English Monarchs

wed18apr2007—16w108d29%— 19h12m00s—0utc

Timeseries of English monarchs

I really should know better than spending the better part of three days on a whim…

I fell in love with this this graph by E.J.Marey WP when I saw it in Edward Tufte’s WP The Visual Display of Quantitative Information AM . Yes, it is ridiculously simple but that only goes to show how un-innovative most graphical displays are — how very simple improvements can go a long way.

English Monarchs

Tufte himself calls it a “superb construction”.

"This superb construction..."

What I wondered, though, was why Marey covered such a small period of time. When I looked at the huge List of English monarchs pedia I decided to take the challenge upon myself. After which it was a happy coincidence that I chanced upon Erik Zachte‘s EasyTimeline — a simple syntax in Wikipedia for crafting timelines. I don’t think I would have been able to do the graph without it: ruby scripts scraping the data from the pedias and into EasyTimeline’s syntax did most of the heavy lifting. The syntax, besides, gives the graph the tremendous advantage of being (fairly) easily editable — it’s not just a static image, it can be corrected and expanded by anyone.

Color did much to spruce the graph up, and merging reign and life into bar was an early improvement. Somewhat later came the idea of using vertical joints for broad descendancy (not just for father-son one) that made the graph much more interesting, allowing one to trace blood through the centuries. The peace/war bar I tried to bring into the design, with the Military history of the United Kingdom as a data source, but it proved unwieldy and unhelpful in such a large graph (and once every war was plotted it became an indistinct red blur). Here’s a screenshot of it.

To be honest, I didn’t give one whit about English monarchs before but it has been fascinating to study them for this graph. Once you know some history the graph starts coming alive in a way a text table simply can’t — like the line mess right after Henry VIII WP, Stephen WP and Matilda’s WP struggle and how her blood ultimately prevailed, or Ethelred the Unready’s WP very short orange bar (hence, “the Unready”).

Outliers — like Harold Godwinson’s WP weird reign, Henry VI’s WP interrupted reign (He became insane), or the shortest and longest reigns — and patterns — like how many kings had children just after they were crowned (or shortly before) or how common it was for brothers to be kings in succession — become effortlessly apparent.

Looking at Britannica, the closest to this graph they seem to have is this sparse, lackluster table. I bet hiring a designer to build a graph like this would be quite expensive — if someone ever had the idea that such a graph was needed. Wikipedia, on the other hand, got it for free — trading impact in exchange for free (both as in beer and as in freedom), (ano/pseudo))nymous work.

So next time some British kid has to study English monarchs and turns instinctively to Wikipedia — as we all increasingly do — she’ll be reading a graph conceived by a 19^th^ century French and redesigned by a whimsical Mexican.

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