Bad Rulers - But not quite bad enough?
Over the millennia, we've had more than our fair share of bad rulers - probably more bad than good, truth be told. Here are some of those that didn't make my final top ten:
Stephen (1135-54): The grandson of William the conqueror may have been corrupt and ultimately weak when it came to fighting with his cousin Matilda for the crown, but was he really all that bad? I'm surprised at how often he makes these sorts of lists; after all - he did eventually agree to a truce with Matilda, and to Henry II's accession.
Richard I (1189-99): The supposed ''Lionheart'' really wasn't all that. Yes, he may have been a brave warrior, but he was also a cruel and arrogant opponent to his enemies in the cruscades. He was also largely an absentee king, thanks to his constant cruscades abroad, and did little for the country except bankrupt it in order to pay for his little forays. Not too far from making the final ten, in my opinion.
Henry VII (1485-1509): He did manage to bring something of an end to the famous ''Wars of the Roses'', a civil war which had torn England apart and cost many lives in the 15th century. However, many people forget that he was also extremely ruthless. Worse still, by the end of his reign, he was also paranoid and corrupt, and enforced huge and unfair taxes on many of the more wealthy people of England.
Edward VI (1547-53): The son of Henry VIII was something of a religious fanatic, and imposed harsh anti-Catholic laws on the country for his years in charge. However, much of this can be blamed on those who educated and advised the boy king.
James I (1603-25): Rude, uncouth, disgusting, and a little over-zealous with the chopping block. But other than that, not really a bad ruler?!
Charles I (1625-49): Charles was set in his ways, and firmly believed in the supremacy of the monarchy. He was an intelligent and thoughtful man, who (because of his beliefs) managed to drag Britain into a devastating civil war. But then so did Oliver Cromwell - and the outcome of his protectorate was far worse than Charles' regime...
George IV (1820-30): Not kingly material - a bit of a vulgar loudmouth, who poured scorn on his wife, had affairs and drunk too much. But whether he did too much damage to the country, I somehow doubt. A bit like prince Philip?
Edward VIII (1936): Edward was a bit of a Neo-Nazi fantasist, but luckily he reign was short and he gave it up to marry his ''bit on the side'', Wallace Simpson. Thankfully, he saved us from himself!
Over the ages, we have had many English monarchs. They have all had their own challenges to face; War, Economic Instability, Treachery and Uprisings being chief among the most difficult challenges that our monarchs have had to face.
Some of them managed to deal with these challenges admirably. Perhaps our most noteable monarch was Elizabeth I, who managed to pour a little water on the ferocious wars of religion that had been raging in the country for around 30 years. Not only that, she managed to unite people when Catholic Spain attempted to send an armada over to invade England in 1588. The people rallied behind their strong queen, and the Spanish invasion attempt was doomed to failure.
Other successful monarchs have included our present queen, Elizabeth II, who does her job (many would say now irrelevant job) with dignity and grace; Henry V, who won some great military victories against the French; Edward III, who was also successful in war, and Henry II, who gave England a better justice system and (albeit with the murder of Thomas Becket) managed to loosen the stranglehold that the church had on the state.
But it is not the great and the good rulers that I want to discuss. It is the numerous bad rulers that I'm really here to talk about! The ones who caused popular uprisings, were responsible for the murders of innocents, fiddled the system, were paranoid, or were only in it for themselves. Yes, the lowest of the low - far more interesting than the cream of the crop!
Further down the page, you will see a list of the top ten worst England rulers of all time, and their various crime sheets. But first of all, just take a gander at some of those who didn't quite make the list.
The Final Top Ten....
- Henry VIII (1509-47)
In my opinion, Henry VIII must surely stand out as being the most destructive ruler than England has ever endured. The man (albeit often acting upon the unsavoury advice of men like Thomas Cromwell and Cranmer) was responsible for enormous religious reform, from which resulted the persecution and deaths of Catholics (and later, Protestants); basically, anyone who dared to protest against his beliefs. A 170 year war of religion followed.
