Longevity Top 10: The Longest Reigns in English History

As of about 17:30 today (9 September 2015), Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest reigning monarch in British history. To mark her achievement, we take a look at the top 10 reigns in English history and see how the Queen compares to her (not always) illustrious predecessors.

First off, apologies that this list omits the Scottish monarchs, some of whom would make it into a British Top 10 list – we’re currently working our way through these monarchs in our second podcast series so to avoid spoilers and researching ahead, the long-reigning Scots will be covered at a later date! So, of the English and UK monarchs that we have covered from Alfred the Great to Elizabeth II, how do they all compare? Let’s find out as we countdown the top ten for longevity…

Henry I

Henry I

10. Henry I (1100-1135 – 35.33 Years)

Just squeezing his way into our top 10 is Henry I, the third of the Norman kings. The fourth son of William the Conqueror and lacking any real territory of his own, Henry was never likely to become king. However, when his brother, William Rufus, was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest (a hunt in which, coincidentally, Henry was present) he had himself declared king while older brother, Robert, was out of the country. Henry proved a very effective king, issuing a Coronation Charter (seen by some as a precursor to Magna Carta), expanding royal justice and introducing Pipe Rolls. Unfortunately, despite having the record number of illegitimate children for an English monarch (over 20!) his only legitimate son was killed in the White Ship disaster, leading to him declaring his only legitimate child, Matilda, as his heir. By failing to establish her at court, Henry’s death (from a surfeit of lampreys!) was followed by a civil war known as The Anarchy.

Henry VIII (1509-47)

Henry VIII (1509-47)

9. Henry VIII (1509-47 – 37.75 Years)

Given that our image of Henry VIII tends to be a man of morbid obesity (he ended up weighing up c. 28st), it is perhaps surprising to see him in a list of the longest reigns. However, Henry was initially the very model of health – 6″2 with a 32in waist and 40in chest, he was considered very attractive as a young man. The first twenty years of his reign were comparatively uneventful with Henry happily married to Catherine of Aragon and enjoying his jousting and his parties while Cardinal Wolsey ran the country. However, the failure to produce a male heir and his love for Anne Boleyn saw the last fifteen years of his reign unleash unprecedented change upon the country. He broke with the Church of Rome in the Reformation, dissolved the monasteries and executed various of his closest advisors (most notably Sir Thomas More), two of his six wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) and became increasingly paranoid and tyrannical while his weight ballooned after a 1536 jousting accident that saw recurring leg ulcerations. At 55 when he died, imagine how long he could have reigned if he had stayed healthy!

Aethelraed the Unready

Aethelraed the Unready

8. Aethelraed the Unready (978-1013 & 1014-16 – 38.08 years)

Aethelraed is probably another surprising name to find on the list. He is remembered for a disastrous reign in which Anglo-Saxon England was beset with increasingly devastating and protracted Viking raids, along with a tax known as the Danegeld whereby the Vikings were paid to go away (as noted by Ali, effectively like trying to make wasps leave you alone by giving them jam!) In 1013, he was forced to go into exile when Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark replaced him as king, but was brought back after Sweyn died just a few months into his reign. Unfortunately, Aethelraed proved no more effective upon his return, with Sweyn’s son, Cnut, being on the verge of conquering the country again when Aethelraed died. So how did he last so long? He became king as a young boy after his older half-brother was murdered (possibly on the orders of Aethelraed’s mother) and the once-mighty Anglo-Saxon England saw its old leaders die off, its defences fade away and Aethelraed’s attempts to turn the tide were unsuccessful.

Henry VI

Henry VI

7. Henry VI (1422-61 & 1470-71 – 39 Years)

Henry VI goes one better than Aethelraed, being deposed not once but twice! Henry is the youngest monarch to accede to the throne in English history, just 9 months old when his illustrious father, Henry V, died. Henry VI is the only king in English history to be named King of France (thanks to his father) but it was all downhill from there. England gains in France were undone by Joan of Arc while Henry himself proved a weak ruler, whose court was beset by factions. Henry had mental health issues (probably inherited via his maternal grandfather, Charles VI), leaving him completely incapacitated on certain occasions. His wife, Margaret of Anjou, resisted the powerful Richard Duke of York, leading to a conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. After York was killed in 1460 his took the throne in 1461 and became Edward IV. Henry and his family were in exile for almost a decade until Margaret made peace with Edward’s former ally, Warwick the Kingmaker, briefly putting Henry back on the throne in 1470 before Edward returned, killing Warwick and Henry’s son before Henry himself in 1471. Poor Henry was never really cut out for kinging but did leave a legacy of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge.

Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)6. Elizabeth I (1558-1603 – 44.33 Years)

Unlike the last two monarchs, Elizabeth was able to hold onto her throne despite all the odds being against her. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, she grew up in the chaotic final years of Henry VIII’s reign and the religious fanaticism of her brother, Edward VI (Protestant) and sister, Mary I (Catholic). Elizabeth was Protestant far more balanced than her siblings, with her Religious Settlement demanding outward conformity but not seeking to “open windows into men’s souls”. Despite this, her enemies were many – she was excommunicated by the Pope (who encouraged her assassination), was the subject of numerous Catholic plots to replace her with Mary Queen of Scots and (after Mary’s execution in 1587), had to see off the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth came through all of these challenges and her reign was looked back on as a golden age – stability in government, writers such as Shakespeare and Marlowe, an age of exploration with Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. However, Elizabeth never married and so when she finally died in 1603, the Tudor dynasty ended.

Edward III (1327-77)

Edward III (1327-77)

5. Edward III (1327-77 – 50.58 Years)

Things did not look good in 1327. England had suffered the ignominy of defeat to the Scots at Bannockburn; his father, Edward II, was usurped by his queen, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who was ruling as pseudo-king. However, Edward III decided that he would be a new Arthur, and aided by his young knight companions he had Mortimer executed and then created a Camelot-esque court based around knightly tournaments and chivalry, including founding the Order of the Garter. Edward and his men then proved themselves in battle, with great victories against the Scots (Halidon Hill) and against France in the Hundred Years War (Sluys; Crecy; Poitiers). At one point, Edward ruled about a quarter of France but as the years went on, the military gains slipped away as the old heroes died off. Sadly for Edward, he suffered the death of his wife, his eldest son (the legendary Black Prince) and himself suffered a stroke that left him largely incapacitated towards the end of his reign. Strangely, Edward reigned too long, and the aftermath of the Black Death would lead to the Peasants Revolt a few years after his death.

Henry III (1216-72)

Henry III (1216-72)

4. Henry III (1216-72 – 56.08 Years)

While there has been a lot of talk about Victoria being supplanted at the top of the longevity charts, she is not the first to suffer such a posthumous blow. Henry III was the first English monarch to cross the 50 year threshold and the longest reigning monarch for the next 500 years. Unfortunately, that’s where the glory stops for his reign. At just 9 years old, he was the second youngest of our top 10 to come to the throne and almost did not even get that far. His father, John, had died with England in a Barons War and on the verge of being conquered by France, but thankfully the heroic old knight William the Marshal galvanised the country and saw off the rebellion. The Marshal also reintroduced Magna Carta and it is from this period that its practical use really begins. When Henry reached his majority and ruled alone, things were less successful. The wars in France went badly, his queen (Eleanor of Provence) was unpopular and calls for reforms by Simon de Montfort led to another Barons War in which Henry was imprisoned and De Montfort started reforms that pointed towards a parliamentary democracy if not republic. Thankfully for Henry his son, Edward I, was made of sterner stuff, escaping from prison and killing De Montfort in battle. However, the pious Henry did leave some legacies – his devotion to the memory of the Saxon king Edward the Confessor saw him rebuild Westminster Abbey and bring the name Edward back into fashion by giving the name to his son.

George III (1760-1820)

George III (1760-1820)

3. George III (1760-1820 – 59.25 Years)

It was George who supplanted Henry III as the longest ruler in English (albeit by this stage technically British) history. George was the third Hanoverian (i.e. German) monarch and the dynasty had not proved popular but George was determined to change this. He promoted strong family values and a quiet, rural life (nicknamed Farmer George) which proved increasingly popular in a turbulent age, with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It was not an easy reign for George of Britain. His intransigence over America led to the American Revolution and the loss of America from the British Empire while his stress on family values proved an impossible burden on his numerous children who were notoriously debauched and unpopular (most notably the Prince Regent, future George IV). Most tragically for George personally, he suffered from a terrible mental illness (the exact nature of which remains unknown) which rendered him permanently incapacitated for the last decade of his reign, requiring a regency. George was effectively locked in a tower for the last years of his life, completely mad and largely blind.

Victoria (1837-1901)

Victoria (1837-1901)

2. Victoria (1837-1901 – 63.58 Years)

The last of the Hanoverians, Victoria’s epic reign is now only the second longest in British history. Born during the reign of George III, she died at the start of the twentieth century, one year after the birth of the current queen’s mother. The first half of her life reads like a Disney film – a young princess whose father died when she was small, her mother fell under the spell of an evil and ambitious man (John Conroy), her kindly uncle William IV lived just long enough to save her a regency, allowing her to rid herself of Conroy and be independent. Her marriage to Prince Albert seemed to complete the story – she fell hopelessly in love with him and they had a remarkable 9 children, presenting the middle class family ideal to which George III had aspired. Her reign saw the British Empire at its height, incredible advances such as photography, telephones, radios and great figures such as Brunel, Darwin and Dickens. However, her reign was not free from challenge. The death of Albert in 1861 saw Victoria descend into mourning for the rest of her life, retreating from public life so much to the extent that the republican movement gathered force until she was coaxed back into a more active role by Disraeli and (despite her hatred of him) Gladstone. She is also, perhaps, the first monarch to have taken note of her record-breaking, noting in her diary in 1896 “Today is the day on which I have reigned longer, by a day, than any English sovereign.”

