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King George V didn’t have high hopes for his eldest son. “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months,” the British monarch ominously predicted of his womanizing heir apparent. As it turned out, King Edward VIII only required 11 months after his ascension to fulfill his father’s prophecy.
With a scrawl of “Edward R.I.” at the bottom of a two-paragraph document, the 42-year-old bachelor king shocked the world on December 10, 1936, by signing away the crown and becoming the first English monarch to voluntary renounce the throne. The next evening, millions of Britons huddled around their radios to listen to an address by their former king. “I have found it impossible,” he confessed over the crackling airwaves, “to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties of king, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
The object of the royal’s affection was a married American socialite working on her second divorce, Wallis Warfield Simpson. The two had met in 1931 at a party thrown by Edward’s then-mistress, Lady Thelma Furness, and their romance continued after Edward ascended to the throne in January 1936. The relationship was known to Scotland Yard detectives, who secretly followed the couple, and to British journalists, but not to their readers, who were kept in the dark for much of the king’s reign.
Once Mrs. Simpson obtained a preliminary decree of divorce and the king informed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in November of his intentions to marry her, however, a constitutional crisis erupted. Given the king’s role as titular head of the Church of England, which deemed remarriage after divorce morally wrong, the prime minister protested that a twice-divorced American would be unacceptable as a British queen and would result in the cabinet’s resignation. Baldwin rejected the monarch’s proposal for a morganatic marriage in which his wife would be granted no rights, rank or property. On December 3, the crisis finally became front-page news in Britain and debated openly in Parliament. A week later, the king signed away his throne.
Edward VIII had not even ruled long enough to make it to his planned coronation, but the ceremony continued as scheduled on May 12, 1937, with the crown being placed on the head of his younger brother, Bertie. Painfully shy and plagued by a stammer since childhood, the reluctant King George VI proved to be a popular sovereign. During the London Blitz, the royal family endeared itself to its subjects by remaining at Buckingham Palace, even after it took nine direct hits, and visiting heavily damaged sections of the East End. The fortitude demonstrated by King George VI against the Nazis strengthened the bond between the monarchy and the British public.
Many wonder, however, if the opposite would have occurred had Edward VIII remained on the throne. “Every drop of blood in my veins is German,” he once bragged to the wife of British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Indeed, German bloodlines ran deep in the British royal family, and the king spoke fluent German and traveled to Germany regularly in his student days. When the Nazis came to power, Edward welcomed it as a counterweight to the Soviet Communists, whom he had never forgiven for killing his godfather, Czar Nicholas II, in 1918.
“I am convinced his friendly disposition towards Germany will have some influence on the formation of British foreign policy,” the German ambassador to Great Britain reported in 1936. Indeed, according to Andrew Morton’s book 17 Carnations: The Royals, The Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History, the king urged Baldwin to take no action against the Nazis after they occupied the Rhineland in March 1936.
Some scholars have speculated that the king’s Nazi sympathies—rather than his romantic ties—were the true motivation behind the political push for his abdication. Joachim von Ribbentrop, close friend to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, thought so as well. “The whole marriage question was a false front that Baldwin has utilized to get rid of the king because of the latter’s pro-German views,” he reported to the Führer.
The ties between the former king, granted the title of Duke of Windsor by his brother, and the Nazis only deepened after his abdication. On June 3, 1937, the duke married Wallis Warfield in exile at a French chateau owned by millionaire Charles Bedaux, who arranged for the couple to spend part of their extended honeymoon in Nazi Germany. There the duke dined with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, had tea with Gestapo founder Hermann Goering and met with Hitler at his mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps. “It’s a shame he is no longer king,” Goebbels wrote after meeting the duke, “with him, we could have entered into an alliance.”
Early in World War II, the Nazis were so confident of their ability to defeat Great Britain that it concocted a scheme, codenamed Operation Willi, to kidnap the duke and return him to the British throne as a puppet king. So concerned was the British government about the duke’s Nazi leanings that Prime Minister Winston Churchill arranged in July 1940 for the former king to assume the governorship of the Bahamas for the duration of the war, which thwarted the Nazi operation.
Strange as it may have seemed at the time, the abdication of King Edward VIII might have prevented an even greater crisis that could have proven fatal to the British monarchy. Dickie Arbiter, a former Buckingham Palace Press secretary, told the Yorkshire Post that it was a blessing in disguise given the king’s flirtation with Germany and the subsequent need for strong wartime leadership. “He was a weak king who was incapable of making decisions, and there was a feeling that Wallis pulled the strings,” Arbiter said. “But with George VI we got a good king, and his wife was a very strong woman who was British and had a vested interest in the country.”
Richard Toye, a history professor at England’s Exeter University, agreed that King George VI was better suited to reign over the long term than his brother, who would have been “completely useless.” “He had been frankly not very interested in doing the job,” Toye told Britain’s Press Association. “You have to ask yourself whether this whole episode was really about his most incredible, profound love for Mrs. Simpson or whether he was perhaps subconsciously looking for a get-out.”
The abdication also set events into motion that led to eventual ascension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne in 1952. Had Edward VIII, who died in 1972, remained a childless king, it would have shortened the reign of Britain’s longest-ruling monarch by two decades—had there been a kingdom for her to rule over at all.
A royal exit: Royals who have pulled back from the British monarchy
Meghan Markel and Prince Harry aren’t the only royals who have pulled back from the British monarchy. Let’s take a look back at who else ‘left’ the family.
While Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been making headlines for “stepping back” from their senior royal duties, the couple has not been the only members of the British monarchy completely ensnared in controversy.
From royals including Prince Philip and Prince Andrew, history has shown that the pair was not alone in distancing themselves from the monarchy. In fact, there have been royals who have either stepped back, been abdicated, or retired altogether.
Here are some royals who have pulled back from the British monarchy over the years.
King Edward VIII’s abdication, 1936
A constitutional crisis ensued in 1936 when Queen Elizabeth’s late uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne as the King of the United Kingdom to marry American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.
Ascending the throne following father George V’s death in January 1936, Edward attempted to gain the kingdom's approval of Simpson — all to no avail.
In accordance with royal protocol, it is forbidden to be romantically linked to a divorcee, much less an American two-time divorcee. Aside from Winston Churchill’s approval, The Church of England and most British politicians quickly disapproved of the romance.
Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986) and Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor (1894-1972) outside Goverment House in Nassau, the Bahamas, circa 1942. The Duke of Windsor served as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945. (Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Edward proposed to the idea of a morganatic marriage in which Simpson would not become queen consort and their potential children would be barred from inheriting the throne following his death but was ultimately unsuccessful. When Edward realized that he could not fulfill his duties as king with Simpson by his side, he decided to abdicate — or renounce his role — the throne.
In a radio broadcast on the day of his abdication, Edward addressed his decision to abdicate and said, “I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Edward and Simpson were then rechristened as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, respectively, by his brother and newly crowned king, King George VI. Edward married Simpson in 1937 and remained together until his death in 1972, while Simpson died in 1986. The two never had children.
Sarah, Duchess of York, 1992
Sarah, Duchess of York, the ex-wife of Prince Andrew, was reportedly frozen out of the royal family following her divorce alongside several controversial tabloid scandals.
Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson
Saucy American divorcée Wallis Simpson became Prince Edward's mistress in 1934, which was a scandal in itself.
But when Edward's older brother George V died two years later, Edward ascended the throne – and was forced to choose between Wallis or his kingly duties.
He ultimately abdicated in 1936, saying, "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love."
3. He Was An Unhappy Child
Shortly after his mother left his father, she married Lawrence Parsons, aka the 6th Earl of Rosse. Tony was now part of a noble family, and that meant a lot in 1930s England. However, his mother and stepfather certainly didn’t treat him like royalty. His mother had two children with Parsons, and Tony felt that his mother treated him as inferior to his half-siblings.
After all, he didn’t actually have noble blood like his charmed siblings—but his rocky childhood would soon get even worse.
The rumors in the relationship of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip
Currently, Elizabeth II is seen as a rigid woman and very attached to royal protocol, but this was not always the case.
She fell in love with her now-husband, Prince Philip, when she was a teenager. But her parents were against her marrying the handsome young man.
The princess did not give up and stood firm before her father, King George VI. He told her that if she was not allowed to join him in marriage, she would abdicate the throne so that she could be with the prince of Greece and Denmark.
But that was not the only scandal of their bond. After marrying, Felipe acquired a reputation as a womanizer, and the queen had to forgive him 3 infidelities: with the writer Daphne du Maurier, the actress Pat Kirkwood and Lady Penny Brabourne.
Explained: Royal mess - all the controversies that British Monarchy has faced till date
On January 8, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, unveiled their controversial plan to walk away from royal roles.
“We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the royal family and work to become financially independent while continuing to fully support her majesty the queen,'' they said in a joint statement.
"We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to the Queen, the commonwealth and our patronages. This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity," the statement added.
Apparently, the announcement on the Sussex Royal Instagram page blindsided the Queen and other family members who had no idea it was coming, it sent tabloids into overdrive. Meanwhile, the Queen summoned Senior Royals to an emergency summit to discuss the future of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Billed as the Sandringham summit, the meeting took place at the Queen's estate in Norfolk and involved Queen Elizabeth II, Harry his father Prince Charles and his brother Prince William, with Meghan reportedly joining the discussions by phone from Canada.
Soon after, the queen released a statement, that said, "My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan's desire to create a new life as a young family. Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working members of the Royal family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family.
Monarchy in Crisis?
It looks like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have won the reluctant approval of the 93-year-old Queen. But what does their exit mean for the British monarchy? And what really went wrong?
Let’s look at this and the other scandals that have rocked the British royal family, the world's most famous monarchy, in the last few decades:
The Sussexes 'step back'
Prince Harry was known as the 'rebel prince' much before he met Meghan on a blind date in mid-2016, set up by a mutual friend. The relationship moved quickly and the couple immediately became endless fodder for the tabloids. In November 2016, Harry’s communications secretary issued a statement condemning the British press’s torment of his girlfriend. This was the start of their troubled relationship with the tabloids. A year later, in November 2017, they got engaged. In an interview, Harry said he tried to warn his future wife 'as much as possible' about the inevitable media scrutiny, but the couple was still 'totally surprised' by it.
Despite these early setbacks, they got married at Windsor Castle in May 2017. American-born, biracial, divorced, former actress Meghan Markle, who also happened to be an independent and outspoken woman, became the Duchess of Sussex. A year later, she gave birth to Archie, the first baby of part African descent in the family. The couple’s relationship and the birth of their son were heralded by many as immensely symbolic moments of modern Britain. An example of the monarchy embracing modernity, but it was not to be.
Throughout it all, the British tabloids kept criticising the Sussex with most of the ire being directed at Meghan. A top-selling British tabloid dubbed their announcement as 'Megxit', putting the blame squarely on Meghan's shoulders. This isn't surprising since she has been at the receiving end for negative coverage by the British press. For issues ranging from her family background to cradling her baby bump, and even eating avocados. One British Radio host was even fired after posting a tweet where he compared their offspring to a baby chimpanzee. It's safe to assume that her race had something to do with her becoming the media's new punching bag.
For his part, Prince Harry has been vocal about what he sees as sexist and racist coverage, even making a statement comparing the treatment of his wife to that of his late mother Princess Diana, who tragically died in a crash as her driver sped away to escape the paparazzi.
There was trouble on other fronts as well, rumours of a rift between Pince Harry and his older brother Prince William started emerging in March 2019. Around this time, Prince Harry and Meghan moved out of Kensington Palace. 2.4 million pounds of public money, which is about Rs 24 crores, was spent on upgrading their new official residence- Frogmore cottage. Soon after, the couple announced that they intend to split from their combined charity with the Cambridge and start their own charity, Sussex Royal.
Trouble was brewing in the Royal family and it started making headlines when they took part in an intimate documentary while on a tour to South Africa. They revealed the strain and pressure of living in the public eye. Meghan even said that her friends warned her not to marry Prince Harry because of the British tabloids and her husband declared that he would not be bullied into playing a game that killed his mother. In November, they announced that they will not be spending Christmas with other members of the Royal family. Opting for a six-week holiday in Canada instead where Meghan is currently residing.
Interestingly after their latest Instagram post, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gained 500,000 Instagram followers in just four days. They are now just 200,000 behind Prince William and Kate Middleton who have 10.8 million followers. In fact, when they joined Instagram last year on April 2, they made a Guinness World record for gaining 1 million fans within 6 hours
So will Harry and Meghan keep their titles while stepping back from the royal life and moving overseas? Well, so far the Sussex has expressed no intentions of relinquishing their HRH (His Royal Highness or Her Royal Highness) titles.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are now expected to split their time between the UK and Canada, a country that lies within the commonwealth. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered his support, saying most Canadians would welcome the couple making their home there. However, he also added that further talks are needed over the costs of security.
