After 62 years of waiting for the throne, Charles Windsor, Prince of Wales, is impatient. The 65 year-old recently confided: “I’ll run out of time soon.” Only fate will decide whether or not he is crowned king, but, assuming the system of constitutional monarchy remains in place, all he really has to do is not die before his mother.
In previous centuries, high infant mortality, rampant disease and bloody battlefields, were just as much a peril for heirs to the throne as for their lowliest subjects. Most navigated the dangers and took their anointed place in history. Some survived, but only just (George III was born two months premature and it was thought so unlikely that he’d live, he was baptised on the day of birth). Some didn’t make it. Here are 13 of the unlucky ones:
1. William Ætheling (5 August 1103 – 25 November 1120)
On 25 November 1120, the 17 year-old Prince and a group of friends were due to cross the English Channel from Normandy in the White Ship, the swiftest and most modern ship in the royal fleet. So confident was William in the speed of the ship that he and his companions had stayed drinking on the shore until after dark. As a result, it was the middle of the night when the drunken helmsman rammed the ship into a rock in the bay. With the ship stuck fast and filling with water, William and several of his friends managed to launch a life-dinghy. At the last minute, William dashed back to rescue his half-sister, Matilda FitzRoy, but when they and several others threw themselves into the small dinghy, it, “overcharged by the multitude that leapt into her, capsized and sank and buried all indiscriminately in the deep.”
Henry of Huntingdon wrote of the disaster that William, “instead of wearing embroidered robes…floated naked in the waves, and instead of ascending a lofty throne…found his grave at the bottom of the sea.”
William’s young wife was on another ship during the disaster, and as his widow become a nun. His early death without issue caused a succession crisis, known in history as The Anarchy.
2. Henry, son of Edward I (13 July 1267 – 14 October 1274)
Henry was the fifth child and second son of King Edward I (also known as Edward Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots). Edward’s first 3 children by his first wife Eleanor of Castile had all died in their first year.
At the time of Henry’s birth in 1267, his paternal grandfather Henry III was still on the throne and his father was heir apparent. Second-in-line was Henry’s brother John, who was a year older, but who died aged 5 in 1271. When Henry III died the following year, Edward Longshanks became king and Henry his heir apparent – though he would only remain so for 2 years.
Henry was always sickly (it was recorded that on one Eve of Pentecost, a gallon of wine was added to his bath, to strengthen him) so perhaps the gravity of his final illness wasn’t realised until it was too late. In any event, when young Henry lay dying at Guildford in 1274, neither of his parents made the short journey from London to see him. He was tended instead by his paternal grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, who had raised him during the four years his parents were on Crusade. He died of natural causes and was buried at Westminster Abbey.
Henry’s younger brother Alphonso then became heir apparent and would have been King Alphonso I, but he died at the age of 10. Alphonso’s death occurred shortly after the birth of his younger brother Edward, who became the only surviving male heir of Edward I and was later King Edward II.
3. Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales (15 June 1330 – 8 June 1376)
Although he is often referred to as the ‘Black Prince’ (thought to derive from his black shield and/or his black armour), there is no record the name being used during his lifetime. He was instead known as Edward of Woodstock (after his place of birth), or as Prince of Wales from the age of 13. He was also Prince of Aquitaine and kept a court there with his wife, Joan ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’ in the 1360s.
Edward was an exceptional military leader, and his victories over the French at the Battles of Crécy in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356 made him very popular during his lifetime. He was, however, weakened by a lasting illness that was probably amoebic dysentery contracted at the Battle of Nájera in 1367.
When Edward’s own son and heir, the much loved Edward of Angouleme, died of the bubonic plague aged 5 in Bordeaux in 1370, he was grief-stricken. He returned to England with Joan and his younger son, Richard of Bordeaux, as a broken man in 1371. He died at WestminsterPalace on 8 June 1376, a week before his 46th birthday.
Edward died one year before his father, and became the first English Prince of Wales not to become King of England. The throne passed instead to his 10 year-old son Richard – who became King Richard II – on the death of Edward III.
4. Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales (13 October 1453 – 4 May 1471)
At the time, there was strife between Henry, who represented the royal House of Lancaster, and the rival House of York, in the form of Richard of York. This descended into the series of dynastic wars known as the Wars of the Roses. It was a turbulent period which saw King Henry twice captured and imprisoned, and Queen Margaret and Edward in exile in Scotland and France.
