Royal spares that have found success in the shadows

Prince Harry’s claims in Spare are ‘so backward’ says Clarke

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Throughout the second Elizabethan era and beyond, the royal ‘Spares’ have increasingly become associated with difficulty: struggling to navigate their path within the Royal Family, falling into trouble and always playing second fiddle to the rightful heir. Prince Harry, Prince Andrew and Princess Margaret have all been pointed out as victims of the doomed spare and heir dynamic, and last month, the Duke of Sussex gave a firsthand account of what life was like as a ‘Spare’. Harry claimed his father King Charles III referred to him as the ‘Spare’ and expressed concern for the future royal children who may be burdened with the same label. However, while the focus has been centred around the royals tormented by their title, history has proven that being the ‘Spare’ does not always result in a life in the shadows.

King George VI

By all accounts, Prince Albert, later George VI, was perfectly content with life as the spare heir.

His older brother Prince Edward, later Edward VIII, was destined to be monarch and, as many initially believed, was more well-suited to the role than the naturally reserved and shy Albert.

Historian and author Andrew Lownie noted: “David, (as Edward was known within the family), was the heir, not the spare, and the dominant figure in the relationship. As one contemporary said: ‘It’s like comparing an ugly duckling with a cock pheasant.’”

He told “Bertie (as he was affectionately called) was very much in the shadow of his older brother who was eighteen months older and had all the benefits and pressures of being the heir. David was charismatic and popular, his younger brother was seen as a bit of a dolt, academically backward, unconfident and with a stammer.”

Bertie forged his own role within the Royal Family; having led a successful military career which saw him serve in World War One, he started carrying out official duties, earning the nickname the ‘Industrial Prince’ for his work at coal mines, factories and railyards, and running annual summer camps for boys in a bid to bring together children from different social backgrounds.

In 1923, he married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon — the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore — and the pair had two daughters together: Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, and Princess Margaret.

For 10 years, the family of four led a relatively quiet life, splitting their time between their London townhouse and Royal Lodge in Windsor.

Upon the death of King George V, in January 1936, Edward was proclaimed as King Edward VIII. In an eery prophecy moments before his death, the late King said: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months… I pray God that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”

Sure enough, in December of that year, Edward abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee whom he was not permitted to wed as monarch. With Edward childless, Bertie was his successor and despite his reluctance, ascended the throne as George VI.

While there was widespread doubt about the shy royal’s capability to be monarch, he turned out to be a popular King, earning respect for staying in London during the Blitz and his devotion to his close-knit family.

George reigned until his death on February 6, 1952. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, succeeded him and ruled for over 70 years, becoming the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

“In many ways, George VI seems almost impossibly dutiful, hard-working and ordinary,” professor and historian Henry Judd for History Extra in 2020. “But the standards he set in his public and private life were staggeringly high, providing an invaluable template for his equally dutiful elder daughter.”

King George V

Like his son Bertie, George V was the second son of a future monarch. Born in 1865, George came just over one year after his parents Prince Albert Edward, later Edward VII, and Princess Alexandra had welcomed their first son — Prince Albert Victor, also known as Eddy.

From early childhood, George was deemed the brighter of the brothers, with several accounts suggesting Eddy struggled with his intellectual studies perhaps, in light of modern knowledge, due to learning difficulties.

Both brothers attended Royal Naval College at Dartmouth together, before embarking on a three-year trip around the world to hone their seamanship skills. Eventually, their paths diverged when Eddy’s preparations for his future role commenced. He was sent to complete his education at Cambridge University, but left before taking any exams.

In the years that followed, the elder Prince’s name was dragged into scandal. When a male brothel was uncovered on London’s Cleveland Street, rumours surrounding a member of the Royal Family’s involvement were rife. Although Albert Victor had not been named personally, it shone a light on the questions surrounding the Prince’s sexuality.

While many have hypothesised whether Albert Victor was involved and what his sexuality may have been, there is no conclusive evidence that he ever went to the Cleveland Street brothel, nor was indeed homosexual.

In spite of the claims, Eddy’s life soon started to look up. In 1892, he was due to marry Mary of Teck and the Government had suggested that he should become Viceroy of Ireland. But just days into the year, the Prince became a victim of a global flu epidemic, and to the shock of his family, he was dead within the week.

Subsequently, his brother George became second in line to the throne and faced a life he was unprepared for. In 1901, upon the death of his grandmother Queen Victoria, he became the Prince of Wales, and nine years later, he ascended the throne as George V following the death of his father Edward VII.

Eddy’s wife-to-be, Mary of Teck, had also been “passed on” and when George ascended the throne, she became Queen Mary.

George is often described as a dutiful King who dealt with several crises during his 26-year reign. Initially anxious and inexperienced, George became a national symbol — helped by his impact during World War One.

