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Mike Vouri: England’s Royals: A History of Troublesome Heirs and Spares

  • Written by Mike Vouri

There’s nothing like a royal sibling rivalry to start tongues wagging by the town pump or emblazon the literature in the supermarket checkout stand. These days the buzz is all about Prince Harry Windsor’s sensational autobiography, “Spare,” a public rumination by an  aggrieved younger brother that happens to be an old true story that plows generations into Britain’s past, even to the murky depths of Saxon England.

A Henry (Harry) and William in our time. Their squabbles are nothing new under the royal reigns.

In a month’s time, the book sold a million and a half copies and counting. This astounding figure is proof positive that the British royal family remains the ultimate celebrity machine even in a proud nation that celebrates its independence from this same monarchy, seven generations removed, with fireworks every summer.

What we have here is another in a long line of usurpations, which in the old days could feature disembowelments and decapitations. Today we’re witnessing an expropriation of dialogue and public perception in a thrust and parry no less bloody in its effects as swords ringing in the halls. Much of the payback has been unleashed by Harry on his older brother William, the heir apparent for our times, in addition to his stepmother, Camilla, the Queen Consort. His father, Charles III, has emerged relatively unscathed, though he is undoubtedly stung by the mess on the eve of his coronation.

What is at stake here? Barrels of ink and hours of video, no doubt. But this is still better than the real blood that splattered the walls and soaked the battlefields in days of yore among Harry’s ancestors.

(Left) AEthelred the Unready, a Saxon king, assumed the throne after his brother and dinner guest, the aptly named King Edward the Martyr, was hacked to death by AEthelred’s bodyguard. 
(Right) King Canut took over from his father, Sweyn, who deposed AEthelred. Canut had more luck ruling England than he did with his squabbling sons. 

In 978 the Saxon King Edward, appropriately called “The Martyr,” decided to drop in for dinner with his younger brother, AEthelred “The Unready,” and his stepmother, Ælfthryth. As the great-grandsons of Alfred the Great, they were committed to maintaining a united England but were also influenced by the internecine struggles among Alfred’s offspring. Therefore, it was hardly a surprise when the king and his retinue were attacked and hacked to pieces by AEthelred’s body guard. Rumor had it, more than 100 years after the fact, that the king’s stepmother plotted the murders to place her biological son on the throne, triggering the eventual end of Saxon rule.

(Left) William the Conqueror’s sons fought one another almost as often as they did their external enemies. (Right) Henry I, called “Beauclerc” because of a scholarship rare for the age, was imprisoned alternately by his elder brothers, William Rufus and Robert Curthose, but emerged to rule for more than 30 years.

Those long decades witnessed the fall of AEthelred to Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark followed by the rule of Sweyn’s son, Canut, who ruled in a combination of piety, ruthlessness and political acumen for nearly 20 years. This was despite his inability to stop the waves from breaking ashore, according to legend. The same could not be said for his sons who, alienated by another ambitious stepmother, Queen Emma, undermined one another into abbreviated terms in office and plunged the kingdom into civil strife once again. This opened the door for AEthelred the Unready’s youngest son, Edward “The Confessor,” to return from exile in Normandy where he had been raised in the same household as the duke’s only son, William the Bastard, soon to become known as “The Conqueror.” 1.

As Edward was childless, his succession was usurped in lightning fashion by his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, who happened to be the toughest guy on the block despite the fact that his younger brother, Tostig, was a supreme conniver in good standing among royals. Tough guy or not, Harold made a point of having the nearest bishop conduct an overnight coronation.

Having an army at your back has always been critical to sustaining power, even to this day. But in medieval times, it helped to be “anointed by God.” The application of holy oil had become an essential element in validating the powers of kings over the preceding 200 years throughout Europe, where most people didn’t read and thought the mere touch of the monarch’s hand could cure the mumps. But this was nothing more than a contrivance, first engineered by the French warlord, Pepin the Short, in 751 to legitimize his armed takeover of a neighboring province. After his election as King of the Franks by fellow warlords, Pepin’s gambit was validated via anointing by Pope Zachary in return for protection against the Lombards, another nasty bunch who were pressuring the papal states. Christianity thus became a critical ingredient in convincing the masses you had a right to rule, kill anyone who stood in your way and make a lot of money. 

And remember Tostig? This fool, still smarting over the fact that he was rejected as earl by the people of York, colluded with the Norwegian King Harald “Hardrada” (meaning Hard Ruler, or let’s face it, Hard Ass), to oust his brother after he had been in office but a few months. Harold G. heaved a weary sigh and marched north to win a stunning victory at Stamford Bridge, northwest of York, killing his brother and Harald Hardass in the process. The only problem was that the Conqueror, the Confessor’s former boyhood playmate, had crossed the English Channel to claim the crown that he maintained Edward had promised him.

