These days, the succession to the throne is a fairly straightforward business. It wasn’t always the case, however, and English history is littered with those who, had events taken a slightly different term, could have got to wear the crown. They are the might-have-beens of our history, and here are six of the best-known…
William Adelin (1103-1120) – would have been an alternative King William III
The youngest son of William the Conqueror, King Henry I had acted quickly to grab the throne for himself when his brother, William Rufus, was murdered in the New Forest in 1100. Henry fathered many sons, but only one of them was by his wife, Matilda of Scotland. It was in this 12th century Prince William that the hopes of England’s Norman dynasty lay. Referred to as ‘Adelin’ (a corruption of ‘Aetheling’, the Anglo-Saxon term for the heir to the King) and rex designatus (king-designate), William was proclaimed Duke of Normandy but held the title in name only, although after his mother’s death in 1118 William acted as regent during his father’s absences from England. However, he died – along with at least two of his illegitimate half-siblings and much of the Anglo-Norman nobility – in the White Ship sinking of 1120. A direct consequence of this tragedy was a succession crisis which plagued the rest of Henry’s reign, resulting in the Anarchy, a 19-year civil war in which William’s sister Matilda and their cousin Stephen – who was meant to have travelled on the White Ship but did not due to illness – fought for control of England.
Empress Matilda, Lady of the English (1102-1167) – would have been Queen Matilda I
The daughter of Henry I, Matilda (also known as Maud) had been married off to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V but was a widow by the time she was 23. After her brother’s death (see above), she was proclaimed as the heir to the throne but this was unpopular with the Anglo-Norman nobility; when her father died in 1135 her cousin was crowned as King Stephen. Backed by her (second) husband Geoffrey of Anjou and her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, Matilda tried to take the throne for herself in that long period of civil war known to history as the Anarchy. The closest she got was in 1141 when her forces captured Stephen; she entered London but was not crowned because of bitter opposition from the local populace. She then had to free Stephen in exchange for Robert (who had also been captured), and by the following winter Stephen had her trapped in Oxford Castle; she escaped over the frozen River Isis. Subsequently, a stalemate ensued with Matilda’s forces in control of the south-west of England while Stephen controlled the south-east and the midlands, although much of the country was in the hands of local barons who were happy to take whatever advantage they could get. Eventually, Matilda’s son Henry took over the fighting and by 1153 had negotiated a peace deal with Stephen; when the latter died, the former succeeded to the throne as King Henry II.
Louis of France (1187-1226) – would have been King Louis (or perhaps Lewis) I
The son of King Philip II of France, Louis fought against King John (his uncle on his mother’s side) in the latter’s unsuccessful attempt to recapture Normandy in 1214. When John tried to renege on the Magna Carta, the English barons offered Louis the throne; in May 1216 he landed in Kent, entered London with little resistance and was proclaimed (but not crowned) as King. He soon had control of over half of England, but when John died in October most of the barons deserted Louis in favour of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III. Louis was defeated by Henry’s regent, William Marshal, at the battle of Lincoln in May 1217, and he was subsequently forced to make peace, a condition being that he had to agree that he had never been the legitimate King of England. In 1223, though, he did become King Louis VIII of France.
Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (1330-1376) – would have been an alternative King Edward IV
Known to history as the Black Prince, the eldest son of Edward III was an exceptional military leader in an age when prowess on the battlefield went hand-in-hand with effective kingship. It was he who defeated the French as the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, key English victories in what would become known as the Hundred Years War. He was also the first Prince of Wales to have used an emblem consisting of three white ostrich feathers; this heraldic device, which he is believed to have inherited from his mother’s family, was used as his ‘shield for peace’ – the one he used for jousting. He died one year before his father; the throne passed to his son Richard who was just nine years old at the time and who would eventually be overthrown by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV. Somewhat ironically, the Black Prince and Henry are buried yards from each other in Canterbury Cathedral.
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685) – would have been James III of England and James VIII of Scotland
The oldest of Charles II’s illegitimate sons, Monmouth claimed that his father had actually been married to his mother, Lucy Walter – a claim that Charles always denied. This claim, though, made Monmouth a factor in various schemes to have Charles’s brother, the Duke of York, excluded from the line of succession for being a Catholic; as a result of this, Charles had Monmouth exiled. When his uncle became King James II in 1685, Monmouth – Protestant, popular and an experienced military commander – landed in Dorset in an attempt to capture the throne. His makeshift force was no match for the regular army, though, and he was defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor by John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough). Subsequently, Monmouth was captured in Hampshire and executed on Tower Hill; it is said that the executioner, Jack Ketch, botched the deed to the extent that the Duke was still alive after two or three chops with the axe, and the job eventually had to be finished with a knife. It is also said that, following this, someone realised that no-one had done an official portrait of the Duke, so his head was sewn back onto his body. Curiously, many years later a descendant of his claimed to have found documentary proof that Charles II and Lucy Walter had been married; apparently he presented this to Queen Victoria, who burned it.
Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630-1714) – would have been Queen Sophia I
In 1700, the only surviving son of Princess Anne, sister-in-law and heir of William III, died. With William a widower who was unlikely to remarry and Anne having recently miscarried for the twelfth time, an undoing of the Glorious Revolution loomed, prompting Parliament to pass the Act of Settlement which ensured that the crown could not pass to a Catholic. The closest Protestant relative, and therefore the presumptive heir, was Sophia, a granddaughter of James I; she was the daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia (the ‘Winter Queen’) and had married the Elector of Hanover. She was a 71 year-old widow at the time of the Act of Settlement but she did have five living children and three legitimate grandchildren, so the question of the survival of the royal line wasn’t an issue. Thus was it decreed that after the deaths of William and Anne, the crown would pass to Sophia and her descendants. Although much older than Anne (who became Queen in 1702), Sophia enjoyed considerably better health; she was keen to move to London but Anne – acting out of suspicion, jealousy or both – opposed this. In the event, Sophia died in Hanover in 1714 after collapsing while running to take shelter from the rain. Anne herself died a month later, and the crown passed to Sophia’s son George, the first of the Hanoverians.