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How Often in British History Has the Second-Born Son Become King?
An Heir and Not A Spare
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"
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"
“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!