Which bring us to the question of money. Right now the two receive money from the sovereign grant, a fund set up by the UK government for the Royal family. Apart from this, between them, they are estimated to have a net worth of $30 million. An accumulation of Harry’s yearly allowance and inheritance from his mother Dian and Meghan’s TV earnings.
As British royals, the couple is barred from earning their own cash, but this will change. So we may soon see them build celebrity empires like the Obamas or even the Kardashians. But by distancing themselves from the crown, one way or the other, they are certainly charting a new course.
WATCH: Royal mess continues
Prince Andrew's sex scandal
The 'megxit bombshell' comes just months after the Duke of York, Prince Andrew was forced to step down from Royal duties, amid accusations of a sex scandal.
Prince Andrew, the second son and third child of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip announced his decision after consulting both his mother and his brother Prince Charles, amid growing criticism following a television interview he gave about his friendship with the late convicted sex offender- Jeffrey Epstein who committed suicide in August last year while awaiting trial for sex trafficking.
Prince Andrew is accused of having sex with Epstein's alleged 'sex slave' Virginia Roberts when she was just 17. The Duke of York has denied these allegations. But the FBI is continuing to investigate the case to untangle his history with the shamed American financier and his human trafficking racket.
In a disastrous interview, Prince Andrew, eighth-in-line to the throne, defended his friendship with Epstein, leaving viewers across the world aghast. The outcry finally forced Buckingham Palace to distance itself from the disgraced Duke - many royal experts surmise that he will not return to public duties until he is fully cleared of any wrongdoing.
Interestingly, his former wife, Sarah Ferguson, affectionately known as Fergie, with whom he continues to share a home, has stood behind him through this controversy.
Sarah Ferguson's scandalous photo
The Duchess of York faced her own crisis in 1992 when she was frozen out of the Royal Family after compromising photographs emerged of her on holiday with John Bryan, her financial advisor.
The Duke and Duchess of York tied the knot in 1986 - but just six years later their marriage ended in a scandal - they announced their separation in March 1992, but were still married when these photographs were published. They would go on to divorce in 1996.
The royal family didn’t want anything to do with Ferguson after the incident, but she was recently accepted into the Royal fold again and even attended the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Princess Diana’s Untimely Death
Half-past midnight, a black Mercedes crashed into a concrete pillar outside the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris. And the world lost Princess Diana - the people's Princess.
Diana’s boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, and their driver Henri Paul also died in the crash. Only one passenger survived - Trevor Rees-Jones - Fayed’s bodyguard.
In the wake of the crash, given Princess Diana's complicated relationship with Prince Charles and the Queen herself, all kinds of conspiracy theories began to emerge. But in the 2008 inquest of Diana's death, it was concluded that paul’s drunk driving and speeding were to blame for the accident.
However, many questions remain unanswered - why were they not wearing seatbelts? Why didn't Princess Diana have her own bodyguards? And could Diana have been saved?
At her funeral in September 1997, her brother Charles Spencer blamed the paparazzi, describing his sister as “The most hunted person of the modern age".
And hunted she was on the night of the fateful crash, the couple was trying to evade the press.
Diana and Dodi Fayed died barely six weeks after beginning a romance - rumours of Diana's impending engagement and even a pregnancy meant that the couple was relentlessly pursued.
The Egyptian millionaire’s father, Mohamed al-Fayed, believed that Royal Family and British Secret Services were plotting against the marriage because they disapproved of the match.
Diana's activism and glamour made her an international icon, but the Princess of Wales faced difficulties within the royal family and in the public eye from the start.
Prince Charles married lady Diana spencer in 1981, and they welcomed Prince William in 1982 and Prince Harry in 1984, but their relationship was visibly strained. They separated in 1992, before formally divorcing in 1996.
Flouting tradition, in 1995, she gave an explosive interview to journalist Martin Bashir where she revealed that “There were three people in this marriage”, alluding to her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, adding it was “a bit crowded.” She also admitted to an adulterous affair with her riding instructor, James Hewitt.
A few weeks later, the Queen herself urged her son and daughter-in-law to divorce, and the following year, they made it official. Sadly, Princess Diana was killed just a year later. However, with these acts of defiance, she set a new precedent for the next generation of royals.
Prince Charles and Camilla’s affair
On the other hand, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, went on to wed Camilla in 2005, 34 years after their first meeting, and the two are still together.
Interestingly, a year before Diana's interview, he too publicly admitting to having an affair. His confession sent ripples through the Royal Family.
At the time, the public largely blamed Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla for the breakdown of his marriage to Diana - it became the scandal of the decade.
Princess Margaret, the original rebel
Queen Elizabeth II has been the central figure of Britain's monarchy for more than six decades. Head of state of the United Kingdom and 15 commonwealth nations, she married Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947. They have four children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
The queen only had one sibling – Princess Margaret, the late countess of Snowdon. The two sisters could not have been more different. While the British monarch is famously staid and consistent, her younger sister was known as a rebellious royal, ‘a wild child'.
She fell in love with group captain Peter Townsend, a royal air force officer and the equerry to her father King George.
Apart from being a commoner, peter was also a divorcee, and divorcees weren't allowed to remarry in the church of England, which Princess Margaret's sister was the head of.
After facing much opposition, the Princess cut off all ties with Townsend and went on to marry photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960 - the first royal marriage to be broadcast on television.
However, the Royal marriage soon started to crumble and after years of infidelity by both partners, the couple separated. It was the first royal divorce since King Henry VIII's in 1540.
King Edward VIII Abdicates
In December 1936, the Queen's uncle - King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne to marry his lover Wallis Simpson - an American socialite who was divorced from her first husband and was pursuing the divorce of her second.
Being the British Monarch, King Edward VIII was also the head of the Church of England and was forbidden to marry a divorcee. and so he abdicated the throne after ruling for less than a year. Thereafter, he took the title Duke of Windsor and embarked on a life with his new wife in Paris.
And now, more than eight decades later, Prince Harry is set to follow on his footsteps. The circumstances surrounding Prince Harry and King Edward VIII’s royal status decisions are very different. Harry is not the king, but he is set to become a ‘part-time’ royal, having made a decision to quit or reject the royal life and defying the British monarchy.
The King’s Speech True Historical Story
The King’s Speech is headed for Oscar glory but some have criticized its faulty history. Author Peter Conradi says the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist was unusually close and important.
