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Category: Almost Kings

  1. Almost Kings - William, Duke of Gloucester

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    At the death of Queen Anne on 1 August 1714 the throne of Great Britain passed from the House of Stuart, to the House of Hanover. Despite multiple pregnancies Anne's only child to live past the age of three had been Prince William, Duke of Gloucester.

    Born in July 1689 at Hampton Court Palace, William was recognised from birth as being second in line to the thrones of England and Scotland. The year before his grandfather, King James, had been deposed in the “Glorious Revolution”. King William III and Queen Mary II, Anne's sister and brother-in-law, now sat on the throne. As the pair were childless Princess Anne was recognised as their heir, with her children succeeding to the throne after her.

    William Duke of Gloucester with ermine-lined cloak and wearing the Order of the GarterWilliam's birth was greeted with celebration. Here at last was the male Protestant heir who would guarantee the nation's future and religion. At birth he appeared to be healthy, but at 3 weeks old he suffered a series of convulsions that impacted his health for the rest of his life. His mother had him moved to Craven House at Kensington, where the gravel pits were believed to have purer, healthier air. William was even placed in his own miniature carriage that was pulled by Shetland ponies, and driven around the surrounding estate, in order to benefit from the air.

    Whatever the original cause of his convulsions (seizures in babies can be caused by ear infections, chicken pox and meningitis), it seems to have led to hydrocephalus. As a child his head was reportedly so big it would fit a man's hat, and his doctors occasionally had to draw off fluid from it. He was unable to speak until he was three, and for some time he refused to walk up stairs without servants holding him. He may have felt unsafe on his own feet if his illness was causing balance issues. However in typical 17th century parenting style his father, Prince George, birched him as punishment. After this William agreed to walk unaided.

    As he grew older William's life became a battleground between his mother and his aunt and uncle. King William and Queen Mary were fond of him, often visiting him at his home or entertaining him at theirs. King William complimented him on his miniature army of local children, called the “Horse Guards”, while Queen Mary spoiled him with frequent toy purchases from his favourite shop. But Anne had fallen out with the King and Queen, and only allowed the relationship as a way to keep their focus on William as the future heir to the throne.

    Mary died in December 1694, when William was just five. His mother and uncle had a public reconciliation, which included Anne moving to St James' Palace with her husband and son, but personally things remained cold between them. The King had a greater say in Prince William's life than his mother would have liked.

    For his seventh birthday Prince William became a knight of the Order of the Garter at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. The banquet thrown to celebrate left the little boy sick and retiring to bed early, but he joined in the hunt the next day. A year later in 1697, Prince William was granted his own establishment. However King William and Princess Anne fought over appointments to the household, particularly in 1698. King William was eventually persuaded to accept Anne's requests to put her Marlborough friends in prominent positions, but he kept his choice of tutor despite Anne's dislike of the man.

    Although Prince William had been slow to talk and unsteady on his feet, he was a fast learner under the tutelage of Bishop Burnet. 17th century education wasn't particularly inspired, consisting of committing facts and dates to memory. But William appears to have had particularly good recall, making him a success. King William also made him an honorary commander of a regiment of Dutch footguards, as his child model army had been disbanded.

    On 24 July 1700 Prince William's 11th birthday was celebrated with a party at Windsor castle, including a banquet followed by dancing and a firework display. The Prince threw himself wholeheartedly in to the festivities, and ended up being put to bed feeling chilled and with a sore throat. Over the following two days his temperature rose until he fell in to delirium. No one knew what the cause was, he didn't show any other signs of smallpox. The doctors attending him bled him, but when another physician – Dr Radcliffe – arrived, he claimed that such actions had effectively killed the patient.

    Prince William died in the early hours of 30 July at Windsor Castle. He had never been joined in the Royal nursery by a little brother or sister, his death left his parents heirless. He was buried at Westminster Abbey, and the throne eventually passed to a distant cousin, George of Hanover.

    Last month's Almost King was Prince Albert Victor.


  2. Almost Kings - Prince Albert Victor

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    After surviving the usual childhood illnesses, as well as a stint in the Royal Navy, Albert Victor was virtually a shoe-in to one day become King Albert I. Unfortunately a winter chill changed everything.

    Born two months premature in January 1864 at Frogmore House in Windsor, at the time of Albert's birth his grandmother, Queen Victoria, was still on the throne. He wasn't Victoria's first grandchild, but he was the first of her eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales. Therefore Albert was second in line to the throne from birth.

