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How to be a successor: do’s and don’ts for heirs to the throne from history

What makes a good or bad heir to the throne? We can learn a lot from monarchs-to-be from history...

(L to R) Elizabeth I, Charles II and Edward VII
Published: September 23, 2022 at 2:21 pm
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On 25 October 1810, King George III appeared in public for the last time at a reception to mark the end of his 50th year on the throne. It was obvious to all those present that the ‘madness’ with which he had been sporadically afflicted for more than 40 years had returned. Early the following year, parliament passed The Regency Act, conferring the king’s authority upon his eldest son and heir, George.

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The newly-styled Prince Regent formally took the reins from his father on 7 February 1811. For a more dutiful and committed heir to the throne, the regency might have acted as a valuable training ground. As it was, what George termed “playing at king” was not at all to his taste. He had spent most of his 48 years running up colossal debts and indulging his passion for “wine and women” – in short, enjoying one long party. “I much doubt…whether all the alcohol in the world will be able to brace his nerves up to the mark of facing the difficulties he will soon have to encounter”, remarked one acquaintance.

They were right. The nine years of George’s regency saw him lurch from one disaster to the next. The death of his only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte, in 1817 prompted an unprecedented outpouring of grief among his people, which quickly turned to bitter fury against her father for failing to show adequate sorrow. The Prince Regent’s popularity plummeted further as a result of the outbreaks of violence and threats to the established order in the wake of Britain’s victory at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, which had brought to a victorious end the long-running war with France. By the summer of 1819, the government had grown so nervous that its response to a large but mostly peaceful demonstration at St Peter’s Field in Manchester was to order the local magistrates to break it up with force – with Prince George’s blessing. Cavalry charged into the 60,000-strong crowd with sabres drawn, killing several people, including a young child who was knocked to the ground. In the climate of bitter retribution that followed, Prince George became a figure of hate and was ‘hissed by an immense mob’ outside the door of his London home, Carlton House.

Little wonder that when the Prince Regent finally ascended the throne upon the death of his father in January 1820, few people rejoiced. In fact, there was such widespread loathing for the new King George IV that the monarchy itself looked set to crumble into the dust.

George IV is one of the worst examples of a successor in the long history of the British crown. If a manual of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ for heirs to the throne was ever compiled, he could supply most of the latter

George IV is one of the worst examples of a successor in the long history of the British crown. If a manual of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ for heirs to the throne was ever compiled, he could supply most of the latter. But there are other royal heirs who have made a mess of things – as well as those who have made a dazzling success of the opportunity that being a successor represents. So, if you fancy trying on a crown for size, read on for an essential guide to the pitfalls and potential involved…


Do...

Start your training early

One of Britain’s most celebrated monarchs is Henry V, hero of the battle of Agincourt in 1415. He was not born to be king but had learned his craft shortly after turning 13 in September 1399. It was at that time that his father had ousted the inept and increasingly tyrannical Richard II from the throne with the unanimous support of parliament to become Henry IV.

Henry V, King of England returning to London
Henry V, king of England returning to London, England after being victorious in the battle of Agincourt. (Photo by Getty Images)

The younger Henry gained valuable experience in government during his father’s bouts of physical and mental incapacity and led a council of advisers who had been elected to manage the kingdom’s affairs. Bursting with ideas and energy – and with a wealth of military and political experience to draw upon ­– Prince Henry presented an appealing alternative to a king who had never quite shaken off the stain of usurpation. A French chronicler recounted a story of how the prince had once taken his father’s crown from his bedside to see how it fitted. By the time of Henry IV’s death in March 1413, his son was more than ready to take the throne and quickly proved a far more able leader than his father ever had.

Learn from your predecessor’s mistakes

More than any other monarch, Elizabeth I had learned from the mistakes of her predecessors, her half-sister ‘Bloody’ Mary in particular. First and foremost, the new queen had been given a stark lesson in the disaster that could ensue from taking a husband, particularly if he was a foreigner. Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain had been so unpopular with her subjects that it had sparked rebellion. Elizabeth had also witnessed the dangers of pursuing a highly dogmatic and uncompromising policy, no matter how close to her heart it might be. The reigns of both her siblings had pulled England first one way, then another, leaving a kingdom that was even more deeply divided than it had been during their father Henry VIII’s Reformation.

