Hidden Talents of British Kings and Queens

We read all about the marriages, the love affairs, the battles and the politics - but what did our British monarchs like to do in their spare time, and what were they good at?

I delve into the little known talents of our British Kings and Queens...

Robert The Bruce - history 
Perhaps not what he is famous for, but Robert the Bruce studied a lot of history. According to the biography of the king by Michael Penman, a parliamentary briefing document from around 1364 states that the Scottish king "used continually to read, or have read in his presence, the histories of ancient kings and princes, and how they conducted themselves in their own times, both in wartime and in peacetime; from these he derived information about aspects of his own rule." (1)

Henry VIII - tennis 
Think of Henry VIII and the popular image is of a bloated man decked out in heavy ermine furs and tucking into some late night pudding. But the younger Henry was admired for his athleticism. Not only was he skilled at tournaments and jousting but he was a good tennis player, too. In 1519, when Henry was around 28-years old, an ambassador remarked that "it was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play; his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture." (Hampton Court Royal Palaces)

Queen Elizabeth I - dancing
Not only did she fend off a Spanish invasion, excommunication from the pope and headed religious reform, Elizabeth I also had time for hobbies. She was known for playing chess, backgammon and penned a few poems but the talent the ambassadors all remarked on was her dancing. She especially loved to dance 'la volta' which was thought of as quite a risqué dance, involving being lifted up into the air by your partner. A painting exists where she's dancing this dance with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and this post has some interesting analysis of it. 

Mary Queen of Scots - embroidery 
Mary was a keen embroiderer and while she was held in England by Queen Elizabeth I, she created a number of intricately embroidered designs, which are now held at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, although replicas have been made using sixteenth century techniques and these are kept in the Royal Apartments of Edinburgh Castle. 

Charles I - chess
Many monarchs enjoyed a game of chess - it seems to have provided a mental escape from the stresses of ruling, and Charles I, as a keen player, certainly thought so. It's said that he was playing chess when he learned he had been captured in 1637 and he took his amber-inlaid set to the scaffold for his execution in 1649. The chess board was rescued, passed down generations and was recently sold for £600,000.  

George IV - art collecting 
George IV lived lavishly and rarely within his means. Good food, women, wine and buildings - but he also collected trendy pieces of art and it's because of him that many are in the Royal Collection today. He invested in works by Stubbs - one of these was a portrait of George in 1791, on horseback - as well as Sir Joshua Reynolds and others. 

Queen Victoria - sketching 
A little known fact is that Queen Victoria was an avid sketcher. She drew pencil and watercolour sketches of her children, dogs and the landscape at Balmoral. You can see her beautifully detailed sketches - which date from the 1850s - in the Royal Collection

Edward VIII - flying
He only ruled for one year before abdicating at the end of 1936, but Edward VIII was the first monarch to ever hold a pilot's licence. He was photographed when he was Prince of Wales, in a Bristol F2B Fighter in Italy in 1918 and a New York Times article from January 1936 reported that he was 'a capable pilot' and had six planes. 

1. Michael Penman, Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots. Yale University Press, 2014. p16. 

Also - I searched for hours looking for details of hobbies and talents of the Medieval Welsh princes to include them here but couldn't find any. Only political details of their leaderships. If you know of any sources I can take a look at to give some personal details of the princes let me know and I'll update this post and include a link back to you or your social media to say thanks. 

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