Child Rulers of England
As today is President’s Day, it is good to remember the nation’s heritage. Unlike our Presidents, English monarchs, especially the males, know fairly early on in their lives what they will become. But as it happens, some came to the throne before they were considered adults.
While you may wonder what this has to do with today’s politics in the U.S., I want you to think about it this way. Barack Obama knows only one job, campaigning for the office he wants to be elected to. Beyond that, he’d rather play. Obama likes games. Instead of doing what’s best for the country that re-elected him to be President, Obama would rather bully his enemies. But when actually confronted, Obama changes the rules so that he can win and cries until he gets his way. Tell me if that isn’t what a child does? On top of that, Obama has a party full of politicians and supporters willing to enable him to continue acting like he does. Take the recent actions of he and his gun grabbing proposals. Obama was smart enough to know he can’t buck the 2nd Amendment with Executive Orders. So he sends out his enablers to bully and scare people into believing legitimate gun owners are wannabe child killers. Obama has acted this way for nearly 20 years; it is unlikely he’ll ever grow up.
With that out of the way, back to the subject at hand. English law and custom has varied over the centuries when determining if a monarch has attained the age of majority, when s/he is old enough to rule on their own. So it doesn’t make sense to rely on that for my list. Every one of the rulers listed below became monarch when they were considered minors by today’s standards. Some grew up physically and emotionally stable, some didn’t; some didn’t live long enough to grow up. It is listed chronologically, and consists of all the monarchs of a united England, which occurred in the mid-10th Century under the House of Wessex. I hope you enjoy it.
Eadwig (955-959): The eldest son of King Edmund, at around 14 he succeeded his uncle King Eadred as king of a united England (Edmund had been king prior to Eadred). King Eadwig spent all of his time in conflict with powerful members of the clergy and his younger brother Edgar. Two years into the reign Edgar’s supporters broke away from Eadred’s government and established a separate kingdom in northern England under Edgar. Eadwig died when he was around 18, succeeded by his younger brother.
Edgar (957/9-975): King Edmund’s youngest son and younger brother of Eadwig, King Edgar was 14 when he began his rule of northern England and 16 when he inherited the rest of the country following the death of his brother. Edgar was known as a powerful king who not only reconciled the crown with the church, he was able to extract oaths of allegiance from many of the British kings ruling other kingdoms on the island of Great Britain. He also had sons to succeed him. Edgar died at the age of 32.
Edward the Martyr (975-978): Edgar’s oldest son, he was around 13 when he became king. Right away, his reign was contested as he may not have been the Edgar’s designated heir. While Edward had some support, it gradually fell away as Edgar’s widow Queen Aelfthryth gained more power to see her son succeed, Edward’s half-brother Aethelred. Edward was murdered after three years.
Aethelred Unraed (978-1016): Edgar’s younger son and half-brother to Edward the Martyr, Aethelred succeeded at the age of around 10. Aethelred was the longest reigning king of a united England prior to the Norman invasion. He is often known as Aethelred the Unready due to his age of accession and the messiness of much of his reign. However, a proper translation of the word “unraed” would make it appear that he was badly advised, and his name could be rendered as Aethelred the Ill-Advised. Despite the problems of his reign, it does appear that Aethelred’s policies helped the English economy flourish. But it was his long dealing with the Danes that have marred Aethelred’s reign. For many years, the Danish raiders would attack England in order to exact tribute, which Aethelred paid (prior kings, including Alfred the Great, did the same, although eventually Alfred was able to beat the Danes in battle). But around 1002, Aethelred decided to fight back and to slaughter the remaining Danes in England. This may have included the sister of Denmark’s King Sweyn Forkbeard, who began a 12-year war to conquer England. The war concluded successfully for Sweyn and he became England’s king. However, he died within months and Aethelred once again assumed the throne. Sweyn’s son Canute (Cnut), now King of Denmark, took up his father’s cause and battled it out with Aethelred, which continued for two years until Aethelred died in 1016. Aethelred’s eldest son Edmund Ironside succeeded to the English throne, but lasted only a short time as he and Canute battled it out in the months following Aethelred’s death. Eventually, the two declared a truce and divided England, but Edmund lived for only a few more weeks, dying in the same year as his father, and Canute took over all of England. Eventually, Aethelred’s line was restored in 1042 with the accession of his younger son and Edmund Ironside’s half-brother, King Edward the Confessor (Edward’s mother was Emma of Normandy, great-aunt of William the Conqueror).