One of the more decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses was the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471, which saw Lancastrian forces completely defeated by the Yorkists. The Lancastrian commander Prince Edward, then an inexperienced 18 year-old, was killed, making him the only heir apparent to the English throne ever to die in battle.
According to some accounts, shortly after the rout a small contingent of Yorkist men found the grieving prince near a grove where he was immediately beheaded on a makeshift block, despite pleading for his life.
His father Henry, who was a prisoner in the Tower of London, died or was murdered shortly after the battle. The 49 year-old king, who had been the youngest person ever to succeed to the English throne at the age of 9 months, was the last in the male line of the House of Lancaster.
5. Edward of Middleham, Prince of Wales (December 1473 – 9 April 1484)
Edward of Middleham was the only child of Richard III of England and Anne Neville. He was born at Middleham Castle (Richard and Anne’s stronghold close to York), and was mostly kept in the castle as he was known to be a sickly child.
On 26 June 1483, Richard seized the throne by declaring that the children of his late brother, King Edward IV, were illegitimate. Young Edward, however, was too weak to attend his father’s coronation. As heir apparent he was invested as Prince of Wales in a splendid ceremony on 24 August 1483.
Edward died less than a year later, probably from tuberculosis, at the age of 10. The Croyland Chronicle said: “this only son of his, in whom all the hopes of the royal succession, fortified with so many oaths, were centred, was seized with an illness of but short duration, and died at Middleham Castle, in the year of our Lord, 1484, being the first of the reign of the said king Richard. On hearing the news of this, at Nottingham, where they were then residing, you might have seen his father and mother in a state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief.”
Richard’s enemies interpreted the child’s death as divine retribution for his usurpation and alleged murder of the sons of Edward IV. The following year, Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field and the throne reverted to his opponent Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.
6. Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales (20 September 1486 – 2 April 1502)
Arthur was the eldest son of Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York. His birth symbolised the end of the Wars of the Roses and, named after the legendary King Arthur, he was seen as the great hope of the newly established House of Tudor. He was invested as Prince of Wales at the age of 3.
Although he had been born one month premature he was “strong and able” and, despite popular belief to the contrary, there are no reports of him being sickly during his lifetime. He actually grew up to be unusually tall for his age and, as well as being an excellent scholar, he was also a “superb archer”.
While they were both still in infancy, Arthur was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon in order to forge an Anglo-Spanish alliance against France. They met for the first time in 1501 when Catherine arrived in England for their wedding ceremony at Saint Paul’s Cathedral; they were both aged 15.
Their later bedding ceremony at Baynard’s Castle was recorded for history. The bed was sprinkled with holy water, and Catherine was undressed, veiled and “reverently” laid in bed by her ladies-in-waiting. Arthur, “in his shirt, with a gown cast about him”, was escorted by his gentlemen into the bedchamber, while viols and tabors played. The Bishop of London blessed the bed and prayed for the marriage to be fruitful, after which the couple were left alone.
Arthur and Catherine established their household at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, but in March 1502, they were both afflicted by an unknown illness, “a malign vapour with proceeded from the air”. While Catherine recovered, Arthur died on 2 April 1502, six months short of his 16th birthday.
When Henry VII was awoken from his sleep to be told that “[his] dearest son hath departed to God”, he burst into tears.
Arthur’s younger brother, 10-year-old Henry, became heir apparent, and the idea of him marrying Arthur’s widow Catherine arose very shortly after. Prince Henry rejected the proposed marriage as soon he was able, at the age of 14. He changed his mind at the age of 17 when his father died and Henry succeeded him as King Henry VIII in 1509.
7. Henry, Duke of Cornwall (1 January – 23 February 1511)
Henry was the second oldest child and heir apparent of Henry VIII by Catherine of Aragon. The couple had already had a stillborn daughter.
He was born on 1 January 1511, eighteen months after his parents’ wedding and coronation. A tournament held in the child’s honour at Westminster was the most lavish of Henry’s reign. Henry rode in the tournament under the banner of “Sir Loyal Heart” in honour of his queen and her success in providing a male heir. Known as “Little Prince Hal” and “the New Year’s Boy”, the prince was fondly regarded by Henry’s court.