"The King's Speech," starring Colin Firth as the King - or Bertie as he was known to his intimates - appears destined to be rewarded by the Academy next February. (Laurie Sparham / The Weinstein Company)
The King’s Speech may get some historical details wrong, but it’s spot on when it comes to its central point: the closeness of the friendship between King George VI and his unconventional Australian speech therapist
On February 28, 1952, just over three weeks after King George VI of England died, at age 56, his grieving widow, Elizabeth, took out her fountain pen and some sheets of Buckingham Palace notepaper and began to write to an old friend. “I know perhaps better than anyone just how much you helped the king, not only with his speech, but through that his whole life & outlook on life," she wrote. "I shall always be deeply grateful to you for all you did for him."
The recipient of her letter was Lionel Logue, an Australian in his early 70s, who was also, as it turned out, close to the end of his life. Over the previous quarter of a century, this publican’s son from Adelaide, without a formal qualification to his name, had come to occupy an extraordinary position within the inner circle of King George, father of the present queen, not just as a speech therapist, but also as a friend.
The relationship between the two men is at the heart of the film The King’s Speech, which went on selected release at theaters in the U.S. over Thanksgiving weekend and will be shown elsewhere in the country over the coming weeks. After delighting critics at film festivals from Toronto to London, the film, starring Colin Firth as the king—or Bertie as he was always known to his intimates—and Geoffrey Rush as Logue, appears destined to be rewarded by the Academy in February.
Among the critics’ plaudits, however, there have been some notes of dissent—from, among others, Andrew Roberts, the respected British historian, writing last week here on The Daily Beast. Although gorgeously produced, he says, the film as history “is worthless because of its addiction to long-exploded myths.”
When the king made a speech on the evening of September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, he asked Logue to go through it with him first.
Roberts is right to point out that Tom Hooper, the director, has tinkered with some of the basic facts, such as having Winston Churchill back the abdication of Edward VIII, which put a reluctant Bertie onto the throne in December 1936, whereas Churchill instead spoke out in favor of Edward and his romance with Wallis Simpson. But then this never claimed to be a documentary.
When it comes to the debt owed by King George to Logue, though, Hooper's film is spot on—as became clear to me going through hundreds of diary entries, letters, and other documents that form the basis for the book The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, which I have written with Logue’s grandson, Mark, and is being published to coincide with the release of the film.
The two men first met in 1926, when Bertie went to consult Logue in the dingy set of rooms at the cheap end of Harley Street in the heart of Britain’s medical establishment that he had rented after arriving, virtually penniless, with his wife and three sons on the boat from Australia two years earlier.
Bertie was badly in need of help. He had began to stammer at the age of 8—the letter ‘k’ (as in king) proved a particular challenge—and his condition worsened after he was created Duke of York in 1920 and had to take on official engagements. A major speech in front of thousands of people at the British Empire exhibition in Wembley in May 1925—which forms the starting point of the film—proved a particular humiliation. And he soon faced the grueling prospect of a major six-month tour of New Zealand and Australia.
The duke had already seen his fill of “experts,” but no one had been able to cure him. He was persuaded to have one last try by his glamorous young wife, Elizabeth, better remembered today as the queen mother (played in the film by Helena Bonham Carter). "I can cure you," Logue declared after they had spent an hour and a half together. "But it will need a tremendous effort by you. Without that effort, it can't be done."
Bertie certainly put in the required effort—but this was no quick fix. Indeed, despite weekly sessions with Logue, coupled with a rigorous program of exercises, he continued to consult the Australian for the rest of life. In the process the two men became close—even though, judging by the tone of their letters, the real-life Logue was somewhat more deferential toward his pupil than his on-screen depiction.
Their relationship intensified after Bertie became king. His stammer, as Roberts asserts, may not have been as bad in reality as in the movie, but it remained a major preoccupation—otherwise why would he have had several one-to-one sessions with Logue in the run-up to his coronation in May 1937? And why would he have insisted on his therapist joining the royal family for Christmas lunch at Sandringham so he could help prepare a broadcast to the empire that afternoon—and in subsequent Christmases?
Logue’s own diary entries show how much of a strain the king still found public speaking. One rehearsal on May 6, six days before the coronation, went especially badly: According to Logue’s account, the king became almost hysterical, although the queen managed to calm him down, “He is a good fellow,” Logue wrote of the king, “and only wants careful handling.”
• Andrew Roberts: The King Who Couldn’t SpeakWhen the king made a speech on the evening of September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, he asked Logue to go through it with him first. We know that because an annotated copy—showing Bertie where to pause and breathe—was among Logue’s papers.
Just over a year later, when the king was practicing his speech for that year's State Opening of Parliament, he greeted Logue grinning like a schoolboy. "Logue, I've got the jitters," he declared. "I woke up at 1 oɼlock after dreaming I was in parliament with my mouth wide open and couldn't say a word." Although both men laughed heartily, it brought home to Logue that even now, after all the years they had spent working together, the king's speech impediment still weighed heavily on him.
And so it went on through the war years, until a few days before Christmas 1944, when the king finally felt confident enough to deliver his message without Logue by his side. The broadcast went well. Logue, listening at home in London, with friends, rang the king immediately afterward to congratulate him. “My job is over, sir,” he declared. “Not at all,” the king replied. “It is the preliminary work that counts, and that is where you are indispensable.”
The Seven Craziest Royal Families
Queen Elizabeth II’s high profile means we often forget that there are six other countries in Europe (or nine if you include the royal minnows, Monaco, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein) that are presided over by hereditary rulers who play an equally central role in their respective nation's lives.
It is these, the Windsors’ continental cousins, who are the subject of an entertaining and highly readable new book, "Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it Into the 21st Century", by British writer, Peter Conradi, whose previous work, The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, which he co-wrote with speech therapist Lionel Logue’s grandson, Mark, was a top 10 best seller on both sides of the Atlantic and wrote the book that tells the true story of the events that inspired the Oscar-winning film.
