On September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch – having been on the throne for over 63 years and seven months. She surpasses the record of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. How do medieval monarchs match up?
The answer to who had the longest reign is not as easy as it sounds. We could say that Bernard VII ‘the Bellicose’ had the longest reign of any medieval ruler at 81 years, 234 days. However, he was the Lord of Lippe, a tiny German state. It would not be until the 16th century that the rulers of this state would take on the grandiose title of Counts.
Therefore, we might want to look for a medieval ruler of something more like a kingdom. We have two Byzantine emperors that had reigns of over 60 years – Constantine VIII, who ruled from 962 to 1028, and Basil II, who ruled from 960 to 1025. One small problem here – for much of this time, they weren’t ruling at all, or were co-emperors. Their father, Romanos II, had named his two young sons co-emperors, but when he died in 963, their mother married a Byzantine general who became Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. The two sons would have to wait for his reign to end, as well as the reign of the man who murdered Nikephoros, before they were able to take real power in the year 976, which put their true reigns at about 50 years. It should be noted that Basil was the brother who was interested in governing, while Constantine preferred a life of partying and hunting.
Our next candidate for the longest-reigning ruler of the Middle Ages would be James I, King of Aragon, Valencia and Majorca, Count of Barcelona and Lord of Montpellier from 1213 to 1276. He was only five years old when his father Peter II was killed at the Battle of Muret. Regents would administer his kingdom for another 10 years before James reached his majority, but the rest of his reign would include many military victories, earning him the nickname ‘the Conqueror’.
We also have a Norwegian king – in fact, the first King of Norway, that reigned for about 58 years. This was Harald Fairhair, who was said to have unified Norway into one kingdom. His dates, from the years 872 to 930, are based on writings by Scandinavian historians from the 12th and 13th centuries, and there is much doubt that this is the correct period.
What about the shortest reign? Again, this is not as simple as it seems. There is an Emperor ‘Yuan’ of the Northern Wei of China that ruled for a few hours on April 1, 528. However, there is a strange story behind this reign. Yuan was born on February 12th of that year, the only child of Emperor Xiaoming. At this time, the true power of the dynasty belonged to Xiaoming’s mother, the Empress Dowager Hu. She and Xiaoming hated each other. When this ‘Yuan’ was born, the Empress Dowager announced that it was a baby boy, although in fact, Yuan was a girl.
Before the truth about this matter emerged, Xiaoming died by poisoning on March 31st, and Empress Dowager Hu declared the 50-day-old baby girl Yuan the new emperor, while she herself would be the regent. Then a few hours later the Dowager changed her mind and installed Xiaoming’s two-year old cousin on the throne. Once the details of all these palace intrigues became known, an angry general marched his troops into the capital and massacred the officials, including the new Emperor and the Empress Dowager. Most historians do not include the girl as an official emperor, not only because of her very short reign, but also because she was placed on the throne as an imposter.
We do have another Chinese ruler who reigned for less than a day – an Emperor Modi, who was on the throne on February 9, 1234. Modi was a general in the army of Emperor Aizong of Jin. When they were besieged by the Mongols inside the city of Caizhou, Aizong abdicated and Modi was chosen to become the new emperor. However, while he was having his own coronation, the Mongols were able to breach the city’s defences. Emperor Modi would then be killed as Caizhou fell.
If we look for the shortest reign of a medieval European king, we would find that it belonged to John I of France, who reigned for five days. His father, Louis X, had died on June 5, 1316, while his wife Clementia of Hungary was pregnant. On November 15th she gave birth to John, who immediately became the King of France. Sadly, the infant died five days later, and is known as John the Posthumous. However, you might believe the story of Giannino di Guccio that he was the real King John and was switched at birth with an imposter, which adds another wrinkle into that story.
We hope that we cleared things up for you ;)
Top Image: Coronation of Basil as co-emperor, from the Madrid Skylitzes