The 10 Shortest Reigns in English History | History Hit

The 10 Shortest Reigns in English History

Harold Godwinson (King Harold II) places the crown on his own head. 13th century artwork.
Image Credit: Cambridge University Library via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The late Queen Elizabeth II was the longest reigning monarch in British history. At the other end of the scale, some monarchs of England before the United Kingdom emerged had short reigns. Some incredibly short.

Here are the ten shortest reigning monarchs in English history.

10. Harthacnut (17 March 1040 – 8 June 1042 = 813 days or 2 years, 83 days)

The son of Cnut the Great, who had ruled Denmark, Norway and England until his death in 1035, Harthacnut initially became King of Denmark. Norway was lost to Magnus I, and Harthacnut’s half-brother Harold I Harefoot was King of England. When Harold died in 1042, Harthacnut succeeded in England, but died just over two years later in 1042, aged around 24. He is the last Dane to rule England.

Frequently unwell, possibly suffering from tuberculosis, Harthacnut may have realised he would not live long. In 1041, he invited his maternal half-brother Edward (later the Confessor) to his court and made him heir to the throne. When Harthacnut died suddenly the following year, apparently whilst standing making a toast at a wedding, there was some suspicion Edward might have been behind it as he became the new King of England.

14th century depiction of King Harthacnut

Image Credit: British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Richard III (26 June 1483 – 22 August 1485 = 788 days or 2 years 57 days)

At number 9 is one of England’s most famous and controversial kings, Richard III. Despite only reigning for 2 years and 57 days, he has been the focus of much debate and revision over the centuries since his death at the Battle of Bosworth, which ushered in the Tudor age.

Richard became king in 1483 after his nephew, Edward V was declared illegitimate. Although many believe this story to be a fabrication by Richard, there is some evidence that proof of Edward IV’s bigamy was shown, examined, and accepted in London at the time. Richard faced threats throughout his reign. Although it is often thought that these came on the basis of a belief he may have murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, it is also possible that his legal and social reforms were unpopular with the gentry classes and that this led to their uprisings.

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8. Harold II Godwinson (5 January 1066 – 14 October 1066 = 282 days)

The son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, Harold controversially succeeded Edward the Confessor in January 1066, but failed to see out the year as king. He was Edward’s brother-in-law and claimed the old king placed the kingdom into his care on his deathbed. Harold’s right was threatened first by Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, whom Harold defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September.

The next threat came from William, Duke of Normandy. He claimed Edward had promised him the crown, and that Harold had made an oath to respect that while spending time in Normandy. After Stamford Bridge, Harold sped south and confronted William at the Battle of Hastings, ultimately losing his life and ending the Anglo-Saxon period in England with the Norman Conquest.

The idea of a child monarch is today unthinkable. In the Medieval period it was relatively common.
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7. Edmund II (23 April 1016 – 30 November 1016 = 221 days)

Edmund II, known as Ironside because of his martial ability, succeeded his father Æthelred the Unready in April 1016. Along with the crown, he also inherited his father’s problems with Viking incursions, particularly led by the Danish king Cnut the Great.

During his brief reign, Edmund fought five battles against the Danish forces, ending in defeat at the Battle of Assandun on 18 October. To create peace, Edmund and Cnut agreed to divide England. Edmund would rule Wessex and Cnut the rest. Within weeks, Edmund died in his mid-twenties. Cnut took control of all of England and exiled Edmund’s family, including his two sons, Edward the Exile and Edmund Ætheling.

6. Empress Matilda (7 April 1141 – 1 November 1141 = 208 days)

Controversial, I know. Empress Matilda engaged in a conflict with her cousin King Stephen known as The Anarchy over the right to rule England. Matilda had been designated heir to her father, Henry I, but when he died in 1135, Stephen had slipped in and had himself crowned. Matilda sought to regain her right, and invaded England in 1139. On 2 February 1141, Stephen was captured by Matilda’s forces, led by her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, at the Battle of Lincoln.

On 7 April, the clergy met at Winchester and proclaimed Matilda as Stephen’s replacement. She would be crowned in London and use the title Lady of the English, because a king was a man, and a queen was a king’s wife. This harked back to Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, Alfred the Great’s daughter who had ruled the kingdom of Mercia.

On the eve of her coronation, Matilda was driven from London by a force raised by Stephen’s wife, confusingly also named Matilda. Robert, Earl of Gloucester was captured at Winchester and a prisoner exchange was arranged. On 1 November, Stephen emerged from captivity to take up his crown again, ending the brief reign (or at least nearly reign) of Empress Matilda.

