10 royal heirs who died before reigning


For Henry VI, the wait to become King of England lasted only nine months, while for Edward VII it lasted almost six decades. But not all hopeful monarchs have had the chance to ascend the throne, no matter how long they have waited. Here are 10 of the least fortunate royal heirs in English history, those who waited in vain and died before they could reign.

1. William Ætheling (1103-1120)

Although he had over 20 half-siblings, William Ætheling was probably the only legitimate son of Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy. As the son of Queen Matilda (also known as Edith), he was also a direct descendant of the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex and the first English heir since the 1066 conquest.

On the night of November 25, 1120, William and his retinue left France aboard the white ship. Columnist Orderic Vitalis noted that “it was overcrowded with riotous and stubborn young people” and several passengers had already decided to get off. Drunk and thinking that they could race the king – who had left earlier – at home, they had hardly left the port of Barfleur when they ran aground on the rock of Quilleboeuf. According to another chronicler, the prince was transferred to the single skiff and rowed to safety, but in a moment of shame or heroism William demanded they return to rescue his half-sister, Mathilde du Perche. The boat was dragged down by sailors who drowned and the 17-year-old English heir was lost.

William’s episode of drunken antics threw England and beyond into chaos. As Henry I had no other legitimate son, his death sparked the years-long civil war known as the Anarchy. But without his untimely death, the Angevin Empire of England would not have existed. That would have meant no King John, and maybe no Magna Carta either.

2. Alphonse Plantagenet, Earl of Chester (1273-1284)

Even according to medieval infant mortality rates, Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile, were unlucky, losing all but six of their at least 14 children. Their third son, Alphonso, is named after his uncle and became his father’s heir at the age of 11 months. Perhaps because of such continued loss, his parents’ relationship with their children was distant, but Alphonso still received gifts from them, including a toy castle and a miniature siege engine. At the age of 10 he became engaged to Margaret of Holland but died shortly before the wedding. He was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his two older brothers, John and Henry.

Edward I and his Eleanor’s last son were born four months before Alphonso’s death and would become the disastrous Edward II, whose army was sadly defeated by Robert the Bruce, King of Scots.

3. Edward of Woodstock (1330-1376)

Unlike Edward I who had too few sons, Edward III had too many (eight to be precise), the eldest of whom was Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales. Like his father, he was hardy with a knack for fighting – by the age of 16 he had already led an army into battle. Just 10 years later, he captured the King of France at the Battle of Poitiers, ultimately leading to his accession as Prince of Aquitaine. In 1376, having survived several near-death experiences on the battlefield, the Prince of Wales died a slow and painful death, probably from dysentery contracted while on campaign.

But Edward of Woodstock’s reputation endured long after his death. He was given the nickname “The Black Prince”, possibly because of the dark acts he was associated with in France, such as the violent and bloody attack on the city of Limoges (although this connection remains debated).

Edward of Woodstock died a year before his father. His 10-year-old son succeeds Edward III to become Richard II. Richard was eventually deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke; some historians believe this sowed the seeds for the next English Civil War: the Wars of the Roses.

4.Arthur Tudor (1486-1502)

Like William Ætheling, Arthur’s birth represented a new beginning. His name was carefully chosen to invoke the legendary ruler of Camelot. The name embodied the Welsh identity of his father Henry VII and his belief that he was descended from ancient British kings. Henry VII further reinforced this by ensuring that his wife, Elizabeth of York, gave birth in the ancient English capital of Winchester, believed to be the site of Camelot.

When he was just 15, Arthur and his new wife, Katherine of Aragon, fell ill with what an unnamed source called a “mildest illness and disease”. Katherine made a full recovery, but the young Prince of Wales got worse and died a month later on April 2, 1502. His cause of death is still debated, but it was probably either the dreaded disease of sweating, a mysterious disease that caused multiple epidemics in the 15th and 16th centuries, or possibly consumption. Her parents were devastated and her mother died 10 months later of a postpartum infection after delivering a daughter who died just days after birth.

Arthur’s successor was his younger brother, who married the widow Katherine and became Henry VIII. By far the greatest legacy of his reign was England’s break with Rome and the adoption of the new Protestant religion, driven by his need to have a son and an heir, which was complicated by the fact that Katherine was Arthur’s widow.

5. Henry Frederick Stuart (1594-1612)

The presumptive Henry IX of England was born in Scotland on February 19, 1594. He was the eldest son of James VI of Scotland and his Danish wife, Anne. After the death of Elizabeth I, James inherited the English throne and Henry moved to London, where he was named the first Scottish Prince of Wales in 1610. Unlike his younger brother Charles, Henry was a lively, hardy and healthy with a love. music, art and a gift for leadership. He was also a keen sportsman, and after enjoying a swim in the Thames in October 1612, he fell ill and died of typhoid a few weeks later.

