Ten Things We’ve Learned About Britain’s Monarchs in the Past Ten Years
From Richard III to Mary, Queen of Scots, and George III, these were the royal revelations detailed during the 2010s
In recent years, the British royal family has filled the headlines as the Windsors hosted lavish weddings, welcomed petite princes and celebrated landmark milestones like Elizabeth II’s sapphire jubilee. But over the course of the 2010s, historians, archivists, archaeologists and other researchers gave the press, ever hungry for more monarchial coverage, plenty of reasons to write about the queen’s historical predecessors, too.
From the unearthing of Richard III’s bones under a Leicester parking lot to George IV’s surprising affinity for Jane Austen novels, the rediscovery of long-forgotten archival documents and the identification of Henry VII’s probable marriage bed, these were ten of the most fascinating revelations related to Britain’s royals in the 2010s. Entries are listed in chronological order, as determined by the start date of each individual’s respective reign.
The famously chaste Henry VI may have had a sex coach.
Pious, peace-loving and weak-willed, Henry VI (who ruled from 1422 to 1461) was the polar opposite of his father, the heroic warrior king Henry V. More interested in prayer and scholarship than governance and warfare, the Lancastrian king was disastrously ill-suited for the business of ruling. Political pitfalls aside, Henry was reportedly so devout that he even had an aversion to nudity. As royal chaplain John Blackman later wrote, a nobleman who hoped to gain favor by presenting a group of bare-bosomed dancers to the king failed to impress; instead, Henry “spurned the delusion, and very angrily averted his eyes, turned his back upon them and went out of his chamber, saying ‘Fie, fie, for shame.’”
Documents and royal household accounts detailed by historian Lauren Johnson earlier this year suggest the king’s fear of intimacy extended to the marriage bed and was so debilitating he had to be coached by trusted courtiers who joined the royal couple in their private bedchamber.
“It’s entirely possible that it had reached a certain point where it perhaps became necessary to make clear to him what he should be doing,” said Johnson to the Observer’s Dalya Alberge in February 2019.
Henry wed French princess Margaret of Anjou in April 1445, but the couple failed to welcome an heir until eight years later, in October 1453. According to the Ryalle Boke, a contemporary text on royal protocol, Margaret’s maidservants waited outside of the couple’s bedchamber when they were set to “lie together,” but her husband’s chamberlain or squire often followed the pair inside.
“The Ryalle Boke does not make it clear at what point they left, leaving open the intriguing suggestion that they remained to make sure the marriage bed was being properly used,” writes Johnson in The Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI. “Was the king perhaps not performing his conjugal duties?”
A recently discovered letter suggests Elizabeth Woodville, England’s “White Queen,” died of the plague.
One of England’s most unlikely queen consorts, Elizabeth Woodville (1464–1483) won the crown by capturing Edward IV’s heart, allegedly catching his eye while waiting under an oak tree in hopes of convincing the passing king to restore her sons’ inheritance. The years she spent enthroned beside her husband are relatively well-documented, as is the tumultuous period directly following his untimely death in April 1483. (Richard III seized the throne from Woodville’s sons and heirs, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, who then disappeared into the depths of the Tower of London. Her daughter Elizabeth of York became queen of England after marrying Henry Tudor, who usurped the crown just two years after Richard’s accession.)
But Elizabeth—dubbed the “White Queen” in recognition of her links with the House of York, which touted a white rose as its emblem—ended her days in obscurity, living quietly at Bermondsey Abbey from 1487 until her death five years later. Given the simple nature of the dowager queen’s later years, the fact that her funeral was a modest event isn’t wholly surprising. Still, a 500-year-old letter found in England’s National Archives earlier this year offers an alternative explanation for the muted affair, suggesting Elizabeth died of the plague and was buried unceremoniously to avoid spreading the contagion.
As records specialist Euan Roger reported in a 2019 Social History of Medicine article, a 1511 letter penned by Venetian ambassador Andrea Badoer attributes Henry VIII’s fear of the plague and other deadly illnesses to the fact that “the Queen-Widow, mother of the late King Edward, had died of plague, and the King was troubled.” The main individual who fits this criteria is Elizabeth Woodville, Henry VIII’s maternal grandmother. While she died long before Badoer wrote his missive, Roger argues that the ambassador was referring to a “historical fear [that] starts to shed light on Henry’s own emotional state.”