Most of the Euro-Royals remain a mystery to most people outside their respective realms, beyond the occasional mentions of their sexual and financial indiscretions in glossy magazines or in the foreign pages of newspapers. But, as Conradi reveals, they are quite a lively bunch…
Britain’s monarchy may be the most influential and best known in Europe, but it is not the oldest. That distinction is held by its Danish counterpart. The current queen, Margrethe II, can trace her lineage back more than 1,000 years to the Viking kings Gorm the Old and Harald Bluetooth. Margrethe, who celebrated 40 years on the throne earlier this year, is a feisty but popular monarch with an artistic streak. More controversial is her husband, Prince Henrik, a former French diplomat, born Count Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, who would give Britain’s Prince Philip a run for his money with his gaffes. Confusingly, Margrethe’s ancestors are without exception called Christian or Frederick, which means they can tend to blur into one another. Two stand out: Christian IX, who reigned for most of the second half of the 19 th century, became known as the “father-in-law of Europe” because of the success with which he married off his children: they included a future King of Greece, Queen of England, Tsarina of Russia and, of course, King of Denmark. Less impressive was his 18 th century predecessor, the half-wit Christian VII, whose scandalous ménage à trois with his wife Caroline Matilda, the sister of George III, and her German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, is the subject of a new feature film, A Royal Affair. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for the good doctor…
Most countries in Europe – and indeed the world – have made the transition over the past few centuries from monarchy to republic. The Dutch are unique in having moved in the opposite direction. It was only in the nineteenth century that the country became a monarchy under King Willem I. But his dynasty of Orange-Nassau has reigned ever since. The present monarch, Beatrix, is the country's third queen. Her mother, Juliana, and grandmother, Wilhelmina, both abdicated when they hit retirement age, but Beatrix, 74, has shown no signs of stepping down in favour of her son, Willem-Alexander, 45. The Prince of Orange has gained in stature since his youth, when his love of partying earned him the nickname, Prince Pils. This may be thanks in part to the calming influence of his glamorous Argentinian-born wife, Princess Maxima. The couple's marriage in 2001 was overshadowed by revelations about the past of her father, Jorge Zorreguieta, who was a member of the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, during which thousands of people disappeared or were killed. He has always knowledge of any wrong doing. Mention the Dutch monarchy and people always think of bicycles. In fact, although commendably down to earth, Beatrix is more likely to be seen in a limo or a horse drawn carriage than in the saddle.
The Swedish royal family became known to a wider world in June 2010, when Victoria, the heir to the throne, married in a spectacular ceremony in Stockholm. Her groom, Daniel Westling, was an unusual choice: they met when he was her fitness coach. But despite initial misgivings, the Swedish royal family – and public – have warmed to their new prince, and this February Victoria gave birth to their first child, Estelle. This new addition to the royal family has taken some heat off the king, Carl XVI Gustaf, who has had to put up with some rather less flattering headlines after a book revealed his penchant for dubious nightclubs and claimed he had enjoyed a number of affairs. While the modern-day royals seem as Swedish as meat balls and flat-pack Ikea furniture, their dynasty was actually founded by an adventurous French man named Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who rose to become a marshal in Napoleon's republican army. While governor of Hanover, he befriended some influential Swedish officers who had been taken prison and they later invited him to Stockholm to become heir to the elderly heirless Carl XIII. Bernadotte never bothered to learn the language, but his new locals didn't seem to mind.
The Belgian royal house was also founded by an outsider, Léopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who, like Bernadotte, took advantage of the frequent redrawing of the map of Europe during the first half of the 19 th century to secure himself a throne. Leopold's life could so easily have turned out differently: his first wife was Charlotte, daughter of Britain's George IV, but she died in childbirth, effectively leaving him without a role. He took the throne of newly created Belgian in 1831 after having turned down the Greek one. Few expected Belgium – or its ruling dynasty – to survive but getting on for two centuries later, his great-great-grandson, Albert II, is still on the throne. The family has not been without its controversies: Léopold II, who succeeded to the throne in 1865 on the death of his father, was a monster best known for his acquisition of the Congo, which he ran with enormous brutality as a private fiefdom until his own death in 1909, acquiring huge riches in the process. Léopold III, father of the present king, was something of tragic figure: his wife, Astrid, died in 1935 in car accident near Lake Lucerne when her husband was as the wheel – which provoked an anguished reaction that was to be echoed decades later by the deaths of first Princess Grace of Monaco and then Princess Diana. During the second world war, his apparent defeatism counted against him and after only narrowly winning a referendum, he abdicated in 1951 in favour of his son, Baudouin.
It's only since 1905 that Norway has had a royal family of its own (before that, they used to share Sweden’s) – and they didn’t start off very Norwegian at all. The first king, Haakon VII, who reigned until his death in 1957, was born Prince Carl of Denmark, while his wife (and cousin) was Edward VII’s daughter, Maud. The current monarch, Harald V, has established himself as a popular and genuinely Norwegian ruler, although the dynasty has had its wobbles – not least in the late 1990s when Harald’s son, Crown Prince Haakon, the heir to the throne, fell for Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, a single mother with a son by a man with a conviction for drug-dealing. Since their marriage in 2001, Mette-Marit has turned into the model princess, even though, in the early days she had to put up with some severe embarrassment from her father, Sven, an alcoholic former advertising executive who engaged in a number of stunts for the tabloids – including marrying a stripper half his age. Sadly, Sven has since died, but entertainment continues to be provided by Haakon’s elder sister Märtha Louise, who claims she can speak to angels (which surely must be more interesting than Prince Charles’s conversations with plants).
It can’t be easy being a Spanish monarchist these days. First there was a messy corruption scandal involving the King’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin. Then an embarrassing royal elephant hunt in Botswana that only came to light after King Juan Carlos broke his hip and had to be flown back home in a hurry for treatment. And, to cap it all, his 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot – literally – which had alarming echoes of an incident in 1956 when the future monarch's younger brother, Prince Alfonso, then aged 14, was shot dead with a single bullet from a revolver when the two of them were playing together – in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Monarchy in Spain has had a chequered history and actually disappeared in 1931 with the declaration of the republic, which in turn gave way to General Franco's dictatorship. Juan Carlos has led Spain back to democracy since becoming king on the death of Franco in 1975 and seeing down an attempted military coup in 1981. In the years since he has proved a model modern king, though the ill-advised hunting trip was not his only recent faux pas. Like his Swedish counterpart, he is said to have a roving eye, which has not gone down well with Sofia, his Greek-born consort. Suggestions that all was not well in the royal bed chamber were confirmed by the absence of public celebrations of their 50th wedding anniversary in May.
Three more countries – a grand duchy and two principalities – complete Europe's royal roll call. Neither the Luxembourg nor the Liechtenstein royal families are especially noteworthy – even though the latter's prince, Hans-Adam II, enjoys the curious distinction of being Europe's only absolute monarch. What that they lack in colour is more than made up for Monaco, which has given us not only the fairy tale romance between Rainier and Grace Kelly which ended so tragically with her death in 1982 – but also the colourful liaisons of Princesses Caroline and Stéphanie. And just when they seem to have retreated from the limelight, there is the curious on-off relationship between Albert, the current ruler, and Charlene Wittstock, the former South Arican Olympic swimmer who last July became his –- by all accounts – reluctant bride.
