The Rulers of England

When the Roman Empire declined power and territory passed - by conquest, by law, by ancestral claim or by simple accident - into the hands of local war leaders, nobles, and bishoprics. In southern Britain, a number of competing Saxon kingdoms emerged, while Scandinavian invaders created administrative regions of their own. Between the ninth and tenth centuries, the kings of Wessex evolved into the kings of the English, crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Consequently, no one is universally recognized as the first King of England. Some historians start with Egbert, the king of Wessex whose overlordship of the Saxons led visibly to the growth of an English crown, even though his immediate inheritors were still only crowned heads of smaller kingdoms. Other writers commence with Athelstan, the first man to be crowned King of the English. Egbert has been included below, but his position is clearly marked.

Some entries were uncrowned and are not universally recognized; indeed, Louis is almost universally ignored, so be careful when citing them in your work. All are kings and queens unless noted.

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Egbert 802-39 King of Wessex

King Egbert
Kean Collection / Getty Images

Having been forced into exile, Egbert returned to England where he claimed a West Saxon throne and fought a series of battles, and made a series of claims, which formed round him a powerful kingdom of Wessex; he also broke the dominant power of the Mercians.

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Aethelwulf 839-55/6

By Unknown -, Public Domain, Link

A son of Egbert, Aethelwulf did well against invading Danes, including forming an alliance with Mercia, but encountered problems when he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and was deposed. He clung onto a few regions until he died.

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Aethelbald 855/6-860

By Unknown -, Public Domain, Link

A son of Aethelwulf who had won a notable victory, he rebelled against his father and seized the throne of Wessex, later marrying his step-mother.

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Athelbert 860-65/66

By Unknown - This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.Catalogue entry: Royal MS 14 B VIThis tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. বাংলা | Deutsch | English | Español | Euskara | Français | Македонски | 中文 | +/−, Public Domain, Link

Another son of Aethelwulf, he ruled Kent until the death of the former, and his brother the king, and succeeded to Wessex.

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Athelred I 865/6-871

Athelred I
By Unknown -, Public Domain, Link

Having stood aside when Athelbert became king, Athelred finally succeeded to the throne and together with his brother Alfred fought against Danish invaders.

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Alfred, the Great 871-99

Statue of King Alfred in Winchester
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

The fourth son of Aethelbald to take the throne of Wessex, Alfred stopped England being conquered by Danish invaders, secured his realm, laid the foundations for reconquest, and was a hugely important patron of learning and culture.

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Edward the Elder 899-924

Edward The Elder
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Although Athelstan was the first named King of the English, it was Edward who expanded Wessex to cover most of the territory the throne would then include.

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Elfweard 924 uncrowned, ruled 16 days

Whether Elfweard, a son of Edward the Elder, became king after his father’s death depends on which source you read, but he may only have lived for sixteen days longer.

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Athelstan 924-39 First named King of the English

Athelstan is a claimant to be the first English king, for having been elected to the throne of Wessex and Mercia following the death of his father, he established practical control over the whole country and was the first named King of the English, and King of all Britain. He took York from the Vikings and fought the Scots and Vikings to keep it.

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Edmund I, the Magnificent 939-46

Edmund came to the throne on the death of his half-brother Athelstan (their father was Edward the Elder) but had to deal with Norse claimants to the north who recaptured the region. This he did by force, went into Scotland and made a deal with Malcolm I that brought peace to the border. He was murdered by an exile.

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Eadred 946-55

Brother of Edmund I, Eadred spent his reign attempting to pacify Northumbria, which pledged loyalty, went over to Norsemen, were devastated by Eadred, and pretty much the same again, but he did bring them permanently into Saxon / English rule.

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Eadwig/Edwy, All-Fair 955-59

The son of Edmund I, and a teenager when he came to power, Eadwig is unpopular in the sources and, seeing as Mercia and Northumbria revolted against him in 957, unpopular there as well.