He also showed no mercy in crushing his political opponents (real or just suspected). Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Robert Aske and Henry Howard were just some of the men put to death on Henry's orders. As for uprisings, Henry punished them with incredible brutality. The most noteable of which (the northern uprising of 1537-38) resulted in Henry deciding to murder the many hundreds of the rebels and their families a few weeks later.
He was also a warmonger, and almost bankrupted the treasury in his aimless wars with France and Spain.
He was also a bad father, a serial adulterer, and an extremely bad husband who divorced two of his wives, and had two more executed (one of whom - Anne Boleyn - was fitted up with charges of mass adultery, quite possibly as an excuse for the king to end their marriage).Recent research has also suggested that Henry VIII was a psychopath. Judging by his marriages, it's hard to disagree with that!
In summary, a disastrous and tyrannical ruler - surely the most destructive English ruler of all time. Perhaps it's only the man's charisma that saves him from being remembered as such.
2. Edward I (1272-1307)
Edward was probably the strongest and most ferocious King that England ever had. He was a true clever man, whose personality demanded loyalty from his followers, and brought immense fear upon his enemies.
He was also a cruel, ruthless and merciless tyrant, whose warmongering destroyed first of all the nobility of England, then later the other kingdoms of the British Isles. In 1265, the young Prince Edward led his forces to victory of the Baronial forces at the Battle of Evesham. Edward ordered his men to butcher the injured in the opposite army, as well as their leader, Simon De Montfort, whose testicles were cut off and hung around his nose.
Once he became King, Edward decided to try to expand his kingdom by waging war on Wales. It took some years to defeat the Welsh armies, and there was much unnecessary bloodshed. After this, Edward then turned his attention to France, but when the Jewish money lenders of London had no money left to lend him for his war, he turned on them. 300 Jews were put to death, and the other Jews of the country were forced to leave the country.
Edward then decided to wade into Scotland, and demand Scottish loyalty from King John Balliol. Not willing to back Edward in his war with the French, Balliol's Scotland soon found itself at war with the ruthless King. The scots put up a brave fight, but Edward eventually conquered his enemies and gained control of Scotland. Ok, a win's a win - but was any of this really anything other than a power hungry dictator waging unnecessary war on his enemies?
A nasty, some might say Evil piece of work - Eddy the first!
3. William I (1066-87):
Talking of warmongers and tyrants, let me introduce William the conquerer!! This was another case of strong and formidable leader with lots (and I mean LOTS) of blood on his hands. William invaded England in 1066 and managed to narrowly defeat Harold Godwineson's Anglo Saxon forces at the Battle of Hastings. True, William did have a claim to the Harold's English crown (which Harold had gained somewhat doubtfully after Edward the Confessor's death earlier that year), but there was no excuse for what happened next.
William's Norman forces then set out on a march to London, burning, looting and raping the native villagers of Britain on their way. After his coronation, William then set about halting any remaining opposition to his reign. His forces marched north, and put down an uprising, killing many thousands of fighting men and innocents alike in the process.
William continued to do this at different times throughout his reign, and then later on in his reign went to wage war overseas. It was the general thugishness and murderous nature of his forces that gets him high into the top ten here. And also probably the fact that few other English rulers have killed so many of their own countrymen (conquered or otherwise).
4. Oliver Cromwell (1649-58)
Cromwell managed to lead his parliamentary forces to victory over the forces of the domineering and somewhat dictatorial Charles I in the English Civil War. And then he replaced Charles' royal dictatorship with something even worse; a religious dictatorship, which carried out murder and oppression ''in gods name''.
Cromwell was the most dangerous of men, in that he was a fanatic. Essentially a good man, who had gained extreme puritan beliefs, his regime was an unmitigated disaster. After Charles I had been executed and the royal forces defeated (which shouldn't have been a bad thing), Cromwell began to crush the people who opposed him.
The first to really suffer were the Irish, who were murdered in their thousands by Cromwell's forces, who were (quote Cromwell): ''Doing the lord's work''. Which lord - the dark lord Sauron from the Lord of the Rings? I wonder....!
After this, Cromwell began to see himself as some sort of mini god (much as Charles had done) and ironically (as Charles had done in 1629) shut down parliament. In it's place, he created a joke of a parliament, meant to be run by pious men of substance. The parliament collapsed soon after. Then he enforced a series of extreme religious laws the country, which included outlawing Christmas amongst other things. Cromwell was essentially a delusional and tyrannical disaster of a leader, his one saving grace being that the parliament which succeeded his parliament formed the basis of the constitutional system of Monarchy that we see in Britain today.
5. Mary I (1553-58)
And now on to our next religious fanatic; Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. Well, with a daddy like that, you can kind of understand why Mary turned out to be ''Bloody Mary''....
Mary grew up as a devout catholic princess in during Henry's reformation. No doubt, she may well have not survived the reformation had she not been the King's daughter. When Henry VIII died, his almost-as-fanatical protestant son (and even more fanatical protectors, Edward Seymour and Thomas Cranmer) took the reigns of power. England was subjected to six years of hard-line protestant rule, before Edward died young in 1553.
Technically next in line to the throne, Mary managed to crush a protestant bid for power (led by the nine day queen, Lady Jane Grey). Once on the throne, Mary immediately took the hard-line catholic approach, not caring that it would throw the country into even more turmoil. She re-introduced catholic laws and married a foreign Prince, Philip of Spain; a very unpopular marriage with the people of England. The marriage itself was a disaster, and Produced no children (and little lover from Philip towards his wife).
Mary then turned on the protestants who'd opposed her, using the old catholic method of ''burning the heretics'' to execute them. Around 300 people (most of whom were harmless and innocent commoners) were burned to death by the queen because of their religious beliefs. Perhaps the one good thing to be said about Mary is that she did have a little compassion and that all of these deeds were guided by misguided and fanatical beliefs, rather than plain cruelty. Perhaps she should have married Oliver Cromwell....
6. Richard II (1377-99)
The young grandson of Edward III became King of England in 1377, under the guidance of his uncle, John of Gaunt. Within four years (as much down to Gaunt as to Richard), a huge uprising was provoked against the aristocracy of the country, known as the peasants revolt.
High taxes (imposed by the King and his advisors) had caused the peasant leaders and country workers to march to London, and demand equality. Though Richard bravely stood up to them and diffused the threat of a bloody civil war, he ended up mercilessly executing many of the rebels a few weeks later.
Then Richard became a little too big for his boots, and put his own interests before the country's (if he hadn't already). He promoted some of his ''favourites'' (male bed partners) to high positions within the government. Soon, parliament had enough and put the king's men on trial, charging them with ''abusing the king's youth''. Their resulting executions left Richard yearning for revenge. In 1197, he took it, and fitted the leaders of the so called ''merciless parliament'' up with charges of treason. They were executed soon after.
Then Richard did something which effectively led to years of division and eventually war between the English aristocracy; in his paranoia, he took the Lancastrian lands from the Earl of Lancaster (Henry Bolingbroke) and exiled him to France. Thus Henry of Lancaster got a large army together, and invaded England, eventually taking the crown from Richard in 1399. This led to years of dispute between the house of York (Richard's line), who thought their crown had been stolen, and the Lancastrians, who had won the crown. This led to the wars of the roses, which lasted for over 30 years and cost many lives. And one paranoid, spoiled brat started it all...
7. Richard III (1483-85)
Many would put Richard III higher up on their list of bad monarchs, but I think this is a little harsh on him. After all, there is much that is uncertain about Richard's short reign; Was he really a murderer? Was he a religious fanatic? Was he really all that cruel and evil? The answer is; definitely self-serving, somewhat cruel and definitely treacherous, but the rest of it is far from certain.
What is certain is that he stole the crown, caused more fighting to flare up, and was a largely despised ruler. Richard was the brother of the Yorkist King, Edward IV. Edward had been a strong a brave ruler during the wars of the roses, and had eventually succeeded in bringing a few years of peace to the country. His heir was due to be his young son, Prince Edward.
