It’s been a while since I have blogged as I have been hard at work writing a book on the Queen for the Pocket Giants Series soon to be published by The History Press. But now, on the eve of the Queen’s eighty-ninth birthday, as my focus shifts and the world awaits the impending arrival of her fifth great-grandchild, the spare to William’s heir, we are reminded once again that we are all a witness to living history.
Throughout the British monarchy’s thousand-year history, the role of the “spare” in relation to the heir has been a tricky one. Some spares have revolutionized entire eras, while others have irrevocably tarnished the family name. Free of the burdens of impending sovereignty, spares have long been able to benefit from the trappings of royal life, but without a definitive constitutional role, it has been hard for many to carve out a worthwhile existence in which their own achievements could be recognized.
Henry VIII was perhaps the most notorious of all royal spares. He assumed his place as heir apparent in 1502 upon the death of his elder brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, who passed away from an unknown illness five months shy of his sixteenth birthday. Although famed for having six wives, two of whom he had executed, Henry’s kingship continues to have a lasting impact on modern British life. His squabbles with the papal authority led to the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, whereupon Henry installed himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England – a position the reigning monarch continues to hold today. Recent amendments made to the Laws to Succession – brought before Parliament in 2013 – now allow members of the royal family to marry a Catholic without sacrificing their place in line, but a Roman Catholic monarch remains forbidden.
King George V, the current Queen’s grandfather, was the second-born son of King Edward VII, and was also a royal spare. His elder brother Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, died suddenly in 1892 after contracting influenza at the age of twenty-eight. His death placed George in direct line to the throne and paved the way for the first Windsor monarch. The early years of George’s reign were blighted by the First World War. In response to the British public’s escalating anti-German sentiment, George changed the house and family name by Royal Proclamation in July 1917 from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the more Anglican-sounding House of Windsor. Almost a hundred years later the House of Windsor continues to reign. It was also George who delivered the first Christmas Message to the “British Empire” in a radio broadcast made from a temporary studio set-up at Sandringham in 1932.
The Queen’s father, King George VI, was yet another spare thrust into fulfilling a destiny not his by birth. Following the abdication of his brother Edward VIII, who had reigned a mere three hundred and twenty-five days before stepping aside in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, George reluctantly took on the role of King. Leading his country through the war years, he restored a sense of continuity, boosting public morale, and as such was a popular ruler. In 1926 his first daughter, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born. At the time of her birth she was never expected to be crowned Queen, but later this year, on September 9th, 2015, she will surpass Queen Victoria’s record to become the longest reigning monarch in British history.
Raising Princes William and Harry, Diana was conscious that William, as heir, would be well taken care of by the establishment. She made a concerted effort to ensure Harry was treated equally and never felt left out. Though Harry remains one of the most popular members of the royal family, he, along with fellow spares Princess Margaret and Prince Andrew, Duke of York, has been at the mercy of incessant public scrutiny and has faced harsh criticism over a slew of ill-advised choices. In recent years however, Harry has risen above the naysayers to champion the needs of wounded veterans as well as overseeing the work of his charity Sentebale.
With the birth of the new baby Cambridge, William and Kate are now charged with raising their own heir and spare, but as history has shown, the British monarchy is anything but predictable. In two of the last three generations of monarchs the second-born son has stepped into the top job and reigned successfully.
It will be many years from now before these children are expected to embark on official royal duties and make their own mark on the international stage, but one thing is certain: one should never underestimate the potential of a royal spare.