mary II (James’s daughter), defeating James at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland while leading the European resistance to the all-conquering Louis XIV. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 led to the Bill of Rights in 1689 establishing the rights and independence of Parliament from the monarchy.
William IV (1830-37) – Hanover
After the hugely unpopular George IV (the Prince Regent), William was a breath of fresh air (despite being the oldest man to come to the throne). William celebrated his accession by an impromptu carriage ride through the streets, waving at passers-by. Surprisingly, he also proved a hard-worker, working through the backlog of papers left by his brother before helping ensuring the passage of the 1832 Great Reform Act (albeit somewhat reluctantly).
Victoria (1837-1901) – Hanover
Victoria’s childhood had been strictly regulated by her mother and comptroller, John Conroy, who hoped to dominate a regency. Having resisted their demands, Victoria came to the throne at 18, fully independent. In a period of scientific and technological innovation, Britain became the most powerful country in the world with its huge empire and Victoria was at its symbolic heart, her jubilees celebrated across the world and her reign the longest in British history.
George V (1910-36) – Windsor
George ruled through a period of permanent crisis – the horrors of the First World War preceded by the Home Rule Crisis in Ireland, a constitutional battle over the House of Lords and the Suffragettes only to be followed by the General Strike and the Great Depression. While monarchies fell across Europe, George’s sensible and dutiful approach helped steady the ship in Britain and ensured the survival of the monarchy, establishing the new Windsor dynasty and adapting to three hung parliaments, two coalitions and the first ever Labour Government, despite his deep dislike of change.