If Henry had lived, it is possible that one of the bloodiest periods in British history, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, would never have happened. Even though Henry had shared Charles I’s philosophy of divine rule, his personality, leadership qualities and anti-Catholic sentiments may have succeeded in placating Parliament and averting the English Civil War.

6. James Stuart, Duke of Cambridge (1663-1667)

James Stuart was the second son of the future James II/VII and his first wife, Anne Hyde. He was born when his uncle Charles II was king and his father was still a member of the Protestant Church. As such, he was raised Anglican along with his older sister Mary. He was made Duke of Cambridge in 1664, and by 1666 it was generally agreed that he would one day be king, as his father was to ascend the throne after the death of Charles II.

James II and Anne had already lost a son in 1661, and in April 1667 the Duke of Cambridge and his younger brother, Charles, fell ill with what was either smallpox or the plague. Charles died on May 22, 1667. For a time it looked like the Duke of Cambridge would survive, but he died a month later on June 20, 1667.

After the deposition of James II during the Glorious Revolution, his daughter Marie and her husband, Guillaume d’Orange, took the throne.

7. Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630-1714)

Of all the quasi-monarchs, Sophia of Hanover is probably the most unlucky. She was the granddaughter of James VI of Scotland and me of England through her daughter, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. She was born in The Hague and spent most of her youth in exile until she married Ernest Augustus, who became Elector of Hanover in 1692.

Sophia, a Protestant, is recognized in the line of succession by the Act of Establishment of 1701, which deposits the Catholic heirs of Charles I. She became heiress presumptive when Anne, decades younger, the daughter of James II, succeeded William III the following year. Anne died aged 49 on August 1, 1714; sadly, Sophia, already in her 80s, had died less than two months earlier of a stroke as she scrambled for shelter from a storm. His son became King George I.

8. Prince Frederick (1707–1751)

Born Duke Friedrich Ludwig of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Prince Frederick was raised in Hanover before finally being sent to England in 1728, the year after his father (whom he had not seen for 14 years) became King George II. He remained estranged from his parents, with his mother, Queen Caroline, declaring that “My dear first-born is the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest scoundrel, and the greatest beast, in the whole world, and I heartily wish it had come out of it.

Frederick married Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in 1736 and had nine children, but never reconciled with his own parents. He died in 1751, and several theories have been suggested for the cause of his death, the most famous being that he was hit by a cricket ball while playing his favorite sport. Frederick’s son became George III, the king famous for his folly and the loss of the American colonies.

9. Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817)

In 1798, George III’s son, George, Prince of Wales, was on such bad terms with his wife that it was apparent he would never have another legitimate child, making his 2-year-old daughter Charlotte , his heiress. Charlotte had a difficult relationship with her father, as she was known for her rebellious spirit. In 1814 she ran away from home and she held firm in her choice of husband against her father’s wishes, marrying Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld on 2 May 1816.

Unlike her father’s position in the country, Charlotte was incredibly popular. Her death at the age of 21 giving birth to a stillborn son sparked a period of national mourning, “as if every household in Britain had lost a favorite child”. Had she lived and had children, her cousin Princess Alexandrina would never have become Queen Victoria – and probably never been born at all – and the great industrial advancements of the 19th century would have belonged to the Charlottean era.

10. Prince Albert Victor of Wales (1864-1892)

Prince Albert Victor, also known as Eddy, was Queen Victoria’s grandson through her son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, and is best known for the various scandals and speculations that surround him, including that he was Jack the Ripper. He was a gentle, sensitive man who probably had learning difficulties. Labeled stupid as a child, he grew up with self-doubt and low self-esteem.

He proposed to Mary of Teck on December 3, 1891. But by the time of his 28th birthday in January, Eddy was already ill. He died six days later, a victim of the last great pandemic of the 19th century.

As with Princess Charlotte 75 years ago, the country shut down on the day of her funeral and her death generated a period of deep and genuine mourning for her family. Her brother George wrote: “How dearly I loved her; and I remember with pain almost every harsh word and every little quarrel I ever had with him and long to ask his forgiveness, but, alas, it is too late now! Her coffin was adorned with Princess Mary’s wedding bouquet.

Eddy’s fiancée married his brother, who became George V and led the nation in World War I. If Eddy had lived and married Mary himself, there would have been no Edward VIII, no abdication crisis and no Elizabeth II.


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