An Heir and a Spare - How often has a spare or two come in handy?

An Heir and Not A Spare


Elizabeth II

Today’s Queen Elizabeth II (1952 Coronation) of England would never have come to the throne in the normal line of succession. She was one of two daughters born to a second-born son. Her father was not the heir to the throne. His older brother was. But, as has happened from time to time in the history of the realm, the first-born didn’t end up reigning – at least not for very long. The spare (or sometimes one of the spares) did.

Elizabeth II had an heir and a spare of her own, plus another spare: Charles, Andrew, and Edward. Her daughter, second-born Anne (pictured above), didn't count. Charles has an heir and a spare, William and Harry. And heir apparent William has his spare, a daughter, Charlotte, and the most recent news is that Kate is already pregnant again with another girl. Under the recently-changed law, it no longer mattered if the child was a boy or a girl. In the instance that his first-born son does not survive, his sister can now reign. The change of the succession law is the second factor that ensures the British will be yelling, “Long live the King (or Queen)” for many centuries to come. The first factor is the improvement in infant mortality rates within the Kingdom and around the world. The chances of a baby growing to adulthood have historically been against any heir until vast improvements in health care and nutrition during the last century.

It is a footnote in history that Elizabeth II’s father didn’t come to the throne upon the death of his predecessor, but because of an abdication: the first in the history of the United Kingdom going all the way back to the earliest monarch, King Egbert (802). Edward VIII (1936), Elizabeth’s uncle, notoriously gave up the crown for the woman he loved, a twice divorced American named Wallis Simpson. As head of the Church of England, he was forced to choose between the two, and though he took the oath of accession, he never went through a coronation ceremony. His younger brother experienced that honor, George VI (1937). A younger brother had died in his teens with complications of epilepsy.

The father of these three sons was also a second son. King George V (1911) came to the throne upon the death of his father, King Edward VII (1902) because his older brother, Albert, had died of pneumonia in 1892. Since George was not born to be King, he was a naval officer who accumulated a great deal of military experience. That adventure came to an end when he found himself to be the heir to his father’s throne. The experience proved to be providential, though, as he ended up being the king who reigned during the First World War with Germany. It was his doing that the Royal House of Saxe Coburg became known as the less-Germanic name of Windsor.

From "The King's Speech"


The longest-reigning monarch in British history, Victoria (1837), was the only legitimate child of a fourth son. Her uncle, William IV (1830), ascended the throne upon the death of his brother, George IV (1821). Her own father, Edward Duke of Kent, had died within months of her birth. Having three spare male heirs did not prevent a woman of the next generation from coming along to restore the image of the monarchy after the excesses of all four of the Hanover boys who produced many offspring – but no heirs.

James II (1649) was the second son of Charles I (1626) who was executed for treason against his own people, a unique historical twist on that charge. The first-born son, Charles II (1651) was invited to take the re-established throne when Parliament decided they wanted kings after all, but he died in 1685. His younger brother was crowned King – for a while. Parliament took exception to James II’s religion and since they’d recently had the power to abolish the monarchy entirely, they did not hesitate to simply exile him in favor of the next generation of heirs: two cousins, William and Mary, (1689) followed by a second-born sister. That sister was Anne (1702) who was pregnant eighteen times, but tragically left no heirs.

From "The Young Victoria"

Henry VIII

Probably the most famous second son to rule England was Henry VIII (1509) of the six wives notoriety. He was the second son of Henry VII (1485) who brought the House of Tudor to the throne after defeating in battle a second son, Richard III (1483) and the House of York. Henry VIII was succeeded by his only legitimate son, then two of his daughters. The second of those daughters was Elizabeth I, one of the longest-reigning queens ever to sit on the throne of England.

From "The Other Boleyn Girl"

Henry II

“A Lion in Winter”, the academy award winning- movie of the life of Henry II (1154) and Eleanor of Aquitaine, depicts the struggle to rule between their three sons. Again in the irony of history, the first-born son, Henry, died and the second son became heir to the throne, then later the third son followed. But in this family, the sons were not content to wait for their father to die. They raised a revolt against the king with the encouragement of his own queen. As Kathryn Hepburn, or Eleanor, so succinctly expresses in the film, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

From "A Lion in Winter"

William the Conqueror

As far back as William the Conqueror (1066) non-first-borns ended up with the crown. Second-born William II (1087) and his younger brother, Henry I (1100) both had reigns after their father, who never intended to give the throne to his eldest son, Robert. His reasons for that radical decision are not recorded in the history books. (Actually, William came so early in the history of English sovereigns that the tradition of first-born heirs actually followed rather than preceded him.) The move may have had something to do with the guilt he finally expressed on his deathbed over his brutality towards the people he had conquered. “I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have spilled.”