Edgar Atheling (October 14, 1066-December 25, 1066): Edgar was born around 1053, the grandson of Edmund Ironside and son of Edward the Exile. In Old English, the word “atheling” roughly means something along the line of royal heir presumptive. In the mid-1050s, King Edward the Confessor had no son to succeed him and his wife was unlikely to bear him one; it was around this time that King Edward supposedly made arrangements to have his cousin William, Duke of Normandy, succeed to the English throne. Finding out his cousin Edward was living on the continent, King Edward had sent for him; the Exile returned with his son Edgar and daughter Margaret to England in 1057, but mysteriously died within weeks. Within the next few years, the most powerful nobleman in England, Earl Harold of Wessex, had also promised to support William’s accession to the English throne following King Edward’s death. The historical record is incomplete, but it is entirely likely Edward wanted the next monarch to remain within his family and he may have designated the teenage Edgar as his heir, and possibly named Earl Harold to rule as regent. But when King Edward died in 1066, and with the threat of a potential Norman invasion, the remaining English nobles did not seem to want to have to deal with a king who was clearly a minor, and they bypassed Edgar and had Harold crowned as the next king. Needless to say, it was a disaster. Harold’s army was crushed by William at what is known as the Battle of Hastings, with Harold being killed. The English nobles installed Edgar on the throne, but never had the boy crowned. By Christmas, 1066, William had pushed further north, was crowned King William, and Edgar went into exile in Scotland. After remaining in Scotland for a few years, the remaining Anglo-Saxon nobles were defeated by William following a series of rebellions; after the last one, William demanded of the Scottish government to have Edgar be sent into permanent exile. Over the years, Edgar grew up to fight in the First Crusade, as well as getting back into the good graces of William’s successors, returning to England and Scotland periodically. He died, never having been crowned, in 1025 at the age of 72, but it isn’t known where. Edgar’s sister Margaret eventually married Malcom III, King of Scots, and the Anglo-Saxon/Scottish line merged with the Norman one when their daughter and Edgar’s niece Matilda married William’s youngest son King Henry I of England and gave birth to a son William and a daughter also named Matilda (all English and British monarchs after Henry’s successor King Stephen (Prince William had predeceased King Henry) died in 1054 are descended from her).