The remains of Richard III spent centuries hidden under a car park in Leicester.
Without question, the most significant royal discovery of the decade was the recovery of Richard III’s (1483–1485) remains, which were unceremoniously dumped into a shallow grave following his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485. Researchers unearthed the ruler’s skeleton while searching a Leicester parking lot in fall 2012. The following February, university archaeologists positively identified the remains as that of the 15th-century king, stating, “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”
The discovery ignited a firestorm of controversy, adding new layers of complexity to the centuries-old debate over Richard’s reputation. Alternately viewed as a deformed despot who murdered his nephews to clear his path to the throne and a capable yet much-misunderstood monarch, the polarizing king’s legacy has been shaped by Tudor propagandists—including William Shakespeare, whose history play Richard III cemented the unflattering portrait of an ugly, tyrannical usurper in popular imagination—and the more recent rise of Ricardians, self-proclaimed admirers who seek to rehabilitate his image.
Analysis of Richard’s remains has debunked the myth of a hunchbacked king, showing he suffered from adolescent-onset scoliosis but was able to disguise the slight discrepancy in his shoulders’ height with clothing. The tests also revealed his cause of death: two glancing blows to the head, including one that almost sliced the back of his skull off. Additional insights revealed by the assessments range from the king’s rich diet of heron, peacock and other delicacies to his probable appearance and bad habit of grinding his teeth.
An oak bed believed to have been commissioned for the wedding of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York spent 15 years in a British hotel’s honeymoon suite.
Henry VII’s (1485–1509) claim to the English throne was tenuous at best. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was descended from a line of royal bastards barred from ever wearing the crown, while his father was the product of a scandalous union between a lowborn Welsh courtier and the dowager queen of England, Catherine of Valois. To strengthen his hold on England, the first Tudor king married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth of Woodville. With the couple’s wedding, the two warring houses of Lancaster and York were finally reconciled, their clashing rose emblems united under the red-and-white Tudor rose.
Antique dealer Ian Coulson discovered a potent—and surprisingly well-preserved—symbol of the pair’s marriage largely by chance. In 2010, he purchased an oak poster bed online for £2,200. Purported to date to the Victorian era, the bed had spent 15 years in a hotel’s wood-paneled honeymoon suite and nearly ended up in the trash.
After examining his new acquisition, Coulson realized it was much older than previously believed—marks left on the bed frame appeared to be more consistent with medieval hand tools than mechanized saws, and the extent of repairs evident far outpaced that of most Victorian era furnishings. Perhaps most intriguing, carvings seen on the imposing oak creation alluded to prominent Tudor iconography, hinting at the bed’s royal provenance.
Coulson spent the next nine years gathering evidence to support his theory. The results of this investigation constitute a convincing case: DNA analysis of the oak frame identify the wood as originating from a single tree felled in central Europe, while microscopic traces of ultramarine paint (at the time, the pigment was more expensive than gold) recovered from the headboard testify to its one-time owners’ high status. Carvings on the bed depict the red rose of Lancaster and white rose of York, dating its commission to the early months of Henry’s rule, when the red-and-white Tudor rose had yet to be adopted. Images of Adam and Eve bear marked similarities to early portraits of the king and queen, and fertility symbols seen on the frame allude to the importance of producing heirs to secure the Tudor dynasty’s longevity.
If Coulson’s hunch proves correct, the bed represents one of the only Tudor furnishings known to survive the mid-17th century English Civil War.
“If this isn't the royal bed, what else can it be?” Coulson said to National Geographic. “So far nobody has come up with any convincing possibilities.”
The sailors employed on Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, detail the diversity of 16th-century England.
The Mary Rose is perhaps best known for famously sinking as the Tudor king watched in horror at the Battle of Solent in July 1545. But new research conducted by the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth offers insights on a lesser-known aspect of the ship: its surprisingly diverse crew.