However, on 23 February 1511, the young prince died suddenly. The cause of his death was not recorded. Contemporary reports state that both parents were distraught at the loss of their second child and expected future king. Catherine bore Henry another four children: two more sons who died before reaching three months of age, and a daughter who lived for only one day. The couple’s only surviving child, Princess Mary (born in 1516), who would one day rule as Queen Mary.
By 1525, Henry VIII was infatuated with his mistress, Anne Boleyn, and dissatisfied that his marriage to Catherine had produced no surviving sons. In 1533 he had their marriage declared invalid and married Anne. Catherine still considered herself the King’s rightful wife and queen, but was banished from court and lived out the remainder of her life at Kimbolton Castle, where she died in 1536.
8. Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales (19 February 1594 – 6 November 1612)
Henry was the elder son of King James I of England (also James VI of Scotland) and Anne of Denmark, and was widely seen as a promising heir to his father’s thrones. Henry spent his childhood in Scotland, and moved south in 1603 when his father became King of England upon the death of Elizabeth I.
In 1605, he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, where his witty, outgoing nature made him very popular. He clashed with his father and disapproved of the way the King conducted the royal court. On one occasion, while out hunting, James I criticised his son for lacking enthusiasm for the chase. Henry initially moved to strike his father with a cane but rode off, and most of the hunting party followed the son.
Henry is said to have also disliked his younger brother, Charles. When Charles was 9 years-old, Henry snatched off the hat of a bishop and put it on the younger child’s head, telling his younger brother that when he became king he would make Charles Archbishop of Canterbury, and then Charles would have a long robe to hide his ugly rickety legs. Charles stamped on the cap and had to be dragged off in tears.
At the age of 16, Henry was invested as Prince of Wales and began to become active in the affairs of state. However in 1612, at the age of 18, he died from typhoid fever.
His death was widely regarded as a tragedy for the nation. His body lay in state for four weeks and over a thousand people walked in the mile-long cortege to Westminster Abbey for his funeral. James I, who detested funerals, refused to attend. As Henry’s body was lowered into the ground, an insane man ran naked through the mourners, yelling that he was the boy’s ghost.
Charles became heir apparent and assumed the English, Irish and Scottish thrones in 1625 as King Charles I. He was eventually convicted of treason and beheaded in 1649, during the English Civil War.
9. James Francis Edward Stuart, Prince of Wales (10 June 1688 – 1 January 1766)
James Francis Edward was the eldest son of King James II of England (James VII of Scotland) and his Roman Catholic second wife, Mary of Modena. He was invested as Prince of Wales within a month of his birth.
From the moment of his birth he was the subject of controversy. Many British feared a revived Catholic dominance of the government. James II had two adult daughters from his first marriage, the future queens Princess Mary and Princess Anne, who had been raised as Protestants. When James’s second wife produced a Catholic son and heir, a movement grew to replace him with his elder daughter Princess Mary and her husband, William of Orange.
The infant James’ mother took him to the safety of exile in France, while his father fought to remain on the throne. In what became known as the Glorious Revolution, on 5 November 1688 William of Orange invaded England in an action that ultimately deposed James II. The former king also fled to exile in France, where he became the focus for the Jacobite movement which sought to restore him and his heirs to the throne.
On James II’s death in 1701, his 13 year-old son declared himself King James III of England and VIII of Scotland. In 1715 he landed in Scotland to start a Jacobite rising, but he was disappointed by the strength of support he found. He returned to France, but was considered a political embarrassment by the French government.
Pope Clement XI instead invited him was to reside in Rome, where James set up a Roman Jacobite court. He remained based there, growing increasingly feeble and despondent, until his death on 1 January 1766 aged 77.
James’ 64 years, 3 months and 16 days as the Jacobite pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland lasted longer than the reigns of any recognised monarch of those kingdoms, including Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years, 7 months and 2 days. Queen Elizabeth II will surpass it if she is still on throne on 23 May 2016.
10. Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (24 July 1689 – 30 July 1700)
William was the son of Princess Anne, later Queen of Great Britain from 1702, and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, and was their only child to survive infancy. He was viewed as a Protestant champion because his birth seemed to cement the Protestant succession established in the Glorious Revolution that had deposed his Catholic grandfather James II.
