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Known as “William the Lion”, this Scottish king notched up 48 years and 360 days on the throne from 1165 to 1214 (not to be confused with William I of England, whose reign started a hundred years earlier). He was posthumously given the nickname “Lion” because his standard was a red lion – the same one that is now incorporated into the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom. As well as being King of Scotland, he was also Earl of Northumberland, but had to give up that title to Henry II of England, which would cause William to spend much of his reign fighting to get it back. He joined the Great Revolt against Henry and later clashed with Henry’s son John as well. Another Scottish monarch that spent his reign fighting the English.
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In case you can’t tell from the lack of vowels, this is a Welsh king who reigned for around 45 years from 1195 to 1240. The length of his reign is disputable not just because it was so long ago, but also because Wales was not a united kingdom at the time. Llywelyn was a prince of Gwynedd and he had to fight for control of that territory before he could extend his reach any further. He was established as the leader of Gwynedd by 1200 and next annexed Powys in 1208. By the time of his death in 1240, much of Wales was under his control either directly or through a ruler who recognised Llywelyn’s power. But his position as leader of Wales was never formalised, and historians debate just how “great” he really was.
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Queens seem to be made of stronger stuff than their male counterparts, with three of them appearing on this list (not a bad ratio, considering there have only been 6 official queens since 1066) and Elizabeth herself was keen to prove this point, famously saying “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king”. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and consequently fell in and out of favor with the King depending on who he was married to at the time. The chances of her becoming monarch were always slight, with Henry constantly trying to produce a male heir and even when the line of succession was allowed to run through Henry’s daughters, she was still second in line behind her older sister Mary (their brother Edward had also taken his turn on the throne but had died young). Still, Elizabeth’s reign is rightly known as a glorious one, with the defeat of the Spanish Armada led by her brother-in-law (these brother-in-laws are not to be trusted!) as well as exploration of the New World and, of course, the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe. She died in 1603 at the age of 69, after 44 years, 127 days on the throne.
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One of the kings to have a particularly difficult reign was David II of Scotland, who had to defend his country against English forces, backed by his brother-in-law Edward III during the Second Scottish War of Independence. He was forced into exile in France and captured by the English before the Treaty of Berwick finished the conflict in 1357 (the English had another war to be getting on with, and that would take up a hundred years). The war lasted for a large part of David’s reign, which was from 1329 to 1371 (41 years, 260 days) so it was a troubled time for a king that started his reign when he was only 5 years old. He also had to deal with the problem of his infertility, which failed to provide an heir to the throne. He was married to “Joan of the Tower” at the age of just 4 but they produced no children in the 34 years they were married. His next marriage was similarly fruitless, leading him to divorce his new wife on the grounds of infertility (but she had already borne children in her own first marriage, suggesting the problem was all his). He died suddenly, aged 46 – a king that reigned for most of his short life but never very happily.
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The English king that saw no problem in supporting a war against his brother-in-law (the aforementioned David II) himself came from a complex family background. Edward was the son of Edward II, whose reign was largely a disaster and who was eventually overthrown by his own wife and her lover. The 14-year-old Edward was crowned king after his father’s forced abdication but the power remained with his stepfather-of-sorts Roger Mortimer until Edward deposed him at the age of 17 and his reign began in earnest. It would last 50 years and 147 days, if you include the Mortimer period, and was seen as a time of prosperity and stability, even though it covered both the Black Death and the start of the Hundred Years’ War. He also outlived his beloved son, the Black Prince, and so on Edward’s death, the throne passed to his grandson, Richard II. Sadly his reign would be even more turbulent than Edward II’s.
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Henry III had even more longevity than his great-grandson Edward III. With a reign that stretched from 1216 to 1272, he managed 56 years and 29 days on the throne, despite not being as popular as his son Edward I (or Edward III, either). But he succeeded his father, King John, whose unpopularity is legendary so anyone must have seemed like a good king after that. He was another very young king, taking the throne at 9 years old, in the middle of a civil war between the King and the barons (the First Barons’ War). His reign started out in difficult times and continued to be difficult, with more trouble from the barons in 1263 (unimaginatively called the Second Barons’ War). He died at the age of 65, having been through 56 years of difficulties.
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Rather like the first Queen Elizabeth, the current Queen was born unlikely to take the throne. As the granddaughter of George V, she was always a princess but as the child of his second son, Albert, it would have taken an extraordinary event to push her into the line of succession. That extraordinary event took place in 1936 when Edward VIII, George V’s elder son, abdicated, passing the throne to his brother. Albert – now George VI – ruled for 16 years before his death in 1952 passed the throne on again to Elizabeth. Again, like the first Elizabeth, her reign has seen amazing advances – the conquest of Everest, the moon landings, the birth of the internet and more. Her record currently stands at 61 years and 336 and if she survives until next September, she will take the lead as the longest-serving British monarch ever.
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Meanwhile, George III is notable as the king who was mad, as immortalized in the film “The Madness of King George III“. He suffered from a kind of psychosis – possibly porphyria- which may have been related to the inbreeding common amongst the royal families of Europe at the time. It was also possibly triggered by the death of his youngest and favorite daughter, Princess Amelia. He was declared unfit to rule in 1810 and so his son (later George IV) took over as Prince Regent. George III reigned from 1760 to 1820, so had an impressive reign of 59 years and 96 days but was only actively ruling for a part of that. His reign had a mixed military record, with his armies defeating Napoleon but losing to the colonists in America who wanted independence for their new nation. He was a popular king at the time, but ultimately is remembered for the insanity that overtook him towards the end of his life.
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Some of our monarchs reigned over England only, others over the whole United Kingdom. But only one has different lengths of reign depending on which country you’re talking about. James IV of Scotland was on the throne for a mighty 57 years, 246 days from 1567 to 1625 but partway through that, he picked up the English throne as well for no better reason that there was no-one else to do it. After all of Henry VIII’s effort to ensure a male line, his three children had each died childless. So when the last of them died – Elizabeth I- the throne passed to Henry’s great-great-nephew James. His reign in England (as James I) was only averagely long, at 22 years but his early accession to the Scottish throne (our youngest yet, at a year and a month) ensures that he makes the list . He is also notable as the monarch that Guy Fawkes tried to assassinate in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which is marked every day in the UK with fireworks and bonfires.
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Which leads us to the one woman currently in her way – the legendary Queen Victoria.Along with the two other queens on the list, Victoria oversaw a time of innovation – where railways were invented and built, and the welfare state was first dreamed of. She reigned from 1837 to 1901 – that’s 63 years and 216 days. She built an empire, visited Great Exhibitions and saw great works of literature published for the first time. She may have a reputation as being “not amused” but she was a great monarch, and Britain’s longest-serving one.