Our culture has always had an odd fascination with the Royals. This past Easter weekend, my family debated on whether the Royal Wedding coverage would be as pronounced here in the U.S. as it would be in the U.K. (I think we believed us Yanks would outshine the Brits as far as coverage goes, but that's cause we have more TV stations than any other country!). As a child of the 1980s, I grew up seeing the footage of Charles and Diana's wedding and watching their marriage crumble (not to mention the crumbling marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson!). But when it comes to fascinating drama where British Royalty is concerned, these Windsors have got nothing on their predecessors! As a history buff (a trait I come by honestly as my family is full of history buffs!), I have been intrigued by the stories of the previous Kings and Queens of England. I have combed through their stories, trying to know everything I can AND learning new things in the process each time I do so. With that in mind AND in honor of the upcoming Royal nuptials, this week's 10 FAVORITES are devoted to the stories that have made the British Monarchy so entertaining. Here are:
THE 10 BEST TALES OF
THE BRITISH MONARCHY
George III Goes a Little Mad
He was the King we led our American Revolution against and what happened afterwards seems to come right out of a daytime soap opera (or from Dr. Oz!). In 1810, King George III's many physical problems (including rheumatism, partial blindness and irritable bowels) were causing such stress that his behavior was radically changing, and not in a good way. His power-hungry son, Prince George (whom I call "Thicky George" thanks to BlackAdder!), seized this opportunity to be declared Prince Regent (meaning he would be the monarch with the power!). George III's insanity had plagued him until his death 10 years later and Prince George became King George IV. Below, is the trailer for the powerful 1994 film The Madness of King George starring the late Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren and Rupert Everett.
Edward VIII and the
A love affair is just the tip of the iceberg on this Royal scandal that helped shape the Windsors and who they are today. Before he was King Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales (or "David," as he was called) had slowly begun to rebel against the stern guidance of his parents King George V and Queen Mary. He began shirking Royal duties and carrying on clandestine relationships with several married noblewomen. But it was one married woman that caused a fervor that would still be talked about 50 years later: Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American. Not only was she not impressed by the British monarchy's rules and rituals, but she heavily encouraged the Prince's pro-Nazi tendencies and admired the way Adolf Hitler pulled Germany out of its horrible Depression (Don't ask why!). Of course, a marriage between the newly crowned King (George V died in early 1936) and Mrs. Simpson was out of the question as far as the Cabinet was concerned, so Edward VIII abdicated the throne in December 1936 for the "Woman He Loved" and became the Duke of Windsor (more on the remnants of this abdication in a bit!). Below, is Edward's actual Abdication Address he gave over the radio to the British people.
Henry II and Thomas Becket: England's Tragic Bro-Mance
Who doesn't love a good Bro-Mance these days? And this one is one for the "Middle" Ages (I know, I couldn't resist!). King Henry II was a typical medieval king: carousing with many wenches, boasting about his triumphs and strutting his status as a great Norman king over the beleaguered Saxons. One of his best friends and closest advisers, Thomas Becket, was a Saxon. As Henry craved for religious independence from Rome and the Pope, he appointed his best friend Becket to the important post of Archbishop of Cantebury (still, the highest religious office in England). Here is where the friendship began to sour. When Becket's constant refusal to bow to Henry's every whim caused a riff between the two old friends, a drunken Henry (after a night of debauchery with his restless and violent soldiers) wept into his grog and said "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" (referring to Becket). The soldiers, to drunk to realize he didn't mean it, took it upon themselves that this was an order from their king and made swift haste to Cantebury. There, in the cathedral as Becket was completing services, the soldiers interrupted and brutally assassinated the Archbishop. Afterwards, Henry II was never the same. Below, is the 1964 Oscar-winning epic Becket starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton (in masterful performances as Henry II and Thomas Becket, respectively).
Oliver Cromwell Makes Charles I Lose His Head
It seems that Kings have it all and they enjoy keeping it. I mean, we all know the Mel Brooks line "It's good to be the King." Well, it seems that Charles I took that statement on as his montra. In the 1640s, King Charles I was arrogant, exorbitant and insensitive to his people and his Cabinet ministers. In addition to all this, he was married to a Catholic Queen (the French Princess Henrietta Marie) and allowed her free reign in the palace to live as a Catholic (which was a no-no in the very Protestant England, especially for the King). The Cabinet became enraged with his dismissals and refusals to hear their advice. They were further angered by his insistence on taxing the people high taxes to pay for his expensive (and seemingly Catholic) lifestyle. Chief among these angry ministers was nobleman Oliver Cromwell, who stirred up enough fervor within the ministry to call for the Parliament to rebel against their sovereign. Charles I was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death (much like is grandmother Mary of Scotland, but more on that later!). In 1649, Charles was beheaded and Parliamentary rule was put in place of the monarchy (only to be overturned a decade later with Charles II, son of Charles I, restored to the throne). Below, is the beheading scene from the 1970 film Cromwell which featured Richard Harris in the title role and a brilliant Alec Guinness as the doomed king.