Portrait of Elizabeth I
Portrait of Elizabeth. (Photo by Getty Images)

Committed protestant though she was, Elizabeth appreciated the need for compromise and forged a settlement that appeased both sides of the religious divide. Above all, the new queen had seen the damage that could be done by disregarding popular opinion. Mary had woefully lacked what we might call ‘PR skills’. By contrast, her sister would become one of the most brilliant propagandists in royal history. She started as she meant to go on. Just days after inheriting the throne, Elizabeth ordered the following inscription to be added to her late sister’s tomb:

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‘Marie now dead, Elizabeth lives, our just and lawful Queen

In whom her sister’s virtues rare, abundantly are seen.’

Distance yourself from an unpopular predecessor

There have been many examples in the history of the British crown of a monarch marking the beginning of their reign by distancing himself from the one before. Sometimes, this has been to justify the deposition of their predecessor or to establish a new dynasty. Neither was true of Henry VIII, yet he went to greater lengths than any other king before him to prove how different he was to his father, Henry VII. This was a shrewd move: by the time of the elder Henry’s death in April 1509, he was widely despised for his grasping, miserly and suspicious nature. The contemporary Italian scholar Polydore Vergil observed that Henry’s subjects “considered they were suffering not on account of their own sins but on account of the greed of their monarch”, who devoted much of his reign to filling the royal coffers. By contrast, his son was open-handed, gregarious, and kept one of the most splendid courts in Europe. Courtiers were quick to draw a contrast between the new king’s youthful exuberance and his dour old father:

“Our eclipsed sun now cleared is from the clerk

By Harry our King the flower of nature’s work.”

The physical opposite of his slight, emaciated father, the 17-year-old Henry VIII was a strapping six foot two ‘Adonis’ who excelled at sports, music and dancing. To signal the fresh new beginning that his reign represented, he had two of his father’s most despised officials, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, put to death on trumped-up charges of treason in August 1510. Although this was welcomed by Henry VIII’s new subjects, they should perhaps have taken it as a warning of what lay ahead.

Work with the system

Principles are all very well, but when it comes to the succession, pragmatism is often the more sensible option. Few kings appreciated the need for compromise more than Charles II, who ascended the throne in 1660 – 11 years after the execution of his father, Charles I during the English Civil War. Parliament had invited him to restore the monarchy after Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth failed to survive his death. But there were strings attached: the new king was made painfully aware that political power now rested firmly with parliament, not the crown. The ‘Merrie Monarch’ was more than content with this situation: he had other, more pleasurable diversions to fill his time – notably the string of glamorous mistresses who adorned his court, as well as trips to the theatre, horseracing, and an endless stream of parties. Not so his brother and successor, James II, whose uncompromising nature swiftly alienated parliament and led to his expulsion from the throne in 1688, a little under four years after he had inherited it.


Don’t...

Become a playboy prince

On paper, being first-in-line to the throne is an appealing prospect. A prince of Wales has all the privilege and popularity associated with being a future king and little of the onerous responsibility. But would-be playboy princes beware: over-indulging in the pleasures that this carefree life has to offer can seriously damage your credibility as king.

Take Edward VII, for example. Better known as ‘Bertie’, he was the eldest son and heir of Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Albert – both of whom took a dim view of his bohemian lifestyle. This included regular trips to the opera, theatre, and gambling halls – both in Paris and London – in the company of a string of mistresses. “I never in my life met with such a thorough and cunning lazybones,” sneered his scornful father. Thanks to his mother’s extraordinary longevity, Bertie waited longer for the throne than any other heir apparent in British history (his record was overtaken by King Charles III – then Prince Charles – in 2011).

By the time Victoria died in January 1901, her 59-year-old successor had grown so used to his indulgent lifestyle that becoming king held little appeal. After waiting so long to be king, he only reigned for nine years and was plagued by ill health throughout most of that time, dying of severe bronchitis in May 1910. The same was true of Edward VIII, who had a riotous time as Prince of Wales but upon succeeding his father George V in January 1936, complained: “Being a Monarch…can surely be one of the most confining, the most frustrating, and over the duller stretches, the least stimulating jobs open to an educated, independent-minded person.” He abdicated after just 10 and a half months.

