Monarchy through the ages, British Heritage
There were of course kings in Britain before the Saxon age, regional warlords winning booty and land to keep their warrior class content. Just two centuries after the centralising Romans departed there were at least 10 distinctive kingdoms.
This ten dropped to seven major players for the next 200 years as the Saxons achieved dominance, and eventually to three: Wessex (largely the West Country), Northumbria (the North), and Mercia (The Midlands).
It is traditional, however, to view the beginning of our monarchy as the reign of Egbert of Wessex, who ascended the throne in 802 and ruled for 37 years, creating a dynasty. Before Egbert Northumbria and Mercia had both enjoyed brief ascendency. But Egbert's reign saw unity forced on the English by the arrival of the Danish menace. This quasi-unity became real under one of our most celebrated rulers, Alfred the Great.
In time the Saxon and Danish lines melded from Canute to Harold I, but a new enemy and conqueror emerged to upset the equilibrium, William of Normandy.
The Norman dynasty was brief but vital in our history: William centralised power, built innumerable castles, and imposed royal justice. The brutish William Rufus squeezed the kingdom and the church before his mysterious death, to be succeeded by his brother Henry I who improved England‚s courts and finances, but left the country to descend into chaos as Steven and Matilda battled for the crown on his death.
The Plantagenet dynasty following the Normans lasted more than 300 years, fully 14 kings. Their era was one of conflict: Richard I the only English king to take the cross; the ruinous Hundred Years War, and the lengthy internal struggle of The Wars of the Roses. But their legacy includes three memorable kings: John of ill-renown; Henry V, whose warrior bravado remains part of our national psyche; and Richard III, who lost his kingdom to the Tudors.
Henry Tudor who deposed Richard was a painstaking ruler who restored peace, bequeathing Henry VIII a settled kingdom. Henry was one of our most monstrous monarchs - he once had a cook whose food upset the royal stomach boiled in oil - but one of the most colourful. He changed the land forever by the Dissolution, though Mary tried to reverse his handiwork. The last Tudor, Elizabeth, ushered in an era of expansion culturally, economically and geographically.
The Stuart dynasty joined England with Scotland when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, but its kings forever battled stubbornly against social and political change: Charles I lost his head, Charles II lost Parliament's trust; and James II lost the country; the reigns of William and Mary, and then Anne, saw the strengthening of the constitutional monarchy that obtains still today.
The Hanoverians who succeeded Anne, had little genuine claim to the throne, but as protestants they were attractive to Parliament. Some describe George I, George II and George III as our first middle class monarchs, opposites of the absolutist Stuarts; but George IV was wildly different: extravagant, indolent, womanising, witty. Under George III we lost America, but defeated Napoleon; under George IV there were Mrs Fitzherbert, Caroline of Brunswick, and countless mistresses.
With the accession of William, followed by Victoria, Britain avoided revolution and became the most innovative industrial power in the world, the stability of Victoria's long reign strengthening the cement binding Britain's constituent parts.
From the start of the twentieth century, with the 1901 accession of Edward VII, the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Windsor has ruled in Britain. Edward VII's reign saw overdue educational and social reform. Succeeding reigns increased numbers entitled to vote. The brief reign of Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson, was a blip in the otherwise smooth continuity of the Windsors. The long reign of Elizabeth II, the current queen, epitomises this continuity, and has paralleled the reign of Victoria in stability, and some say Elizabeth I in creativity.