Traveling through those "rivers of blood " in the annals of English history, one might begin to wonder if it would be easier to write about the times a first-born son actually got to enjoy a fulfilling reign as king. It might actually turn out to be a shorter piece of work. But looking ahead to improved infant mortality rates and the new law allowing either gender to be heir to the throne, first-borns in the royal line finally may find the odds more in their favor at long last.

Long live - whomever!

Link to the British Monarchy Family Tree

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Comments 21 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

This is one reason I never did well in European studies in school....way too many people to keep track of. :)

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Boy, that's the truth. It's like trying to remember every American president, all his siblings and cousins multiplied by a couple of centuries!

peoplepower73 profile image

peoplepower73 2 years ago from Placentia California

Kathleen: Great hub, but I agree with billybuc. There are way too many royal figures to keep track of. Perhaps if you had graphics of the family trees, it would be easier to see the lines of succession.

My wife and I binged watched the PBS series about the Tudors. We are now watching Reign. It's about Mary Queen of Scots. Both stories are fascinating.

Mary was a threat to Elizabeth I, because Mary was the legitimate heir to the English Throne. Elizabeth was supposedly borne out of wedlock between Ann Boyeln and Henry VIII. Elizabeth was Protestant and Mary was Catholic. By then most of Engalnd was Protestant. Elizabeth had her locked up for 19 years and then finally had her beheaded. Voting up, interesting and sharing.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

Very interesting to read. I feel badly that the second born is always dubbed 'the spare.' I would think it would be disconcerning to be labeled that all through life. Of course, Harry, isn't considered 'the spare' any longer with William and Kate having children. But, then William and Kate's second child will be labeled 'the spare.' I would hate growing up with the label over my head. Very interesting and informative hub. Monarchy's are sure full of intrigue and mystery.

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 2 years ago from New York

Did you say pregnant eighteen times? Unimaginable, poor Anne.

I guess it is sometimes good to be the son of a son.

As usual Kathleen you have educated us. Those across the pond are certainly a bit more involved in their royalty.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

peoplepower73: Love the idea of a family tree but it would have to cover 20 centuries. Maybe I can find a link to one. I'm on it!

peoplepower73 profile image

peoplepower73 2 years ago from Placentia California

Kathleen: No I don't mean for 20 centuries. I mean for what you just covered in your hub. They would be just small diagrams to supplement your discussions.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

I added a link to the family tree. My hub covers the entire time period but not every branch.

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

Yes its funny to think that if history had been different, our queen would be, well, not our queen! I love history, so this was fascinating, nell

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Nell: Thanks and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I guess the thing that fascinates me about British history is the idea that these people were simply born into it. I think of William and Kate's son and think, you could have been born to anyone else and you would have had an ordinary life. But through a sheer act of fate, you will be King of England. It boggles the mind.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

How interesting to hear about these choices in royalty family lines. Thanks for sharing this bit of history with readers.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

teaches12345: This one was fun to do. Glad you saw it and thanks for commenting.

Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

This was a very interesting and enjoyable read Kathleen. I had no idea so few first born sons had actually ruled as King, or that the rules of gender had changed in regard to a"spare" being able to take over the throne. Thanks for sharing this.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Jodah: Thank you for the comment. It means a lot coming from a citizen of the Realm. But, seriously, stand up and walk away from your computer and go outside right this minute. You live in - without question - one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I visited your town in 1993. Milford Sound is where God invented water falls! Good to hear from a Queenslander!

Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

Kathleen, I just read your reply. You're right...getting up from my computer and going outside right now.

Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

Very interesting and well written Kathleen.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Eiddwen: Thanks. And with you being from Wales, you could no doubt add to it! I'm opening to additions.

SandyMertens profile image

SandyMertens 2 years ago from Frozen Tundra

I recognized some of those clips from the movies I seen. Very interesting history of this British era.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Sandy: Thanks for commenting. Just heard a rumor that William and Kate's second baby is a girl. Wish they could have had her first and put that new law to use!

aesta1 profile image

aesta1 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Interesting. I'm glad I'm not Royalty or I'll be a spare. But they got very good chances as shown in your hub. Enjoyed reading your hub.

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

aeata1: Glad you found this one. I've got one of two others on British History if you are interested. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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