The first 'official' monarch of the medieval period in England was Henry II. This monarch, as well as the next several succeeding ones, were really quite interesting people and made decisions and lived lives that were really interesting. Unfortunately for most of us, he have heard of very few of them except in our current social context. One example is Disney's animated version of 'Robin Hood' which paints King Richard in a pristine and beautiful light and makes Prince John into a two dimensional character with only bad and cowardly qualities.... not necessarily dishonest images, but certainly not the vibrant and colorful tapestry of the image that historians have been able to gather from the documentation. These small paragraphs are really in some ways a tease as I too haven't given you the complex, full images. But hopefully as you read through some of these small snapshots on the different monarchs and their challenges and successors, you will find yourself intrigued enough to want to take the time to learn more... I promise you that you would not be disappointed. :)
Henry II was considered to be very charismatic and he had a great impact on England. He was an unusual English monarch in that he was half 'French'. So he spoke French and was heir to a great deal of lands and titles in the land of France. His mother, who was daughter to the English king Henry I, made sure that he had a good understanding and familiarity of England. At the time that Henry came to power when he was 21 years old, the English 'Baron' was really the power in England. These barons had either taken over royal castles or created illegal castles so that they could have control over many areas... causing the leading ruler's power to really be broken up into the differing barons and not the monarchy itself. One of Henry's first decisions was to get the royal castles back under his control... and to have all illegal castles destroyed. Another thing which was a really big deal was that Henry made it possible for a king to use writing to be able to make decisions without having to actually be in the area. The Chancellor Office was created by Henry who had changed some parts of the law creating a document that was produced was called a 'writ'. This document would be created and it would carry the king's new law and was signed with a large and impressive 'seal' and then could be carried all over the nation-state. So Henry II no longer had to go places to have his word obeyed or known- he could send it and only need to enforce it physically if an area showed disagreement or balking. He attempted to put a great friend, Thomas Beckett, in the position of Archbishop of Canterbury so that he could have control over the church in England... or at least not be controlled by the church in his borders. Unfortunately, he got his wish... and his best friend was put in the position of Archbishop. But Thomas Beckett soon became his bitterest enemy and thwarted Henry II at every turn when it came to the autonomy of the church. Their disagreements became so bitter and angry that Beckett was eventually killed in his own cathedral in England by some of Henry's own knights leaving the blame- whether appropriately or not- on the head of King Henry. For a decade Henry also had to fight to control his lands against France and the disloyalty of his own sons who didn't want to wait for his death for power of their own. In summary, it can truly be said that Henry II had really solidified kingly power in England. King Henry did whatever it took to keep power under his control and even spent a decade fighting his own children whose ambition had started to rival his own. So he ended up fighting France and his children to keep his throne until his death. (Truly the battles between the king and his ambitious children could not have been comfortable or pleasing to the general populace.)
Richard I was his father's successor, and as such, he spent a decade 'ruling' England. However, he was only actually 'physically' in England for about six months of his reign. He had spent about a decade fighting his father Henry II for more power and whether he simply got used to fighting, he liked it too much, or really had no wish to sit around ruling, Richard chose to continuing fighting skirmishes or wars during his reign. So England was truly ruled during this time by an 'absentee' king- what Richard seemed to need England for was for money to finance his wars and adventures abroad... and that's it. Richard I also fought in the Crusades in the Holy Land and he eventually died from a mortal wound from his fighting. (His reputation for someone who disliked Jews led to some massacres of Jewish people on occasion and when he did eventually produce a writ stating that the Jews be left alone, it was very loosely enforced in his absence.) His chosen heir was his younger brother John who would then become king of England upon his death. Richard I was given a nickname that he would be called throughout his life by many and it was given to him even before he became king due to his reputation of great leadership in battle and as a formidable warrior; 'Coeur de Lion' or Richard the Lion-heart.
In a sense, John was always going to be in a difficult position coming into power after his brother Richard I. Unfortunately for John 'Landless', he was designated by future generations as the 'model of a bad king' for his pains. :) England had enjoyed almost a whole decade without a King on its shores and so an attentive monarch would not necessarily have been a thrill. However, John was also not strong in other positive ways and had a few personality traits that were quite difficult and are not positive or acceptable in a good leader such as pettiness, spite and vindictiveness. John also lost several of England's French territories to the strong and able leader of France and so for the first time since the time of William of Normandy, the English king was only the ruler of the land of England itself. John also appears to have been willing to sell out anyone and anything to protect himself – even the whole of England at one point in his rule. While past kings had claimed absolute authority, none of them had welded it with such a vengeance toward its people and John's ability to utilize any and all ways available to squeeze cash and revenue out of his subjects won him the reputation as a greedy and miserly leader. He used his power to strip his enemies of property and land... and what made you an enemy could be as simple as a disagreement with the king. John depended more on 'his' men than the nobility causing jealousy and anger between himself and the nobles. (At one point, John had so angered the Pope Innocent III that the pope ordered John 'deposed' from his throne and suggested a crusade to other monarchs to remove John from it- King John only got out of this by severe bribery to the Pope including an annual tribute and an agreement that the Pope was John's 'overseer'.... quite a compromise indeed ;) King John was quite willing to use any advantage he saw over his enemies or those who threatened him. Certainly few rulers have been able to get all of the most powerful of their lands to mutiny against them... that is an honor that John can share with very few.