However, William became ill with convulsions when he was 3 weeks old, then suffered from a recurrent “ague” throughout his young life. He also had an enlarged head, possibly as a result of hydrocephalus, which his surgeons pierced intermittently to draw off fluid. He could not walk properly, and was prone to stumbling. Around the age of five, he refused to climb stairs without two attendants to hold him; his father birched him until he agreed to walk by himself.
On his seventh birthday, William was installed as a knight of the Order of the Garter by King William III, and later went on his first deer hunt in Windsor Great Park. Princess Anne wrote of him “My boy continues yet very well, and looks better, I think, than ever he did in his life; I mean more healthy, for though I love him very well, I can’t brag of his beauty.”
At his eleventh birthday party at Windsor, on 24 July 1700, he was said to have overheated himself while dancing. By nightfall was suffering from a sore throat and chills, then developed a high fever. He was bled and blistered, but, unsurprisingly, the treatment had no effect.
William died on 30 July 1700, with his parents beside him. An autopsy showed he had an abnormal amount of fluid in the ventricles of his brain. Anne was prostrate with grief, and took to her chamber. William was entombed in Westminster Abbey but, as was the custom for royalty in mourning, his parents did not attend the funeral service.
William’s death destabilised the succession. Although Anne had ten other pregnancies after his birth, all her subsequent children died, either in the womb or immediately after birth. To secure a Protestant succession, the English parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which settled the throne on Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her heirs. Anne succeeded William III in 1702, and reigned until her death in 1714. The 83 year-old Sophia predeceased her by a few weeks, and so Sophia’s son ascended the throne as King George I, the first British monarch of the House of Hanover.
11. Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales (1 February 1707 – 20 March 1751)
When Frederick’s grandfather was crowned as King George I of Great Britain in 1714, his father and mother became Prince and Princess of Wales and were called upon to leave Hanover for England to assume their royal duties. Frederick, aged 7, was left in the care of his grand-uncle in Germany and did not see his parents again for 14 years.
By the time Frederick arrived in England in 1728, the year after his father had become King George II, he was a grown man (and very fond of drinking, gambling and women). The long separation had damaged his relationship with his parents, and they were effectively estranged. After Frederick was invested as Prince of Wales in 1729, he made a point of opposing them in everything.
Frederick curbed his womanising ways when he married the 17 year-old Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in 1736, but he remained a spendthrift and accumulated large debts. The king’s financial allowance for Frederick was a constant source of friction between the two.
In January 1737, when the king withdrew to his bed suffering with piles and a fever, Frederick put it about that his father was dying, forcing George to get up and attending a social event to disprove the gossip.
In June 1737, Frederick informed his parents that Augusta was pregnant and due to give birth in October. In fact, Augusta’s due date was much earlier. When she went into labour in July, Frederick sneaked her out of Hampton Court Palace in the middle of the night and took her to St James’s Palace, to ensure that the King and Queen could not be present at the birth. This left George and Caroline horrified, as royal births were witnessed by members of the family to guard against supposititious children. Frederick banished from the king’s court.
Frederick eventually settled down and became a devoted family man, taking his wife and 8 children to live in the Berkshire countryside at Cliveden House, where he fished, shot and rowed. He unexpectedly died at Cliveden at the age of 44 in 1751 from a burst abscess in the lung.
Frederick’s eldest son, 12 year-old Prince George, became heir apparent to the throne. Because of the king’s dislike of Fredrick, he had taken little interest in his grandchildren. However, he now took an interest in George and made him Prince of Wales. When George II died suddenly in 1760, George succeeded him as King George III.
12. Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (7 January 1796 – 6 November 1817)
Charlotte’s parents took a dislike to each other even before their pre-arranged marriage and soon separated. Most of Charlotte’s care was left to governesses and servants, as Prince George only allowed her limited contact with Princess Caroline.
Charlotte was a very spirited child and, as she entered her teenage years, many of the stuffier courtiers considered her behaviour undignified (she identified with the character of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility). Nevertheless, her grandfather King George III was very fond of her and believed that, as his only legitimate grandchild, Charlotte would one day reign as queen.
In late 1810, King George III began his final descent into madness and in 1811 Charlotte’s father was sworn in as Prince Regent. He began to seriously consider the question of Charlotte’s marriage and how it could increase British influence in Europe. He pressured her to marry William, Hereditary Prince of Orange (later King of the Netherlands), but after initially accepting him, Charlotte soon broke off the match. This led to a battle of wills between her and her father, particularly when she took a shine to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (later King of the Belgians).