The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it into the Twenty-First Century by Peter Conradi is published by Alma Books, $13.43
How Commoners Are Saving the Royal Families of Europe
Handsome prince meets beautiful non-princess? Not so long ago it might have been the end of the fairytale.
Born on the Fourth of July 1937, at the Red Cross Clinic in Oslo, Sonja Haraldsen grew up to become a lovely 16-year-old, and one day she went to watch a boat race. One of the spectators, a boy her age, Harald Glücksburg, saw Sonja and was lovestruck. He tried to get the girl&rsquos attention she ignored him.
Or so goes one story of the day Harald met Sonja. Another has the two meeting at a dinner party when they were 22 and falling so crash-bang in love that even if Harald had not been crown prince of Norway and Sonja had not been the daughter of the owners of a women&rsquos clothing store, their instant, mutual, and lasting passion might still have been called a fairytale romance.
Fairytale romance also requires friction in the form of antagonists or obstacles: wicked stepmothers, thickets of thorns. In this story Harald&rsquos father served that function. King Olav V did not want his son to marry a commoner. He wanted Harald to make a sensible match, as the king himself had done with a girl from the royal family next door, Princess Märtha of Sweden (who was also his first cousin).
By law the heir to Norway&rsquos throne could not marry without the sovereign&rsquos permission. Olav&rsquos disapproval, however, was less determined than Harald&rsquos devotion. For nine long years Harald and Sonja waited, and dated, and at last love conquered. The king pronounced his blessing. Harald and Sonja married. When Olav died and Harald was crowned, in 1991, the queen of his heart became queen of his land.
Like moves on a chessboard, marriages between members of Europe&rsquos dynasties were, for centuries, made to establish an advantage in the continent&rsquos balance of power. Some royals did marry nonroyals&mdasha practice known as morganatic marriage&mdash while others wished to but were prevented by law or taboo.
In 1936, after King Edward VIII decided to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, he abdicated the throne to avoid a constitutional crisis. The scandal put pressure on British royals to lead exemplary lives, and when Edward&rsquos niece, Princess Margaret, fell in love with RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was divorced, opposition in Parliament in 1955 forced her to make an excruciating, public renunciation.
To marry Townsend would have meant surrendering her royal rights, duties, and income. Even five years later, when Margaret wed the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, some of Europe&rsquos monarchs did not attend the ceremony. As an observer later explained, &ldquoPrincesses married princes, not common photographers.&rdquo
The restrictions on royal marriage based on social status were slow to erode. In 2011, Prince William married Catherine Middleton, whose parents met while they were working for British Airways (she as a flight attendant, he as a dispatcher). The Middletons, who now run an online party retailer, also have some family wealth and no mean pedigrees themselves nonetheless, it was the first time a woman without aristocratic lineage had married an heir to the British throne in more than 350 years.
But if you tried to imagine a royal romance that violated every taboo&mdashconcerning class, race, religion, gender roles, commercialism, and discretion&mdashyou probably would still not have the audacity to imagine the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, an American television actress who is divorced, Catholic, and of mixed race, in addition to being a committed political activist and a sometime clothing designer and lifestyle blogger with an avid social media presence replete with hashtags and emojis.
Kate Middleton was the first woman without aristocratic lineage to marry an heir to the British throne in more than 350 years.
When their relationship began, in the fall of 2016, old proscriptions were triggered in force, but Harry would have none of it. Just one month after the couple were first seen together in public, Kensington Palace issued a statement on the prince&rsquos behalf: &ldquoHis girlfriend. has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment,&rdquo which involved (among much else) a &ldquosmear on the front page of a national newspaper the racial undertones of comment pieces and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls.&rdquo
Movingly, the statement avowed that the prince &ldquoknows commentators will say this is &lsquothe price she has to pay&rsquo and that &lsquothis is all part of the game.&rsquo He strongly disagrees. This is not a game&mdashit is her life and his.&rdquo
That was valor. Which raised some questions: Might there be more at stake in their relationship than the happiness of two people? What might this match between Meghan and Harry mean for society at large?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not mention the freedom of a prince to woo in peace. The Kensington Palace statement, however, almost implied that it should. The statement could even be read to posit that the courtship of the prince and the actress was more democratic than the world outside that relationship. (In the privacy of love they were equals. Only when certain outsiders told the story was she considered less than.) Could that be true? Do royal families endow their members with more democratic dignities&mdashare they able to accept human diversity with greater ease&mdashthan the rest of the human family does?
If so, what are the consequences for the rest of us? In an era of unprecedented wealth for a few and restricted social mobility for the rest, Markle represents a fantasy so extreme it might be called existential immigration. But even that fantasy is not entirely a game.
This is actually a serious question: Has the world changed, so that marrying a prince (or a princess) is the surest way of being treated like a whole person? And if so, how did that happen?
Over the past 50 years it has ceased to be exceptional&mdashit has gradually become the norm&mdashfor European royalty to marry commoners. (Of the heirs apparent to the 10 surviving hereditary European monarchies, Prince Alois of Liechtenstein is the only one who chose a mate of even approximately equal social rank: the Wittelsbach duchess Sophie, Princess of Bavaria.)
The story of how, in just two generations, nonroyals were welcomed into nearly all of Europe&rsquos royal families follows a pattern common to many stories of social integration. A sequence of private, human choices&mdashin this case, the choice to pursue romantic love&mdashgains symbolic importance when those choices are made public, and that enables more such choices to be made. Love begets love. And as is true of many of the most dignifying reforms of modern society, this one started in Scandinavia.
In Kristiansand, Norway, in the summer of 1999, &ldquoa single mother whose son was fathered by a drug dealer&rdquo (as one newspaper would later refer to her) went to a concert, where she met a man. The woman, Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, had a three-year-old son named Marius. She did not have a college degree and she had never held a prestigious job. She was pretty, she was sweet, and she liked to have fun, which sometimes involved illegal substances.
The man she met at the concert was Haakon, crown prince of Norway&mdashKing Harald and Queen Sonja&rsquos son&mdashand Haakon fell in love with Mette-Marit the way Harald had fallen in love with Sonja: headlong, all at once, and the-hell-with-you-if-you-don&rsquot-like-it. By May of the following year the crown prince had publicly declared his love for a woman who by traditional standards could not have been more unsuitable.
