Deadly rival or comic relief: the dilemmas of the spare heir

Being a second-born royal can be a difficult path to walk – often, it seems to be the sibling’s job to make the mistakes the heir cannot risk.

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Following months of media speculation, the confirmation that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant again, a week in advance of the celebrations for Prince Harry’s 30th birthday, puts the topic of royal siblings firmly back into the spotlight. With the Duchess again suffering from acute morning sickness, her condition necessitated an early announcement, before the traditional milestone of 12 weeks. This places her due date early in spring 2015, meaning that there will be less than two years between Prince George and his little brother or sister; the future king and the spare. The siblings are likely to be close, but their future paths will be very different. This will certainly shape the development of their characters and the decisions they are able to make.

Today, the old adage of the “heir and spare” no longer carries such significance as when the threat to infant life of disease and mortality was severe, yet there is still considerable difference between the experiences of the firstborn royal child and its siblings. While Prince Harry is reported as “unable to conceal” his excitement about being an uncle for the second time, relations between historical royal brothers have not always been so harmonious. Some have actively schemed against their elder, coveting their throne and power, while others have adopted a position more in the background, combining royal duties with a colourful private life. If nothing else, the second-born royal child always manages to leave their mark. For many, the position has conferred a degree of freedom, a certain licence, which has allowed some to exploit their unique position of privilege and freedom.

Being second-born can be a difficult path to walk. The role is less well defined and without the shadow of looming dynastic responsibility, the younger sibling still has a public profile to fulfil and the family image to uphold. Prince Harry’s notorious playfulness and status as a “party prince”, following from the comparative freedom of his uncle “Air Miles Andy”, highlights the different kind of life that the spare heir might pursue. Seriously, while we might cringe at some of Prince Harry’s youthful antics, particularly the notorious shots of him partying whilst dressed in Nazi uniform or playing naked strip billiards, a few generations earlier he might have been conspiring to overthrow his brother. This is the paradox of the spare heir: the comparative stasis of their position and their high public profile can lead them into dangerous territory. The sons of the first Plantagenet King, Henry II, jostled for the English throne in the twelfth century, causing an irrevocable family breach. His second surviving son, Richard I, inherited the title but he was really cut out to be a crusader, spending as little as six months of his ten year reign in England. He was followed by Henry’s youngest son, King John, who coveted the crown yet whose ineffectual rule resulted in the Magna Carta.

A surfeit of sons also caused problems for the descendants of Edward III. He was succeeded by his grandson Richard II in 1377, but Edward’s next surviving heir, John of Gaunt, overthrew his nephew and placed his own son on the throne as Henry IV. This established the Lancastrian dynasty and laid the foundation for problems contributing to the Wars of the Roses. That conflict was characterised by the ambition of the York siblings, particularly by the political scheming of the king’s eldest brother George. This was a classic example of sibling rivalry that took on a deadly political dimension. When Edward IV claimed his usurped descent from Richard II and had himself crowned king, George was not content to sit back and reap the rewards of his new position. Seven years his brother’s junior, George defied him to marry the “kingmaker’s” daughter, escaping to Calais and inciting a rebellion that forced the king to flee the country. The brothers were reconciled, but in 1477, George was arrested after his behaviour became increasingly volatile and he questioned his brother’s legitimacy. For this, he was sentenced to death.

Second sons who actually became kings were often markedly different from their elder brothers. The robust, athletic, golden-haired Henry VIII replaced his delicate, reserved brother Arthur as heir in 1502, while the much-admired Prince Henry Stuart’s claim went to his sickly younger brother Charles I, who spoke with a pronounced lisp and could barely walk unaided at the age of three. One of the most famous swaps of the last century saw the suave, urbane Edward VIII abdicate for love of his unpopular mistress, twice divorced Wallis Simpson, propelling his quiet, shy younger brother onto the throne as George VI. It would seem that the circumstances of their upbringing produced a spare whose character was almost the opposite of the heir. Or perhaps it was actually a deliberate, and sometimes gleeful, embracing of everything their older sibling cannot be. With Prince George destined to be head of the Commonwealth, Church of England and armed forces, what public role does this leave his future sibling?

Traditionally, second sons have taken on the leadership of the army. While George III’s eldest son flouted him with a morganatic marriage to the alluring Catholic Maria Fitzherbert and threw himself into a life of excess, his brother Prince Frederick was sent to Hanover as a colonel from the tender age of 17. Their younger brother William became the final Hanoverian monarch, in spite of his reputation for being something of a buffoon. With no surviving legitimate heir, his former playboy lifestyle had left him with ten children by the actress Dorothy Jordan, he attempted to give away palaces and urged guests to his riotous dinner parties not to bother to wear clothes. Appointed to the position of Lord High Admiral, he was suddenly in line for the throne at the age of 60 and reformed his habits accordingly. It was too little, too late. The tales of his dissolute years could not be so easily shaken off.

It is no different for girls. Even the reputations of Princesses Margaret and Anne have been shaped by controversy, with the Queen’s glamorous younger sister linked with a string of eligible men, while her daughter has a criminal record under the dangerous dogs act, as well as representing Great Britain in the contentious 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. In the 21st century there is less pressure on the younger royal children when it comes to their choice of career or partner and their recovery from bad press and social scandal might be easier: no one wants the future monarch behaving badly but it matters less if it is at one remove. Perhaps it is even the siblings’ job to make the mistakes the heir cannot risk; perhaps their role might even be to demonstrate the human, fallible face of the royal family. Their love affairs and mischievousness might offer some crucial light-hearted relief for an otherwise formal and fairly anachronistic institution. Consciously or not, they are the foil, the fall guy, to our future monarchs.

Prince George’s sibling, due in the spring of 2015, will be the fourth in line to the throne. No doubt, in the context of the close family unit and “hands-on” parenting of Kate and William, many of the extremes of royal rivalry will be avoided. There might be the inevitable squabbles over favourite toys on the nursery floor but their relationship is likely to be close, as that of Princes William and Harry has been, despite of the differences in their characters. With their paths firmly mapped out, as the future king and the essential spare, it remains to be seen exactly how this new royal dynamic will pan out.

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.