The ascension of Charles III to the British crown means there’s a new heir for the first time in 70 years. Charles might be the most regal of names, but big things tend to happen when there’s a William sitting on the throne.
From the conqueror of England in the 11th century to the last German Kaiser, this collection looks at the most notable historical royals named William and their greatest and most infamous deeds.
Kingdom: England, Duke of Normandy
Lived: 1028 - 1087 (d. age 59)
Reign: 1066 - 1087
Nicknames: The Conqueror, The B*stard
- Won the Battle of Hastings
- Conquered England
- Built Windsor Castle
- Completed the Domesday Book
Reign in a nutshell: One of the most impactful rulers in history. William’s early career was wrapped up in securing his hold on the Duchy of Normandy. With no shortage of rivals to deal with, William honed his skills on the battlefield to become France’s most powerful noble. But he had bigger dreams in store.
When Edward the Confessor passed without a legitimate heir, William insisted the late king had promised him the crown and arrived with a powerful army to press his claim in 1066. After emerging the victor in the climactic Battle of Hastings, he was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066. He spent the early years of his reign consolidating his hold on England while still keeping a close eye on matters in Normandy.
His reign saw a profound shift in the culture, language, and religion of England as well as a new style of castle. Windsor Castle, whose construction began around 1070, is still occupied to this very day. The end of William's reign was marked by yet more power struggles with the nobility, and even with his own son Robert. One of his last major acts was to order a comprehensive survey of the kingdom, recorded in the Domesday Book (the Middle English spelling of Doomsday).
The exact nature of William's passing in 1087 while on campaign in France is disputed. He may have simply fallen ill, though one account claims that his large belly - he became obese in later life - protruded so far that he was slain by the wooden and steel pommel of the saddle. Another fanciful account suggests that his body later exploded. Whatever the truth of that particular anecdote, there’s little denying his impact on history was similarly incendiary.
Kingdoms: The United Kingdom, Hanover
Lived: 1765 - 1837
Reign: 1830 - 1837
Nicknames: The Sailor King, Silly Billy
- Abolition of slavery
- Poor Law
- The Reform Crisis
- Great Reform Act of 1832
Reign in a nutshell: William ascended to the throne at the ripe old age of 64 when his elder brother perished without a surviving heir. The youngest of three brothers, it's fair to say William never expected to become king. He served in the Royal Navy and saw action in the American Revolutionary War, and was even the subject of a kidnapping plot by George Washington that was ultimately foiled.
As king, he cultivated a more down-to-earth persona than the lavish excesses his brother had been infamous for. His coronation was a modest affair, as it came in the midst of significant political unrest. The incoming Whigs sought to pass a series of sweeping reforms to make political representation fairer. Some so-called rotten boroughs had constituencies as small as seven voters.
William’s time on the throne was brief but filled with important milestones. As well as the Great Reform Act of 1832, which passed after a great struggle, slavery was abolished in the colonies the following year. Despite previously speaking out against abolition, William gave his ascent to the law and many other key reforms over the course of his seven-year reign.
He perished in 1837 without a legitimate heir. He fathered 10 illegitimate children with long-time mistress Dorothea Jordan, but none of the children by his wife Adelaide survived infancy. The crown then passed to his niece Alexandria, who reigned as Queen Victoria.
Lived: 1142 - 1214 (d. age 71/72)
Reign: 1165 - 1214
Nicknames: The Rough, The Lion (posthumous)
- Taken prisoner by English
- Regained the north and independence
- Secured the independence of the Scottish Church
- Oversaw civil and legal reforms
Reign in a nutshell: William was one of the longest-reining monarchs in Scottish history. He assumed the throne after the early demise of his sickly brother Malcolm. With his imposing stature and shock of red hair, the young William was a stark contrast to his mild-mannered, deeply religious brother. The youthful lion got himself into a spot of bother when he personally led the charge at the Battle of Alnwick and was promptly taken prisoner.
English King Henry II occupied Scotland and forced William to sign a deeply humiliating treaty to acknowledge Henry as his overlord and foot the bill for the occupation of Scotland. The terms of the treaty remained in place for 15 years until Richard the Lionheart (lions were a popular royal symbol back then) took the English throne and needed some cash to go on a crusade. William bought back his kingdom’s freedom for a kingly sum in 1189.
After a difficult start, William matured into an effective ruler who made the best of a tricky diplomatic situation. His support of the church led to papal recognition and secured the independence of the Scottish church. That important distinction would greatly aid future independence efforts. He also oversaw civil and legal reforms and saw off Norse incursions in the north of Scotland.
His posthumous moniker, “The Lion,” referred to his royal banner, a red lion rampant on a yellow background, still in use today. In his own lifetime, he was better known as “The Rough.”
Lived: 1056 - 1100 (d. age 44)
Reign: 1087 - 1100
Nicknames: Rufus ("the red")
- Defeated Scottish King Malcolm III
- Solidified Welsh border
- Regained control of Maine, France
- Killed in a hunting incident
Reign in a nutshell: William II, known as William Rufus for his red hair or ruddy complexion, is better known for his mysterious end and scandalous personal life than for many of his accomplishments as king. In all fairness, this may have been a reflection of his lax attitude toward the church and tendency to let bishop vacancies stay open to claim church funds for himself, rather than his inability to rule. Note for aspiring rulers: don't get on the wrong side of the people most responsible for writing your legacy.
William had some successes in securing the fringes of his kingdom. Frequent Scottish raids were brought to a halt with the defeat of Malcolm III. In addition, William regained Maine, France. He never married or sired a child, leading to rumors about his sexuality, though no evidence exists to support or refute those claims.
His controversial reign was cut short by a hunting incident in the New Forest in southern England. He was shot by an arrow, but whether intentionally or accidentally is a matter of some debate. Regardless, his younger brother Henry assumed the throne, and thanks to the foundations laid by William, enjoyed a prosperous reign.