The last of the royal Lionels: The peculiar names of would-be Kings

George might be the favourite name for the new royal, but how about a Eustace, Alfonso or Arthur? He wouldn't be our first.

Well, at least we now know that the next monarch but two will, in all likelihood, not be Queen Alexandra, Queen Victoria II or even Queen Elizabeth III. As anticipation mounts over which names the Cambridges are going to give to their firstborn, we can probably assume that they will eschew the wild and wacky in favour of a proper princely-sounding name. Having said that, who would have put a bet on Zara Phillips? The name Andrew raised a few eyebrows in 1960 when he became second-in-line to the throne too. Of course, it was the name of his long-dead Greek grandfather but none of the UK’s constituent parts had ever had a King Andrew, the only country with kings of that name being Hungary in the early middle ages.

As I write, the bookies have plumped for George as the favourite; after all the last Prince of Cambridge was a George, born in 1819 and whose statue in Whitehall was vandalised last year. His portrait used to adorn a pub my neighbourhood until the landlord replaced it with a picture of what can only be described as a pirate drawn by a 12-year old. George seems like a safe bet, particularly given the recent portrayals of the young Prince’s great-great-grandfather by Colin Firth and Sam West.

A look back over the last thousand years of British history, however, reveals a fascinating list of names of would-be Kings of England and Scotland, not to mention Princes of Wales and Kings of Ireland.  Naturally 1066 saw a major change in the nomenclature of English Kings; goodbye Offa, Egbert and Ethelred – hello the Franco-Norman William, Robert, Henry and Richard. Edward, Edmund and latterly Alfred would prove the only Anglo-Saxon survivors. Indeed Prince Alfred, later the Duke of Edinburgh and even later the Duke of Saxe-Coburg was second in line to British throne from his birth in 1844 until that of the future Duke of Clarence twenty years later. Prince Alfie, anyone?

Nobody should forget that maternal grandparents have often been responsible for some of the stranger names given to our young princelings. The bookies seem to have ruled out Michael, the name of the child’s grandfather, but then we already have a Prince Michael of Kent, so things could get a bit confusing. Incidentally he is the only British royal to be named after an American President: Michael George Charles Franklin after FDR. We should remember the more unfortunate of these names, and be thankful that history did not land us with a King Eustace or a King Alfonso, both definite possibilities at one time. Prince Eustace, eldest son of King Stephen, took his name from his maternal grandfather Count Eustace of Boulogne, who very nearly became King of Jerusalem when his younger brother, the reigning king died. Young Prince Eustace died aged somewhere between the ages of 17 and 25 (chroniclers are a bit vague), apparently a divine punishment for pillaging church lands in Suffolk. His tomb in Faversham fell victim to the dissolution of the monasteries and is sadly unmarked.

Odder still perhaps is the case of Prince Alfonso who stood to inherit the English crown from his father Edward (Longshanks) I from his birth in 1273 until his untimely death at the tender age of 10. In fact, his maternal grandfather’s name was Ferdinand, later canonised and railway-timetabled as San Fernando; Alfonso was the name of his mother, Queen Eleanor’s half-brother, the King of Castile and part-time King of the Romans. Little Alfonso was, indeed, the heir to the throne and Earl of Chester when his younger brother Edward was born in Caernarvon and proclaimed Prince of Wales at birth. Who knows whether Alfonso might have become as popular a name for an English King as Edward was to be?

Half a century later, we could have seen a King Lionel on the English throne, with all its Arthurian resonances. As the second son of Edward III, Lionel of Antwerp stood just behind the Black Prince in order of succession until the birth of the latter’s son in 1365. The widowed Prince Lionel then headed off to Italy to wed a Visconti heiress but died, possibly poisoned by his in-laws in the town where they now make Ferrero Rocher chocolates. He was the last of the royal Lionels.

We have, indeed, come close a couple of times to having a real King Arthur on the English throne. Young Arthur of Brittany should by right have succeeded his uncle Richard Lionheart when the latter fell foul of a stray arrow in Châlus. Instead of which Arthur ended his days in Rouen Castle imprisoned by his uncle John who may, or may not have thrown him into the Seine with a stone tied to him to make him sink. More recently, Henry VII tried to revive the Arthurian legend by giving his eldest son that name but as any student of Tudor times knows it was not to be as young Arthur died aged 15, only 4 months after his marriage to the Catholic Monarchs’ daughter Catalina (or Katharine of Aragon if you must).

Our most recent Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria’s third son, managed to outlive most of his contemporaries to be, barring the present Duke of Edinburgh, the longest lived British Prince, dying as Duke of Connaught at the age of 91. His name lives on, however, in the first names of both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, so who knows, we could be in for an Arthurian revival. Incidentally, as well as his Irish Dukedom, Prince Arthur also bore an Irish name. When Queen Victoria visited Ireland in August 1849 she was in the first weeks of a yet unannounced pregnancy. Her condition did not pass unnoticed by an ancient Irishwoman who apparently touched the royal crinoline saying “Call him Patrick, for old Ireland, Ma’am”. Nine months later that’s just what the Queen did.

Perhaps its time to have a real King Arthur. Photograph: Getty Images.
Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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