Elizabeth II, record breaker

Elizabeth II, record breaker

1. Elizabeth II (1952-2015…and beyond!)

If the current Queen keeps a diary, then today is the day that she might note that she is now Britain’s longest ever reigning monarch, surpassing even Victoria. Her reign began with the first ascent of Everest and has encompassed 12 Prime Ministers and US Presidents, 7 Archbishops of Canterbury and Popes as well as being Britain’s oldest ever monarch (89) and the only one to celebrate a Diamond Wedding Anniversary. She is also going to cause mayhem with our scoring system for Longevity – this is based upon the longest reign, meaning that with each month that the Queen reigns, all the other scores will need to be adjusted!

Confusingly, the length of the reign (or rather the record-breaking extent of it) can vary depending on the means by which you count: Victoria reigned for 63 years, 7 months and 2 days compared to 63 years, 7 months and 3 days for Elizabeth II – this would imply the record was set on 8 September! However, another way of counting sees Victoria as queen for 63 years and 216 days compared to 63 years and 215 days for the current queen, making the special day 10 September (the problem of leap years)! But, of course, there is an official explanation, which is based on the days, hours and minutes – for Victoria: 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes. Because Elizabeth II’s father, George VI, died during the night, we don’t know at exactly what time he died and the Queen became “The Queen”, so officially the time at which Elizabeth II will surpass Victoria is after 17:30 on 9 September 2015.

Stat Attack

So, what does any of this tell us when it comes to long-reigning monarchs? Are there are any patterns or lessons to be learned? Are long-ruling monarchs a good or a bad thing? Here are some headlines:

Start Young

The average of accession for these monarchs is just 17 years old compared to an average of 32 for the others. The youngest being Henry VI (9 months) and the oldest Henry I (32). Elizabeth II is actually the joint-second oldest with her Tudor namesake at 25.

Live a Long Time

Self-explanatory, really, but the average age of death for the top 10 is 67 compared to 47 for the others – only two of the top 10 failed to make it into their 50s (Aethelraed the Unready – 48; Henry VI – 49). Incredibly, the top 10 combined account for around 490 years of ruling compared to c. 650 years for the rest, meaning that of the nearly 1,150 years since the accession of Alfred the Great, 43% of that time has been under the rule of just 10 monarchs!

Don’t Necessarily Be Very Good

Of the 10 monarchs, 5 were awarded the Rex Factor (Henry I, Edward III, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Victoria) but the other 4 were not (Elizabeth II is too recent – and current! – to be judged), so ruling for a long time is by no means a guarantee of success. Henry VI was usurped twice and required regencies due to his mental health problems, Aethelraed was usurped once but probably would have lost the throne a second time if he hadn’t died, while Henry III almost didn’t succeed to the throne and was then imprisoned later in his reign.

Avoid Battlefields

It is notable that the top 10 for longevity is hardly a mirror for the top 10 of battleyness. George III, Victoria and Elizabeth II never went anywhere near a battle, Elizabeth I delivered a memorable speech but not at the front line while Henry III’s presence was only really as a prisoner somewhere at the back! Aethelraed was notorious for failing to put up a sufficient military response to the Vikings and lost support by not showing up in person. Henry VIII did have some victories but was never really at the forefront of any of them (at Boulogne he was so heavy that he had to be lifted onto his horse by crane – poor horse!) So that only really leaves us with Henry I and Edward III, though Henry’s reign is notable for a lack of major battles and even when there was fighting the nobles tended to be spared. Who would have thought that not walking onto a ferociously violent battlefield where death could come without a moment’s notice would be so helpful for a long reign…

Be Called Henry

There have been eight Henry’s and four of those made it into our top 10. What’s more, Henry II only just missed the cut (34.75 years) and Henry VII (23.67) was 19th in the overall list. The only exceptions to this rule were Henry IV and Henry V – both of whom ignored the advice to stay away from battlefields though equally both died of non-wound-related ailments.

Don’t Be Scottish

Of all the major dynasties, the Stuarts are the only ones not to be featured on this list. Of course, this is slightly unfair as James I of England would be very high up the list if counted as James VI of Scotland. However, the Stuarts in England did not prove a very long-reigning bunch with Charles II the best (24.75) and James II the worst (3.83). Their average reign is just 17 years compared to 31 for the Hanoverians. For dynasties with four or more monarchs, only the Saxons have a worse average (15 years) but they still managed 1 in the top 10 and 4 in the top 20.

7 thoughts on “Longevity Top 10: The Longest Reigns in English History

  1. I think Elizabeth II would be the oldest ever monarch wouldn’t she, and second only to Gerald Ford at 93 years, 165 days.
    Nelson Mandela was 95 when he died. And prime minister of Australia Gough Whitlam was 98.

    • She is certainly the oldest monarch for the UK, I don’t know about those for other countries but I can’t imagine there would be many older. The difference with Ford, Mandela, etc. is that she is still doing the job at that age!

  2. Pingback: Longevity Top 10: The Longest Reigns in English History | A Texan's Guide to the British Isles

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