Henry III (1216-1072): Henry was the son of King John, and around 10 years old when he inherited the throne, along with being Lord of Ireland, which had been given to England by the English Pope Adrian IV fifty years prior. England was in chaos in 1216. When John was crowned king in 1199, he was not only King of England and Lord of Ireland, but also Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou; he held power over what is now most northern and all of western France. But within five years he lost all but Aquitaine (in what is now southwestern France), and spent his remaining time fighting to get it back; he also struggled with the powerful Pope Innocent III over who would become Archbishop of Canterbury, the most powerful church position in England. After more than 10 years the nobles had had enough and demanded he recognize their rights and to have his power curtailed. Signed a year earlier by John, he was able to extract himself from the first issuance of Magna Carta and the First Barons War was raging throughout the country; while the war was going on, John died. Named regent by Henry’s supporters, knight extroardinaire William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, tried to have Magna Carta reissued, but the rebellious nobles were having none of it. In fact, the rebels invited Prince Louis, son of King Phillip II Augustus of France, to invade England and become the next king. However, neither Louis nor the nobles were able to bring their rebellion to a successful completion, and the war petered out within a short period of time following Louis’ return to France. Pembroke had Magna Carta reissued once again, this time successfully. Pembroke died in 1219 and Hubert de Burgh, chief minister, succeeded as regent. It was while de Burgh was regent that Magna Carta was reissued in 1225 and became the de facto Constitution of England. However, one of the original clauses from 1215 had been removed, one that declared the king was to have a council, appointed by the king and nobles, along with another group to have oversight of the king and council. But the 1225 version was notable in two respects: no king could create a tax without the approval of a different council (which eventually became Parliament), and there was an establishment of rights for all English subjects, not just the nobles. It was this version that became the hallmark of what eventually became the English Bill of Rights in 1689 and the U.S. Constitution a century later. Henry began his personal rule in 1227, setting his sights on having his father’s lost French lands restored to England. Despite the fact that Henry pretty much ruled within the confines of Magna Carta, he became a victim of faction as his court consisting of competing family members; his wife’s cousins called the Savoyards, and the Lusignans, the half-brothers from his mother’s second marriage. For 30 years, these factions were allowed to fester in Henry’s court. He was also a very pious man, and made the major renovations of Westminster Abbey we see today. But his piety got the better of him in the late 1250s. The popes of the time were locked in a struggle for Sicily and enlisted Henry to invade and conquer the island, and install his second son Edmund (“Crouchback”) as its king; Henry also promised to front thousands of pounds in a short amount of time and risk having England be subject to excommunication if the venture failed. The Savoyards were outraged and blamed the King and the Lusignans. They tried to implement more controls over Henry, but he was able to ignore them. The result was the Second Barons War. One of the Savoyards, Simon de Montfort, attempted to install a constitutional monarchy; he had won the early battles and held Henry’s eldest son Prince Edward hostage. Unfortunately for Montfort, Edward escaped, was given control of the military, beat Montfort, and had the rebel drawn-and-quarted. For the remaining 7 years of Henry’s reign, his power was secure and he allowed Edward to go on crusade. While Edward was away, Henry died, and Edward was proclaimed King Edward I (“Longshanks”).
Edward III (1327-1377): Great-grandson of Henry III, grandson of Edward I, and son of Edward II, Edward III was proclaimed and crowned king at the age of 15. His mother, Queen Isabella, was also a royal princess of France. England suffered 20 years of inept rule by Edward II, a string of unsuccessful rebellions by the nobles, and a wife who hated him; on top of that, his overlord was his brother-in-law, King Charles IV of France. When called upon by Charles to answer charges, Edward sent his queen and his heir to take care of it. They went, but did not do what was asked. Instead, Isabella found a lover in a disaffected noble named Roger Mortimer, raised an army, invaded England, beat her husband, and had her son crowned as King Edward III, with the Queen and Mortimer as regents (Edward II was murdered shortly thereafter). However, the regents ruled as ineptly as had the prior king. When he turned 18, Edward began his personal rule by turning on Mortimer and his mother, having the former successfully tried in Parliament for treason and executed, and sending the latter into permanent retirement. For the remainder of his long reign, Edward restored the dignity of the monarchy, began the Hundred Years War with France to claim the throne of that country (which was waged with varying degrees of success during that time), meddled in the affairs of Scotland repeatedly (at one point, he held David I, King of Scots, as hostage for several years), dealt with the Black Death that ravaged England, and himself was a victim of faction at court towards the end of his reign. Along with the other titles Edward inherited, he added King of France to go along with them, as well as adding the French coat-of-arms to his, as he waged the Hundred Years War; the title King of France would remain until it was finally removed by King George III in 1801. Edward III’s eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales (the “Black Prince”), died a year before the King; the Prince of Wales’ son succeeded Edward III as King Richard II.