Haakon&rsquos choice had consequences. In Norway approval ratings for the monarchy were low. In neighboring countries conservatives were concerned. One Copenhagen historian made this analysis: &ldquoIt may be that Mette-Marit is the biggest threat to the Danish monarchy for many centuries. When the media becomes tough in Norway and Sweden, a front line will open up against the Danish royal family from the north.&rdquo
But if skepticism and insurrection were contagious&mdashwell, so was love. Haakon had a friend, a few years older, by the name of Fred. Handsome, smart, adventurous Fred had studied at Harvard before he became a naval pilot and special operations officer. Fred went trekking in Mongolia. Fred drove a team of sled dogs 4,000 miles across Greenland. Fred also dated a lot of women, and no one thought he was in much danger of settling down. But Fred was, surely, moved to consider his own position when he saw what had happened to Haakon. And it may or may not have been a coincidence that sparks flew in Fred&rsquos life the very same month that Haakon commenced cohabitation with Mette-Marit.
Fred flew to Australia to watch the 2000 Olympics. He walked into a bar, the Slip Inn, in Sydney. &ldquoFred from Denmark&rdquo was how he introduced himself that night to a young woman from Tasmania, Mary Donaldson. Much later Mary would reveal that in the months that followed Fred seduced her with long, handwritten letters. In one he quoted Kierkegaard: &ldquoTo risk something is to lose one&rsquos foothold for a moment. Not to risk is to lose oneself.&rdquo
I don&rsquot think I have ever been so weak or so strong as I am when I am with you. &mdashCrown Prince Haakon to Mette-Marit on their wedding day
The next year Fred&mdashthat is, Frederik, crown prince of Denmark, Count of Monpezat, Order of the Elephant, Order of the Dannebrog&mdash stood up as best man at Haakon&rsquos wedding. Afterward, at the banquet, Haakon spoke from his heart to Mette-Marit: &ldquoI don&rsquot think I have ever been so weak or so strong as I am when I am with you. I don&rsquot think I have been so full of love as I am when I&rsquom with you. From today you are no longer just my friend, my girlfriend, and my fiancée. Today we have married and you have become Norway&rsquos crown princess. I&rsquom looking forward to working side by side with you, and with Marius. I cannot promise life will be without problems and easy,
but it will be eventful and strong.&rdquo
By the time Haakon and Mette-Marit attended Frederik and Mary&rsquos wedding, in 2004, matches between royals and commoners were becoming joyful symbols of hope for a better life. &ldquoEvery time a person&rsquos dreams come true, the world becomes a better place for us all. Your marriage is a gift to the people of Australia,&rdquo declared one Sydney newspaper. It was a gift to the Danish monarchy, too: Approval ratings surged to 82 percent the following year.
In the first decade of the 21st century, matches between commoners and royals were made all across Europe. Like airplanes speeding past circles of latitude, royal loves crossed social boundaries abruptly, embracing the vulgar&mdashin the sense of that word&rsquos Latin root, vulgaris, the common people. The more flawed the match (compared with traditional ideal royal mates), it sometimes seemed, the more attractive it was.
Haakon&rsquos older sister, Princess Märtha Louise, lost her royal income when she married an artist, the Norwegian writer Ari Behn, who was best known for a short story collection titled Sad as Hell. (The couple divorced last year.) The Prince of Orange, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, married Máxima Zorreguieta, an Argentinian whose father was a government minister in that country&rsquos violent, corrupt military regime. (Willem-Alexander&rsquos mother Queen Beatrix allowed the match on condition that Máxima&rsquos father not attend the wedding.)
In Spain, Crown Prince Felipe de Todos los Santos announced his engagement to Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, a divorced TV news broadcaster who has had multiple plastic surgeries. Sweden&rsquos Princess Victoria&mdashthe heir to the throne&mdashstarted dating her personal trainer, Daniel Westling, in secret then she married him.
And that&rsquos only a partial list. &ldquoHuman affection will always cross boundaries designing rules it must adhere to will never work,&rdquo wrote one English newspaper columnist after Haakon&rsquos wedding to Mette-Marit. &ldquoModern Britain is a place where being from a dysfunctional or &lsquodifferent&rsquo background does not prevent you from leading a happy, fulfilled life. It&rsquos time for another royal wedding, and my feeling is that Camilla&rsquos would give more real people real hope than any fairytale wedding ever could.&rdquo
When it happened, that prediction came true. The public came to love Camilla Parker Bowles, in part because she and Prince Charles persevered in their love in spite of life&rsquos whole mess.
Mette-Marit has a past that, it seems, will never go away. Compromising photographs from her wild days were published. Her alcoholic father married a stripper half his age. Yet she and Haakon built a family in addition to Marius they have two children of their own, whose arrival the country greeted with celebration. Their firstborn, Princess Ingrid Alexandra, is Norway&rsquos heir apparent. She will someday be the country&rsquos first female monarch since the 15th century.
By coincidence Mette-Marit also played an important symbolic role in the darkest moment in Norway&rsquos recent history&mdashwhen her stepbrother was killed in the mass shooting by Anders Breivik in 2011. Her loss made Mette-Marit a symbol of the people&rsquos solidarity with the monarchy. The next year she put her penchant for risk-taking&mdasheven heedlessness&mdashto virtuous use. On behalf of a gay palace employee who had trouble getting a visa, she secretly traveled to India to care for his newborn twins, born to a surrogate mother. There she spent several days incognito with the babies in a medical center, where the staff assumed she was a nanny.
V. A ROYAL WEDDING, SPRING 2018
What would have happened if Harald and Sonja hadn&rsquot fallen in love? They set an example for Haakon, who set an example for Frederik, which created an atmosphere in which almost anything became possible&mdasheven an American TV star in a wedding dress waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
At a time when a crisis of legitimacy attends the very concept of authority, these couplings have strengthened bonds between sovereigns and subjects. The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, like all the status-discordant pairings described here, will have one main political effect. The coming of the commoners inoculates European monarchies against that form of government&rsquos greatest contemporary vulnerability: popular resentment based on perception of unjust advantage.
However thorny their pasts, all these commoners appear to be worthy of luck&mdashthe extraordinary luck of winning the existential immigration lottery, on top of the more common luck of romantic love. One of the most striking things about this chapter in the history of royal marriage is how sturdy the matches have proved to be&mdashmaybe because they&rsquore unsuitable, not in spite of it. These loves began with the embrace of imperfection the reasons for their durability and popularity may not be much more complicated than that.