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Edgar, the Peaceable 959-75, First Crowned King of the English

When Mercia and Northumbria revolted against his brother they made Edgar king, and in 959, on his brother’s death, Edgar became the first crowned king of all England. He continued and took the monastic revival to great heights, and reformed the state.

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Edward, the Martyr 975-78

Edward was elected king in the face of opposition from a faction supporting Aethelred, and it’s not known whether the assassin who killed him a few years later was sent by that group, or someone else. He was soon considered a saint.

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Aethelred II, the Unready 978-1013, deposed

Having begun his reign with the whiff of murdering his brother around him, Aethelred II then managed to be totally unprepared for a Danish invasion which swept across the nation and captured key areas. Attempting to massacre Danish settlers did not help, and Aethelred had to flee as Swein took the throne.

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Swein/Sven/Sweyn, Forkbeard 1013-14

Having become the main beneficiary of Aethelred’s failures and been elected the king of England after a successful invasion and war, creating a large empire in the north of Europe, he died the next year.

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Aethelred II, the Unready restored, 1014-16

With Swein’s death Aethelred was invited back on the condition he make some reforms, and these seem to have effected change. However, Cnut was hammering England.

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Edmund II, Ironside 1016

When his father Aethelred died, Edmund was leading the practical opposition to the invasion of Cnut, son of Swein I. Part of England voted for Edmund to be king, and he fought Cnut so fiercely he was nicknamed Ironside. However, after a defeat, he was reduced to holding just Wessex. He then died after less than a year in power.

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Cnut/Canute, the Great 1016-35

One of medieval Europe’s great rulers, Cnut combined the thrones of England (from 1016) with Denmark and Norway; he also had Polish blood. England was taken in conquest, but early foreign appointments changed to local representatives. He brought peace, prosperity and international acclaim.

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Harthacanute 1035-37, deposed

When Cnut died in 1035 a faction in England including Emma and Earl Godwine of Wessex wanted Harthacanute made king, but a power struggle with the Earl of Mercia saw a step-brother, Harold appointed regent. However, by 1037 Harthacanute had been forced to stay abroad to settle problems in his other lands, and Harold became king

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Harold, Harefoot 1037-40

A rival son of Cnut to Harthacanute, Harold became regent, arranged the murder of another rival, and took full power in 1037, exploiting the latter’s defense of a multi-national empire.

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Harthacanute restored, 1040-42

Harthacanute wasn’t exactly forgiving of Harold when he finally took full control of England, allegedly having the corpse thrown into a fen. Unpopular, he did ensure the succession by nominating Edward the Confessor as his heir in England.

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Edward I, the Confessor 1042-66

A son of Aethelred II who had lived in exile for many years, Edward was both king and dominated by his most powerful vassals, the Godwines. We now consider him a more effective monarch than people once did, and ‘confessor’ came from his piety.

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Harold II 1066

After Edward the Confessor’s uncertain succession plan Harold won two major battles and defeated a major rival claimant to the throne, and would be remembered as a great warrior had he not been killed in a third battle by William the Conqueror.

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Edgar, The Atheling 1066, uncrowned

An uncrowned king, the fifteen-year-old Edgar’s claim was supported by two English earls and an archbishop, before William the Conqueror took full power. He survived, eventually fighting for and against the king.

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William I, the Conqueror 1066-87 (House of Normandy)

As if establishing himself as Duke of Normandy wasn’t tough enough, William ‘the Bastard’ used his connections to the once exiled Edward the Confessor to build a coalition of adventurers and effect the rarest of things: a decisive battle and a successful conquest. He henceforth became ‘the Conqueror’.

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William II, Rufus 1087-1100

William I’s domains were divided between his children, and William Rufus secured England. He fought off a rebellion and then tried to win Normandy back off a brother, Robert, but his reign is best known for his death while hunting, and the centuries-long suspicion that this was actually an assassination which enabled Henry I to take the throne.