George eventually permitted her to marry Prince Leopold in May 1816. It was a happy marriage and she quickly fell pregnant, but suffered an early miscarriage. At the end of April 1817, Leopold informed the Prince Regent that Charlotte was again pregnant, and that there was every prospect of the Princess carrying the baby to term.
Charlotte was due to deliver on 19 October, but it wasn’t until the evening of 3 November that her contractions began. When she still hadn’t given birth by the morning of 5 November, it was clear that there were complications.
That evening, Charlotte finally gave birth to a large stillborn boy. Efforts to resuscitate him were in vain. An exhausted Charlotte took the news calmly, stating it was the will of God. However, after midnight on 6 November, she began vomiting violently, breathing with difficulty, and bleeding. Soon, she was dead.
Henry Brougham wrote of Charlotte’s death: “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.” The kingdom went into mourning: linen-drapers ran out of black cloth; shops closed for two weeks, as did the Royal Exchange, the Law Courts, and the docks. Even gambling dens shut down on the day of her funeral, as a mark of respect.
The Prince Regent, prostrated with grief, was unable to attend his daughter’s funeral. Her mother, Princess Caroline, heard the news from a passing courier, and fainted in shock. Prince Leopold was devastated.
Princess Charlotte was buried, her son at her feet, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 19 November 1817. Her death left the King without any legitimate grandchildren; his youngest surviving child was over forty. The newspapers urged the King’s unmarried sons towards matrimony and the production of an heir. The challenge was accepted by the King’s fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, who was living in Brussels with his mistress. Edward dismissed his mistress and proposed to Leopold’s sister Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. Their daughter, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, would eventually (in 1837) succeed to the throne as Queen Victoria.
13. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (8 January 1864 – 14 January 1892)
Albert Victor was the eldest son of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Alexandra of Denmark, and the grandson of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. From the time of his birth (two months prematurely), he was second in the line of succession to the British throne.
Albert Victor’s intellect, sexuality and mental health have been the subject of much speculation.
Albert Victor was just sixteen months older than his brother, Prince George of Wales, so they were educated together. Their tutor, John Neale Dalton, complained that Albert Victor’s mind was “abnormally dormant” and his progress was slow. Whether his inattention in class was due to learning difficulties or due to Dalton’s dullness, he needed the stimulus of Prince George’s company to induce him to work. When he was later enrolled at TrinityCollege, Cambridge at the age of 18, he showed little interest in the intellectual atmosphere and was excused examinations.
In 1889 rumours linked him with the Cleveland Street scandal, which involved a homosexual brothel, but there is no conclusive evidence proving either his involvement or his sexual orientation. Some have even argued that he was Jack the Ripper, but contemporary documents show that Albert Victor could not have been in London at the time of the Whitechapel murders in 1888.
In 1890, Albert Victor was created Duke of Clarence and Avondale and plans were made for his marriage. Several princesses had been lined up as possible brides, including Princess Alix of Hesse (but she refused his offer of engagement and later married Tsar Nicholas II of Russia). Queen Victoria was very supportive of a match with Princess Mary of Teck. To Mary’s “great surprise”, Albert Victor proposed to her in December 1891, and their wedding was set for 27 February 1892.
Just as the wedding plans were under way, Albert Victor fell ill with influenza in the pandemic of 1889–92. He developed pneumonia and died at Sandringham House on 14 January 1892, less than a week after his 28th birthday. His father, mother, brother, and fiancee were all present.
The nation was shocked and went into mourning. The Prince of Wales wrote to Queen Victoria, “Gladly would I have given my life for his“. Mary of Teck wrote to Queen Victoria of the Princess of Wales, “the despairing look on her face was the most heart-rending thing I have ever seen.” His younger brother Prince George wrote, “how deeply I did love him; & I remember with pain nearly every hard word & little quarrel I ever had with him & I long to ask his forgiveness, but, alas, it is too late now!”
George took Albert Victor’s place in the line of succession, eventually succeeding to the throne as King George V in 1910. Drawn together during their shared period of mourning, Prince George later married Mary of Teck himself in 1893 and she became queen on George’s accession.