A Domino factum est istud; hoc est mirabile in oculis nostris is what the newly acceded Queen Elizabeth I actually said upon learning of her sister Mary I’s death the previous day (allegedly she received the news while in the garden of Hatfield House, standing under an oak tree, which survives and is marked by the plaque above, but in view of the November date this is perhaps unlikely). ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes’ (Ps 118:23), a harsh reaction to say the least to the death of a close family member.
But royal families are not like other families. Mary had hated and distrusted her sister, whom she risibly (Elizabeth resembled their father Henry VIII far more strongly than Mary did) believed to be no true daughter of the late King but rather the Queen’s bastard, and for the last four years Elizabeth had been imprisoned and under perpetual threat of execution. She had also had to watch helplessly as Mary subjected English foreign policy to Spanish interests, at the cost of Calais and much else besides, and at home terrorised and misgoverned the land Elizabeth so dearly loved.
Her choice of Biblical quotation perhaps becomes more understandable in those circumstances. There was much to do to set things right, and now at last she could set about the doing of it, beginning with ordering an immediate halt to the heresy burnings, a command which was almost the next thing to pass her lips. I do not intend to recite all the achievements of her reign, or delve into the profound part she played in shaping England into the nation it became and remains. I will say though that for me she stands alongside Alfred the Great as both a saviour and re-inventor of England, and when I began to do these charts her accession date was the only and obvious choice for the first one.
In turn this led to me learning far more than I had known of the other sovereigns of the day, and of the general situation of Europe then, and I began to see how rewarding this task could be. The doyen of those sovereigns was Gustav I, a Swedish nobleman who led a successful insurrection against the Danish king Christian II, seen with reason as a foreign tyrant by the Swedes (the Danes not long after decided they too had had enough of him, raising his uncle Frederik I to the throne in his stead), and was then elected king himself. A nation-shaper of a similar stamp to Elizabeth, unlike previous kings elected in such circumstances Gustav established a lasting dynasty, and indeed with only three exceptions every Swedish king since has been of his blood. He was also like Elizabeth a Protestant, one of only four in the chart, having broken with Rome shortly after Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII did, but unlike him moving his country in a Lutheran direction.
As Emperor, Ferdinand I was last of the 1558 monarchs to accede before Elizabeth I herself, though this had not been the plan; legal delays in the Empire’s institutions held up the formalisation of his brother Karl V’s abdication for years. This made little practical difference as Ferdinand had long been ruling the German dominions anyway as his brother’s regent, and had since 1531 been King of the Romans as his brother’s designated heir. He was already King of Hungary and Bohemia, by right of both marriage and election, so laying the foundations of the future Habsburg Monarchy, and would have come into the chart even if the legal process had ground on longer still. His election as King of Bohemia was in October 1526, of Hungary in December of that year, and of Croatia in January 1527. The next accession was not until 1533, so on any of these bases he would be ranked second, as he is (he actually appears first in the chart, for reasons explained below).
A champion of the Counter-Reformation, it is questionable whether he was so for reasons of conviction or policy; many people at the time and since thought him a secret Protestant. I have no informed opinion on this, but at least he was not a zealous persecutor, and had indeed been one of the main architects of the Peace of Augsburg. His leanings if any towards the reformed religion were certainly not as blatant as those of his son Maximilian II, who argued for clerical marriage, eschewed Mass for years at a time, and refused the last rites on his deathbed. Ferdinand himself is reported to have also refused those rites, though this is not certain. And perhaps 'not certain' is exactly what he wanted people to be about his true religious feelings.
The next most senior sovereign was Ivan IV of Russia, the sole Orthodox sovereign then reigning, and along with Elizabeth, Mary I of Scotland and Philip of Spain by far the best-known of his contemporaries in the modern era. There are many legends of Ivan the Terrible’s cruelty and tyranny, most of which seem to be true. His sobriquet nevertheless was given on account of the awe rather than the fear that he inspired, and he was certainly a man of great ability, intelligence and vision, reminiscent in both his cruelties and his achievements of the later Peter the Great. Russia under him began to modernise and engage with the other European nations, and at the same time expanded eastwards, millions of square miles in Siberia and elsewhere being added to the already vast Russian territory during his reign.
The third of the Protestants, Christian III of Denmark, was also the next of the 1558 monarchs to accede. Whereas his father Frederik I had pursued policies of toleration but remained at least nominally Catholic, Christian was known to be zealously Lutheran. His accession therefore marked the start of a two-year civil war, as Catholic interests attempted to restore his cousin Christian II (whose faith was that of a weathervane, it depended on which way the wind was blowing, but he was presently Catholic, having become so to gain support for an earlier, failed attempt at restoration). Christian III triumphed, and imposed the reformed faith which it follows to this day upon Denmark, and likewise his other realm of Norway and the Duchy of Holstein which was also subject to him.