DNA and isotope analysis of the remains of eight Mary Rose sailors suggest two hailed from the Mediterranean. Two others had ties to North Africa or the Middle East. Per a press release for the museum’s “The Many Faces of Tudor England” exhibition, a crewmember researchers dubbed “Henry” was genetically similar to contemporary Moroccans and Algerian Mozabite Berbers. But oxygen isotopes in his teeth indicated he grew up in a rainy area of Britain, making it likely he received this genetic material from previous generations. Meanwhile, isotope analysis of a different skeleton nicknamed the Archer Royal showed he grew up in inland North Africa or southern Europe.
As Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story, told the Guardian’s Nicola Davis earlier this year, Tudor England was home to a small population of black sailors, craftsmen and musicians. Many of these individuals (or their ancestors) migrated to England via Spain or Portugal. Onyek Nubia, author of Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins, echoed this sentiment in an interview with Davis, explaining that England hosted individuals of many ethnicities.
The Mary Rose findings, he said, are “not a one-off thing.”
An unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, was painted over following her execution in 1587 and replaced with the likeness of Tudor courtier Sir John Maitland.
In the few contemporary or near-contemporary portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1567), known to survive today, the Stuart queen’s fiery red hair starkly contrasts with her delicate porcelain skin. More often than not, she wears a square-necked gown, her hand resting at its waist and her head tilted slightly to the side.
These signature characteristics helped researchers identify the subject of an unfinished portrait, found beneath another 16th-century painting in 2017, as Mary. According to a press release from the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), which conducted the research in conjunction with the Courtauld Institute of Art, conservators discovered the long-hidden likeness while conducting an X-ray analysis of a 1589 portrait of Tudor courtier Sir John Maitland.
The examination revealed lead white pigment believed to represent the contours of a woman’s face, dress and hat. Based on comparisons with two miniatures of Mary, as well as other authenticated portraits, the researchers were able to match the mysterious sitter with the controversial queen.
Painted by Netherlandish artist Adrian Vanson in 1589—two years after Mary’s execution on the orders of her cousin, Elizabeth I—the Maitland portrait may have been overlaid onto the earlier design in response to the Scottish queen’s death and subsequent unpopularity.
Still, curator David Taylor said at the time, the canvas’ very existence “shows that portraits of the queen were being copied and presumably displayed in Scotland around the time of her execution, a highly contentious and potentially dangerous thing to be seen doing.”
Elizabeth I’s “idiosyncratic” handwriting identified her as the scribe behind a long-overlooked translation.
The last Tudor queen, Elizabeth I (1558–1603), was known for her scholarly prowess. But no one realized she was the author of a long-overlooked translation of Tacitus’ Annals, a history of the Roman Empire from Tiberius to Nero, until recently. As John-Mark Philo of the University of East Anglia wrote in the Review of English Studies last month, annotations on the text, which has been housed at London’s Lambeth Palace Library for centuries, match the queen’s “strikingly idiosyncratic” handwriting.
Although a professional scribe wrote out the full text of Elizabeth’s translation, the English queen scribbled corrections and additions in the margins herself. These markings, written in a decidedly sloppy hand, find the letters “m” and “n” reduced to horizontal lines, and “e” and “d” into disjointed strokes.
Per a press release, Elizabeth’s handwriting deteriorated as the demands of monarchy increased.
“The higher you are in the social hierarchy of Tudor England, the messier you can let your handwriting become,” explained Philo in the statement. “For the queen, comprehension is somebody else’s problem.”
The translation’s chosen subject—a scene in which a Roman general’s wife, Agrippina, calms her husband’s troops—offers further evidence of its royal provenance: In a move mirroring Tacitus’ heroine, Elizabeth famously addressed her army prior to its clash with the Spanish armada in July 1588.
“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” the queen told her soldiers, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”
George III considered abdicating during the Revolutionary War.
Of the roughly 350,000 documents available via the Royal Collection Trust’s digital Georgian Papers Programme, perhaps the most intriguing is an abdication speech drafted by George III (1760–1820) in March 1783, just months before the end of the Revolutionary War.
Covered in corrections and strikethroughs, the never-deployed draft reveals the Hanoverian king’s increasing disillusionment with the business of governance. Stuck in gridlock exacerbated by politicians’ bitter partisanship, George viewed the impending loss of the American colonies as a consequence of Britain’s “internal crisis,” according to historian Arthur Burns of King’s College London. As a result, wrote Burns in January 2017, the speech is centrally concerned with Britain’s changing political sphere, discussed in relation with the king’s own reign and the institution of monarchy as a whole, rather than the embarrassing defeat across the pond.
