William the Conqueror (1066 – 1087)
Following the defeat of King Harold II at Hastings, William of Normandy was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. The first years of his reign were spent quashing rebellions, invading Scotland in 1072 and Wales in 1081. During his time he completely changed the structure of the English ruling classes and made French the country’s official language.
William’s last years were mainly spent in Normandy, leaving the government of England to the clergy. While in England to face a threatened Danish invasion, he ordered a survey to be made of the kingdom in 1086, which became Domesday Book. Our first Norman King met his end having been mortally wounded while in Mantes, France.
William II (1087 – 1100)
William Rufus was the second son of William I. His elder brother, Robert, inherited the title of Duke of Normandy from his father but desired the English throne and unsuccessfully challenged William for the title. During his reign William II managed to defeat two major revolts in 1088 and 1095.
William II spent much of his reign campaigning in the north of France and was an accomplished military tactician. However, his demise would not take place on the field of battle; he died after being accidentally shot while on a hunting trip in the New Forest. He never married or produced an heir.
Henry I (1100 – 1135)
Nicknamed Henry Beauclerc because of his scholarly interests, he was the fourth son of William I and during his own time on the throne he earned the title "Lion of Justice", due to the changes he made to the English legal system. After the death of his elder brother William, he seized power while his older brother Robert was away fighting in the Crusades.
Henry possessed excellent political and negotiation skills and during his reign he integrated the divided Anglo-Saxon and Normans within his kingdom, reunited his father’s lands and controversially named his daughter Matilda as his heir. He died of food poisoning and was buried in Reading Abbey.
Stephen I (1135 – 1154)
The last Norman King of England, Stephen was a grandchild of William I and seized the throne from rightful heir Matilda, claiming that his uncle Henry I had changed his mind on his deathbed, naming Stephen as his heir. Once crowned, Stephen gained the support from most of the barons, as well as Pope Innocent II.
While the first years of his reign were peaceful, he soon made many enemies. Chief among these of course was his cousin Matilda and in 1147 her son Henry invaded during a period of civil war, commonly known as The Anarchy. Stephen was seen as weak and indecisive and just before he died he was forced to acknowledge Henry as the true heir to the throne.
Henry II (1154 – 1189)
Henry began his reign as possibly the most powerful monarch in Europe, with lands stretching from the Scottish borders in the north to the Pyrenees in the south. Much like his predecessors, Henry spent much of his time away from England fighting abroad, but he did find time to put in place a highly efficient system of government.
Despite much wrangling with the increasingly-influential church, Henry II is widely acknowledged as one of the most successful Medieval Kings. Tensions between church and state reached a head with Henry’s controversial decision in 1170 to have Archbishop Thomas Becket assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral. As a result, Becket was declared a martyr and Henry a murderer.
Richard I (1189 – 1199)
Richard ‘The Lionheart’ is remembered in legend as one of the greatest English Kings, yet he was born of French parents, spoke no English and spent only ten months of a ten-year reign in the country! Overall, Richard is perhaps best known for being the only King of England to participate personally in the Crusades.
Historians have alternately praised his skills as a great military tactician and also charged him with plundering England’s coffers to fund his lust for glory in the Holy Land, but his iconic status lay within the fact that crusading carried with it a symbolic importance right up until well into the sixteenth century. Richard died as he had lived, in battle whilst besieging a castle at Chalus, France.
John I (1199 – 1216)
The younger brother of Richard ‘The Lionheart’, King John's reign has been traditionally characterised as one of the most disastrous in English history: it began with English defeat, John losing Normandy to Philippe Auguste of France, and ended with England torn by civil war.
To resolve a conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, he surrendered England to the Pope, causing his rebellious barons to force him to famously sign the Magna Carta in 1215, which restated the rights of the church and all the barons in the land. By the end of his reign, only a tiny portion of the vast Angevin empire remained and his dreadful reputation is apparently a reason many English monarchs resist naming their male heirs John.