In the bad old days of high infant mortality, any royal family needed an heir and several ‘spares’ – north of the border, James V and his daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, are just two of the many British monarchs with elder brothers who died in infancy. William the Conqueror left England to his second son, another William, while the eldest son, Robert, inherited Normandy.
Since then, the history of these islands has been littered with famous second – or third, or fourth – royal siblings, who for better or for worse have done much to shape the monarchy that we know today. Here are 10 of the most famous.
Richard I (1157–99)
It wasn’t Richard ‘the Lionheart’, but his elder brother, Henry, who was crowned ‘the Young King’ of England, unusually during their father’s lifetime. In the event Henry predeceased his father, but perhaps the fact Richard hadn’t been raised for the job explains why the crusader showed so little real enthusiasm for hands-on rule of England, spending only a few months in the country during his 10-year reign.
Richard was himself succeeded by his younger brother, John. Fairly or unfairly, King John has gone down in popular history as a disastrous monarch whose reign was epitomised by his losing the crown jewels in the Wash – but he did inadvertently help to give us Magna Carta.
John of Gaunt (1340–99)
By contrast to John I, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster – fourth son of the prolific Edward III – has traditionally been accorded a good measure of respect for the steering hand he kept on the country during the minority of his nephew, Richard II.
His harsh fiscal policies, however, made him a particular target of the Peasants’ Revolt – while almost as soon as John himself died, Richard II was deposed by John’s exiled son, the Bolingbroke of Shakespeare’s plays, who took the throne as Henry IV. These were the family divisions that, half a century later, would produce the Wars of the Roses.
Richard III (1452–85)
The best-known casualty of those wars was of course Richard III, whose death at Bosworth ushered in the Tudor dynasty. Richard was only the fourth son of the York family, but by the time he seized the throne the first, second and third sons were all dead – Edmund killed by the Lancastrians, and George, Duke of Clarence (after plotting against Edward) drowned in the famous butt of malmsey.
The grounds upon which Richard took the throne in 1483 – chiefly the supposed invalidity of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville – are still debated today. So too, of course, is the fate of Edward IV’s sons, the princes in the Tower, and Richard’s role in their possible murder. Either way, Richard – his brother Edward’s most loyal supporter during his lifetime – provides the most dramatic prism through which to examine both the royal sibling bond, and the question of sibling rivalry.
Henry VIII (1491–1547)
It wasn’t Henry but his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was expected to lead the Tudor dynasty through the 16th century. But Arthur died in 1502 – and if anyone ever forgot that in the glorious early days of Henry VIII’s reign, they had ample cause to remember two decades later, when Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was endlessly debated, and ultimately declared invalid, on the grounds that she had been his brother Arthur’s widow.
Indeed, there has been speculation that Henry’s position as a mere second son – reared with his mother and sisters, while Arthur was sent away to Ludlow – affected his later attitudes, and his infamous marital history.
Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
Elizabeth was Henry’s second surviving legitimate child; her sister, ‘Bloody’ Mary, Henry’s eldest. But both women accepted that first place in the succession went to their younger brother, Edward VI.
After Edward’s premature death in 1553, however, differences between the sisters led to Elizabeth being imprisoned in the Tower, in danger of her life. This was no simple case of sibling rivalry, of course, since religious differences led to real dispute as to whether the Catholic Mary or the Protestant Elizabeth had best claim to the throne. All the same, no one looking for the model of a happy family is ever going to pick the Tudors!
Charles I (1600–49)
When James VI and I’s eldest son, Prince Henry, died in 1612 of what was probably typhoid, shock waves went through the country. At 18, the vibrant Henry was already the great hope of the Stuart dynasty. His brother Charles, by contrast, was a sickly 11-year-old considered unlikely to survive. Perhaps early insecurities left the adult Charles, as a monarch, particularly susceptible both to the influence of his favourite Buckingham [George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham] and his Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, and to an inflated conception of the monarchy.
Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596–1662)
It may seem like cheating to list two siblings as separately important, but it’s the descendants of Elizabeth of Bohemia, not of her brother, Charles I, who sit on the British throne today. When Charles I’s eldest surviving son, Charles II, was succeeded by his own younger brother James, the latter’s unpopularity and Catholicism led to his deposition in 1688.
The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of that year brought in, instead, James’s Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, while the Catholic descendants of James’s second marriage dwindled to the status of pretenders.
When William and Mary died without children, the crown passed to another younger sibling. Mary’s sister, Anne, came to the throne under the Act of Settlement of 1701, which effectively secured the throne to the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty, since it was already apparent that Anne too was unlikely to bear a surviving child, despite 18 pregnancies.
Upon Queen Anne’s death the throne was offered to the Elector of Hanover, a grandson of Elizabeth of Bohemia, who became Britain’s George I. He and his Hanoverian descendants would reign, however, on very different terms from those earlier rulers had enjoyed. The stage was set for a modern, ‘constitutional’, monarchy (a position confirmed more than a century later when George’s great-great grandson William IV – succeeding his elder brother George IV – ceded yet further royal powers).
George V (1865–1936)
You might think that in the modern age the importance of the royal second sibling is outdated – we are, after all, past the days of high infant mortality.
George V was born the second son of the future Edward VII, but his elder brother, Albert Victor, known as Prince Eddy, died of pneumonia in his twenties, while his grandmother, Queen Victoria, was still on the throne. By that time Eddy had been linked to the Cleveland Street scandal, which involved a homosexual brothel, amid wider concerns over his character and abilities. (He has, however unconvincingly, even been identified as Jack the Ripper). His brother George, by contrast, was a formidable figure who, besides taking on Eddy’s engagement to Princess Mary of Teck in 1917, changed the name of the royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.
George VI (1895–1952)
The first half of the 20th century saw two second sons accede to the throne – both important in shaping the form of the present monarchy. George V was of course succeeded by his eldest son, Edward VIII, the future Duke of Windsor, but Edward’s reign lasted less than a year, and he was never crowned. When he abdicated in order to marry the divorced Wallis Simpson, his younger brother was forced to step up to the plate.
Diffident and reluctant – we’d come a long way from the power-hungry days of the medieval monarchy – George VI nonetheless saw the country through the dark days of Second World War. That example of dutiful service is still an ideal for his daughter, Elizabeth, today.
Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses.
This article was first published on History Extra in April 2018