    Prince Albert Victor as a young man in military uniformAlbert and his brother George, younger by seventeen months, were given the same tutor and same education. Neither of them did particularly well, something which could be blamed on poor teaching. But as he grew up Albert showed little interest in anything academic. He learned Danish, but struggled to pick up French and German, languages his parents and grandmother were fluent in. In 1877 both Albert and George were signed up to the navy and sent to the training ship HMS Brittania. Albert fell ill with typhoid but recovered, and by 1879 he was ready to be deployed. He and George spent 3 years travelling the world as crewmen on HMS Bacchante. By the time they returned the pair had seen more of the British Empire than their father and grandmother combined.

    On returning to Britain, Albert was enrolled in Trinity College Cambridge. He still wasn't particularly academic, but he was excused from taking exams so it hardly mattered. He was finally awarded an honorary degree by Cambridge in 1888, three years after he left. Instead of continuing his education he was enrolled in the army, in the 10th Hussars. He trained at Aldershot before being promoted to captain in 1887. But again his lack of talent prevented him going further than Major, and then his classmates proceeded to be promoted above him. He may also have contracted an STD by this point, as letters to his doctor refer to him taking medication that was generally used to treat gonorrhea.

    As an adult Albert was a diffident young man. He was considered to be perfectly affable and good natured, but with no talent and no occupation he quickly grew bored. He might have been given Prince Albert's name, but he was as far as one could get from the kind of King that his grandfather would have wanted. He had inherited his father's interest in card games and pretty women, but unlike Edward he lacked any kind of work ethic.

    In July 1889 the police raided a male brothel in Cleveland Street, London. During interrogation the names of the clients were soon divulged, including Albert's equerry, Lord Albert Somerset. Although Albert's name was never mentioned by any of those arrested, it wasn't long before the association between the two men led to a rumour that Albert also visited the same establishment. This wasn't helped by Somerset's lawyer, who claimed that if his client went to court he would reveal the name of one “P.A.V.” (Prince Albert Victor) who also visited Cleveland Street. Somerset himself fled abroad and refused to condone the rumours about Albert.

    In the end Albert's father the Prince of Wales intervened and made sure that none of the clients would end up in court. For some this is proof that Albert had indeed visited the brothel and his father covered it up as a result. It may be that Albert was bisexual, or followed expectations at the time and been firmly in the closet. Alternatively Somerset's lawyer may have spread the rumours himself to take the focus off his client. But the scandal was enough to prompt the family to step in and draw a line under the matter, and to start hunting for a suitable bride.

    A further scandal enveloped Albert's life long after his death. In the 1960s it was suggested that he could have been Jack the Ripper. However papers from the time show that Albert was no where near London during several of the murders. It's also generally accepted that killer had some kind of surgical skill, well beyond the capabilities of Albert.

    The search for a bride for Albert started as early as 1889. His cousin Princess Alix was considered to be the frontrunner. But when he proposed she declined. She would go on to fall in love with and marry Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. A year later Albert was quite over her, and instead had fallen in love with Princess Helene of Orleans. Originally Queen Victoria was against the match, but the young couple convinced her that they were in love. Always sentimental at heart when it came to love, and with a soft spot for Albert, Victoria decided to give her blessing.

    But other family members were less forthcoming. The Princess' father in particular was opposed to the match, and the Prince of Wales wasn't thrilled either. Helene had offered to convert from Catholicism in order to marry Albert, but her father refused to accept this as a condition. In a desperate attempt to get around her father, Helene even travelled to Rome to appeal to the Pope in person. Why she thought this would work is a mystery, naturally the Pope refused to give her permission to convert from the Church. Ultimately the pair gave up, Helene would go on to marry the Duke of Aosta in 1895.

    But a bride had to be found for Albert, and there was a shortage of suitable women. Apart from his European cousins, Queen Victoria reportedly complained that other potential continental brides were too stupid or too ugly to be considered. However waiting in the wings at home was another relation – Princess Mary “May” of Teck. Mary's mother was a cousin of Queen Victoria, as she was another granddaughter of King George III. Mary was beautiful, educated, down to earth and well liked. She took an active interest in charities and good works, and was considered to be a practical, sensible young woman. The hope was that she would help reform Albert, who was entertaining himself with actresses.

