‘An heir and a spare’: a brief history of the royal succession in British history

The celebrations in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II becoming our longest-reigning monarch have been characterised by a certain degree of reflection. Most commentators have looked to the past, citing the Queen’s dedication and the many events that we have overcome during her reign as evidence of her success. I think, however, that we would be just as well looking to the future; that perhaps the most overlooked yet important aspect of her many years on the throne is the fact that we know with almost complete certainty the identity of our next three monarchs, ensuring that the British monarchy should survive stably well into the next century. It is this aspect, I think, that would be most envied by the monarchs of our history. Hereditary succession has had the potential to stabilise an otherwise fractious realm, when the fact of a settled line of heirs has been a comfortable solution; but it has also often been a major destabiliser, when a plethora of possible successors was a recipe for factionalism and civil war. This has been both because and in spite of changing political circumstances or the perceived role of the monarchy itself in the wider state. A comparative study of the issue of succession reveals much about the insecurity right at the very heart of one of our oldest institutions.

Edward the Confessor and the Norman Conquest

Bayeux Tapestry

“Here Harold made an oath to Duke William” – scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, created to commemorate the battle, c.1070s.

In January 1066, Edward the Confessor, King of England, died childless. He had, however, allegedly taken steps during his lifetime to settle the succession by choosing an heir.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted that Edward had “committed the kingdom to a distinguished man, Harold himself, a princely earl”. This was Harold Godwinson, Earl of Anglia, a man whose power assured that he was proclaimed king in the aftermath of Edward’s death. His accession did not go unchallenged. The Norman court writer William of Poitiers claimed that Edward had “already appointed his heir” in William, Duke of Normandy, a relative of Edward’s, and that in fact Harold Godwinson had been made to “pledge with an oath” his allegiance to this succession. The Bayeux Tapestry, possibly commissioned by William’s brother Odo in the wake of the Battle of Hastings to commemorate the successful invasion, clearly depicts Harold Godwinson doing just that. The absolute truth, or propagandistic fiction? R. Allen Brown, one of the major authorities on the Conquest, has suggested that we take seriously the Norman side of the story, “which is confirmed rather than denied by the significant silence of the pre-Conquest English sources,” though George Garnett was notably more cynical about William’s motivations. Given the amount of bias in the surviving sources we will probably never know the actual sequence of events, but what is clear is that even in the early days of hereditary monarchy the lack of a direct heir was problematic.

The White Ship Disaster of 1120

In the medieval period even the existence of a male heir did not necessarily ensure his survival to ascend to the throne. William the Conqueror’s second son, Henry I, had done his duty by providing the kingdom with an heir and a spare. When in 1120 his only son, William Adelin, tragically drowned in the White Ship disaster, the remaining hopes for succession were pinned on his only legitimate living child: his daughter, Matilda. In 1126 Henry convinced his court to swear an oath to protect her claim, but her later marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou, an enemy of Normandy, problematized her relationship with her father. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s cousin, the more loyal Stephen of Blois, was well-placed to seize the throne for himself.

Historians have debated whether the success of Stephen was due to an inherent repulsion towards the idea of a female monarch, connected to an agnatic theory of kingship. It goes without saying that women were untested on the throne, but Matilda’s marriage meant that concerns for the independence of England potentially overrode issues of gender. The complex geo-political situation of the Anglo-Norman realm problematized an otherwise simple handover. After a sustained period of open warfare between 1139 and 1141 which culminated in Matilda’s claim being spectacularly rejected by the people of London, an agreement was reached that allowed Stephen to reign on the condition that he accepted Matilda’s son, Henry, as his heir.

The Wars of the Roses, and the problem of too many heirs

Anyone to have glanced over the complex family tree of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ will know that just as many problems were caused by an abundance of male heirs to the throne. Edward III, for example, left behind seven sons. The eldest, Edward ‘The Black Prince’ of Wales, had died almost a year previously but the crown passed directly to his only surviving son, the young Richard II, rather than any of his surviving adult brothers. The third eldest son of Edward III, John of Gaunt, acted as Protector during the young king’s minority. In 1399 Gaunt’s son, known as Henry Bolingbroke, would seize the throne from his ineffectual cousin to become Henry IV.

