It is unquestionably the most famous, the most slavishly observed royal family in the
The 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle garnered more than 29 million viewers
in the United States of America alone, and the USA is not a nation you’d expect to
be particularly friendly to the idea of royalty at all.
And those were reported as being notably low ratings.
Now consider the extent to which British monarchs have left their direct stamp on the world
as the nation grew into the empire on which the sun never set.
How many people are familiar with Richard the Lionheart and his role in the crusades
but who couldn’t name another thing that happened a century before or after.
Entire eras are named by historians in honor of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.
Still, one of the lessons we’ve learned since we began Toptenz is that the more people
have a passing familiarity with something, that usually means the more ways people misunderstand
The 1215 Magna Carta was a Key Part of the American Revolution
For many American history students, when King John II signed this document, it practically
was the birth of the American Revolution that would come five and a half centuries later.
It was legal precedent that the powers of a monarch were to be held in check by outside
powers, divine right or no divine right.
The document included stipulations against the king being able to levy taxes as he saw
fit, to regulate such seemingly mild matters as uniform measurements of a piece of cloth
or corn in transactions.
And that’s the thing: Many of those original clauses were subsequently removed.
The rewriting of the Magna Carta began almost immediately in historical terms.
As early as 1216, John’s successor Henry III was releasing a new version.
Then it was changed again in 1217, and yet again in 1225.
These were not slight changes, either.
The 1225 revision, for example, cut the number of lines down from sixty-three to thirty-six.
Most significantly, the 1225 revision that was most momentous in being cited as precedent
in 1628 included the right of the king to levy taxes at will.
Considering that one of the main rallying cries of the American Revolution was “no
taxation without representation,” then the Magna Carta was not actually useful as legal
precedent for those who sought independence.
Richard the Lionheart was a High Point of the Monarchy
Many tellings of the story of Robin Hood present Richard I as the worthy king of England and
his younger brother John as the wretched usurper.
It doesn’t hurt in some circles, particularly the papacy, that he was one of the primary
figures of the third and most successful of the many European crusades in the Holy Land.
For one thing, Richard’s crusades were an immense strain on his nation’s finances.
In 1190 he resorted to openly accepting bribes for political and legal offices.
By 1192 he had been drawn into a stalemate against the Muslim forces and only won the
right for unarmed Christians to enter Jerusalem.
Then he lost a fortune in a far less defensible way when he was captured in a sea wreck, and
his ransom cost literally two years worth of revenue for the entire nation, meaning
even the wealth of the churches had to be seized.
When Richard returned in 1194, he named John his heir, indicating he either approved of
what John was doing in his absence or didn’t care, and then went to Normandy to resecure
British control of it.
He was killed there in 1199, having won neither of the wars he fought, spending barely any
time in his home nation, and bled it white financially.
Henry V was a Glorious Leader
In 1415 a badly outnumbered starving British army (the ratio has been reported as anywhere
from two to one through five to one) used guile, longbows, and mud to soundly defeat
a well-equipped French army.
Consequently Prince Hal, as he was nicknamed before taking the crown, was put on a historical
pedestal among monarchs and generals.
Generations grew up hearing his stirring Saint Crispin’s Day Speech, or rather the speech
that William Shakespeare wrote for him in the 1599 play Henry V.
In truth his glorious war in France was marred by two great atrocities.
At Agincourt, when Henry’s army took a large number of prisoners, Henry ordered them put
to death, which was a violation of the rules of war even at the time.
In 1417 during the siege of Rouen, he outdid that atrocity when he allowed 12,000 French
refugees to starve to death between his entrenchments and the city.
It seems Shakespeare included something truer to the real man’s character than the St.
Crispin’s Day Speech in a scene that took place after the Battle of Agincourt: The king
who’d just claimed every man who fought with him would be one of his “band of brothers”
looked at a list of his dead soldiers, read the first four, and then said of the rest
“none else of name.”
King George III was a Mad Tyrant
In North America, this monarch’s madness and loss of the colonies are the only two
things for which he’s remembered.