“In 1783, faced by what appeared momentarily an irresolvable crisis, he judged that he could no longer be of ‘utility’ to his kingdom,” explained Burns. “In that circumstance, his own understanding of what it meant to be a good king meant that it was time for him to go.”
George never followed through with his proposed abdication. Instead, the Hanoverian king remained on the throne, ruling first Great Britain, and then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, until his death in 1820. Although George is often described as an out-of-control despot, the trove of digitized documents showcases a different side of the much-maligned monarch, from his scholarly interests to his methodical mode of ruling and fears for his son’s future.
“Hailed in history books as Britain’s longest-reigning king, George III was often looked at but rarely seen,” wrote Sara Georgini for Smithsonian magazine in January 2017. “Until now.”
George IV was one of the first customers to purchase Jane Austen’s debut novel, Sense and Sensibility.
George III’s wayward son, the future George IV (1820–1830), was one of Jane Austen’s earliest fans. As documented by a 15-shilling bill of sale discovered in 2018 through the Georgian Papers Programme, the then-prince regent purchased a copy of Austen’s debut novel, Sense and Sensibility, on October 28, 1811—a full two days before the book was first publicly advertised.
“As the first documented purchase of an Austen novel, it raises all sorts of delicious speculations, not to mention some entertaining irony,” historian Sarah Glosson told Georgini in Smithsonian. “The prince, while reviled by many, would have been a tastemaker in his social circle, so the fact that he likely had one of the very first copies of Sense and Sensibility—perhaps in his hands before anyone else—is remarkable.”
Known for his profligate lifestyle, George assumed control in 1811, reigning as prince regent on behalf of his ailing father before taking the crown himself upon the elder George’s death. He had expensive tastes, purchasing artworks, books and furniture in excess, and accrued monumental debts through his “vast expenditure on palaces and pictures, militaria and mistresses, parties and pageants”; by the time of his accession, the king had become “a byword for senseless extravagance and a national joke,” according to historian Steven Parissien.
Austen herself was no fan of the Hanoverian royal, though she likely appreciated the boost in stature afforded by his patronage. (Georgini notes that Austen’s novel found its way to the prince regent through local connections: Her publisher knew bookseller Becket & Porter, who in turn sent the novel to the prince regent.) Still, when invited to dedicate a novel to George, the author grudgingly acquiesced, addressing the 1815 work, Emma, to “His Royal Highness the prince regent.”
Queen Victoria’s late-in-life confidant, an Indian servant named Abdul Karim, kept a diary cataloging his much-criticized friendship with the queen.
In 1887, a young man named Abdul Karim was presented to Queen Victoria (1837–1901) as a “gift from India.” Over the next 14 years, Karim—originally brought to England as an attendant tasked with translating conversations between the Hanoverian queen and Indian dignities during her golden jubilee celebrations—and Victoria became unexpectedly close friends.
Much to the chagrin of the court, as well as the queen’s own family, Victoria lavished gifts and titles on Karim, granting him extravagant favors and elevating him to a status rarely reached by servants. In addition to having homes at multiple royal residences, Karim received a land grant in his home city of Agra. He sat for multiple portraits and accompanied the queen on trips, much like another royal favorite, John Brown, had before him.
The court’s hatred of Karim can be attributed largely to the racism prevalent in 19th-century Britain. Following Victoria’s death in January 1901, her children immediately sent Karim back to India. They burned as much of the pair’s correspondence as they could find and did their best to hide their mother’s beloved munshi, or language tutor, from history. But one key record of the unusual relationship survived: a personal diary kept by Karim and handed down across generations. In 2010, Karim’s descendants shared this journal with historian Shrabani Basu. Her account of the duo’s friendship, titled Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant, spawned a 2017 movie starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal as the queen and her companion.
As Kristin Hunt wrote for Smithsonian magazine in September 2017, “Karim’s diary gave incredible new details on an unexpected, intense friendship that crossed class and racial lines—one that began over a delicious plate of chicken curry.”