The Queen has become the first head of state of the UK, or any of its predecessor or component nations, to reach the age of ninety. She has done so within months of becoming the longest reigning monarch in British history.
Her Majesty’s age isn’t arguable, but some might dispute the latter record: they’d point to “James III of England/James VIII of Scots” (1701-1766), the son of James II & VII.
The last Catholic monarch of either country, James II was forced out of both kingdoms by a Dutch military intervention in 1688, the year of the younger James’ birth. Father, then son, and later both the elder James’ grandsons, claimed kingship from exile for more than a century. This dynasty and their supporters became known as the “Jacobites”, and made several military attempts to retrieve the crown, most notably in 1715 and 1745.
In the place of the elder James, William, stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, had taken over as King William III. He was not an entirely random choice for king, but a grandson of Charles I and nephew of James II; William’s wife, Mary, meanwhile, was James’ eldest daughter.
These connections meant that they had been the third and first in line to inherit James II’s thrones respectively. (James’ other daughter, Anne, was second.) But the birth of the future “James III”, in 1688, changed that. Male preference primogeniture meant that the infant prince pushed the adult princesses further back down the line.
So “James III”’s claim to the throne was strong. He was never de facto king, because the state never allowed that he was: nonetheless, some people have claimed that, considering the rules of the time, he should have been king.
Theoretical monarchs are more common than you might believe. After all, as far as the state was concerned, James’ uncle Charles II was King from 1649, from the moment his father’s head left his body – this despite the fact he never actually gained control over the country until 1660, and spent the intervening years in exile while it was run by the army.
Conceits like this appear in many countries that have, or had, hereditary heads of state. Napoléon III (1852-70) was Napoléon III, not Napoléon II, because he chose to retroactively recognise the existence of the twice announced reign of his cousin, a boy emperor who never ruled. To this day there are a dazzling number of Orleans, Bourbons and Bonapartes who lay claim to the “vacant” – that is, abolished – throne of France.
Spain spent most of the 20th century trying out various different forms of Republic. Yet the grandfather of the present King of Spain, Infante Juan de Bourbon, Comte de Barcelona – whose father and son both reigned, but who never did himself – was buried as Juan III in 1993, his headstone asserting that he was truly Spain’s King all along.
Cases like these and other restorations points to the truth that Jacobitism was not always a lost cause. Those who went into exile with James II and stayed there with his son and grandsons were the children or grandchildren of those who had gone into exile with him and his brother, or had fought a war for his father. Sometimes they were the same people. Having lived through one exile and restoration, they could be forgiven for believing there could be another.
And there easily could have been. In 1710 Robert Harley, the de facto first minister to the younger James’ half-sister Queen Anne, made overtures to him, suggesting he could succeed Anne should she die without children – and if he were prepared to convert to Protestantism. She did, but he wasn’t – and the crown instead passed to George of Hanover, under laws made in 1701.
George was Anne’s heir because parliament had rewritten the rules to make his mother her heir. This excluded more than a few people who ranked ahead of her in terms of male-preference primogeniture, but George’s succession was not quite so random as is sometimes implied. His mother Sophia had been the daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia, “the winter queen” – elder sister of Charles I, aunt to Charles II and James II, and great aunt to “James III”, William III, Mary II and Anne. As was the case in 1688, the English state liked to keep these things in the family, even when it moved them around within it.
The Jacobite succession ended in 1807 with the death of the younger of James II’s grandsons, Henry Benedict Stuart (“Henry IX and I”), a priest and Catholic cardinal who, unsurprisingly given his profession, died without heirs, legitimate or otherwise. The dying Henry sent several jewels that had been the property of Charles I to the then Prince of Wales (later George IV), and Jacobitism as a political movement came to an end.
It didn’t stay dead though, returning to life as an object of sentimental romantic and adventure fiction – Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson please stand up – and eventually as a font of conspiracy theories. This was, in part, because Jacobitism had long ago become bound in with several other, often contradictory, ideas, culminating in the 1745 rebellion.