King Harold Godwinson, seen here in the Bayeaux Tapestry, ruled for only a few months, but in that time his brother, Tostig, attempted to unseat him. He was ousted and killed by William the Conqueror.

William defeated and killed Harold G. at the Battle of Hastings, thus beginning centuries of Norman rule. Early on, the victors engaged in “harrying,” an archaic term that meant burning, pillaging, raping and murdering noncompliant populations, as opposed to writing autobiographies. William’s surviving sons were, chronologically, Robert “Curthose” (muscular legs), William “Rufus” (ginger hair) and Henry “Beauclerc” (literate). Predictably, the boys did a little harrying of their own, to one another both in England and Normandy. William Rufus came out on top for a while, having succeeded the Conqueror as king, while Robert ruled in Normandy. Meanwhile the youngest, Henry, having nothing better to do, intrigued against both his brothers. They had no compunction about throwing him in jail, which would come back to haunt them.

Their relationship had never been smooth. When troublesome boys, William Rufus and Henry were said to have dumped from a balcony a full chamber pot on the much older Robert, who was preening in front of his entourage. When the Conqueror failed to discipline the miscreants, Robert left in a rage and took revenge on his family by laying siege to one of the Conqueror’s castles. This is what you did when you couldn’t use your words and had a gang of thugs at your beck and call. Is it any wonder that Henry looked down his nose at his father and older brothers, once proclaiming that “…an illiterate king was no better than a crowned ass.” 2.

William Rufus’s reign ended after 13 years when an errant arrow pierced his heart during a hunting trip, attended by both William Rufus and Henry, their men at arms and archers. Suspicions over the years about whether Henry had a part in his brother’s death have never been proven, and are disputed in academia to this day. Around the same time, Robert was on his way home from his trip to the First Crusade, which he’d financed by taking out a home mortgage (that is, his dukedom) to William Rufus. When he learned that Henry had snatched the crown (and the mortgage), he taxed his people, hired an army and mounted a second Norman invasion.

But Henry wasn’t called “Beauclerc” for nothing. He swiftly outmaneuvered his brother politically by buying off his nobles and, like his Saxon predecessors, had himself reaffirmed by the archbishop. The result was a bloodless victory, as Robert’s army, not willing to cross the Lord, stood down without a fight. Robert returned to Normandy with his tail between his legs and focused on knightly pursuits such as jousting, falconry, feasting and wenching—all at the expense of his duchy. Five years on, Normandy was in such a sorry state that Henry mounted a cross-channel invasion in reverse. By 1106 he reclaimed the family holding and solidified England’s foothold on the continent for the next 100 years. Along the way, Henry defeated Robert in battle, dragged him back to England by the scruff of the neck and threw him in prison for the remaining 20 years of his life.

Henry proved an able ruler for more than 35 years, though the realm was left in chaos following the death of his heir, William, who drowned off the coast of France in what is known as the “White Ship” incident. Henry’s daughter, Matilda, believed she had a better claim to the crown than her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who was a grandson of the Conqueror on his mother’s side. Before his death, Henry had married her off to Geoffrey of Anjou, better known to history as Plantagenet (for the feather he sported in his cap), after which she promptly went to war against her father. Being in England when Henry passed, Stephen seized the crown and spent the next 20 years fighting with Matilda and then her son, the future Henry II, to hold on to it.

Henry II’s many children exhibited the ultimate in toxic sibling rivalry. Richard I, the Lionheart, and John Lackland eventually assumed the throne.

Anyone who has ever seen the film “The Lion in Winter” knows that Henry II was a powerful king who not only ruled more real estate than any of his predecessors, but also had little or no control over his own sons. They were a nasty and rebellious lot as they came of age and hated one another with a passion. The worst of them was John, a vicious incompetent who as king was forced to seal the Magna Carta and lost England’s remaining holdings on the continent. All the Plantagenet monarchs were bullies, but John started out with a large chip on his shoulder because, unlike most princelings, he was not granted his own real estate at birth—therefore the nickname “John Lackland.” This was only slightly better than a later sobriquet, “John Shortsword,” the derivation of which is best left alone.

As a younger brother, he was equally toxic. He gleefully dithered when it came to paying the ransom to spring his brother, King Richard “the Lionheart,” from an Austrian prison following the Second Crusade, during which the king had drained his country’s coffers to fight Saladin to a draw. It did not go quite the way Errol Flynn has it in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” but more than one historian will tell you that Claude Raines’s slithery performance as Prince John is probably close to the mark.

Edward IV’s brother, George, the Duke of Clarence, twice attempted to usurp the throne after Edward took it from his cousin, Henry VI.

