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King John I may forever be known as a Bad King following that seminal history textbook 1066 and All That, but according to history authors, it is Henry VIII who should bear the title of the worst monarch in history.
More than 60 writers were surveyed by the Historical Writers Association (HWA), with Henry VIII taking 20% of the vote to find the worst monarch and criticised for a wide range of crimes: he was “obsessive”, “syphilitic” and a “self-indulgent wife murderer and tyrant”, according to respondents.
Robert Wilton, the author of The Spider of Sarajevo, called the Tudor king “a gross man-child, wilfully and capriciously dangerous to everything around him including the country”, adding that psychologically, Henry “barely made it out of infancy, let alone adolescence, and ruled with little more policy than petulant self-gratification”.
Edward VIII was named the second worst, with 14% of the vote, with John I and Charles I joint third, with 8%.
At the other end of the scale, the current queen received just one vote in the HWA’s quest to find the best monarch in history, with Elizabeth I triumphing with 36% of the 62 writers’ votes. Alexander the Great – one of a number of non-English/British rulers put forward in the survey – was second, with 10% of the vote, and Henry II third, with 6%.
SD Sykes, author of the historical novel Plague Land, was the one writer to plump for Elizabeth II, saying that “she does the perfect job of being a dutiful but detached and neutral head of state”. She added that “as a hereditary monarch, I’m happy that she keeps her opinions to herself”.
Praise for Elizabeth I came from many quarters. Bestselling author Elizabeth Buchan said that the queen “held this country together at a time when religious factions could have torn it apart. This would have been no mean feat for a king. For a woman at that period it was unprecedented.” The Lost Duchess writer Jenny Barden said she “epitomised the spirit that we today identify as quintessentially English”, and Elizabeth Fremantle, author of Queen’s Gambit, called Elizabeth “deeply flawed yet impressively in control and a woman to boot”.
The survey was carried out by the HWA to mark the Harrogate History festival, which will take place from 22-25 October and will feature names including Melvyn Bragg, Ken Follett and Kate Mosse.
The poll also uncovered the historical writers’ favourite lesser-known monarchs, with Matilda, heir of Henry I, singled out in particular, along with Queen Anne, Queen Aethelflaed of Mercia (the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great), and Athelstan (the first king of all England) also mentioned. “Though never crowned, [Matilda] was effectively Britain’s first female king, and refused to conform to expectations demanded of the ‘gentle sex’,” said Liberty’s Fire author Lydia Syson.
Novelist ID Roberts plumped for Eadwig, the king of England from 955 until his premature death in 959. “Apparently his coronation had to be delayed to allow Bishop Dunstan to prise Eadwig from his bed, and from between the arms of his ‘strumpet’ and the strumpet’s mother – he was only 16 at the time,” said Roberts.
• This article was amended on 3 September 2015 to add a line clarifying that not all of the monarchs named in the survey were English/British.
Source: The Guardian
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