05 February 2011

Succession Series: Born to Be King?

(For background on this series, click here.)

Princess Elizabeth of York was the world’s darling from the moment of her birth in 1926. She was an instant celebrity gracing the covers of magazines with photos of her released at regular intervals. Stories about her seemed to enchant people. How did she dress? What were her favorite toys? How did she turn the gruff old King George V into a tiny girl’s playmate?

Despite this fascination, absolutely no one dreamed she would one day become queen. She was born #3 in the line of succession after her father, Albert Duke of York, and his older brother, Edward Prince of Wales. It was expected that the charming, thirty-something Prince of Wales would marry and beget more heirs. Furthermore, the Duke and Duchess of York would probably have a large family (he had six siblings; she had nine), some of whom would surely be boys who would supplant their older sister.

It seemed that the delightfully celebrated little Princess Elizabeth was destined to grow up as a cadet member of the royal family, probably living a comfortable and pleasant life in the country with her horses and dogs.

Fate, however, intervened.

First, her parents had only one more child, another little princess. Then, when Elizabeth was nine years old, her beloved “Grandpapa England” died. Her now forty-something uncle became king. Since he was still a bachelor, Elizabeth moved up to #2 in the succession. Elizabeth’s darling uncle was spending less and less time with her, but it wasn’t the duties of kingship keeping him away; it was his growing obsession with his married mistress Wallis Simpson. By the end of the year, he had decided that Wallis was more important to him than the throne. He abdicated, Elizabeth’s dad became King George VI, and little Elizabeth was suddenly and unexpectedly the heir presumptive of the British Empire. Just 16 years later, her father’s premature death made her queen at the tender age of 25.

Since the Act of Settlement in 1701, only nine people were born in the direct line of succession. Only half of them inherited the throne. Additionally, five indirect heirs (including Elizabeth) eventually became monarchs. Here is a breakdown:


Frederick Prince of Wales (1707-1751)
Born during the reign of Queen Anne, Frederick was the fourth generation direct heir under the guidelines of the recent Act of Settlement. He was #4 after his father (the future George II), his grandfather (the future George I) and his great-grandmother Electress Sophia of Hanover. Sophia (1630-1714) and her descendants had been selected as the only legal heirs of Queen Anne, who had no surviving children. Sophia died shortly before Anne and so did not inherit the throne. George I decided to leave his seven-year-old grandson in Hanover, which meant Frederick grew up separated from his family. By the time, his father became king in 1727, a deep rift had developed and Frederick was left in Hanover for a while longer. He was eventually allowed to come to England, he got married and he fathered nine children. However, he predeceased his father by nine years and never made it to the throne.

Princess Augusta of Wales (1737-1813)
The first child of Frederick Prince of Wales, Augusta was born at #2 after her father. She would have become queen, if only she had had no brothers. As it was, she remained a direct heir for less than a year, when she was supplanted by her little brother George. More brothers and their descendants pushed her further down the line, falling as low as #18. She was even superseded by her own granddaughter. How is that possible? Augusta’s daughter, Caroline of Brunswick, married her oldest nephew, the Prince of Wales, who was #1. So, their only child, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, was #2. At the time of her death, Augusta had moved back up a couple of spots to #16.

King George III (1738-1820)
As the first son of Frederick Prince of Wales, George took his older sister Augusta’s place at #2. When his father died in 1751, the 13-year-old prince moved to #1 and eventually became king at the age of 22. Despite being quite a moral stickler (or perhaps because of it!), his giant brood was full of rapscallion sons and overprotected daughters. Sadly, the long-lived George descended into mania likely caused by a metabolic disorder called porphyria and spent the last decade of his reign in oblivion isolated from his large family. When his precious granddaughter Princess Charlotte Augusta’s death caused a succession crisis in 1817 and his beloved wife died in 1818, George was completely unaware of either ocurrence.