Fortunes Wheel

Contemporary depiction of Edward IV on Fortune’s Wheel, his Lancastrian predecessors having already fallen off.

A couple of generations down the line, Henry VI also suffered the consequences of the rapidly-expanding Plantagenet family tree when he was deposed (not once, but twice) by Edward Earl of March. This Edward was a direct descendent of the fourth son of Edward III. He and his two surviving brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester certainly provided strong competition to the comparatively feeble Henry VI, who himself was suffering frequent bouts of mental ill-health and who only had one son of his own.
In this era of ‘might over right’, the odds were in favour of the most stable party.

In fact, the fecundity of the Yorkist faction went on to pose a significant problem to the Tudors, with both Henry VII and Henry VIII facing alternative claimants to their throne.
This culminated with Henry VIII executing the last direct descendent of the Yorkists, the elderly Margaret Pole, to quell his own fears of usurpation. In retrospect it is a remarkable fact that within a single century the English crown went from having perhaps too many heirs to having absolutely none at all: despite all three of Henry VIII’s children ascending to the throne, none of them had children to leave the kingdom to and in the end the crown was offered to James VI of Scotland.

The unlikely ascendancy of Queen Victoria

Princess Charlotte of Wales was born in 1796 as the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later George IV) and grandchild of George III, both unpopular monarchs of the House of Hanover. She provided a spark of hope for the people of Great Britain, and her popularity only improved following her marriage to the young Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Tragedy struck, however, when Charlotte died in childbirth aged 21. George III had four sons, so the problem of succession was not immediate. Nevertheless, pressure was applied in order to convince the sons – all either estranged from their wives or unmarried – to conceive new heirs to the throne.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria was born as a result of pressure for a new heir to the Hanoverian throne.

Thus Alexandrina Victoria was born on 24th May 1819 to the fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, and his wife Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoria became queen at age 18, only a few decades since the French had overthrown their monarchy and the same year as Thomas Carlyle published his popular study of The French Revolution. As A.N. Wilson pointed out, the precedent in Britain did not look good: George III had suffered periods of madness, George IV had cruelly divorced his wife, and William IV had fathered ten children out of wedlock. Wilson supposed that had the next son of George III, the dissolute and unpopular Ernest Duke of Cumberland, become king, Britain might have followed France in declaring a republic.

Notably Victoria went on to become something of a moral touchstone for the people of Britain during her 63 years on the throne, as well as leaving behind so many heirs that she would gain the sobriquet ‘the grandmother of Europe.’ Yet it was a twist of fate in the story of Britain’s monarchy that led to her very birth.


Our current monarchs are safe from many of the dangers of old: modern medicine means the survival of heirs to adulthood is much more certain; a stable system and the rise of constitutional monarchy protects them from a ‘might over right’ mentality; the very tradition of the monarchy in Britain and the reverence in which they are popularly held ensures their longevity. Nevertheless we should not take for granted the fact that one of the most natural and seemingly straightforward processes of human existence – the act of procreation – has frequently beleaguered the tradition of hereditary monarchy. The need for an heir as well as at least one spare has dominated the twists, turns, and surprises of English monarchical history.

Written by Laura Flannigan 


The Anglo Saxon Chronicles ed. Michael Swanton (London: Phoenix Press, 2000).

R. Allen Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985).

Helen Castor, She-Wolves: the Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).

Richard Cavendish, Kings and Queens: The Concise Guide (Cincinnati, OH: David and Charles Limited, 2009).

Paul Dalton, G.J. White ed. King Stephen’s Reign (1135-1154) (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2008).

R.H.C. Davies and Marjorie Chibnall ed. The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

George Garnett, Conquered England: Kingship, Succession, and Tenure, 1066-1166 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Dan Jones, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors (London: Faber and Faber, 2015).

Edmund King, King Stephen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Desmond Seward, The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors (London: Constable, 2011).

A.N. Wilson, Queen Victoria: A Life (London: Atlantic Books, 2014).