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Henry I 1100-35

Another son of William I, Henry I was in the right place at the right time to take control of England when William Rufus died, assuming he hadn’t actually had him assassinated. Nevertheless, he was king within three days, and he was able to take control of Normandy and make brother Robert a prisoner.

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Stephen 1135-54, deposed and restored 1141

A nephew of Henry I, Stephen seized the throne on the latter’s death, but was forced to fight a war against the rightful claimant, Matilda. It’s not usually referred to as a civil war, but as ‘The Anarchy of Stephen’s Reign’ because law broke down and people went their own ways. He died a failure.

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Matilda, Empress of Germany 1141 (uncrowned)

When his son drowned, Henry I recalled his daughter Matilda and made the Barons of England do homage to her as the future queen. Yet her throne was usurped, and she had to fight a long civil war. She was never able to be crowned, ruining her best chance by poor public relations, and withdrew in 1148, but did enough to allow her son Henry II to win the throne.

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Henry II 1154-89 (House of Anjou/Plantagenet/Angevin Line)

Having won his throne from Stephen of Blois, Henry II established an ‘Angevin’ Empire of land in north west Europe that included England, Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. He famously married Eleanor of Aquitaine, argued with Thomas Becket and fought with his sons in wars which exhausted him.

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Richard I, Lionheart 1189-99

Having fought with his father Henry II, Richard I succeeded to the English throne and then went on Crusade, establishing a reputation in his Middle Eastern campaign for chivalry and ability which saw him nicknamed Lionheart. Yet he managed to get captured by European enemies, ransomed at great cost, and was killed by sheer luck in a siege.

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John, Lackland 1199-1216

One of the most unpopular monarchs in English history (along with Richard III), John managed to lose much of the royal lands on the continent, fight with his barons, technically lose his kingdom and was forced to issue Magna Carta in 1215, a charter which initially failed to stop war and rebellion but which became a cornerstone of modern western civilization.

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Louis 1216-1217

Prince Louis of France was invited to invade by rebels to replace unpopular king John, and he came with an army in 1216, at which point John died. He was acclaimed by some, but supporters of John’s son Henry was able to divide the rebel camp and eject Louis.

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Henry III 1216-72

Henry came to the throne as a child with a regency, but after a power struggle took personal control in 1234. He fell out with his barons and was forced by rebellion to concede to the Provisions of Oxford, which created a privy council to advise the king. He tried to wriggle out of this, but the barons rebelled, he was captured, and Simon de Montfort ruled in his name until he was in turn defeated by Edward’s son.

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Edward I, Longshanks 1272-1307

Having beaten Simon de Montfort and then gone on crusade, Edward I succeeded his father and began a rule of England that saw the conquest of Wales, and an attempt to do the same to Scotland. His is equally famous for his reform of state and laws, as well as restoring the powers of the crown after the wars of Henry III.

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Edward II 1307-27, abdicated

Edward II spent much of his reign fighting his own barons, who were angry about a style of rule that caused frequent offense, and also lost the war with Scotland. His wife, Isabella, worked with baron Roger Mortimer to dethrone Edward in favor of their son Edward III. Edward II may well have been murdered in prison.

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Edward III 1327-77

Edward’s early reign saw his mother and her lover rule on his behalf, but when he came of age he rebelled, had the latter executed, and ruled. He was involved in wars with Scotland, but it was France that came to dominate: a vassal of the French king, Edward postured and fought against overlordship before citing family history and declaring himself a candidate for the French throne; the ​100 Years War followed. Edward lived to an age where he declined in ability and died after a long reign.​

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Richard II 1377-99, abdicated

Following Edward III was always going to be difficult, and Richard II failed spectacularly. His style of rule, which was factional, whimsical, and seemingly tyrannous, enabled his exiled cousin Henry Bolingbroke to seize the throne from him.

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Henry IV, Bolingbroke 1399-1413 (Plantagenet/Lancastrian)

When Henry Bolingbroke was harshly treated by his cousin the king, he determined to strike back, returning from exile to claim not just his lands, but the throne. He was supported by the barons and became Henry IV, but was always desperate to establish his dynasty as having a legitimate claim rather than just seizing it.