King George IV (1762-1830)
George was the first of King George III’s plentiful progeny and the first person to be born at #1 since the Act of Settlement. Young George loved dressing well, building elaborate homes and having a rollicking good time with older, particularly married, women. In 1785, he married the twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert. This secret marriage invalidated his claim to the throne because he not only lacked the king’s permission, but Maria was a Catholic. By 1795, George's debts were massive; unaware of the illegal wife, the king agreed to pay George's debts if he married. So, he married his first cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. In a reaction more violent than when Henry VIII met his “Flanders mare”, the two instantly hated each other, but they miraculously had one child, Princess Charlotte Augusta, exactly nine months after their wedding. George spent the next 22 years trying to get rid of Caroline and even locked her out of his coronation in 1820. He reigned for 10 years. Technically, his bigamous second marriage was also invalid.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1996-1817)
Princess Charlotte Augusta was the “People’s Princess” of her day. Born at #2 to warring parents, she spent her childhood living in her own household often ignored by both of them and at other times being used as a weapon in their battle with each other. Although hoydenish, Charlotte Augusta’s youth, beauty and unaffected manner set her apart from her dissolute father and his equally disreputable brothers in the minds of the people. She gained even more popularity when she refused to marry the man her father selected because the marriage would require her to live outside of England. When she enacted a kind of reverse fairytale by marrying a man of her own choosing, Charlotte Augusta sealed her position in the hearts of the people. Her death in childbirth devastated the nation and caused a succession crisis. Suddenly, her middle-aged uncles were on the hunt for royal brides, dreaming of capturing the crown for themselves. Charlotte remained #2 throughout her entire life. [Read more about Charlotte Augusta]

Princess Victoria The Princess Royal (1840-1901)
Once the dynastic dust settled after Princess Charlotte Augusta’s death, a young Queen Victoria married and started her own family. Her first child was a bright and beautiful girl whom she named for herself. Vicky was born #1 and is the only person born #1 who did not ascend the throne; she was supplanted by a brother less than a year after her birth. A princessly prodigy, Vicky was the beloved favorite child of her father Prince Albert, far surpassing the heir who never managed to live up to his parents’ expectations. Like the current queen, Vicky fell in love when she was just an adolescent. At 17, she was allowed to marry her sweetheart and the two remained practically inseparable until his death in 1888. Vicky survived another 13 years, but was too ill with cancer to travel to England for the death and funeral of her mother in 1901. She died later that year. After numerous brothers who had numerous children and grandchildren, Vicky had fallen from #1 to #28.

King Edward VII (1841-1910)
Queen Victoria’s firstborn son displaced his older sister at #1. Named Albert Edward in honor of his father and grandfather. He was not clever like his older sister and he got into some adolescent romantic entanglements, which led both of his parents to conclude that he was morally lax. When an already-ill Prince Albert traveled in terrible weather to chastise the prince for one of these peccadilloes, he contracted a fatal illness and died at the age of 43. Queen Victoria blamed her son. For the next four decades, she denied him any responsibilities, leaving the fun-loving prince with no useful occupation. By the time he became king in 1901 at the age of almost 60, his fast-living ways had likely taken their toll. Opting not to use his father’s name, (I wonder why—hmmm?) he reigned as King Edward VII for only nine years.

Prince Albert Victor The Duke of Clarence (1864-1892)
Prince Albert Victor was the first child of the future King Edward VII. Born at #2, he was everything Victoria and Albert had feared his father was. Albert Victor’s tutors were unable to teach him anything and his service in the navy and then the army yielded no achievements. Even more inclined to fast living than his father, Albert Victor rutted in dissipation, likely contracting venereal disease and even being one of the suspects for Jack the Ripper, which is highly unlikely. All that the prince had going for him was his good lucks and amiable charm. When a royal bride was found for him, he obligingly fell in love and proposed. Weeks later, however, he died from pneumonia just days after his 28th birthday. [Read more about Albert Victor]