But when Edward IV died, Richard had his men escort the young King-to-be to the Tower of London, where his younger brother soon joined him. After a couple of months, the boys (who'd originally been transported to the tower for their own safety) ceased to be seen, and were missing, presumed murdered by Richard's men. This has never been proved, though seems to be the most likely solution to the mystery, as Richard soon took the crown for himself and was made King. He soon proceeded to execute those he thought were against him; the duke of Buckingham among them. He then turned on Edward IV's wife (former queen) Elizabeth, and declared the ex-queen's former marriage to Edward illegal on the grounds of witchcraft. Richard persecuted those he thought were against him, and eventually those people flocked to the banner of Henry Tudor when he invaded England in 1485.
Richard's forces were thankfully defeated, and the later legendary royal villain was killed in battle and his body thrown into the river.
8. Edward II (1307-27)
The son of the formidably fierce and cruel Edward I may well have been one of the most weak and pathetic Kings that we ever had. Basically, he was just a loser, rather than being a nasty piece of work, but he became a hated and loathed brat of a king. He wasn't cut out for or interested in warfare, thus we lost numerous battles to the Scots in the early years of his reign. More of interest to him was his male bedfellow, Piers Gaveston, who's presence so enraged Edwards wife Isabella, that she led her forces to capture and execute Gaveston a few years later.
Poor Edward was crippled with grief over his loss, but soon found a suitable replacement in Hugh Despenser; a ruthless man who soon became even more hated than Gaveston.
Queen Isabella eventually fled to France with her baby son, and took a lover; Roger Mortimer. After a few months, they sailed back over to England with an army, deposed Edward and put his young son on the throne. Edward was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle, and murdered a few weeks later - an assassin thrust a red hot sword up his backside....! Poor Edward. But then again, this was a man who had always put himself before the interests of his subjects and the country.
9. John (1199-1216)
The one person on this list who could have claimed to have been even more hated than Richard III, John was an unquestionably paranoid and incompetent king.
He was the youngest son of Henry II and was never expected to be king. But after the death of third oldest son (Richard I) in 1199, he inherited the throne. John had already shown his treachery beforehand, though.
In 1189, he gave his dying father a promise that he would side with him in his war against the other son, Richard. Then (for no apparent reason) he did a massive U-turn, and supported Richard, forcing old Henry II into a humiliating defeat. Then he did the dirty on Richard.
While away on the cruscades, Richard was captured and taken prisoner. John declared him missing presumed dead, and set himself up as virtual King in Richard's place. Luckily Richard was eventually ransomed into release for a huge amount of money, and he soon put his brother back in his place.
When he eventually became King, John imposed high taxes on the people of Britain in order to pay for his largely disastrous wars in France. He ended up a loser, and had to pay the French off in order to stop them from invading Britain.
There is also some debate as to whether John was a murderer, who strangled his own nephew (who was a direct rival for his crown). What is certain is that soon, the nobility of the country had had enough, and in 1215, they forced the king to sign the ''Magna Carta''; A document which restricted the future actions of kings.
10. James II (1685-88)
James II was the brother of Charles II, son of Charles I. Many of you will remember that Charles I was the king who's tyrannical actions led England into a the devastating civil wars of the 1640's, and who paid the price by being beheaded by the parliamentarian government in 1649. So why then did James choose to forget this and rule England with an iron fist for his three years in charge?
In truth, the problems had started before James had even started his reign. As a practising catholic, many wanted James to be kept away from the throne at all costs. But his ruling brother (Charles II) came up with a compromise; James will inherit the throne, but in return he will practise his beliefs in private.
Unfortunately, when Charles II died in 1685 and James inherited the throne, he did no such thing. He openly repealed anti-Catholic laws, filled up the ranks of the army with Irish catholic soldiers and then imprisoned the protestant clergymen who spoke out against him. Some were then executed. This led to mass unrest amongst his subjects...
Then he had his young son ordained as a practising catholic. Cue mass panic among the people of England; the monarchy would now be catholic for the foreseeable future. The people of Britain resorted to enticing the protestant King William of Holland to invade. James fled to Ireland, and led a catholic army against William's troops at the Battle of the Boyne. This was the one of the main catalysts for 300 years of Anglo - Irish conflict, and James II was one of it's chief early causes.
