Episode 1 William the Conqueror, 1066 – 1087 – By leaving his fortune and name to his illegitimate seven year old son, William, Robert the Magnificent out maneuvered the Norman barons who sought to usurp his power. In doing so, he placed his young heir in mortal danger. However, the assassination attempts and conspiracies against him instilled the boy duke William with a ruthless and cunning sense of survival. Growing up amongst traitors and murderers, he soon learned to meet force with force. The Norman invader who ruthlessly suppressed the defeated Anglo-Saxons and imposed law and order in Britain’s first experience of a centralised state bureaucracy. Immortalised in the Bayeux Tapestry, William satisfied his thirst for power and land, cataloging his conquests in the Domesday Book, and did much to influence the positive development of England.
Episode 2 Henry the Second, 1154 – 1189 – The son of a French duke and English princess, the Plantagenet princeling who learned his statecraft and the arts of war in 17 years of bloody in-fighting with his cousin Stephen before succeeding to the throne. During this time he had become a battle-hardened leader, but also a distrustful and power-hungry regent, a weakness that would be his undoing. With the help of Thomas Beckett he restored the rule of law in chaotic England, but made the mistake of appointing his high minded friend Archbishop of Canterbury, only to find him a stubborn defender of ecclesiastical independence rather than an obedient ally.
Episode 3 Edward the First, 1272 – 1307 – The 13th century monarch who ruthlessly overran Wales when Llewelyn refused to pay him tribute. He then turned his attention to the Scots in an equally brutal effort to suppress opposition from the Gaelic fringes and create a truly “united kingdom”. Nicknamed “Longshanks” on account of his imposing height, Edward had a reputation for piety following a crusade in the Holy Land, but the inscription on his tomb, “The Hammer of the Scots”, is a reminder of this warrior king’s single minded aim to unite the British Isles under his rule.
Episode 4 Henry the Fifth, 1413 – 1422 – Immortalised by Shakespeare as the hero of Agincourt, who rallied his depleted troops against superior forces, pressing English claims to French territories. After pulling off a brilliant victory against overwhelming odds, Henry attempted to end the impasse of the Hundred Years War by signing the Treaty of Troyes and marrying French princess Catherine, but died of dysentery seven weeks before he was due to accept the Gallic throne.
Episode 5 Richard the Third, 1483 – 1485 – Nigel Spivey assesses the reputation of Richard III the 15th century prince of the House of York depicted in Shakespeare’s highly colored propaganda play as the crook backed villain who murdered the Princes in the Tower and seized the throne. His death at Bosworth Field brought public rejoicing, but he may not deserve the bad press he has always received, in view of the fact that he helped erase the excesses of his indolent brother Edward IV’s reign and acted decisively when his bickering family brought the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
Episode 6 Henry the Eighth, 1509 – 1547 – Chronicles the colorful career of larger than life monarch Henry VIII, whose long reign was characterized by opulence and excess, including the maintenance of 50 royal palaces and 1,000 courtiers and servants. Henry managed, however, to create the conditions necessary for peace and prosperity with feats of consummate diplomacy and, in the quest for a male heir, transformed Britain into a Protestant country by dissolving the monasteries and severing all links with Rome in an attempt to unite Church and State.
Episode 7 Elizabeth the First, 1558 – 1603 – Of all England’s Kings and Queens, Elizabeth was the most famous. She was imperious, cunning, sexy, ruthless, and feminine. She has become the star of movies, books, television. She was above all supremely successful. Yet mysteries remain. How did she manage to prevail against such enourmous odds in a mans world, and why did she never marry? Was it because she was not fully a woman, or was it because to Elizabeth her virginity was always the key instrument of her power?
Episode 8 Charles the First, 1625 – 1644 – The life and reign of Charles I, whose execution in 1649 on charges of high treason represented a turning point in British history. Aloof and inept, Charles I sealed his own fate by attempting to enforce religious conformity across England and Scotland. His introduction of a highly contentious prayer book led to all out war, dividing king and parliament and paving the way for a military coup.
Episode 9 Charles the Second, 1660 – 1685 – The flamboyant ruler who restored the monarchy after 12 austere years of Cromwell’s Protectorate. A patron of the arts, sciences and architecture, he oversaw many major developments in British culture despite the ravages of the plague and Great Fire of London. The father of countless children, he failed to produce a legitimate heir and was succeeded by his brother James II in 1685 after a dramatic deathbed conversion to Catholicism.
Episode 10 George the Third, 1760 – 1820 – Explores the life of Britain’s longest reigning male monarch, George III, who created the position of Prime Minister in an effort to introduce consensus politics and a cabinet government to his subjects. In his day he was considered by many to be a wise and just ruler, although the Act of Union with Ireland caused more problems than it solved, but it is a cruel twist of fate that he is best remembered as a madman due to an inherited disease which struck him in old age.
Episode 11 Victoria, 1837 – 1901 – Victoria, one of Britain’s best known monarchs, whose long reign encompassed a period of huge industrial and social change which ultimately saw the country transformed into a dominant world power. The queen, however, is most often remembered for her four decades of mourning following the death of her consort Prince Albert in 1861.
Episode 12 Elizabeth the Second, 1952 – Present – The final programme in the series brings the history of the British monarchy up to date with a profile of Queen Elizabeth II. Given that Britain has lost an empire and no longer rules the waves, Nigel Spivey reflects on how much influence the Queen retains, especially when celebrities such as the Beckhams live in equal luxury and inspire greater public fascination.