Richard II (1377-1399): He was 10 when he succeeded his grandfather. A series of councils ruled in Richard’s name while he was still a minor, councils that deliberately excluded his powerful uncles, especially John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. While still a boy, England was racked by the Peasants Revolt of 1381, a rebellion that spread quickly throughout the country. The rebellion itself was nearly a success, and required Richard to answer to the people about their complaints. However, the leader of the revolt overreached himself, and the king and his government crushed the rebellion and retained control of the country. As Richard grew older, he involved himself more and more into the affairs of the state; one of those was the Hundred Years War still being fought. Richard’s chancellor Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, requested a huge tax for the endevor. Parliament was outraged, and demanded Suffolk and others in the council be removed from their positions. Richard refused, and five of the lords in Parliament, the Lords Appellant, confronted him; included were the King’s uncle Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, and Richard’s first cousin Henry, Earl of Derby (Derby was the eldest son of the Duke of Lancaster). Richard had to give in, but he would not forget the incident (several members of Richard’s council were executed, while Suffolk fled permanently to France). For the next several years, Richard tried to extricate himself and England from the Hundred Years War; several years of negotiations went for naught, although he did manage to work out a 28-year truce (the truce lasted 18 years). Around 1397, Richard declared that he would restore the rights he claimed to have lost, demanded the arrest of three of the Lords Appellant; Gloucester, Richard’s uncle, was murdered around this time, although it isn’t known if it was on the King’s orders. Richard also involved himself with a dispute between the Duke of Norfolk and Derby, now Duke of Hereford. Norfolk was exiled for life and Hereford for 10 years. But, Richard promised Hereford that the latter would inherit Lancaster after Hereford’s father died. In 1399, Lancaster died, but Richard reneged. Raising an army, Hereford took advantage of Richard’s absence (he was in Ireland) and invaded England; Richard was forced to return to England. Hereford captured Richard, claimed the title of Duke of Lancaster, and won support for his actions. Since Lancaster was also a grandson of King Edward III, he decided to depose Richard and had himself crowned as King Henry IV. This would store up trouble for the future as Richard had no children and the rightful claimants to the throne were those descended from Henry’s older uncle and the second son of Edward III, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. About a year after being deposed, Richard died under suspicious circumstances.
Henry VI (1422-1461, 1470-1471): He was the great-great grandson of King Edward III, great-grandson of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, grandson of King Henry IV, and son of King Henry V, one of the most powerful warrior kings England ever had. Henry VI was also the youngest person ever to be crowned King of England, being nine months old at the time. Having waged a hugely successful campaign against the French during the still raging Hundred Years War, Henry V was able to be named heir to the throne of France. He died about a month before France’s King Charles VI, and immediately there was a dispute for the French succession between Charles son Charles VII and the now King Henry VI of England; both ended up being crowned King of France (Henry was the only King of England to receive both), but the Hundred Years War would continue as a result. Henry’s two uncles were named regents: John, Duke of Bedford, was primarily regent in France, while Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester did the same in England. For about 25 years or so, England’s economy stayed fairly strong, but Henry’s claim to rule France slowly ebbed away as first the city of Orleans was relieved by an army that included Joan of Arc, and then Henry lost the support of the powerful French Duke of Burgundy, who became allied with King Charles VII of France. Henry was taught his role and duty as king, but as he got older he delved more deeply into the Church, shunned the warrior ethic of his father, and ignored his duties as ruler. Around 1450, Henry’s cousin Richard Plantangenet, Duke of York, began staking his claim to the throne as the descendent of King Edward III’s second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence; Henry’s claim was based on the usurpation of the throne by his grandfather, King Henry IV, son of King Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. As Henry did not so much as rule, power was wielded by another of his cousins and a rival of York, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Somerset spent much time trying to fight in France and to stanch the power of York. In the former, he was unsuccessful; England lost the remaining battles against France, lost Aquitaine (which had been an English possession for 300 years), and only held on to the city of Calais (which was reclaimed by France a century later). Somerset also lost out to York as well. In 1453, Henry had a complete mental breakdown that incapacitated him for 18 months. Somerset was forced to name York as Lord Protector, regent to the King. When Henry’s sanity returned, and although his health was permanently wrecked, York was put aside and Somerset restored to favor. This lasted a short time as York raised an army in 1455 and battled Somerset, who was killed; this was the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. York was killed five years later, and the cause was taken up by his son the new Duke of York, Edward Plantagenet. With the help of the powerful Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, York’s forces won and had captured Henry, although Henry’s wife and his son the Prince of Wales fled to France; York had Henry deposed and was crowned King Edward IV, keeping Henry in custody for the next nine years. Fortune turned against Edward as Warwick switched sides, helping Henry reclaim the throne in 1470. This lasted less than a year as Edward came back to England with an army and first killed Warwick in battle, the Prince of Wales in another, captured Henry again, and was reinstalled as king. By this time, Henry was a basket case. He died of unknown causes, possibly murdered on the orders of Edward, within a couple of weeks after Edward’s restoration.