King Edward VII, also known as 'Bertie'. The son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (Photo by Getty Images)

Try to seize power too early

King John usually tops the polls of Britain’s worst monarchs – for good reason. As the youngest of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s five sons, he had little hope of ever enjoying any real power, let alone the crown itself. When he was a teenager, his father had given him the nickname ‘Lackland’, but in fact John had been his favourite and he had been anxious to provide for him. Henry’s efforts on behalf of his youngest son had encouraged his greed and ambition, not to mention his treachery against his elder brothers. By the time his brother Richard ‘the Lionheart’ ascended the throne in September 1189, John’s other three brothers were dead so he was next in line to the throne. Impatient to get his hands on it, he immediately began plotting to overthrow Richard, including forging a secret pact with the king of France. None of his schemes amounted to anything, but fate delivered the crown into his hands when Richard was shot with a crossbow bolt while suppressing a rebellion in Aquitaine in spring 1199. Thanks to his treacherous activities before becoming king, John was deeply unpopular from the off and failed to win over his subjects during his 17-year reign (not that he tried too hard).

Allow others to take control

History is littered with examples of royal heirs surrounding themselves with favourites. “Princes…raise some persons to be, as it were, companions and almost equals to themselves, which many times sorteth to inconvenience”, remarked the courtier and philosopher Francis Bacon. The sensible ones shake them off once they come to the throne and get down to the serious business of running the country.

Not so Edward II. As Prince of Wales, he had formed a passionate attachment to a young gentleman named Piers Gaveston. When King Edward I got wind of his son’s “immoderate” feelings towards his favourite, he banished Gaveston abroad. This worked little effect. One of Edward II’s first acts after inheriting the throne in 1307 was to recall his cherished companion and shower him with honours and titles. Gaveston’s overbearing arrogance soon courted widespread resentment and lost the king the love and respect of his people. In June 1312, the royal favourite was captured by a group of powerful magnates and summarily executed. Rather than taking this as a salutary warning, Edward II proceeded to cast about for a replacement – with disastrous results. His promotion of Hugh Despenser and his son of the same name – both equally rapacious and corrupt – courted widespread resentment and led to the king’s overthrow. He was forced to abdicate when his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer led a rebellion with considerable support from England’s powerful nobles. The beleaguered king had no choice but to hand the reins of power to his 14-year-old son, Edward III, who steered well clear of favourites and went on to become one of England’s most successful rulers.

Disrespect the previous regime

The accession of Britain’s first Stuart king in March 1603 had been eagerly anticipated by his English subjects after half a century of female rule. But James VI and I soon proved a disappointment. Elizabeth I’s former courtiers sneered that, in sharp contrast to the late queen, her Scottish successor lacked “great majesty” and “solemnities”. James showed little interest in upholding the splendid court ceremonies and traditions so beloved of the Tudors. The clash of cultures was evident in the new king’s love of garish and riotous masques. Elizabeth I’s godson Sir John Harington was appalled to see high born ladies and gentlemen “wallow in beastly delights” during these “strange pageantries”, with the players themselves being too drunk to perform. Neither did James make any effort to ingratiate himself with his new subjects, but complained about everything from England’s weather to the intransigence of its parliament. More seriously, he took a much harsher stance towards persecuting Catholics than his predecessor had done and introduced tyrannical new laws against witchcraft. Within an alarmingly short space of time, England’s new king had courted such widespread resentment that a group of Catholic gentlemen plotted to blow James and his entire government to the heavens with a huge cache of gunpowder.

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If this whistlestop tour of the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ for royal heirs makes the margin of success seem perilously narrow, fear not. For more than a thousand years, the British crown has weathered crises that looked set to consign it to the pages of history – including a plethora of successors woefully ill-fitted for the job ahead. For the monarchy to endure another millennia, any future heirs must both embrace its past and learn from it.

Authors

Tracy Borman
Tracy BormanAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period. She works part-time as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and as Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.

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