Henry V's Agincourt Triomphe
A young and impetuous Prince ascends to the throne and fights off the French in a battle that changed the way military leaders think about combat. Sounds like some fantasy film or legend, huh? But it really happened! King Henry V wasn't always brilliant leader material. In his youth, the young Prince Hal caroused and took nothing his father, King Henry IV, said seriously. When Henry IV died, it seemed like a light bulb suddenly turned on in the new King's head. He realized he had to be what his father wanted of him and he had to establish his dominance. To fight off an impending invasion from the French, Henry needed to truly inspire his troops as his plan seemed inconceivable. He placed his troops in a way the French never expected and defeated them mercilessly. And what did he do to inspire his troops to such a feat? Well, according to William Shakespeare in his masterful history play Henry V, Henry gave a powerful speech that stirs the very patriotic emotions that a soldier needs before going into battle (see below, in Kenneth Branagh's amazing 1989 film version of the Shakespeare work).
George VI's Stammering Success
This story was not as well-known until fairly recently (for obvious Oscar-winning reasons), but it is one of the most inspirational stories from the British monarchy (they can't all be scandals people!). When King Edward VIII abdicated his throne (see above), it thrust the job onto an unlikely candidate: his brother, Bertie, who was now King George VI. George had one major problem, though. He had a severe stammer that plagued him every time he was to speak in public. It tormented him and it frustrated him. There was no hope in sight until his wife, Queen Elizabeth, took him to an Australian actor and speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Logue's radical ways helped George discover the deeper meanings behind his stammer and they tackled every word of a speech before it was to be heard. It was the jolt that both George and England needed as, right on the heels of Edward's abdication, the Nazis invaded Poland and World War II began. King George VI (and his Queen and two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret) became symbols for the British people of strength and resolve in the face of true evil. Below, the trailer for this year's Academy Award-winner for Best Picture (and Best Actor), The King's Speech.
Richard III Puts Princes in the Tower
When a man craves being the King, nothing stands in his way, not even children. After the tumultuous War of the Roses (the battle for the English throne between the Lancasters and the Yorks), King Edward IV (of York) was dying and his young son Edward was poised to take his place as king. But young Edward (and his little brother) did not count on their vicious uncle Richard to slash his way to the throne. Richard already had his older brother, the Duke of Clarence, and various other noblemen (Duke of Buckingham, for example) disposed of before he set his murderous eyes on his young nephews. He imprisoned the boys in the Tower of London (telling them it was "for their protection") and there, he had the two Princes killed in secret. Nothing was in Richard's way when he was crowned King Richard III (only to be later defeated at Bosworth field by Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, father of another important monarch!). Below, William Shakespeare's play Richard III is by far the most adequate portrayal of the wicked Richard and there was no better Shakespeare interpreter than Lord Laurence Olivier.
Henry VIII Has Six Wives
Talk about Big Love! Henry VIII makes some Mormons look like monogamists! Okay, let's be a little objective, King Henry VIII was never married to all six at one time (only a couple of them at the same time but that's a debate for later!). Henry VIII's obsessive quest for a male heir caused a religious quandary that basically founded the modern Church of England (or Anglicanism). After his first wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon produced one healthy child (the female Mary, who later became Queen Mary I or "Bloody Mary"), Henry shifted his attentions to the sensual Anne Boleyn and petitioned Rome for a divorce from Catherine. When Rome refused, Henry declared himself "Supreme Head of the Church in England," divorced Catherine and married Anne. When Anne, too, only produced one healthy child (again a girl, Elizabeth, more on her soon!), he felt tricked by her seductive ways and had her beheaded. He then married the plain Jane Seymour (No, NOT Dr. Quinn!), who died soon after the birth of his only living son, Edward (later Edward VI). After Jane's death, he married three more times before his death, bringing the grand total of wives to six. In the final three: there was the German Anne of Cleves (who he divorced after feeling deceived about her appearance), Catherine Howard (Anne Boleyn's young cousin, whose sexual escapades condemned her to the block) and the Puritan Catherine Parr (who became Henry's widow). Below, is a compilation from Showtime's series The Tudors, whose four seasons took audiences through all six of Henry's marriages.
Victoria and Edward VII: Mother VS. Son
Some of the best stories in history are about the power struggles and dramatic tension between parents and their children. When Queen Victoria's beloved husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861, the Queen shut herself away from public life wearing black for the rest of her days (which went on for another 42 years!). In addition to the self-imposed seclusion, she would never allow her son, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), to publicly appear in her place and she hated it when her son took it upon himself to do so. To be fair to her, she had legitimate reasons to distrust her son's judgment as his many dalliances and extra-marital affairs had British society whispering and pointing fingers. But to be fair to him, when his mother gives him nothing to do, why not try to make the best out of his life (although I am NOT condoning his cheating on Alexandra, Princess of Wales!)? Their constant struggle for dominance and his need for his mother's approval were expertly dramatized in the 1976 British miniseries Edward the Seventh featuring Annette Crosbie and Timothy West (as Victoria and Edward, respectively).
Elizabeth I: The Golden Queen
In her 45 year reign, there is always something fascinating in the story of "The Virgin Queen," Elizabeth I. Even her life before she became Queen is fascinating. Let's face it, her birth (and her parents' marriage) caused a religious upheaval in the country that forever changed the landscape of Europe. Her father had her mother beheaded when she was only 3 years old. She was sexually molested by her brother's uncle. She was almost sentenced to death by her own sister! She refused suitor after suitor and poured favor on a man she adored (who was already married!). She signed the death warrant of her cousin, Queen Mary of Scotland, after Mary was implicated in a plot on her life. She defeated the invasion of the Spanish Armada. And, although she was the last of the Tudor monarchs, she reigned in a time when England was at its most prosperous and most influential (just think of William Shakespeare or Sir Francis Drake or Sir Walter Raleigh!). Below, a montage of one of the most recent and most poignant portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I: Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett.