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Henry I

3 worst succession crises from British history

Some of this country's most devastating (and well-known) wars have been sparked by a monarch dying without an undisputed heir.

Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259) | Public Domain

The line of succession in Britain hasn’t exactly been straight. From a lack of male heirs to premature deaths and even murderous power grabs, the rule of Great Britain has struggled to pass from parent to child more times than you might realise.

Challenges to the line of succession aren’t just a personal family matter that only affects the royals. The ensuing power vacuum, instability and even bloodshed can leave a trail of disaster in their wake that can be felt by a country decades or even centuries later.

What is a succession crisis?

A succession crisis occurs when the king or queen dies without an apparent and indisputable heir. The lack of clear direction as to who should ascend the crown, especially when multiple candidates are waiting in the wings for their shot, can make it incredibly difficult to decide who should rightfully rule the country.

The best-case scenario for a kingdom in a succession crisis was uncertainty and change while a new regent was established. This could mean political and financial hardship for a short while until the new dynasty and way of life were established. But what happened when a kingdom couldn’t decide who was right to rule?

A war of succession occurs when two or more potential successors to the throne defend their right to rule. Claimants to the throne would rally their bannermen, often with support from other countries who had a preference for who they wanted in the seat of power and battle it out to see who would emerge as the new ruler.

With any living claimant to the throne remaining a threat to the successful new regent, these wars were often vicious and bloody and didn’t end until one of the claimants was dead. It’s no wonder, then, that so many kings and queens were eager to establish their heirs and spares as soon as they possibly could and avoid the disastrous fallout that would ensue if they didn’t.

Here are three of Britain’s worst succession crises and how they changed the course of British history forever.

1. George III, 1820

King George III
King George III in his 1762 coronation portrait by Allan Ramsey

Despite his abundance of grandchildren, as time moved on, King George III lost hope that he might ever have a legitimate heir. Although his 13 children had managed to sire a handful of offspring (this total climbed to well over 60 in the end), only one could claim her right as a legitimate heir to the throne: Princess Charlotte.

As the daughter of the first in line to the throne, the pressure was on Charlotte to produce the next generation of royalty, and when it was announced that she and her husband, Leopold, were expecting in 1819, the country waited with excitement for news of a healthy baby boy. Disaster struck, however, when after 50 hours of difficult labour, Charlotte’s son was stillborn. Worse still, Charlotte contracted a fever and died just a few hours later.

With this devastating turn of events, parliament increased the pressure on the royal family to produce a viable heir. After all, no one wanted to risk another bloody war of succession. A baby race began, with George’s children endeavouring to marry and sire an heir before the others. Much to the prince regent's disappointment, it was his younger brother, the Duke of Kent, who won when his daughter, Victoria, was born on May 24, 1819.

2. Edward the Confessor, 1066

Edward the Confessor in the Bayeaux tapestry
Image: Edward the Confessor's death in 1066 ignited a series of battles which culminated in the Battle of Hastings | Public Domain

When Edward the Confessor died childless in 1066, no one could have predicted what would come next. With no direct descendent to whom he could pass the crown, it was unclear who was legitimately next in line to the throne.

As it turned out, promises had been made about the line of succession that Edward could no longer keep (on account of being deceased and all). Four candidates for the crown came forward, all claiming that the throne had been promised to them at some point, making them the legitimate heir: Harold Godwinson, William of Normandy, Edgar Atheling, and Harold Hardrada.

Although the Witan (the Anglo-Saxon council that advised the king) chose Harold Godwinson as the rightful successor, it wasn’t long until the other claimants made their play for the crown with violent battles. Ultimately, though, only one claimed the crown for good at the Battle of Hastings later that year: William of Normandy, a.k.a. William the Conqueror.

3. Henry I, 1135

A 14th century depiction of Henry I
Henry I

Unlike Edward the Confessor, Henry I had no lack of heir. In fact, given his own suspect rise to power following the untimely death of his older brother in a completely legitimate and not at all suspicious hunting accident, Henry would have known how important a clear and unchallengeable claim to the throne would be. The best-laid plans, however, don’t always come to pass, and Henry’s death threw England into chaos once more.

When Henry’s promising young heir, William, was killed in the White Ship tragedy in 1120, he was devastated. In his mourning, he tried to sire another son with a new wife, but when it became clear that a direct progeny wouldn’t happen, he needed to think on his feet. Naming his daughter Mathilda as his rightful heir divided his court, with many uncomfortable at the thought of a woman in charge.

Disaster struck, though, when Henry died and his nephew, Stephen of Blois, seized the throne for himself. What followed was a time of such destruction and lawlessness it was nicknamed ‘The Anarchy’.

The Anarchy was a war of succession that raged for over 18 years. Supporters of Mathilda’s claim to the throne battled it out with Stephen’s supporters. The fallout of the succession was particularly destructive, with lawlessness taking hold of the country. The Anarchy came to an end when Stephen’s son and heir, Eustace, died. With no other sons to inherit, Stephen was left with no choice but to name Mathilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as his heir.