    The Prince was quite taken with his pretty potential bride, and proposed to her in December 1891. Unlike Princess Alix, there was no refusal from Princess Mary. A public announcement was made that the pair were engaged, and the wedding was set for February 1892. Together they moved on to Sandringham to spend the festive season with Albert's family, the Prince and Princess of Wales held Christmas at Sandringham every year. However early in the New Year Albert felt ill while out on a shooting trip in the cold January air. He quickly fell sick with the flu. He struggled through his birthday celebrations on 8 January, but took to his bed shortly after. As his temperature rose he reportedly cried out for Princess Helene. Flu developed in to pneumonia, and he died on 14 January 1892. His death shocked the nation. The sudden loss of a healthy twenty eight year old heir to the throne came out of the blue. He was buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

    In similar style to Arthur Tudor and Catherine of Aragon, Albert's younger brother Prince George took both the throne and the bride. Mary was still considered good enough to be a Queen Consort, and she had merely been engaged to Albert. George and Mary became close during their period of mourning, and were married in July 1893.

    Last month's Almost King was Henry Stuart.


  3. Almost Kings - Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales

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    Another one of those “could have changed the course of history” princes, Henry Stuart's arrival was greeted with immense relief by the Scottish court. But it wasn't long before his birth showed the stark division between his parents, which would set the scene for the rest of their marriage.

    Born in Stirling Castle on 19 February 1594, baby Henry was the first child of King James VI and his wife, Anne of Denmark. The couple had married in Oslo in November 1589. The years between the marriage and Anne falling pregnant had led to rumours that the couple could not conceive a child together. The birth of a living, healthy male child promptly put a lot of concerns to rest.

    The childhoods of James and Anne could not have been more different. James' mother Mary Queen of Scots had been arrested in June 1567 when her son was just a year old. Eventually she was imprisoned in England before being executed. His father Henry Darnley had been murdered months after his birth. A variety of Regents had come and gone from the young James' life, their own lives cut off by murder, execution, and illness. Thus James grew up with no real sense of a close, loving family life. Anne on the other hand had been initially raised in the home of her maternal grandparents in Mecklenburg, before returning to the Danish court. Her mother Sophia was a dedicated and diligent parent who personally nursed her children through a range of childhood illnesses.Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales

    Thus Anne might have expected to be able to create a warm, homely Royal nursery, starting with baby Henry. Instead James placed the infant in the care of the the Earl of Mar at Stirling Castle, and appointed his own childhood nurse to the household. Anne was furious that she was to have no say in the way Henry was raised, and consistently argued that she should be allowed custody of her own son. James not only refused, but gave instructions that Anne was not even allowed to have custody should James die while the boy was still in his minority. Anne had a miscarriage in 1595 that was reportedly caused by how upset she was over James' refusal.

    In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died, making James the new King James I of England. Anne finally got her chance to see her son again, refusing to move south to join the King unless she could have custody of Henry. James finally agreed, and mother and son travelled down from Scotland to London together. By this point Henry was an older brother to Elizabeth and Charles, a baby sister named Margaret had died a few months after her first birthday in 1600. Elizabeth joined her mother and brother on their journey to England, but Charles was a sickly child. Rather than risk his life and health with a strenuous journey, he was left in the care of Lord Fyvie until he was well enough to join the family a year later.

    Henry's education had begun in Scotland under the tutelage of Sir George Lauder, apparently with regular input from James, who took a keen interest in his son's learning. Henry was educated with his future in mind, studying current national affairs as well as the usual subjects. Unfortunately this put him on course to clash with his father. Not only did he disagree with his father on policy, he disliked his father's favourites and the running of the court. He was reportedly strict on his own household, fining members who were caught swearing, and ensuring the whole household attended regular church services.

    His position as heir to the throne also put Henry in the same danger as his father. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 had the intention of killing both father and son in the explosion. Assuming that Charles would either be killed or too weak to pose a problem, the plotters intended to put Henry's sister Elizabeth on the throne. She was young enough for a Regency to be needed, she could be raised as a Catholic and married to a Catholic prince, and through her the country would return to Catholicism. The discovery of the plot led to a sense of national relief that the King and his heirs had survived, and created a boost of popularity.