There isn’t an entire film adaptation of a play devoted to his insanity with the unsubtle
title The Madness of King George for nothing.
It certainly helps paint the Revolution as having additional justification if His Majesty
across the Atlantic is unbalanced.
Also the fact that for the last decade of his reign he was so insane that Prince George
IV was regent for Great Britain certainly adds to that.
The truth is that during the first fifty years of his reign George III was far more enlightened
and tolerant of liberty than many monarchs before or after him.
He had a keen scientific mind, being the first king in British history to receive an education
in the sciences and enough interest in the subject to establish a royal observatory which
he used to accurately predict future transits of Venus.
The Royal Library was freely offered to scholars during his rule.
He made it his avowed policy to veto any legislation which would restrict the rights of preachers
critical of the crown “There shall be no persecution in my reign” were his strong
words on the subject.
He allowed the courts of Britain to make rulings independent of his judgement.
As far as America was concerned, for one thing, the unpopular taxes and policies were parliament’s
decisions instead of his.
During the Revolution he kept detailed records of the troops and their supplies.
When it was over, he worked to an amiable reconciliation between his empire and the
While being the king meant losing the colonies was his responsibility, it was hardly the
fault of his actions.
Queen Victoria was a Model of Repression
For awhile, there was a piece of trivia that circulated around about how in Victorian England
there was skirts placed on table legs for fear that the curves of such a table leg might
be too arousing.
It was nonsense, but it fit an image of the era that had come to permeate the popular
With Queen Victoria as the figurehead of the period, it was inevitable that taciturn portraits
of her from later in life would mean she was viewed as a stoic prude herself.
That would have been quite a surprise to many during much of her reign.
When Victoria and Prince Albert were married in 1840, the press was agog about how glamourous
and eager Victoria was.
Victoria wrote to correct them only that she had not shed any tears.
These feelings for Albert were not affected for public benefit: Victoria gushed in her
diary about how she “NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening” and how his “excessive
love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped
to have felt before.”
She also praised his appearance at length, from his “slight whiskers” to his “broad
shoulders and fine waist.”
These thoughts were not kept particularly private.
She enthused to Prime Minister Melbourne about how Albert’s “kindness and affection...
were beyond everything” over and over again.
Not exactly X-rated material.
But in an era where serious academic writings asserted that women did not experience orgasms,
it definitely went against the grain.
King John was All Bad
With Richard I off in the Holy Land and Europe triple-bankrupting England, regent and eventual
King John took up the mantle of managing the homefront in a pretty bad spot from the beginning.
While Richard was winning battles, John had to be the bad guy who took wealth from churches
to finance the war effort, winning him the animosity of historian monks such as Roger
Wendover and Matthew Paris (although being excommunicated for trying to install a friendly
archbishop for Canterbury certainly didn’t help.)
Add to that the fact his own barons putting him under threat of rebellion to sign the
aforementioned Magna Carta, and it seemed as if his reign must have been a travesty.
But his time on the throne actually had its redeeming aspects.
As asserted by History Extra, John had a number of redeeming features and successes.
Although landholdings were lost during his reign, he conducted a number of skillful sieges
such as Le Mans in 1200 and Rochester in 1215.
He also lifted the Mirebeau.
Indeed, he saved the defenders of the castle Chateau-Gaillard in 1203 through an amphibious
assault was praised by military historians.
John was also able to maintain England’s power in Scotland and Ireland, which was particularly
impressive while already being embroiled in a costly war across the channel.
In terms of administration, John was industrious to the point that he was credited with “modernizing”
a government which had fallen significantly behind.
As far as the Magna Carta was concerned, it should be noted that only a relatively few
39 baronies of the 197 in his kingdom were rebelling against him while roughly as many
were supporting him, else the barons certainly wouldn’t have bothered making him sign any
documents when they could just depose him.
However fraught with peril his reign was for England, in his own time he was hardly the
mewling creep he has since been labelled.
King Alfred the Great Saved England from the Vikings
The general impression given is that for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Great
Britain was essentially easy pickings for the Vikings.
