There’s been much spluttering about the announcement of a change to the royal rules of succession, both to allow elder girls to succeed before younger brothers and to end the prohibition on marriage to Catholics. Indeed, it’s been one of those rare cases of equally loud and indignant spluttering from both left and right – the former keen to be rid of the whole circus, the latter outraged at yet more constitutional tinkering (and in the more extreme bunkers of Protestant fundamentalism, opposed to any sign of compromise with what some of them still see as the Romish Whore of Babylon). As usual when a piece of real, complicated history gets into the press, some of the coverage has been simply woeful. For example, I’ve seen plenty of suggestions that our current procedures are all to do with Henry VIII, presumably because he’s the only monarch whom most journalists and members of the public know anything about (if only thanks to the eye-watering inaccuracies and bodice-ripping of The Tudors). In fact, of course, every monarch who wed between Henry’s reign and 1689 was married to at least one Catholic (although admittedly James VI & I’s spouse only converted after marriage), and the tradition of male primacy in succession to the throne went back at least to the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. Then we’ve had the shock horror brigade who’ve trawled back and discovered that if these rules had existed in 1901, the Kaiser would have become King! Gosh, how dreadful; and if I’d been born in 1901, I’d have been my own grandfather. Fewer pundits have gone further back and realised that if the new rules had existed in the past, neither Henry VIII or Charles I would have become King …and even fewer have realised that neither would George III. Would the American colonies have been quite so animated against ‘Her Majesty Queen Augusta I’, 1760-1813, George’s elder sister? I wonder.

Out of personal interest, I once did quite a lot of work on what seemed to me to be a completely neglected ‘succession crisis’ in British history, namely that of the period 1667-72. This was intended to form part of a book which now seems very unlikely ever to see the light of day, so I’m happy to put it into the public domain. If anybody’s particularly interested, get in touch and I can send you a version with footnotes! Here goes…

King Charles II celebrated his fortieth birthday on 29 May 1670, amid the bonfires, bells, salutes and secretive politicking that dominated the visit to Dover of his sister ‘Madame’, Henrietta, duchesse d’Orleans, sister-in-law of King Louis XIV; a visit that culminated in the notorious treaty by which Charles agreed publicly to announce his conversion to Catholicism prior to embarking on an Anglo-French war against the Netherlands. Even without the astonishing political and religious context that surrounded the birthday celebrations, such landmarks are traditionally supposed to encourage ruminations on mortality; and even if Charles’s thoughts had not already turned that way, the shattering news of Madame’s sudden death, which reached the English court in the morning of 22 June, certainly must have done. The loss of Henrietta at the age of only twenty-six, so soon after the joyful family reunion, devastated the king, who took to his bed. But it also threw into sharp relief the potential succession crisis that seemed to lie ahead of the Stuarts. Charles was already, and by some margin, the oldest crowned head of a large European kingdom, having acquired that distinction when his second cousin Frederick III of Denmark-Norway died in February. Louis XIV was thirty-two, the Emperor Leopold thirty, Carlos el Hechtizado, ‘the Bewitched’ – the appallingly disabled King of Spain – only nine; leaving aside a few German or Italian princes of lesser rank, the only monarch anywhere in Europe who was older than Charles was Alexis, Tsar of all the Russias, and he only by fourteen months. Indeed, some of the uncertainties and policy switchbacks in European politics in the period 1667-72 might be explained by the fact that all of the large western powers, with the notable exception of France, had a real or potential ‘succession crisis’ at the time; in addition to the situations in Britain and Spain, until late in 1671 the Danish male line was represented only by the new King Christian V  and his brother, the future husband of Queen Anne, while the Emperor Leopold had no heir at all, and his serious illness early in 1670 threatened the Habsburg dynasty with extinction.