In 1917, he adopted the name ‘Windsor’ as a response to rampant republicanism and concerns regarding who the King’s children would marry if German royals were no longer a viable option. The name change from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ was “a powerful message to the country”, noted historian Alexandra Churchill for HistoryExtra in 2021.

As author and historian Alan Robert Clark noted in History Extra in 2018: “The view of many in the establishment, the view that history has endorsed, is that the death of Prince Eddy was a lucky break that paved the way for the younger brother, who was perhaps gruff and uninspiring, but a far safer pair of hands.”

George was the first monarch to broadcast the annual Christmas speech, a tradition maintained by Kings and Queens to this day. Ms Churchill described him as the “most accessible monarch in British history,” adding: “The British people felt like they knew him more than they had ever known a Sovereign.”

In 1935, the year of his Silver Jubilee, the King was stunned by the outpouring of love and affection from the public, so much so that it reduced him to tears.

Ms Churchill wrote: “The man who had been totally unprepared for his role, had become a father figure to the nation. He had gone so far, with his trusted and long-serving advisors, as to rebrand the monarchy, strengthen it and bring it into the 20th century. The blueprint he left endures to this day.”

In early 1936, George fell ill. He died on January 20, 1936, at Sandringham aged 70 and his eldest son Edward ascended the throne as Edward VIII.

William IV 

The third son of George III and brother of George IV, William was not expected to come to the throne. Instead, he was sent to sea as a midshipman at the young age of 13.

He enjoyed a 10-year Naval career, including being present at the battle of Cape St Vincent, serving in New York during the revolution and later being stationed in the West Indies under Horatio Nelson.

Out of George III’s children, William had the most offspring. All of them, however, were conceived outside of marriage — a result of his relationship with actress Dorothea Bland, better known by her stage name Mrs Jordan.

Together, William and Dorothea had 10 children. Described as a commoner, the actress was deemed an unsuitable candidate for royal marriage, so when William was advised that he would need to find himself a wife in order to provide an eventual heir to the throne, he separated from Dorothea and, two years later, married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. 

Following the death of George III’s only legitimate grandchild, Princess Charlotte, in 1817, several of the King’s middle-aged sons had to marry and produce heirs in a bid to continue the line of succession.

William’s elder brother George IV and Frederick, Duke of York, left no children to survive them. Therefore, when Frederick died in 1827, William became first in line to the throne, and was crowned following George’s death in 1830.

Aged 64, William IV was the oldest person ever to ascend the throne (only surpassed by King Charles III who ascended the throne aged 73 in September 2022).

He is best remembered for the passage of the Great Reform Bill. Considered a major milestone in British parliamentary democracy, it abolished the rotten boroughs, widened the electorate and provided for secret ballots.

It is widely believed by biographers that, had either George IV or Frederick been on the throne at the time, they would have refused to have anything to do with reform. Largely impacted by his wife, William had more of a common touch than his elder brothers and did not succumb to the pomposity often associated with the monarchy.

Writing for The Georgian Papers, Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, said: “[William] played a critical role in stabilizing the monarchy after the extravagance, excess and unpopularity of his elder brother, George IV, overseeing the beginning of political reform while helping to shape a national culture that saw the present and future as oceanic, imperial and expansive.”

In 1837, after just a seven-year reign, William died, and as he left no legitimate children, he was succeeded by his niece, Princess Victoria of Kent, who would go on to rule as Queen Victoria for more than 63 years.

Henry VIII

Perhaps one of England’s most famous Kings, Henry VIII became heir apparent at age 15 after the death of his older brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1502.

As parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were much grieved by the loss of their eldest son. But for Henry VII, Arthur’s death was also a political blow. He was the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty, which had ruled for less than 20 years after a series of bloody civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses.

Just months before his death, Arthur had married Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Their wedding was widely seen as the beginning of a new era for the Tudors, with Catherine and Arthur seemingly guaranteeing the continuation of Henry VII’s dynasty.

In another desperate bid to seal a marital alliance with Spain, Henry VII arranged for his second son to marry Catherine, a union that took place two months after Henry VIII acceded the throne — in June 1509.

Henry VIII ruled over England for 36 years, overseeing sweeping changes that brought his nation into the Protestant Reformation. Known for his tumultuous love life, he married a series of six wives in his search for political alliance, marital bliss and a healthy male heir.

Three of Henry’s legitimate children lived until adulthood; he had two daughters before he finally welcomed his son and heir.

Having been groomed by his doting father for his royal destiny, Edward VI ascended the throne aged nine. However, just six years later, aged 15, Edward died.

He was succeeded by his older sister Queen Mary I, who reigned from 1516 to 1558, and later, Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, ascended the throne as Elizabeth I.

Another of the Royal Family’s many ‘Spares’, Elizabeth served as Queen of England and Ireland for 45 years. She is widely considered one of history’s greatest monarchs having defeated the Spanish Armada and saved England from invasion. Elizabeth reinstated Protestantism and forged an England that was strong and independent, making the country a world power.

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