It wasn’t until the Ninth Century that a particularly mighty king was able to unite
the many states of the Isle and drive the raiders and their colonies out where they
Surely King Alfred would feel embarrassingly flattered by it, being a fierce advocate for
education in addition to a highly effective general.
While it is true that by the time his reign ended in 899 AD.
Alfred had conquered London for the Anglo-Saxons and fought the Danes to a standstill and peace
treaty, his descendants failed him in both military and humanitarian terms.
In 1002, King Æthelred the Unready ordered the murder of all Danes on the island, which
resulted in the St. Brice’s Day Massacre.
This brought the full fury of the Danes under the command of King Sweyn Forkbeard, who subsequently
conquered all of England.
Thus Alfred could hardly have been said to have saved England from the Danes, only delayed
its full capitulation to them by roughly a century.
Queen Elizabeth I Virginity
Since from her 1558-1603 reign was without an marriage or children, she gained the label
“the virgin queen.”
Naturally this meant that many men, most notably the very incestuous King Philip II of Spain
who’d already been married to her sister Mary, vied savagely for her hand.
Recently, evidence has emerged that she was hardly chaste even after taking the throne.
In 2018, The Telegraph reported that Dr. Estelle Paranque had uncovered letters written by
Bertrand Salignac de la Mothe Fénélon, a French noble who’d been stationed in England
from 1568 to 1575 working as a diplomat.
His letters, including one to Catherine de Medici, talked about how he’d received a
number of invitations to Elizabeth I’s private chambers, how they’d reached a level of
surprisingly casual and intimate conversation during their time together (e.g. her blaming
him for forgetting her while he was away on business) and that she would at least once
“drew (him) off in a corridor aside.”
The tone of this correspondence was hardly bragging, with Fénélon writing admiringly
of how the Queen looked “as a wonder” and admiring her for having the upper body
strength to use a crossbow, which was unusual among noble women at the time.
It’s not secretly recorded surveillance footage, but it’s the best evidence we’re
likely to receive of such a liason.
Henry VIII Exploded
After his death in 1547, Henry V’s persecution of Catholic citizens meant that historians
of that faith had plenty of reason to spread propaganda against him.
One that they anecdote they spread around was that his corpse exploded from all the
gases stored in it as part of the rapid decomposition process, allowing dogs to have a taste of
the royal remains.
These days the little tale seems like a grimly amusing anecdote.
Even to me, it feels like telling the truth is spoiling the fun a little.
Sadly, reports of the corpse of the Tudor king detonating aren’t so much exaggerated
as they’re wrong.
As recounted in Thea Tomaini’s 2017 book on the subject The Corpse as Text, another
myth that emerged was that Mary Tudor secretly had her father’s body exhumed and burned,
a fate Henry VIII visited on the corpse of Thomas of Canterbury.
Mythmakers certainly thought that the fate of Henry VIII’s corpse was lively.
The Monarchy has no Power Currently
Moving into modern days, the monarchy of Britain seems so much less powerful that there is
some controversy whether the United Kingdom should continue to have a monarchy at all.
It can be highly expensive to have such ceremonies as the annual inspection of the navy or these
tightly-guarded royal weddings, not to mention that Her Majesty has an estimated net worth
of £335 million and the Crown Estate owns £12.4 billion in land (though admittedly
sites such as Fast Company report that it only comes out to 69 pence per taxpayer per
year and more than makes up for its cost in tourism revenue.)
Her Majesty currently has powers that would be fairly staggering for anyone who thinks
she and the royal family are just figureheads.
As head of state there’s the power to dissolve parliament and appoint a new prime minister,
a power which extends to every state in the Commonwealth.
She has veto power for all bills being signed into law.
She appoints bishops and archbishops in the Anglican Church (if they pass muster with
the prime minister.)
On a lighter note, she has carte blanche ability to issue money to senior citizens on Easter.
Admittedly these are all powers that she’s very unlikely to use due to the likely public
backlash and other checks, but the possibility remains for the royal family’s role to be
much more than ceremonial.