The next most senior of the sovereigns is famous for not being Protestant. Mary, Queen of Scots, was in fact no Catholic zealot, unlike her cousin and namesake in England, but was disinclined to change the faith in which she grew up to suit the by now firmly Protestant Scottish people. In the end it was not her faith but her inadequacies as a ruler and (as all, with good reason, believed) murder of her second husband that led to her deposition and flight to England and 17 years of captivity, ending in execution after she was caught red-handed in a plot for Elizabeth’s overthrow and murder.
Henri II of France is overshadowed in historical memory by his wife Catherine de Medici, understandably so as after his undistinguished 12-year reign ended with his early death she spent 30 turbulent years at the centre of French affairs, and despite her mixed historical reputation showed herself to be in many ways a great woman. Her husband had been, like his father, a vigorous persecutor of Protestants. His reign was otherwise chiefly notable for the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, in which France at last gave up its Italian ambitions, taking in exchange modest territorial gains elsewhere, including the permanent retention of Calais.
Zygmunt II August of Poland, the last male of the Jagiellon dynasty that over the preceding two centuries had reigned variously in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Bohemia, was a ruler of a very different stamp, wise and statesmanlike. Although a sincere Catholic he was able to steer a peaceful course for his country, where the Reformation was at that time very strong, avoiding both persecution and civil strife. He was also the architect of the Union of Lublin which established the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A little-known ruler, perhaps, but far from an insignificant one.
Felipe II, enshrined in English historical demonology as Philip of Spain, was indeed the country’s great enemy of the day, for which fervent Catholicism along with the pursuit of Spanish interests was his main motivation. To be fair to him, he had for years pursued a policy of moderation towards Elizabeth, and was furious with Pope Pius V for his hasty bull of excommunication. However, English piracy on Spanish shipping and support for Protestant rebels in the Netherlands slowly turned him into an implacable enemy, culminating in the great Armada of 1588 which resulted in such a triumph for English naval arms, instead of leading to the subjection and forcible reconversion of the country that Felipe II had planned.
Jeanne III was the ruler of the unimportant rump state of Navarre. She was not herself unimportant, however, a courageous, strong-minded and scholarly woman who was a leading light of the French Reformation, as well as the mother of Henri IV, one of France’s greatest Kings. She then was the fourth and last Protestant monarch under consideration. The last monarch to look at is the doomed Sebastião (pronounced Sebastiow, -ow as in ouch, S- unvoiced) of Portugal.
Sebastião, who became King aged just three and died aged only twenty-four, is the most inbred person to appear in any of these charts. His parents were not merely first cousins, but double first cousins, his paternal grandfather being the brother of his maternal grandmother, and his maternal grandfather likewise the brother of his paternal grandmother. That left him with only four great-grandparents instead of the usual eight, and his great-grandmothers were sisters and his great-grandfathers first cousins! That they were once removed is some mitigation, but not much.
However, Sebastião did not seem to be affected in any way by this very considerable degree of inbreeding. Considered bright and attractive, during his brief adult reign he showed both industry and imagination. He had never known his parents, his father having died before he was born and his mother having returned to Spain shortly after giving birth to him, and was raised largely by Jesuits. The religious fervour this imbued him with combined with his innate romanticism to lead to his early death in battle on what he saw as a Crusade against the Moors in Morocco. As his body was never recovered legends of his survival and future return as Portugal’s saviour inevitably grew up, persisting for centuries as he acquired a King Arthur-like status in the Portuguese imagination. Perhaps had he lived he might indeed have proved a great King, his early reign certainly showed promise, but it was not to be.
Those were the monarchs, what of their relationships? These, as complex and diverse as the stories of the monarchs of the day, are set out below in a single chart with an addendum. The addendum is the relationships of Gustav I of Sweden, who as a Swedish noble had descents from ancient Scandinavian royalty and was able to be connected either by or through them to his fellow sovereigns, but only very remotely.
His exile from the main table is due to the chart being slightly too large to post in its entirety. As all but three of his relationships have to be regarded as examples rather than actual nearest, he was the logical choice to show separately. After the chart, its key (which does not feature only Catholics as one would expect at this date, since two people in it, the two Grand Princes of Lithuania, were out-and-out pagans) and the table for Gustav I comes a table of statistics, shown in place of the normal statistical summary, and a note on posterities which, I promise, will not be nearly so long as this introduction.
For an explanation of how to read the chart, click here.