A Male Heir! A Male Heir! My Kingdom for a Male Heir!
Long Live the Queen !
If you read British history, you will hear this theme repeated down through the ages. A Male Heir. We must provide a Male Heir. Wars were fought over it. Wives were sent to nunneries over it. Some were beheaded over it. The most important responsibility any king or queen had was to produce a male heir to insure the bloodline of succession continued.
The longest sitting rulers in British history have been two women: Victoria and Elizabeth II, and a little further down the line, Elizabeth I virtually tied for seventh-longest. This fact is impressive since out of approximately one hundred and seventy monarchs only seven have been women. One of those only ruled for nine days, the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey.
Procreation drama was responsible for many wars, plots, and even a few murders. For all their combined efforts, this drama sometimes ended up leading to, not a male child in line of succession, but a female.
These unintended consequences began as early as 1135 when Henry I named as his successor his only living child, a daughter Matilda. Henry I sired more than twenty children, but (also a trend in British royalty) only two were legitimate. His only son, William, sank with the infamous White Ship while the royal court was crossing the English Channel in 1120.
The King's succession wishes didn't stop Matilda's cousin Stephen from seizing the throne in spite of an oath he made to support her ascension. Matilda succeeded in defeating his forces only to suffer her own defeat at the hands of his wife, another Matilda. Henry I's choice won in the end though. After the death of his only son, Stephen named his cousin Matilda's son with Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, as his heir to the throne. Either Karma or persistent rumors suggested Henry II might actually have been fathered by Stephen, the result of a brief affair between the two throne-seeking cousins. The one fact never in question was Henry II's maternal line.
Henry II's recognized father,Geoffrey, went by the nickname Plantagenet, which was his family's emblem. That name, though not used as a surname for more than two hundred and fifty years, became known as the longest-reigning dynasty in British history. And down through the decades, the twists and turns of fate kept the Plantagenets in constant pursuit of the ultimate goal of royalty: a male heir. As it turned out, even a bevy of sons did not ensure this goal was always accomplished.
Henry VIII was born to the daughter of King Edward IV, Elizabeth of York. Her two brothers, one actually crowned briefly as King Edward V, were presumably murdered by their uncle, King Richard III. Arguments persist in pointing a guilty finger at others, even all these years later. (My money is on Elizabeth's eventual mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort.) Richard may have intended to marry Elizabeth himself, but he was killed by her first cousin and future husband, King Henry VII. After securing, not one but two, male heirs to his throne, King Edward IV’s bloodline continued through his daughter, not his sons.
Again, even the birth of multiple sons could fail to accomplish the coveted goal of placing a son on the throne. Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I, had three half-brothers. Unfortunately for two of them, only one was legitimate or born into a sanctioned marriage. If Henry VIII had the benefit of hindsight, he would have realized he was perfectly capable of producing a boy baby. He simply married the wrong women at the wrong times.
If he had married his mistress, Elizabeth Blount, instead of his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, his son born in 1519 would have been the legitimate heir to his thrown instead of the daughter Catherine gave him in 1516, the future Queen Mary.
Another mistress and his future sister-in-law, Mary Bolen, then delivered his next two healthy children, (that we know of) a son in 1526 and a daughter in 1529. There is continued debate about whether or not King Henry fathered both of those children. But if he did, and he had married Mary instead of her sister, Anne, when he set aside his marriage to his sister-in-law Catherine, he would have had another legitimate son as an heir. Instead he married “Anne of a Thousand Days,” who gave him a daughter in 1533, the future Queen Elizabeth I.
After having his second wife beheaded, the next day – the next day – Henry VIII proposed marriage to a third wife, Jane Seymour. Through her he finally got his legitimate male heir, the future King Edward VI. Unfortunately Edward only sat on his father’s throne for seven and a half years, dying of tuberculosis at age 16. He didn’t live long enough to marry or produce an heir of his own. Of Henry’s two bastard sons, the first died at age 17, but the second died at age 62, a long life for his day.
So after fathering no less than three sons, Henry VIII’s line finally came to an end. Elizabeth I thought better of marrying and diluting her authority as her half-sister Mary had when she became the first female monarch in the empire’s history. Elizabeth reigned as a single woman for 45 years, and the bloodline of succession jumped to Henry's female cousin’s son, James I of Scotland. After all the desperation for a male heir, this male heir descended from Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret, who had been married off to James IV of Scotland. Her son, James V, had only a daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, mother of James I of England.
Like the first two female sovereigns, two sisters succeeded each other as Queen of England in the mid-sixteen hundreds. James II followed his brother, Charles II to the throne and his only two legitimate children - daughters - followed him, first Mary II then Anne. Mary ruled jointly with her cousin/husband, William. Then Anne succeeded him. Pregnant no less than seventeen times, infant mortality and stillbirths rendered her without an heir upon her death. She was the last of the house of Stuart, and the monarchy transitioned to the house of Hanover through Charles I's sister Elizabeth's line. World War I made their German heritage politically incorrect so Queen Elizabeth II's grandfather, George V, changed it. Today that house is known as the Windsor's.
A rarity: a Queen picks her own husband:
England's Longest-Serving Monarch
Queen Victoria rose to the throne of England in 1838 after her grandparents saw the birth of four sons. Four male heirs in one generation! Not one produced a legitimate child who lived long enough to inherit the throne, except her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn. Victoria was his one and only child. He died in 1820 within months of her birth.
Victoria bore nine children, all of whom lived through infancy, which was not the norm in the late 1800s. She was the monarch longer than anyone else had ever been, serving sixty-four years. Her heir was her second born, Edward VII. She had three other sons as well.
Elizabeth II celebrated sixty years on the throne, her Diamond Jubilee, in 2012. Her father was one of three sons born to Victoria’s grandson, George V. He was the second born son, coming to the throne as George VI when his bachelor brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry a divorced American. Edward produced no children after giving up his throne. So if he had not abdicated, but still married Wallis Simpson, it is likely Elizabeth would have become Queen anyway, only twenty years later.
Since 802 A.D. the issue of a male heir has dominated royal ambitions. But no more. In October 2011 leaders of the sixteen Great Britain Commonwealth countries unanimously approved new succession laws stating the first born child of a monarch will be the heir apparent regardless of the sex of the child. So after a history going back more than a thousand years, the Brits have finally learned two inherent truths.
Number one: women last longer.
Number two: women have played as much a role in the succession of monarchs as men
– so let them reign.
Note: Since this hub was first published, the current heir to the British throne, William and his wife Catherine have had their first child - a boy. The sex of the child was not announced prior to his birth. Considering the change in the law and its historical significance, you have to wonder if the parents wanted to know ahead of time. After a thousand years, this was the first time a boy heir was born and some people said, "I wish they'd had a girl." I was one of them.
And more recently, a girl has come into the world as the "Heir-Spare". Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Congratulations to this royal family.
More by this Author
We know Elizabeth II is now the longest reigning monarch of Great Britain, surpassing Victoria. Who was number three, and why should American's care?
A look at how many times the throne of England has been occupied by someone other than the first-born heir apparent. (All dates are of coronations.)
Not well-known facts about the wives of American Presidents.