The sovereigns of England : pre-conquest
The monarchs of Great Britain
Early kings in Ireland
The princes of Wales
In modern times, we are used to being led by politicians who have been elected to power, who have some contraints put to the amount of power they can exercise, and who are themselves subject (to some extent at least) to the Rule of Law. It was not always so. At one stage in England, not least after Henry VIII took over as Head of the Church, the status of the Monarch reached almost that of a deity, someone whose word was effectively Law. For most of the last thousand years, however, the powers that the Kings & Queens were actually able to use depended on their individual personalities & talents, on what other personalities were around, and on the circumstances of the time. When one of Henry VIII’s successors overplayed his hand, it led to rebellion & revolution.
There are some significant differences between the historical roles of the Sovereign in (post Conquest) England and the roles in Scotland and (before the imposition of English rule) Ireland. Having originally derived their powers by conquest, the Kings & Queens of England owned the country and everything in it, including the people. This gave them what was in theory unlimited power. In early Scotland and Ireland, however, the sovereign was just one of several kings, albeit he was the High King (‘Ard Righ’). This meant, for example, that a Scots King had “to lead through, with and on behalf of his lesser kings” and so could not be an absolute tyrant. Until James VI took over the crown of England, Scots kings were called ‘King of Scots’ rather than ‘King of Scotland’. The distinction was intended to evidence that he was a leader who ruled through his acceptance by the people in accordance with the Rule of Law. Much of this distinction was often more theoretical than practical but the difference between the roles of the sovereign in England and Scotland did have direct consequences, in particular:
1. Whilst the English sovereign had a standing army which was ever ready to do his bidding, the Scots kings had no army of their own but had to seek the co-operation of their underlords who would draw men off their land as and when necessary. The English monarchs were able to build up a powerful army but the Scots monarchs were not. England became a powerful nation; Scotland did not.
2. In England there was a clearcut chain of command whereas the absence of a sense of ‘absoluteness’ of the King’s power in Scotland meant that each time a new sovereign came to the throne he had to impose his authority over various powerful lords. Except for Mary, who reigned between James V and James VI, there were 6 consecutive Kings in Scotland called James. They came to the throne aged (about) 12, 7, 8, 15, 1, 0 (Mary) and 1 years old respectively. Each one had problems in establishing control so that the economy was constantly being disrupted. In that same period there were several young monarchs in England, and there were foreign & civil wars that caused chaos in many years, but there were enough monarchs who came to the throne old enough to have not too much difficulty in establishing their authority that England had a number of periods of relative stability in which it was able to develop its economy. England became a wealthy nation but Scotland remained poor until the stability provided by the Union had time to produce its effects.