The elder of James II’s grandsons – who thought of himself as “Charles III” but is better known to history as Bonnie Prince Charlie – was a Roman-born Catholic Prince, son to a London-born exile. At the time of the 1745 rebellion, Scotland was not only vastly more protestant than Catholic, but more radically protestant than the rest of the British state; and the army Charles led had fewer Scots in it than the one it was fighting. None of these factors proved an impediment to the rebellion’s incorporation into the mythology of nationalism in Scotland.
“Charles III” had an illegitimate daughter, Charlotte, whom he later legitimised; she in turn had illegitimate children with a bishop. They were protected in family writings by codes and pseudonyms, and their existence and status, while now accepted, took a long time to be established through archival research. Her son, an adventurer who used to boast of his royal lineage when drunk, was only established to be who claimed in the twentieth century.
It’s against implausible but true backgrounds like these that alternative successions thrive. Groups devoted to such fantasies are easily googled. Many like to claim that Charles-Emmanuel of Sardinia (who was descended from Henrietta Stuart, another daughter of Charles I) inherited Henry’s rights, and use this to trace a Jacobite succession to the present day. But Charles-Emmanuel never asserted such rights, and the idea that he might even have had them probably post-dates his own lifetime.
Alternative successions (there is more than one) that spin out from Charles-Emmanuel are fantasies, even when they are not actually pressed, as in some cases they are, by the fantasists themselves. Their attraction is more than a little like that of the alternative history novel; and the child who is secretly royal is a familiar trope in adventure fiction, from King Arthur to Star Wars.
But when it comes to the crown, there really is no “should have”. The succession is subject to the law, not above it, and not purely because of the events of 1688. To take one, and not even the earliest, example, Henry VIII’s desperate scrabble for a male heir is one of the most recognisable bits of English historical folklore; but even Henry used parliamentary legislation, rather than just edict, to indicate his wishes in terms of those who followed him, passing Succession Acts in 1533, 1536 and 1543 which arranged his relatives in order of preference.
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by the French painter Paul Delaroche, 1833.
The 1536 act gave Henry, but possibly not his successors, the ability to will the crown to whoever he wanted, although in the end he didn’t. His successor, the boy King Edward VI, attempted to assert that power to will his crown, bypassing his sister Mary Tudor and enthroning his cousin Jane. (Jane’s mother Frances was the daughter of another Mary Tudor, this one his father’s sister.)
It didn’t work: Jane reigned for nine days and was eventually executed. (Culturally, we oddly fetishise Jane – just look at Delaroche’s painting – while also permanently impugning her legitimacy by leaving the “Lady” at the front of her name.)
Mary followed, holding the throne for four years before dying of an illness – although her reign throws up another interesting side argument as to what “counts”. British culture does not regard her husband, King Philip II of Spain, as a King of England, despite contemporary documentation from the period making absolutely clear that he was: such documents include all Acts of Parliament, which was summoned in both their names.
Henry VIII didn’t get his way in the end, either. His acts of succession had looked to prefer his sister Mary’s descendents (she had married his best friend, Charles Brandon) to those of their other, and the older, sister Margaret, who had married King James IV of Scotland. Yet when a successor to Henry’s daughter Elizabeth was needed half a century later, it was Margaret’s great grandson, James VI of Scotland – with whose great grandson we started all this – who became King of England, not any of Mary’s many then living descendants.
In part this was because it was what Elizabeth’s ministers wanted. It was also, it’s fair to say, partially because James was already the successful monarch of another country – and there could be no doubt that he could do the job.
The monarch of the United Kingdom, its predecessor states and any successor state that may emerge in the event of, for example, Scottish “independence”, is whoever the state agrees it is. Rules can change. It’s on the same basis that the peaceful abolition of the monarchy through parliamentary means would be possible – although not, at least according to the vast majority of those surveyed on the matter even now, actually desirable.
The Queen will, in any case, surpass James III’s ostensible record in the gap between me writing this and you reading it. Top reigning, Ma’am.
This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.