After four years of reviewing all the kings and queens of England from Alfred the Great to Elizabeth II, we are finally at an end. There were 18 monarchs awarded the Rex Factor but the play-offs have seen various legends fall away and now just three monarchs remain: Alfred the Great, Henry II and Elizabeth I. However, only one can be crowned the Rex Factor champion – read on for a summary of the final three and then click the link to vote for who you think should win Rex Factor – the deadline for voting is Thursday 31 July.
Few of England’s monarchs endured a tougher time than Alfred – or at least, few whose reigns would prove successful! Alfred was born of a time when there was no united England but a series of smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and by the late ninth-century, these were beset by all-conquering, marauding, beserker Vikings. Only Alfred’s Wessex remained independent but in 878, Alfred was driven from his kingdom by the Viking leader Guthrum and all that remained of England was Alfred and his followers hiding out in the undrained marshlands of Somerset and his fortress of Athelney. Other kings might have fled into exile but Alfred remained, gathered his loyal forces and defeated Guthrum in an all-or-nothing battle at Edington, making possible the future of England and Englishness. Alfred then set about building a peace and starting a vision of a united Anglo-Saxon England that his successors would complete. He saw off future Viking raids with the innovative solution of burhs – fortified market towns no more than a day’s march from each other, ensuring the Vikings would meet resistance that could be easily reinforces. Since the Romans left England, urban living had all but ceased, so Alfred’s burhs reinvigorated town life (often by his own design). The Viking raids had devastated literacy in England so Alfred not only brought scholars to court but himself learned Latin so that he could translate it into English for the good of his people. Warrior king, philosopher king, founding father of England – no wonder Alfred is the only English monarch to be dubbed “the Great”.
Henry II is probably the least famous name of the three finalists but it’s hard to see why when you look at his life and reign. Following the Anarchy, the young Henry II restored law and order in England, becoming known as “castle breaker” for his ability to capture the castles which once caused unrest and instability, building in their place magnificent replacements such as Dover Castle. He ruled over an Angevin Empire, comprising England, Ireland and most of western and central France (more even than the King of France!) Henry held his lands together through his boundless energy, zooming across Europe at breakneck speed to see off any rebellions, most notably the Great Revolt of 1173-74 against the Kings of France and Scotland, plus three of his sons and his own wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine! Henry also had a passion for justice and is widely seen as the father of English Common Law, a major development in English legal and social history. Henry had a good sense of humour but also a terrible temper, which had tragic consequences when his words of anger led to the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the greatest scandal of the age (as if stealing the King of France’s wife and later daughter wasn’t enough!) Henry’s reign ended in tragedy, made to submit to a rebellion by his son, Richard the Lionheart, and the new king of France, but Henry was one of the biggest characters and most powerful rulers in English history and of all the monarchs in Rex Factor, it was Henry who achieved the highest score.
Elizabeth I was a disappointment at birth by being a boy without a winkle, and had to endure the Tudors at their most turbulent: the last ten years of Henry VIII; Edward VI’s Protestant reformation; the 9 day ‘rule’ of Lady Jane Grey and then the Catholic Reformation of Mary I (in which Elizabeth herself came close to execution). Consequently, although a fun-loving and very intelligent character, Elizabeth was a cautious character whose motto (Semper Eadem – always the same) was indicative of her constant strive for stability. The Elizabethan Reformation was more moderate than her predecessors, her councillors stayed loyal and in post throughout her reign and England enjoyed a golden age with exploration (Drake, Raleigh, etc.), literature (Shakespeare) and music (Byrd, Dowland). Elizabeth’s reign was also beset by serious challenges, not least her Catholic, Scottish cousin’s unexpected residency (Mary Queen of Scots), excommunication by the Pope (with encouragement of assassination!) and finally the Spanish Armada of Philip II. The Armada’s defeat at the hands of Drake’s fire ships, ‘God’s winds’ and (rather less directly) Elizabeth’s iconic speech to her troops at Tilbury Fort, is one of the most famous moments in English history. Elizabeth’s failure to marry meant that the Tudor dynasty ended with her in 1603 but after all the turmoil of Henry VIII’s search for a son, it was in Elizabeth that England enjoyed the Tudors at their grandest.