Skip to main content
King Henry VIII

The 'spare heirs' who were never meant to be king

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein CC BY-SA 4.0

The line of succession is a rigid one, and with life being so unpredictable, the best chance a monarch has of securing their legacy is to produce both an heir, as well as a spare. Despite the clear-cut and well-defined rules for royal succession, the actual line in British history has been anything but straight. The divine right of kings hasn’t protected destined monarchs from war, illness, conspiracy, and scandal.

Here are five so-called ‘spares’ that weren’t born to rule, but were destined to reign.

Henry I

In 1066, William the Conqueror relinquished the crown from Harald Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and established the Norman dynasty in the British Isles. But while his own rule revolutionised the British landscape forever, the same can’t be said of his heirs. It was well documented that William’s four sons didn’t get along, with William needing to break up one of their brawls himself.

William’s eldest son, Robert, while made Duke of Normandy, didn’t ascend to the throne upon his father’s death. Instead, the reign fell to the third son, William II. Disaster struck, however, when William II was killed in a suspicious hunting accident in the New Forest - eerily the same location his older brother Richard had died a few years earlier. The crown finally fell to the fourth brother, Henry I.

Edward II

Edward II was, surprisingly, the last of fourteen children between King Edward I and his first wife, Eleanor of Castille. Many of Edward's siblings died before their father, and with the line of succession in the 13th century held strictly to male-only successors, Edward II’s older brother Alphonso was named heir apparent.

At the age of 10, Alphonso was already engaged and preparing for marriage to the daughter of Floris V, the Count of Holland. While preparations were underway, Alphonso fell ill. He died a few months after the birth of Edward II.

Henry VIII

Well known for a messy succession following his death, Henry VIII himself wasn’t supposed to have been king. Throughout his early life, he had watched as his older brother, Arthur, was being primed as the next king. At 15, Arthur was married to Catherine of Aragon (who was given away at the wedding by a 10-year-old Henry) and settled down to start his dynasty.

Smart, strong, and well prepared to succeed his father, Arthur came down with a sweating sickness a year after his marriage. While Catherine also became ill and survived, her husband unfortunately passed. Having been the favourite son of Henry VII, his death was a huge blow to the King, who was said to have cried when he was told.

George V

Born during the reign of his Grandmother, Victoria, George V was third in line to the throne behind his father and his older brother, Albert Victor. As Albert Victor had survived childhood, it wasn’t expected that George would ascend to the throne. Unfortunately, at the age of 28, Albert fell victim to an influenza pandemic while Victoria was still on the throne.

George, who had lived his whole life with the expectation that he would not be a ruler was suddenly number one to inherit the throne. He had served in the Royal Navy up until the unexpected death of his brother and went on to marry Albert’s fiancée Mary.

George VI

Born the second son of George V, Albert (or Bertie to his loved ones) lived his life very much in the shadow of his older brother Edward. Much like his father, as his older brother had survived infancy, Albert served in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and settled into a life out of the monarchy limelight. When his father died in 1936, the throne passed to Edward and the expectation was that the unmarried Edward would find a wife and produce a new line of succession for the crown. However, scandal rocked the house of Windsor, and Edward’s affair with twice-divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson, caused a royal crisis.

Forced to choose between his legacy and his love, Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry Wallis. After only ruling for 326 days, he became the shortest reigning British monarch. When Albert succeeded his brother, he chose the regal name of George VI.