We can thank John I for the document that we call 'Magna Carta'. The words 'Magna Carta' means 'the great charter' and it was a document that was signed into law around 1225 in England. This document was one of the ways that the English aristocracy tried in reign in the abuses of power by King John and it specified certain rights (such as the idea that a freeman could only be punished through the actual law of the land.) This document is the very first document that was ever forced onto a member of the English monarchy in an attempt to actually limit the King's powers and the monarchy's ability to punish members of the noble class for perceived (or actual) slights. It is important due to it's almost revolutionary idea that a king/monarchy should have some limit to their powers and authority... that even an absolute monarch had a few lines that they couldn't cross. King John's reaction to the Magna Carta and it's limits on his power was to sign it due to the threat of force, but then appealed to the Pope (his overseer)... who then nullified it causing great anger and war with the nobles in England. (It's a little funny how John would use anything and anyone to his advantage... and he still died a natural death. Funny, that.) While the Magna Carta might have been started due to King John's power abuses and arbitrary use of power, the next several kings had to deal as well with some form of the Magna Carta. Many of the rights listed in the document are known to us now as the basic human rights that every human being has the right to expect from their government. (whether all human beings do or not is a different story altogether...)
In addition to the Magna Carta, there were other things did the English aristocracy do to gain power over the king. The Magna Carta was reissued several times and when possible, many nobles would act as regents to young kings and simply not seem to notice that the king had grown up. During the time of Henry III, the nobles forced the king to accept a 'constitution' with an elected 15 man committee... he did fight it with a military, but was unsuccessful and had to turn over his son to the nobles to make sure that King Henry kept the rules of the new laws. He became simply a figurehead. Nobles began to discuss not just the tasks that they used to over the centuries such as taxes, but the affairs of the kingdom as well.
Edward III had quite an impact on the English government, but almost anyone might have after his father's weak and difficult reign. Luckily for England, he used much of his ambition for what the majority might have considered for the country's good. Edward III was a great military man and he managed, through his battles with Scotland and France, to form England into a formidable military power. Edward ruled for around fifty years, overcoming many difficulties including the arrival of the Black Plague and his initial coup d'état at the age of seventeen against his own regents. His ambitious claim to the French throne would begin a period of war in England with France for almost a century. Edward was very good at charming those he needed to and he also recognized that he needed to work with the aristocracy so he developed ways of pulling the nobles and the monarchy close together. It is thought that he even enjoyed working with the aristocracy. He developed and encouraged more 'peerages' and also created the 'Order of the Garter'. While King Edward fought, the Parliament would fund the wars and sign the treaties giving the English nobility an the English people themselves a full stake in the success of the monarchy and the state... a fairly new idea as most battles in the past were more about the leader and didn't cause much emotion in the populace unless it affected their lives personally.
Edward III successor was his grandson Richard II. But Richard's successor would not be of his choosing... In some ways, Henry IV gained the throne from his cousin Richard in small steps. These two men grew up together and had been great friends- they were both grandsons of Edward III. However, their minds and political wills developed very differently over time and they rarely agreed as adults. Twice, Richard II pardoned or exiled Henry Bolingbroke. King Richard's ruling style was very autocratic and with a nobility that was rich from England's wars with France and used to helping with the governing... Richard II would find that his ruling approach would not be accepted by the aristocracy. He was almost overthrown once by the nobles which included Henry (who he pardoned) and with patience, then used time and more power to overcome the nobles who had tried to revolt. Henry Bolingbroke came back from his exile when his father died and Richard II kept the lands and inheritance that should have gone to him... he was justly annoyed. With the help of several nobles and their armies, Henry was successful in his rebellion and he trapped King Richard in one of his Welsh castles. Henry Bolingbroke tricked King Edward into coming out into the open and then made him his prisoner.... and under force, Edward abdicated his throne to God alone. Henry then took power and was declared Henry IV, after stating that God had allowed him to take the throne from Richard, he was God's first choice. Henry IV then locked Richard II in Pontefract castle and allowed the deposed king to starve to death to secure the throne for himself and his heirs. This is important because King Henry helped cement the idea that England's king could simply be 'won' and not actually directly inherited... which would cause the crown to become a symbol of bloodshed and the sword for some time to come.... the 'Hundred Years War' would continue until around 1453.
(It might also be true that Richard's rule was so difficult for his subjects, especially with the heavyhandedess and the hatred that the people felt for one of his advisers (John of Gaunt) that the people were happy to help Henry take the throne. However, as John of Gaunt was dead and Henry's father... that doesn't make a lot of sense to me at least... )
Henry V may have only ruled for almost a decade, but that was a decade of great and ambitious work. King Henry had no doubt that the crown should be his and he immediately set about to bring together the country again that have been thrown into upheaval and fractured during the time of his father. He pardoned all his father's enemies and those who had fought for King Richard. He then claimed the French crown and when his claim was rejected, he gathered an army and headed to France. His conquests came close to winning him France and the peace treaty that was signed gave Henry the right as heir apparent to the French throne- he married Catherine of Valois, the French king's daughter, a few days after the treaty was signed. By the time of his death due to dysentery a few years later, England was a strong country; a country filled with people who felt strong nationalism and loyalty to the monarch, a country with 'legitimate' control of France, ruled by kings who wrote and governed entirely in English, and a country that was truly now a strong united nation-state. (This was the first time since the Norman Conquest that a government in England used English for all official and non-official documents.)
I will end by saying that Henry V is one of my favorite kings, but I think that is because I really liked his wife Catherine of Valois... or I guess I like her story and I like wondering about it and how her actions changed history for the entire future monarchy. I also find it difficult to really understand his death due to such a simple disease after all his ambition and struggle and motivation... it doesn't feel OK to me. Not that God or nature ever asked me. :D
So after these small tidbits of history, who are you most interested in learning about? If you wanted a better biography of any of these people, who would you want more information on? If you share, I might just oblige you.... :)