In 2017, when King Harald and Queen Sonja both turned 80, polls in Norway indicated that 81 percent of Norwegians supported the monarchy. In 2018 the couple&mdashand the rest of the country&mdashwill celebrate 50 years of marriage. Deep inside one of the mailbags full of cards and letters that will be delivered to the palace in Oslo, perhaps the ladies-in-waiting will find one postmarked London, with Kensington Palace as the return address.
In the last in-depth interview Meghan Markle gave before she began dating Harry (it was published in Good Housekeeping), she said she liked to write handwritten notes, which she called &ldquoa lost art form.&rdquo In that interview, as in the last one before her betrothal (in Vanity Fair last summer), she recalled struggling to earn a living in her early days as an actress. She said that she learned calligraphy and made extra money by writing names and addresses in beautiful script on other people&rsquos wedding invitations.
She did not say, but it is hard not to imagine, that from time to time her hand got tired and she would pause to daydream for a minute, imagining the loves of those brides and grooms, hoping that such happiness one day might be hers.
This story appears in the February 2018 issue of Town & Country. Subscribe Today
9 of the worst monarchs in history
History has no shortage of disastrous rulers this list could easily have been filled with the Roman emperors alone. Rulers have been homicidal, like Nero or Genghis Khan incompetent, like Edward II completely untrustworthy, like Charles I or amiable but inadequate, like Louis XVI of France or Tsar Nicholas II.
Some royal stinkers were limited in their capacity to do serious harm: the self-absorbed Edward VIII by his abdication, the narcissistic prince regent and king, George IV, by the constitutional limits on his power. And the mass murderer and self-proclaimed ‘Emperor’ Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Empire might have featured on this list had his imperial status been internationally recognised, but it wasn’t.
Nearly-rans include the French Emperor Napoleon III, whose delusions of competence led to disaster in Italy, Mexico and finally defeat at the hands of Bismarck, and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, a ludicrously gauche and immature ruler but not actually responsible on his own for launching Germany, and the rest of Europe, into the First World War.
The nearly-rans also include the extravagant waste of money and space that went by the name of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and absentee monarchs like Richard I of England and Charles XII of Sweden – both of them great military leaders who spent much of their reigns away at war, including time in captivity, instead of seeing to the affairs of their kingdoms.
Here, then, is my list of the nine worst monarchs in history…
Gaius Caligula (AD 12–41)
There are plenty of other contenders for worst Roman Emperor – Nero and Commodus for example – but Caligula‘s mad reign sets a high standard. After a promising start to his reign he seems to have set out specifically to intimidate and humiliate the senate and high command of the army, and he gave grave offence, not least in Jerusalem, by declaring himself a god even the Romans normally only recognised deification after death.
Caligula instituted a reign of terror through arbitrary arrest for treason, much as his predecessor Tiberius had done it was also widely rumoured that he was engaged in incest with his sisters and that he lived a life of sexual debauchery, and this may well be true. The story of his making his horse a consul, meanwhile, may have been exaggerated, but it was not out of character.
Caligula’s unforgivable mistake was to jeopardise Rome’s military reputation by declaring a sort of surreal war on the sea, ordering his soldiers to wade in and slash at the waves with their swords and collecting chests full of seashells as the spoils of his ‘victory’ over the god Neptune, king of the sea and by his failed campaign against the Germans, for which he still awarded himself a triumph. He was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard in AD 41.
Caligula’s successor, Claudius, was an improvement but, despite the favourable picture in Robert Graves’s famous book I, Claudius, not by much.
Pope John XII (954–964)
Even by the lax standards of the medieval papacy, John XII stands out as a disaster of the highest order. He was elected pope at the ripe old age of 18 as part of a political deal with the Roman nobility, and he inherited a conflict for control of Italy between the papacy and the Italian king Berengarius.
John had the support of the powerful German emperor Otto I, who swore to defend John’s title, but John himself was too taken up with a life of drunken sex parties in the Lateran to care too much either way. He recovered from his hangover enough to accept Otto’s oath of undying loyalty and then promptly linked up behind Otto’s back with his enemy, Berengarius.
Understandably annoyed, Otto had John overthrown and accused, among other things, of simony (clerical corruption), murder, perjury and incest, and he replaced him with a new pope, Leo VIII. However, John made a comeback and had Leo’s supporters punished ruthlessly: one cardinal had his hand cut off and he had a bishop whipped.
Full-scale war broke out between John and Otto, until John unexpectedly died – in bed with another man’s wife, or so rumour had it.
King John (1199–1216)
The reign of King John is a salutary reminder that murder and treachery may possibly be forgiven in a monarch, but not incompetence.
John was the youngest and favourite son of Henry II, but he had not been entrusted with any lands and was mockingly nicknamed John Lackland. He tried unsuccessfully to seize power while his brother Richard I was away on crusade and was sent into exile upon Richard’s return.
On his accession John had his own nephew Arthur murdered, fearing Arthur might pursue his own, much better, claim to the throne, and he embarked on a disastrous war with King Philippe-Auguste of France in which he lost the whole of Normandy. This singular act of incompetence deprived the barons of an important part of their power base, and he alienated them further with arbitrary demands for money and even by forcing himself on their wives.
In exasperation they forced him to accept Magna Carta no sooner had he sealed it, however, than he then went back on his word and plunged the country into a maelstrom of war and French invasion. Some tyrants have been rehabilitated by history – but not John.
King Richard II (1377–99)
Unlike Richard III, Richard II has good reason to feel grateful towards Shakespeare, who portrayed this startlingly incompetent monarch as a tragic figure a victim of circumstances and of others’ machinations rather than the vain, self-regarding author of his own downfall he actually was.
Learning nothing from the disastrous precedent of Edward II, Richard II alienated the nobility by gathering a bunch of cronies around him and then ended up in confrontation with parliament over his demands for money.
His reign descended into a game of political manoeuvre between himself and his much more able and impressive uncle, John of Gaunt, before degenerating into a gory grudge match between Richard and the five Lords Appellant, whom he either had killed or forced into exile.
Richard might have redeemed himself by prowess in war or administration, but he possessed neither. Henry Bolingbroke’s coup of 1399, illegal though it no doubt was, brought to an end Richard’s disastrous reign. Richard II has his defenders nowadays, who will doubtless take issue with his inclusion in this list, but there really is very little to say for him as a ruler.