I recently looked into a few might-have-beens of English history in the form of half-a-dozen people who could, or even perhaps should, have been the King (or Queen) but through the cruel hand of fate were denied the chance. They weren’t the only ones, of course – and here are half-a-dozen more…
Edgar Aetheling (c.1051-c.1126) – would have been King Edgar II
‘Aetheling’ was, roughly speaking, the Anglo-Saxon term for the heir to the King. During the latter part of the Edward the Confessor’s reign (1042-1066) this title was held by Edgar, grandson of Edward’s half-brother Edmund Ironside (who had himself been King for a mere seven months in 1016) and, aside from Edward himself, the only surviving male member of the royal House of Wessex. The childless Edward, however, made no effort to entrench Edgar’s position as heir. The designs of both the King of Norway and Duke William of Normandy on the English throne meant that, after Edward’s death in January 1066, the assembly of the English nobility known as the Witan chose to elect Harold Godwinson, the country’s senior nobleman and a renowned warrior, to be King rather than the young, untested Edgar. After Harold’s death at the battle of Hastings later that same year, Edgar was proclaimed as King but the surviving English nobility quickly submitted to William the Conqueror. Thus deprived, Edgar would later be linked with various anti-Norman rebellions, and eventually became a Crusader.
Henry, the Young King (1155-1183) – would have been an alternative King Henry III
The Plantagenets were a famously unruly royal family. Henry II had five sons by his wife, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the eldest of those to survive infancy was the one who was named after him. Described by contemporaries as a charming but feckless playboy, in 1170 this younger Henry became the only heir to the English throne to be crowned before the death of his predecessor. It is unclear why Henry II decided to do this, but as he got the Archbishop of York to do it, it became part of that king’s feud with Thomas Becket, who as Archbishop of Canterbury should have been the man to perform the ceremony. Probably frustrated by his father’s reluctance to relinquish any actual control of any of his lands, the Young King – as he became known after his coronation – led the rebellion against Henry II in 1173-74 and was joined by his mother and two of his brothers. He was in revolt against his father again in 1183 when he died. Six years later, his father died and the crown passed to his brother Richard.
Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales (1453-1471) – would have been another alternative King Edward IV, or maybe V
Born at a time of strife, this Prince Edward was the only son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou but he was disinherited in 1460 when his father was captured after the battle of Northampton – Henry was allowed to remain as King but he was forced to make the Duke of York his heir. A year later, York was dead and his son, the Earl of March, had defeated the Lancastrians at Towton, seizing the crown and becoming King Edward IV in the process. Prince Edward and his mother went into exile, where Margaret allied herself with the Earl of Warwick; Edward married his daughter, Anne Neville, in 1470. Warwick briefly restored Henry VI to the throne, but was defeated and killed by the Yorkists at Barnet in 1471. Deprived of their best military leader, the Lancastrians rallied around the inexperienced Prince of Wales for the battle of Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471; they were defeated and Edward killed – making him the only heir to the English throne to have died in battle. His father died (or was murdered; no-one knows for sure) a few days later. A teenage widow, Anne went on to marry Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester – who would become King Richard III.
Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502) – would have been a real rather than legendary King Arthur
Much was expected of this Tudor prince, the eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and as such viewed as living proof of the union between the houses of Lancaster and York (Elizabeth being the daughter of Edward IV) and the end of the Wars of the Roses. He was said to have been academically bright, as well as an accomplished archer and dancer. His father wanted him to marry Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, in order to forge a union between England and Spain; the marriage eventually took place in late 1501. Within months, though, Arthur fell ill and died. His brother Henry – the ‘spare’ who would succeed their father as King in 1509 – married Catherine but, as she was his brother’s widow, he could only do so after getting special dispensation from the Pope; the consequences of this would lead to the break with Rome some years later.
James Stuart (1688-1766) – styled himself as James III of England and James VIII of Scotland
The Old Pretender sparked controversy merely by being born – opponents of his father, James II, alleged that his mother’s pregnancy had been faked and that he had been smuggled into the Queen’s bed in a warming-pan. The Glorious Revolution followed shortly thereafter, and as such James Stuart grew up in exile, assuming the title of King – and being recognised as such by the Pope and by his cousin Louis XIV of France – after his father’s death in 1701. He made three serious attempts at recapturing his father’s kingdoms, his best chance being in 1715 after his half-sister Queen Anne’s death plunged Britain into political uncertainty. A rebel army was raised in Scotland and some rebel forces entered England, but before James could arrive in person defeats at Sheriffmuir and Preston had put government forces in control. James spent much of his life in Rome, where his court-in-exile was popular with British visitors regardless of their faith or political affiliation (he was even given permission to hold Protestant services for said visitors, although he himself remained a Catholic). In later life he quarrelled with his eldest son Charles (the Young Pretender) to the extent that he only knew of the 1745 rebellion after the latter had landed in Scotland. He died in Rome and is buried in the Vatican alongside his two sons – the younger of whom became a cardinal and in old age received a pension from George III.
Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817) – would have been Queen Charlotte IAs the only legitimate grandchild of George III, Charlotte was second in line to the throne after her father who became Prince Regent in 1811 (and would become George IV in 1820); unlike him, she was very popular with the British people. She married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and in 1817 her pregnancy was the subject of intense public interest. Unfortunately her obstetrician, Sir Richard Croft, followed outdated medical advice and put her on a strict diet and bled her regularly; this weakened her to the extent that after a two-day labour the 21 year-old princess died after giving birth to a stillborn boy. Croft later killed himself. As well as deep mourning across the country, Charlotte’s death prompted a succession crisis which led to two of her uncles quickly ditching their mistresses and getting married in a bid to ensure the survival of the House of Hanover; one of them, the Duke of Kent, married Leopold’s sister Victoria, after whom their daughter – the future Queen Victoria – was named.