King Edward VIII (1894-1972)
Born at #3 behind his father, the future King George V, and his grandfather, the future King Edward VII, Prince Edward was handsome and charming. Dispatched on numerous international tours, he attracted huge crowds and the newfangled newsreel cameras everywhere he went. There was even a song written about him called, “I Danced with a Man Who Danced with a Woman who Danced with the Prince of Wales.” Behind the scenes, however, he was not a happy person. He really did not like the formality of being royal and the limitations it placed upon him. He also enjoyed spending time with married ladies, indulging in a series of affairs kept secret from his adoring public. Meanwhile, the media constantly speculated about which princess he would marry. His father grew increasingly distraught, famously and accurately predicting that after his own death, the prince would ruin himself in a year. Once he became king in January 1936, he decided he would marry his married mistress Wallis Simpson. The British press had kept the affair quiet, so when the news broke, the nation was stunned. Almost as soon as they heard about it, the king abdicated. It was December 1936. Now The Duke of Windsor, he married Wallis and they lived among the international jetset. He died in 1972.


Five eventual monarchs were not born directly in the line of succession. Three of them were younger brothers of the direct heir and two of them, including the current queen (described above), were nieces.

King William IV (1765-1837)
Born at #3, William The Duke of Clarence was the third son of King George III. After joining the navy, he settled down with his mistress and they had 10 children. In the meantime, William’s two older brothers had each married princesses but only had one child between them, Princess Charlotte Augusta. When she died, it was clear that the now 52-year-old sailor prince would eventually become king. He found a royal bride, Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meinengen, who was exactly half his age. Having fathered so many children already, William undoubtedly expected to have numerous royal heirs of his own, but none of Adelaide's children lived. When he ascended the throne in 1830, he accepted his next brother the late Duke of Kent’s only child, Princess Victoria, as his heir. However, he feared dying before the little girl reached 18--he wanted her to rule in her own right instead of under her mother’s regency. Stubborn until the end, he lived just long enough, dying a month after Victoria’s eighteenth birthday.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
When King George III’s only legitimate grandchild unexpectedly died in 1817, the old king’s unmarried, middle-aged sons acquired royal wives and started trying for an heir. [Read about the Royal Baby Race] Son number four, Edward The Duke of Kent and his new wife had Victoria 12 months after the wedding. She was #5 and it seemed unlikely they she would eventually ascend the throne: both her Uncle William and her father would probably have a son who would supplant her. But, her father died before her first birthday and Uncle William had no surviving legitimate children. Victoria became queen at 18 and soon embarked, although unintentionally, on creating a huge dynasty. Although she repeatedly said she didn’t want a large family, she also famously enjoyed her husband’s “company.” The first of their nine children was born ten months after the wedding. When she died in 1901, she was the head of a family that included more than 70 living descendents

George V (1865-1936)
The second son of the future King Edward VII, George was born #3. The good-natured George was believed to have a positive effect on his charming but slow-witted older brother, Prince Albert Victor. So, whatever Albert Victor did, George was sent along too—including being placed in the navy when he was only 10 years old. Fortunately, George adored his older brother and he made a pretty good navy officer. George never had the slightest thought about being king one day. His world changed forever when Albert Victor died in 1894. George was named The Duke of York and encouraged to marry his late brother’s fiancĂ©e, which he did. Sixteen years later, he became king. George lived until 1936, devoted to his wife, his family, his nation and his stamp collection.

George VI (1894-1952)
Born on the anniversary of his great-grandfather Prince Albert’s death, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George was the second son of the future King George V. He was #4 following his grandfather, father and older brother. Instead of seeing his unfortunate birthday in a negative light, Queen Victoria surprised everyone by declaring that it was a blessing for him. It’s unclear whether she was right. Bertie, as he was called, developed severe digestive problems following years of abuse by a nanny. He also suffered from knock knees, which were corrected by years of wearing painful metal braces. These two circumstances combined with emotionally distant parents likely contributed to his famous stammer. Bertie was no one’s idea of a king. When it became clear that his brother, King Edward VIII, was going to abandon the throne, some even speculated that Bertie and his daughters might be passed over in favor of one of his younger brothers. But Bertie had an unshakeable sense of duty. Upon his accession, he chose to use the last of his names in honor of his late father. Throughout World War II, he and his young family were symbols of stability and continuity. Unfortunately, Bertie exacerbated his lifelong ill health heavy by smoking heavily, which led directly to his death in his mid-50s.

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