In Britain, he long-term survival prospects of the Stuart family appeared to be grim. Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, had suffered a miscarriage in June 1669 – somewhat surprisingly, as many courtiers had written off her prospects of bearing a child years before. During this period, too, the Duke of York’s health was worse than the king’s: he had an attack of smallpox in November 1667, and in July 1670, barely a month after Henrietta’s death, James contracted what seemed to be consumption and withdrew to Richmond, where his recovery was briefly despaired of. It turned out to be no more than a bad cold, but the fact that some pessimists exaggerated the symptoms demonstrates the intensity of the concerns for the future of the royal family. James’s two eldest sons, the Dukes of Cambridge and Kendal, had died within weeks of each other in 1667. Therefore the next in line to the throne in 1670 was little Prince Edgar, ‘the sole sprig who is at present ready to succeed to the crown of these kingdoms’, as the Venetian ambassador put it, whose name (unique in every dynasty since the conquest) probably symbolised a desire to reassert British sovereignty at sea after the humiliating Dutch attack on the Medway a few weeks before Edgar’s birth. But the survival record of James’s children was appalling, and Edgar, aged three and three-quarters, followed his elder brothers to the grave on 8 June 1671 – almost exactly two months after his mother, who died in cancerous and grossly corpulent agony. James and Anne had two daughters, Mary (aged seven in 1670) and Anne (aged five) but both were in poor health, especially Anne, and none of Charles and James’s five sisters had lived to see their thirtieth birthdays. Another daughter, Katherine, was born in February 1671, but survived only until December. The concern over the security of the line of succession was reflected in the indecent haste with which a second marriage for James was mooted almost immediately after the death of his first duchess.  But if both James and his daughters died before such a marriage came about and produced a son, and assuming that Charles II did not either legitimise his eldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, or divorce Catherine of Braganza and remarry – both possibilities that he had plainly ruled out – then the fate of the Stuart dynasty rested with three other branches of the family. There were the two young daughters of Henrietta, who were being brought up as Catholics at the French court and were thus likely to be unacceptable to English sensibilities (indeed, it was their descendants who formed the principal group disinherited by the soon-to-be-repealed Act of Settlement of 1701, and who provide the residual ‘Jacobite’ claim to the throne to this day). Then there were the children of Charles’ and James’ aunt, the ‘Winter Queen’ Elizabeth of Bohemia. The youngest of her children, Sophia, would eventually be nominated as heir by the 1701 Act of Settlement, and from her the present royal family – all 5,000 or so members of it – descends; but in the 1660s and 1670s the senior representative of this line, the Elector Palatine Karl Ludwig, was damned in Charles II’s eyes because of his support for Parliament and overt ambition to obtain the British crowns during the Civil Wars. The third, and by far the most important, of the potential reversionary claimants in the event of a cataclysmic failure of the dynasty was the twenty-year-old son of the Stuart brothers’ other dead sister, Mary, the Princess Royal (1631-60).

William III, Prince of Orange-Nassau, was at once the hope of many in his Dutch homeland, and potentially the saviour of the Stuart bloodline. He was by far the oldest of the surviving grandchildren of the ‘saint and martyr’ Charles I; apart from the sickly and doomed Prince Edgar, he was also that monarch’s only grandson. Moreover, while Stuarts tended to die suddenly and young, the House of Orange generally enjoyed vigorous health and longevity. William’s father was an exception, dying of smallpox at the age of twenty-four, but William III’s two aunts lived to be seventy-one and forty-six, while both his grandfather and four of that grandfather’s siblings lived well past fifty. Even in 1670, it would have been obvious to both William and his two uncles that there was a reasonably good chance of him eventually succeeding to the British thrones. William decided to visit England in the autumn of 1670. His main reason for coming over was to get Charles to pay his mother’s dowry and other debts, totalling 2,797,859 guilders, but he might also have had one eye on his reversionary interest in the British succession. In turn, his uncles may have taken the opportunity to broach to him his potential future role within the Stuart family; when William eventually arrived in England (he reached Whitehall on 1 November), many believed that he had come to find a wife. After his formal entry to the court, William was feted in the City of London, visited Oxford and Cambridge, and attended a military review in Hyde Park before returning to his homeland in February 1671. Charles at least thought of attempting to recruit William to the Anglo-French ‘grand design’, but abandoned the scheme when he found his nephew to be too Dutch and too Protestant, or so he told Louis XIV. Nevertheless, William’s attitude to his uncles, and to the growing threat to the Dutch state, was ambivalent. In January 1672 he wrote to Charles, promising to support him in ‘obtaining from the States whatever he wish’ as long as it was consistent with his loyalty to the republic; unsurprisingly, this letter has caused Dutch historians considerable angst over the years. When the war began in the spring of 1672, William emerged as the heroic defender of his fatherland, and within twenty years he was King of England and Scotland, the victor of the Boyne and the hero of Protestant Ireland. Ironically, his horse’s trip over a molehill ensured that his life was rather shorter than those of his uncles.

Ultimately, therefore, the worries over the succession during the years 1667-72 proved to be academic. Charles lived to be fifty-five, James to be sixty-eight, and both Mary and Anne lived long enough to succeed to the throne – as did William, albeit only by dint of invading England. But it’s too easy to overlook the insecurities and concerns that plagued people in the past simply because we know how things turned out. As William III’s fatal mole proved, something can always stick its head above ground and set history off on an entirely different course; and wouldn’t be deliciously ironic if after all the headlines and the law-passing, William and Kate’s first child turned out to be a boy after all?

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