Monday, March 28, 2011

An Idiot's History Of The British Monarchy

Originally published on

LONDON -- In the simplest of terms, Elizabeth Windsor is better known to the world as Queen Elizabeth II because some guy got shot in the eye with an arrow. Don't worry, she had nothing to do with that particularly gruesome act. It happened almost 900 years before she was born.

The unfortunate recipient of that arrow was a man named Harold, who was once king of much of the area now known as England. In 1066 AD, a French bloke known to his friends as William the Bastard came across the channel, crushed Harold's army and picked up the far more appealing title of William the Conqueror. And that's more or less where Britain's monarchy begins, making it one of the oldest royal institutions in Europe.

That said, the line connecting William the Conqueror to modern-day Prince William of Wales is anything but straight. In fact, things were pretty blurry right at the start, with a number of people claiming the title of sovereign. And none were able to claim to be in charge of the entire island of Britain.

The first real attempt at such a thing was made by Edward I (1272-1307): the bad guy in the film "Braveheart." He managed to conquer the notoriously contentious Welsh but spent so much money doing so he was then unable to defeat Mel Gibson. Or, well, something like that.

Roughly 200 years later, the old issue of who was actually in charge boiled over to the extent that a fight broke out. That fight, known as the War of the Roses, lasted for roughly 30 years (1455-1485) and ended when Henry VIII's dad got married.

Henry VIII is easily one of the most famous kings, not only in the history of Britain but in the history of the world. During his 38-year reign (1509-1547), he went from being young, sexy and talented to being old, fat and scary. He was the Elvis of his day, but with far more torture and killing. All his foibles aside, however, Henry VIII's reign helped England, and by extension, Britain, start to develop its own unique personality.

That personality was further developed and expanded by his daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The guy who took over after her, James I (1603-1625) strengthened the concept of Britain even further by being the first king of both Scotland and England: the first sovereign of a United Kingdom.

In the following centuries, although the kings and queens of Britain could now claim reign over wider and wider areas -- famously, the sun never set on the British Empire of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) -- their actual power gradually ebbed away. By the time George VI (1936-1952) was thrust into the job, the primary role of monarch was to serve as a national figurehead. As we know from the move "The King's Speech," one of the biggest challenges George VI faced was putting words together. A monarch was now expected to be a role model, someone for Britons to look up to and aspire to be like. Thankfully, George VI had Captain Barbossa on his side. Or, well, something like that.

Since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II has admirably fulfilled the nuanced responsibilities of her role. What Britain is and what it means to be British are ideas that have shifted dramatically during Elizabeth's reign. She and the royal household famously suffered a public relations embarrassment in the wake of Princess Diana's death in 1997, but she has since adapted and is now seen by many as a sort of national grandmother.

Questions abound for what sort of reign Prince Charles will experience. His sons, William and Harry, are far better at dealing with constant media and public attention than he is. Whether Charles has the savvy and patience to excel as a modern monarch remains to be seen.

The role of monarch has changed immensely since the days of William the Conqueror, but perhaps one facet of the job is still the same. In that battle in which Harold took an arrow to the eye, William's men almost lost the day because they thought their leader, too, had been killed. Things only turned in William's favor when he threw off his helmet to reveal he was still in the fight. The role of monarch, then, has always been to be lead -- whether it be with sword or with words.

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