Contemporary miniature of Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda, from the ‘Gospels of Henry the Lion’

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Edward V (9 April 1483 – 26 June 1483 = 78 days)

Edward V became the second Yorkist King of England on the death of his father, Edward IV, on 9 April 1483. Edward IV’s death, just short of his 41st birthday, was unexpected, and his heir was just 12 years old. What happened next is mired in uncertainty and controversy. The outcome was that Edward IV’s marriage was declared bigamous and all of the children of it therefore illegitimate. Edward V’s uncle became King Richard III.

The fate of Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, known together as the Princes in the Tower, is unknown. Many believe they were murdered on the orders of their uncle Richard, but there is no real evidence to support that view. This writer believes neither boy was ever in danger from Richard III and both survived his reign.

4. Edgar II (15 October 1066 – 17 December 1066 = 63 days)

Another controversial entry. Edgar II, more commonly known as Edgar Ætheling (an Anglo-Saxon word equivalent to prince, meaning something like ‘throne worthy’), is a fascinating man who led an incredible life. In the aftermath of King Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings, the Witenagemot, a kind of forerunner of Parliament, elected Edgar as the new king. He was in his mid-teens at the time.

William the Conqueror had other ideas. He eventually forced recognition of his position as king and was crowned on Christmas Day 1066 at Westminster Abbey. Edgar would rebel against William several times, somehow securing forgiveness on every occasion. As well as a spell in Italy, Edgar would take part in the First Crusade before returning to cause trouble for Henry I. He was still alive in 1125, but precisely when and where he died is unknown.

The Capetians of France and the Angevins of England waged war, made peace, and intermarried. The lands under English control once reached to within a few miles of Paris, and those ruled by the French, at their peak, crossed the Channel and encompassed London itself.
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3. Sweyn Forkbeard (25 December 1013 – 3 February 1014 = 40 days)

We started this list with Harthcnute, son of Cnut the Great. At number 3 is Cnut’s father, Sweyn Forkbeard. Neither came close to Cnut’s almost 20 years on the throne of England. Later sources claim that Sweyn, who was King of Denmark and of Norway from 986, began to invade England in response to the St Brice’s Day Massacre of Danes in England on the orders of Æthelred the Unready. In 1013, he invaded with the intention of taking Æthelred’s throne.

Although he met resistance, most notably in London, many submitted to Sweyn. As he power grew, the capital also surrendered. Sweyn was declared king on Christmas Day 1013. Æthelred and his sons, including Edward, later the Confessor, went into exile. Sweyn died on 3 February 1014, just 40 days after his victory. The cause of death is unclear, some sources claiming murder, others a riding accident. Æthelred returned, but Sweyn’s son Cnut would soon take up his father’s claim.

2. Ælfweard (17 July 924 – 2 August 924 = 16 days)

Ælfweard of Wessex is not usually included in lists of kings, but he perhaps deserves to have his story told. Ælfweard was the son of Edward the Elder, the son of Alfred the Great who ruled from 899 to 924. Ælfweard was Edward’s second son, and three of Edward’s other sons are included in lists of kings – Æthelstan, Edmund I, and Eadred.

However, some sources claim that Ælfweard succeeded on his father’s death on 17 July 924 only to die just over a fortnight later and be buried with his father at Winchester. Was he king, or wasn’t he? We may never be sure, but if he was, it was only for 16 days.

1. Jane Grey (10 July 1553 – 19 July 1553 = 9 days)

The shortest reign of England belongs to another disputed monarch, but there is good reason to include her in our list. Lady Jane Grey was a great-granddaughter of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Raised a Protestant, she shared the views of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI. When he died on 6 July 1553, there were questions about the succession. Henry VIII’s Act of Parliament meant the crown should go to his oldest daughter, Mary. As she was a Catholic, her accession was unacceptable to Edward.

In his will, Edward named Jane as his heir. She was proclaimed as England’s first queen regnant on 10 July 1553, but removed by an overwhelming display of military force by Mary just nine days later. Known as the Nine Days’ Queen, Jane is usually left out of lists of monarchs. Mary initially imprisoned her but when a plot emerged to champion Jane, Mary ordered her execution on 12 February 1554, probably aged 16.

Close up of Lady Jane Grey from ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by the French painter Paul Delaroche

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Matt Lewis