Edward V (April-June, 1483): He was the eldest son of King Edward IV, and about 12 when he was proclaimed king. King Edward V is probably the most tragic king in England’s history. Originally, a council was to rule in a cooperative regency, similar to the arrangements made for King Richard II a century earlier; it was for very similar reasons as well since the most powerful noble in England was Edward’s uncle and the youngest brother of King Edward IV, Richard Plantangenet, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester managed to usurp the council and was named Lord Protector. He also delayed Edward’s coronation. Ten weeks into Edward’s reign, Gloucester came across “evidence” claiming that his oldest brother’s marriage was invalid, rendering the young king’s birth status as illegitimate and ineligible to be crowned King of England. Since the children of Gloucester’s other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, were not eligible for the throne via an act of attainder, Parliament declared Gloucester as King Richard III of England. Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, were put into the Tower by King Richard, where they died shortly thereafter of unknown causes, although it is a good bet they were murdered on orders of King Richard.
Edward VI (1547-1553): Edward was the long-awaited son of King Henry VIII, becoming king at 10 years old. As Prince of Wales, he was given an exceptional education to teach him about his role and duties as king, learning several languages, and being well-read on the new faith his father established. Henry’s will stated a council would run the government during Edward’s minority. However, Edward Seymour, who had taken the title Duke of Somerset and its lands, took over the council and was named Lord Protector, regent to King Edward. Somerset’s rule was very crisis-ridden. First, Somerset’s younger brother Thomas Seymour had married King Henry VIII’s widow Queen Catherine (Parr), but tried to start a relationship with the 15-year old Princess Elizabeth, and then trying to marry Elizabeth following Queen Catherine’s death; Somerset was forced to order his brother executed by an act of attainder (a resolution of execution passed in Parliament, as opposed to having a trial in the courts). Second, Somerset started a war with Scotland which caused France to come to its aid, thus bringing England to near financial ruin. Revolts broke out all over England as a result of Somerset’s policy. While Somerset did all this in Edward’s name, he left Edward out of the decisions. The council decided enough was enough and allowed John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, to take over as leader of the council and had Somerset arrested. Warwick named himself Duke of Northumberland, but for the good of the realm, had Somerset restored to the council. Instead of becoming Lord Protector, Northumberland was named Lord President of the Council, and was de facto regent to King Edward. He then promptly ended the war with Scotland and France, which allowed England to recover lost revenue, saw Somerset executed trying to raise an army to reclaim his lost power, involved the council in the governing of the realm, and expanded the Anglican Church to become more evangelical than it had been up to that point. Northumberland also brought Edward in on decisions, preparing the young king for his personal rule. But by 1553, Edward took sick and it was seen that he wouldn’t recover. Being unmarried and without children, and knowing the rightful heir to the throne, his eldest half-sister Princess Mary, would restore Catholicism as England’s religion, Edward wrote a will that bypassed not only Mary, but Elizabeth as well, naming as his heir his second cousin Jane Dudley (Lady Jane Grey), who also happened to be Northumberland’s daughter-in-law. King Edward VI died at the age of 15 on July 6, 1553.