I could go on and on, but I have one more story that involves another of the Plantagenet kings, Edward IV, and his younger brothers, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. All three were the sons of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who had attempted to wrest the throne from his cousin, the ineffectual Henry VI. He had the misfortune of inheriting the crown as an infant from a brilliant father, and spent the next 40 years never really growing into the job. As a grandson of the last great Plantagenet king, Edward III, the duke believed he had a stronger claim to the throne, not to mention a better grasp of statecraft. Following years of antagonism, he openly rebelled and forced the king into signing the Act of Accord, which granted the throne to him and his heirs upon the king’s death. However, Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, was a lot tougher than her husband. She rejected the act and gathered an army. Thus began the War of the Roses, the ultimate family feud between the Lancastrians and Yorks and their followers.

Margaret’s Lancastrian forces won an initial skirmish, during which the duke was killed and decapitated. His head, bearing a paper crown, was impaled on a spike on the City of York’s Micklegate Bar. Months later, his eldest son, Edward, supported by Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (said to be the richest peer in England), defeated Margaret, deposed the king and assumed the crown as Edward IV. It was a precarious fit thanks to his brother George, who resented Edward’s high and mighty ways. It was one of those “I knew you whens” and “I’ll marry whomever I darn well please” situations. His disaffection culminated in a scheme with Warwick to return Henry to the throne and maneuver himself into being the heir, never mind Henry’s son, the Prince of Wales. Naturally, another battle ensued, which was won by Edward and Henry was gone for good. But before the fight, after learning that there would be no crown in store for him from the Lancastrians, George returned to his brother, cap in hand, begging forgiveness.

Following his second attempt to usurp his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, was convicted of treason and executed by drowning in a butt of wine.

This was warmly granted—“we all make mistakes” and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”—but relations deteriorated once more, again over the issue of marriage after George’s first wife died. George resumed his plotting until, at last fed up, Edward had him locked up. Citing a threat to the crown, he persuaded Parliament, then nothing more than a klavern of nobles, to condemn George to death. The execution was performed in February 1478 out of the public eye. Sword, ax, rope or arrow—no one really knows. Rumor has it that George, something of a bon vivant, chose drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine, a sweet and exceedingly strong concoction. He literally drowned his sorrows.

That left the other younger brother, Richard, who had remained loyal to King Edward throughout his reign while simultaneously accumulating a massive amount of real estate and rent money. Moreover, he pledged to support the child heir, Prince Edward, come what may. Unfortunately for the prince, his dad followed his Uncle George in drowning himself in drink, though out of a bottle instead of a barrel. With the king’s untimely death, the “loyal” Richard (who had a lot to lose) swept the board of rivals and claimed the crown after his nephews, the rightful heirs, disappeared in the Tower of London, a great place to lock up your relatives. Some believe he had them murdered, along with the king’s male in-laws, and then seduced their older sister, Elizabeth, who like her mother would become a queen of England…though not with him.

While Edward IV’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, didn’t usurp his sibling, he did not hesitate to depose and possibly order the murder of his nephew, George V, the heir he had sworn to protect. He was killed in battle after only two years on the throne. His long-lost remains were found under a parking lot in 2012.

Poor old Dick. After losing everything to the Lancastrians on Bosworth Field only two years into his reign, his skeletal remains were found centuries later in a hole under a Leicester car park. No wonder Shakespeare had a field day with him…and many more princes, including Richard II, deposed by his first cousin…yes, another Henry. He mourns all he has lost:

“…For God’s sake let us sit on the ground
 And tell sad stories of the death of kings,
 How some have been depos’d, some slain in war
 Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed…” 3.

The bard would probably be no less inspired by Harry’s book.

But the monarchy will endure, as it always has—even through the English Civil War (1642-51) after which the absolutist Charles I had his head chopped off and a republic was declared. It didn’t last. The monarchy was restored 10 years later and has continued, unbroken, to this day

The British people want it that way, and apparently, so do we.

1.In post-Roman Britain, when tribes were coalescing into regional kingdoms, there was no guarantee that the eldest son would assume the throne upon the death of the chieftain or king. Primogeniture would not be established in England until the 13th century. Until then, it was more likely that the kingdom would be sub-divided among the squabbling royal siblings. Inevitably blood flowed, often culminating in fratricide. But even after succession of the eldest male child was recognized by law, trouble ensued, often because the younger child was either smarter, stronger, more popular or a conniving monster. And sometimes, all of the above.

2. As quoted in Morris, Marc, “The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England.”

3. “Richard II,” Act 3, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare

Suggested reading: The historian Marc Morris has written a trilogy of books. In addition to the above title, see “The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England” and “A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain.” Also see Charles Spencer’s “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream.” The 9th Earl Spencer is the uncle of Princes William and Harry and author of seven books. For the Plantagenet/War of the Roses periods, you can’t miss with Dan Jones, particularly “The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors” and “The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.” Tom Holland’s “The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West” offers a look at the budding relationship between the Catholic church and monarchies. These titles can be found in your local library, Griffin Bay Bookstore, or Serendipity Books. It’s the real “Game of Thrones.”

Last modified onFriday, 17 February 2023 22:28

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