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Similarities speak louder than words: Brothers replacing brothers

Picture by Stephen Lock / i-Images

Within the harsh confines of royal life, there exists a cruel trend that nicknames the second child the ‘spare’ to their sibling, the heir. While the life of the heir to the throne is mapped out meticulously from beginning to end, the spare is expected to find their own role.

The life of the spare appears seemingly straightforward – living the ultimate life of luxury in the upper echelons of society, growing up in castles and palaces and being afforded opportunities others could only dream of, all without the looming burden of the crown. 

As the Editor of Majesty Magazine, Ingrid Seward puts it: “The second child has all the perks without any of the responsibilities.”

There have been many notable spares from Princess Margaret to Prince Harry. They even include kings such as Richard III and George VI. So what about the more historical figures? What about the ones whose sole sentiment and eulogy are now held only in a handful of oil paintings? And, what about the spares who transcended into greatness and are still revered today?

Glancing back across this country’s rich, sovereign past, there arises a common theme whereby the spare has had to step in and take over the role of their elder sibling for reasons such as death, questions of character and social scandal. 

Historically this scenario has often occurred between two brothers, with the volume of examples to choose from fizzing and bubbling like an overflowing, hereditary cocktail.

If fate had been altered in the early 1500s, the world would have never felt the full force of Henry VIII’s reign. As the second son of Henry VII, the king who is famous for marrying six wives, creating the Church of England and executing over 50,000 people, was never destined for the throne. It was his brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was supposed to wear the crown, but when he died in 1502, he left his younger brother ill-equipped for kingship. 

Henry VIII’s notability survives over 500 years later, and despite his indisputable brutality, he was an accomplished leader. Yet, had Prince Arthur survived, the course of British history would be entirely different.

In keeping with the theme of a brother taking over due to illness or death, if Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, brother of King Charles I, had lived, it is possible the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent republican commonwealth would never have taken place. 

Instead, following the death of their father, King James I, Charles I came to the throne with his strong belief in the Divine Right of Kings, meaning he thought his authority to rule came from God and he could not be held accountable for his actions by an authority, such as Parliament. He was hugely unpopular throughout his reign and was ultimately beheaded in London in 1649.

Arriving closer to modern day, King George V – affectionately known as Grandpa England by his granddaughter, the current Queen Elizabeth II – was supposed to live the life of a naval officer and spare to the throne. Instead, his elder brother Prince Albert Victor died in 1892, and George V became the king in 1910 after the death of his father, Edward VII.

In life, Prince Albert Victor had been a controversial figure, with many apparent links to the era’s largest police investigations. From the Cleveland Street Scandal to suspicions that he was the infamous Whitechapel serial killer, Jack the Ripper, he was much talked about during his lifetime. His death from influenza sparked a national outpouring of grief and mourning; however, biographers and historians do not tend to look upon his life particularly favourably. 

In 1964, Sir Philip Magnus said the Prince’s death was a “merciful act of providence”, and supported the idea that his death had removed an unsuitable heir to the throne and replaced him with the reliable and sensible George V.

Perhaps the most famous example of a brotherly takeover came in 1936 following the abdication of King Edward VIII and subsequent rule of George VI.

Opinions still differ on Edward VIII, The Queen’s uncle. Some think he was a selfish traitor who abandoned his country. Others view him as completely lovesick and blinded by his infatuation for Wallis Simpson. His behaviour following the abdication is now seen through the prism of his Nazi sympathies and support for appeasement which have cast a shadow on his entire character – not least when compared with the King and Queen Mother’s morale-boosting contribution to the war effort. 

Yet had he never relinquished the throne, we will not have witnessed George VI’s extraordinary partnership with Sir Winston Churchill, which many believe contributed to the allied victory.

It has been established that a brother taking over for their brother is not a new concept. What is surprising is that it is still happening today.

After Prince Andrew’s links to paedophile Jeffery Epstein came to light in 2019, he was forced to step back from any official public duties. The royal, who remains eighth-in-line to the throne, will likely never perform any public engagements again – at least for the foreseeable future.

His absence and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s departure have prompted a necessary reshuffle of the senior royals who can be called upon to represent Queen and country. The seven-strong line-up includes Prince Andrew’s three siblings: Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Edward.

Although they are never likely to displace Prince Charles as heir to the throne, their combined efforts show the effect of spares teaming up in support of the Crown, not least when it faces the kind of crises caused by events like “Megxit.” 

In many ways, Prince William is carrying on this convention by assuming more royal responsibility in light of his brother’s exit to North America. Of course, William is an heir and thereby has a greater calibre of services to fulfil in comparison to Harry. Still, he has undoubtedly had to shoulder a sudden burden of duty that was previously being balanced between the pair.

Mindful of his grandmother’s advancing years and with talk of “transition” abound behind palace gates, there is a sense that William is already fully preparing for his role as his father’s supporting act. 

Yes, there are discrepancies in the circumstances surrounding the spares taking the throne, but the outcome is the same: history would be entirely different to what we know today. With respect to recent events and the pain caused, we can only hope that history does not repeat itself again and cause further instability within the House of Windsor.