Vote for England's worst ever ruler!!
jmoboy1 (author) from Oxford on September 08, 2018:
I've learned even more about our monarchs and the histories surrounding them since writing this article. One thing that's a recurring theme is that many of the worst ones did some good, and many of the supposed good ones did some bad. Ultimately, I think history judges them all on the overall impact they had on our society. That's why Henry VIII is my no.1; He split the country in two and created the wars of religion in this country. Even over two hundred years after he declared himself head of the church, England and Scotland were still fighting (partly down to religious divide). My list doesn't include those who ruled before the norman conquest, as my knowledge of those times isn't as complete. Ethelred was certainly unready though, from what I've gathered!
Daniel J Hurst from London on June 12, 2018:
I would add Ethelred the Unready to this list. Also you claim Henry V was a good king but he invaded France as the aggressor and beseiged Harfleur, condemning its civilians to slow starvation. He also had a stupid haircut.
James II was not necessarily a bad king, he just went against the anti-Catholic zeitgeist (and it must be remembered that Charles II converted on his deathbed).
Henry VII was ruthless, but he was a very effective king and he made the country rich.
Elizabeth I was incredibly indecisive but had excellent spin-doctors.
jmoboy1 (author) from Oxford on November 18, 2017:
LadyWicca - Edward III was a good king, and is not on my list. Perhaps you're mixing him up with Edwards I & II who are?
LadyWicca on May 07, 2017:
Edward the III had many sons and without Edward The III. There would be no Margaret Beaufort, no Henry The VII, No Henry the VIII and certainly no Elizabeth the First.
jmoboy1 (author) from Oxford on August 26, 2016:
Richard the third was as hated by his subjects as most of the other rulers on my list. There may have been question marks over just how nasty a man he was - he's been cast as the pantomime villain of English history in many ways, but no doubt he was inept ruler who caused problems by seizing the throne in the first place, and by inspiring little devotion from his subjects. Henry VII was a liberator at first, but also ended up being hated - mainly by those who owed him money, who were beaten up and sometimes made to disappear. But this came in his later years, when he undoubtedly became sick and depressed. At least he did pave the way for a brighter future, rather than inflaming the country to rise up against him, like Richard did.
Wendy on May 21, 2016:
Why the hell is Richard lll on the list? Why not Henry Vll
jmoboy1 (author) from Oxford on October 01, 2015:
Quite a few of the rulers on this list had their good points and left something of an important legacy behind. I doubt those who suffered at the hands of them would have seen it that way though. That's what I'm sort of basing the term ''worst'' on - who did the most damage to and were most disliked by their subjects and opponents?
William wiped out his opposition throughout his reign with no mercy, and Edward the first was a fairly nasty piece of work and achieved little good during his reign.
Oliver Cromwell is someone who left a positive legacy in terms of forming a basis for today's british parliament, but was an incredibly ruthless and self righteous ruler who left the country in a mess when he died. Would you also argue against his place on the list? I guess so.
Jordan on August 28, 2015:
Dont know from what point of view this is written at all. Taken basic secondary school education and made a forum largely based on un-researched opinions and stereotypical points of view. The fact that william 1 is in here demonstrates that as he was a ruler who set the government for the way it is today the same goes for Edward 1st
jmoboy1 on May 04, 2014:
Ok, perhaps calling Edward VIII a Neo-Nazi was a bit much. But I'm glad we didn't end up with a fascist supporting king on the throne for long.
My comments about Edward I are certainly not Anti-Scottish. Edward was no better than any other tyrant who thinks he can walk into another country and claim it, and many British people died from his war mongering ways. I think he was slightly worse than David Cameron,,,!
Lewis on April 30, 2014:
Yes Edward I did take over Scotland but not for long. We kicked his arse back to England. Then we did the same to his son. Then guess what we did the same to his grandson. Now we're gonna do it in 2014 and kicked davey cameron back to England
John on April 07, 2014:
It is hardly fair to call Edward VIII a neo-Nazi. He supported fascism - most of the upper classes did at some point - partly because he was concerned about the plight of the poor and unemployed,