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Henry V 1413-22

Perhaps the apogee of medieval English rulers, Henry V was determined to use the security his father had created around the throne to finish the 100 Years War. He gathered funds, won a desperately needed victory at Agincourt, and exploited French faction so much he signed a treaty making his line the kings of France. He died a short while before becoming that king, possibly worn out by war.

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Henry VI 1422-61, deposed, 1470-1, deposed

Henry VI came to the throne as a child, but as an adult wasn’t interested in the war in France which helped, along with other errors, to offend enough nobles for a revolt to begin. This became the Wars of the Roses, and while Henry, suffering from mental illness, and his wife Margaret of Anjou clung on after being deposed once, they were ultimately beaten and Henry killed.

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Edward IV 1461-70, deposed, 1471-83 (Plantagenet/Yorkist)

If it wasn’t for Richard III, Edward IV would be considered the man who had survived his father’s death and then won the Wars of the Roses for the Yorkist faction. He too survived an early failure, but won through to die naturally on the throne.

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Edward V (1483, deposed, uncrowned)

There should have been an Edward V on the throne after Edward IV died, but the uncrowned child was made to disappear by his uncle Richard III; his fate is unknown. Death in captivity seems likely.

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Richard III 1483-5

Having first declared himself regent to protect his interests, and then betrayed his nephew (the rightful king) Richard III took the throne to begin the most controversial of reigns. However, he was in turn betrayed in battle against Henry Tudor and was killed.

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Henry VII 1485-1509 (House of Tudor)

Having deposed Richard III in battle, Henry VII ran a careful government designed to foster support for his dynasty and strengthen the state. He did both excellently, and the throne passed to his son without any issues.

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Henry VIII 1509-47

The best known English king, Henry VII famously had six wives, split from the Catholic church and founded his own, had a number of military misadventures and generally acted as the zenith of personal power in England.

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Edward VI 1547-53

The only surviving son of Henry VIII, the extremely Protestant Edward VI came to the throne as a boy and died only a little older.

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Lady Jane Grey 1553, deposed after 9 days

John Dudley had been a powerful figure in Edward VI’s regency, and he now put a young and innocent great-granddaughter of Henry VII on the throne because she was a Protestant. However, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, rallied support and Jane Grey was soon executed.

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Mary I, Bloody Mary 1553-58

The first queen of England to properly rule in her own right, Mary was a staunch Catholic and began a turn away from the Protestantism; she also married Philip II of Spain. For some, Mary is a figure of terror and burnings, for others a tragic victim of a phantom pregnancy which lasted for months, who was worn out by the role.

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Elizabeth I 1558-1603

Having avoided being linked to rebellions against Mary, Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 and developed her sister’s role as female monarch into her own unique ‘wedded to the nation’ style. We know little of her real thoughts, and she may have been unable to make big decisions, but she established a grand reputation which remains.

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James I 1603-25 (House of Stuart)

To inherit the throne from the childless Elizabeth, James I came down from Scotland where he was already James VI, uniting the thrones (although not yet the countries). He called himself King of Great Britain, had an interest in witchcraft and fought against parliament.

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Charles I (1625-49, executed by Parliament)

A battle of wills over rights and power between Charles I and an increasingly assertive parliament led to the English Civil Wars, in which Charles was beaten, tried and actually executed by his subjects, to be replaced by a Protectorate.

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Oliver Cromwell 1649-58, Lord Protector (The Protectorate, No Monarch)

A leading commander for the parliament in the civil wars, Oliver Cromwell was for some a tolerant man who turned down the crown and governed as protector, and for others a murdering bigot who banned Christmas and caused chaos in Ireland.

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Richard Cromwell 1658-59, Lord Protector (The Protectorate, No Monarch)

Without the abilities of his father, Richard Cromwell managed to upset too many people when he was proclaimed Lord Protector and was dismissed by parliament the next year. He fled to the continent to avoid his debts.

