British kings and queens

The story of the British monarchy

A map of Britain in about 802A map of Britain in about 802 After the Romans withdrew from Britannia in around AD 408, the Britons organized themselves into small kingdoms. They needed to protect themselves from invaders such as the Picts from beyond Hadrian's Wall in the north, the Scots from Ireland and Germanic tribes from the European continent. King Arthur may have been a leader of one these kingdoms during this period, although he is more likely to have been a legendary figure. The peoples who later invaded and settled in Britain started to form new kingdoms of their own, for example, the Angles in Mercia and East Anglia. But some ancient British kingdoms, such as Strathclyde, survived. By 650, Britain had become a patchwork of kingdoms. A few, including Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, became dominant, by means of warfare or through marriages between ruling families. To resist the invading Vikings in the 9th century, however, the British kingdoms were forced to unite.

Kenneth MacAlpin is crowned king in 843Kenneth MacAlpin is crowned king in 843

Scottish monarchs

Before the 9th century AD, Scotland was occupied by five different peoples. The Picts lived in to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde. The Scots, who had arrived from Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries, ruled Dalraida in the west. The Angles occupied Lothian, the ancient Britons held Strathclyde, and, in the ninth century, the Vikings started to settle in Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and the far north. The unification of these different peoples began in the mid-ninth century, when Kenneth MacAlpin became king of both Picts and Scots.





King Offa of Mercia (757–796)King Offa of Mercia (757–796)

English monarchs

By the early 600s, the invading Anglo-Saxons had established seven main independent kingdoms in England. The seven—Kent, Sussex, Wessex in the south, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia in the midlands, and Northumbria in the north—continually fought each other for power. Northumbria dominated at first, then Mercia. After the death in 796 of the Mercian king Offa (who had married his daughters to the kings of Wessex and Northumbria and had established supremacy over England south of the Humber), Wessex became the most important kingdom and gave a united England its first kings.


Union of the Crowns royal badgeUnion of the Crowns royal badge

Union of the Crowns

Conflict between Scottish and English monarchs persisted over the centuries, and deepened in the late 13th century, the time of the Scottish Wars of Independence, until the beginning of the 17th century. It was through the Stewart dynasty that the two thrones of England and Scotland—and later their governments—came to be united. A “Marriage of the Thistle and the Rose” (after the symbols of Scotland and England) took place at Stirling Castle in 1503 between King James IV of Scotland and Princess Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England. This union of the Scottish and English royal families eventually led to the the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when a Stewart (or Stuart) succeeded to the throne of England. He was King James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England.

The Stuarts were monarchs of both England and Scotland, but the countries remained separate kingdoms. It was more than a century later, during Queen Anne's reign, that the union between England and Scotland took place. From then on, a British Parliament, including MPs from both England and Scotland, sat at Westminster, and there was a common flag and coinage. Scotland, however, kept its own established Church and its legal and educational systems. After the Treaty of Union came into effect on 1st May 1707, the United Kingdom had a single monarch.


The Treaty of Union, 1707The Treaty of Union, 1707

A people known as the Jutes, who came from Jutland (now mainland Denmark), founded the kingdom of Kent in the 5th century. The earliest known king of Kent was Aethelberht (589–616). Christianity first came to Britain when the monk Augustine arrived in Kent in 597. Canterbury, which was Aethelberht’s capital, has been the centre of Christianity in England ever since.

King Offa of Mercia was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred the Great. He gained control over Wessex and East Anglia and established dominance in the southeast—although Northumbria remained beyond his grasp. He is famous for building Offa’s Dyke, an earthwork barrier extending along the entire border between his kingdom of Mercia and Wales, a total of 240 km (150 miles).

King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, was the first king to rule over a kingdom roughly corresponding to the present borders of England.

From 1296 until the Scottish victory at the Battle of Bannockburn 1314, Scotland was effectively ruled by King Edward I of England, then by his son Edward II.

The Act of Settlement of 1701, which excluded Roman Catholics, or those who married Catholics, from the English throne, is still in force today.

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