It should be noted that Henry VIII spent 10 years trying to have a son to succeed him, changing England’s religion, abandoning one wife and daughter, and executing another wife while abandoning another daughter, to do so. He had even gotten Parliament to bypass the descendents of his older sister Margaret, the monarchs of Scotland (Margaret had married James IV, King of Scots, in 1503), to claim the English throne. But when Edward VI died, there were no males around to become king. England was to have a ruling queen for the first time in her history. But who it would be was anybody’s guess.
Jane (July 10-July 19, 1553): Also known as Lady Jane Grey and the Nine-Day Queen, Jane Dudley was 15 when her father-in-law John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, tried to have Parliament recognize her as Queen Jane, as attributed to the will of the recently deceased King Edward VI. Jane came to her position by being Henry VIII’s grand-niece, granddaughter of Henry’s youngest sister Mary; her father was Thomas Grey, Duke of Suffolk, and Frances Brandon, Henry’s sister Mary’s daughter. The main reason Edward chose Jane to succeed him is because she was as committed a Protestant as he and her father-in-law were, and Edward did not want to see England’s reformation ended, knowing it would if his eldest half-sister Mary became queen. Northumberland had managed to arrange the marriage of Jane to his son Guildford Dudley (also 15) prior to Edward’s death, in the hope his family would become the next dynasty ruling England. After proclaiming Jane as queen, Northumberland worked very hard to not only to gain support for Jane and get her crowned, but also to make sure Princess Mary could never reach London, setting off with an army. But Mary’s support was very strong, and by July 20, the council he had led declared that Mary would be the next ruler. Northumberland immediately caved and was arrested the next day. Jane and her husband were thrown into the Tower; she, Guildford, and Northumberland were all found guilty of treason, and Northumberland was beheaded shortly thereafter. Now Queen Mary I, she initially spared the teenagers knowing it was Northumberland who was really behind the attempt to keep Mary from the throne. But a Protestant rebellion in early 1554, which also implicated Mary’s sister, Princess Elizabeth, allowed the Queen to have both Jane and Guildford beheaded; Elizabeth was luckily not found to have been a part of the rebellion and was freed, although monitored for the remainder of Mary’s reign. Just as Edward predicted, the evangelical faith he wanted to have implemented died, although a more streamlined faith would eventually take its place under Mary’s successor, Queen Elizabeth I.
Notable child rulers who became English kings:
William I (1066-1087): William the Conqueror. Although he was 38 when he became King of England, William was originally proclaimed the ruling Duke of Normandy at the age of 7, following the death of his father. When he died, he decided to have his eldest son Robert (“Curthose”) inherit Normandy, while having his next eldest surviving son William inherit the throne of England. This would stir up trouble for decades not only between Robert and William, but also the Conqueror’s youngest son Henry (who would eventually become King Henry I).
James I (1603-1625): James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, having been born in 1566. Around the time of his first birthday his father had been assassinated and his mother had been deposed and escaped to England (eventually imprisoned there, involved in plots have her placed on England’s throne, and found guilty of treason and beheaded), which brought the infant James to be crowned James VI, King of Scots. Before he would begin his personal rule of Scotland, James would see all three of his regents murdered. James should have been an emotional wreck. With a strong character, he overcame all of this, developing a good reign in Scotland, complete with good relations with his stronger southern neighbor England, then under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I; he kept these relations even after Elizabeth had James’ mother Mary executed. Being childless, Elizabeth decided very late in her reign to ignore the succession law barring Scotland’s monarch from taking the throne of England, naming James as her heir. He succeeded as King James I in 1603.