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Charles II 1660-85 (House of Stuart, The Restoration)

Having been forced to flee the civil wars, Charles II was invited back and triumphed by establishing the monarchy once more. He found a middle ground between religious and political disputes while being grand and showy. Despite having many lovers, he refused to divorce his wife in search of heirs.

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James II (1685-88, deposed)

James II’s Catholicism didn’t automatically mean he would lose his throne, and many Anglicans were open to him, but the increasingly heavy-handed way he reacted to religious and political strife inflamed conflict until William III was invited to invade. The latter did, James found his army dissolving and unable, so he fled the country.

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William III 1689-1702 and Mary II 1689-1694 (House of Orange and Stuart)

William of Orange, stadholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, was leader of the Protestant opposition to France. Mary was protestant heir to England, and when the Catholic James II triggered upset, the married William and Mary were invited to take over, carried out a successful invasion in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and ruled until their natural deaths.

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Anne 1702-14 (House of Stuart)

A daughter of James II, she was actually a Protestant who supported William III in the Glorious Revolution, and so proved suitable to England and was made heir until they had children. She fell out with Mary, but took the throne in 1702. Although pregnant eighteen times she faced the end with no heirs and agreed to pass the throne to James I’s Hanoverian descendants.

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George I 1714-27 (House of Brunswick, Hanover Line)

Elector George Louis of Hanover was invited to take the throne in England as the best Protestant heir, having already established himself militarily during the War of the Spanish Succession. He wasn’t immediately popular by any means and had to put down Jacobite rebellions. He ended up dependant on his ministers to keep things intact and died while in Hanover.

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George II 1727-60

Having quarrelled with his father, George took the throne but soon became dependent on his father’s old minister Walpole, and he would rely on later men too, such as Pitt who won the Seven Years’ War. He is best known for being the last English king to have been in an actual battle (Dettingen in 1743)

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George III 1760-1820

Few reigns packed as much in a George III’s did, from losing the American Colonies to reacting to the French Revolution and helping defeat Napoleon. Unfortunately, in his later years, he suffered from mental illness, being considered Mad, and his son acted as regent.

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George IV 1820-30

Although he acted as regent from 1811 and made a decisive contribution to keeping Britain in the Napoleon Wars, he only came to the throne in full in 1820. A fan of women and drink, he patronized the arts but has always had a ‘reputation’.

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William IV 1830-37

Although the great Reform Act of 1832 was passed in his reign, William actually opposed it; he is the forgotten monarch of modern British history.

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Victoria 1837-1901

Having overcome a struggle with her mother, Victoria took full control and proved herself a forceful, era defining monarch. Empress of India, she saw the British Empire reach its zenith.

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Edward VII 1901-10 (House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha)

Eldest son of Victoria, Edward managed to so upset his mother with an affair that he was frozen from politics for decades. Yet once he succeeded to the throne he became a hugely popular figure, a counterpoint to Victoria’s widowed cool.

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George V 1910-36 (House of Windsor)

George had a baptism of fire with World War One starting shortly after he came to the throne, but impressed the nation with his conduct. He also proved flexible in politics, helping to organise a coalition government in the thirties.

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Edward VIII 1936, uncrowned

Such was the suspicion surrounding divorce that when Edward fell in love with a divorcee he decided to abdicate rather than break up with her, and so was never crowned.

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George VI 1936-52

George had never expected to become king, he didn’t want the throne, and being thrust into it when his brother abdicated has been blamed for shortening his life. But he adapted, partly in a manner made famous by an award winning movie, and went through World War 2.

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Elizabeth II 1952-

Elizabeth II has overseen a modernization of the way royalty and public interact which was necessary given the changing times, but far from inevitable. Her long rule has broken record after record, and the institution has returned to being popular.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The Rulers of England." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 27). The Rulers of England. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Rulers of England." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 28, 2021).