    As he grew older the gulf between father and son also grew. Henry was handsome, physically strong, and intelligent. His younger brother Charles appears to have emulated him, and his attempts to keep up with his brother led to positive changes in his health over the years. Henry was confident and appears to have been a natural leader. He was interested in affairs of state, was kept abrest of activities in Ireland and the American colonies, and was not afraid to debate policy with his father. In one incident he and James argued while out hunting near the King's favourite lodge in Royston, Hertfordshire. The pair nearly came to blows before Henry decided to leave, and some members of the court followed him rather than stay with the King. They were already starting to mark the rising star, and the potential rewards that would follow when he inherited the throne.

    The matter of Henry's future marriage was a key policy area for many years. In 1605 James began to investigate a Spanish match for his eldest son. This was apparently at the suggestion of Queen Anne, who wanted highly prestigious marriages for her children. Spain had Infanta Anne, born in 1601, and Infanta Maria Anna, born in 1606, the original proposal may have been for Anne (who later became Queen of France). By 1612 the Spanish were refusing the match unless Henry converted to Catholicism. Even if James had been willing to support such a demand, Henry had been raised with a series of Calvinist preachers in his household and was a dedicated Protestant.

    The match may have been renegotiated were it not for Henry's early death. In October 1612 Frederick, Count Palatine of the Rhine, arrived at the English court as the betrothed of Henry's sister Princess Elizabeth. Their mother Anne disapproved of the match, she wanted Elizabeth to be a Queen. However Henry and Frederick appear to have become good friends in a short space of time. Elizabeth was close to her older brother, and was relieved that he got on well with her future husband.

    Sadly the friendship did not last long. During the celebrations for Frederick and Elizabeth, Henry suddenly fell ill with typhoid fever. He died on 6 November 1612 at St James' Palace, plunging the previously joyful court in to deep mourning. Charles and Elizabeth were devastated at the sudden loss of their brother, and Queen Anne was so upset that it permanently affected her health. Henry was buried in Westminster Abbey on 7 December, with Charles as chief mourner.

    Like the Black Prince and Arthur Tudor, Henry was considered one of the great losses to English kingship. Charles' problems as King may have been avoided had it been Henry on the throne. In reality Henry may have faced the same accusations of acting like a tyrant, depending on how his own policies turned out.

    Last month's Almost King was a trio - the sons of King Edward I.


  4. Almost Kings - Sons of Edward I

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    Edward I and his wife Eleanor of Castile are known for having a large brood of children. Eleanor is believed to have given birth to sixteen children. However many of these children died young, and it took a long time before they had a surviving male heir. Edward of Carnarvon was the youngest of the sixteen and the fourth boy born to the couple. Had they survived, any of his brothers would have been King of England instead of him.


    Naming the eldest son after their paternal grandfather was very common, but it might have been best to skip it in the case of baby John. Edward’s grandfather King John had been disaster. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped Edward and Eleanor using the name, perhaps they thought they might be able to ensure that King John II would be a better monarch? When baby John was born on 13 July 1266 he was the fourth child and first boy. However his three sisters had all died by the time of his birth. Eleanor’s first daughter had been stillborn in 1255, Katherine had died in 1264 at just three years old, and Joanna had died in 1265 before her first birthday.

    John seems to have been healthier than his sisters as he lived longer than any of them. But he died weeks after his fifth birth, in August 1271. At the time of his death his parents were on Crusade, John had been left in the care of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of Edward’s father King Henry III. The extended family arranged for John to be buried in Westminster Abbey.Prince Henry


    Henry was born sometime in the spring of 1268 at Windsor Castle. At the time of his birth his older brother John was still alive, making Henry the “spare” to the heir. He was named for his English grandfather. The family don’t appear to have recycled first names but had John died before Henry then he may have taken his brother’s name as well as his place in line for the throne.

    Henry’s parents left on crusade in 1270, leaving Henry also in the care of Great Uncle Richard. After John’s death in 1271 Henry became the new heir to the throne. John's death was followed by Richard in April 1272, at which point Henry seems to have been moved to live with his paternal grandmother Eleanor of Provence. This was followed by the death of King Henry III in November 1272, while Edward was still in the Middle East. Henry was now just one step away from the throne. Had Edward died in Crusade a long regency would have ensued before King Henry IV would have been of age. In 1273 he was betrothed to Joan of Navarre, who would have been Queen of England (she instead became Queen of France). Toys were provided for the growing boy including a small trumpet and a set of toy arrows.

    Sadly Henry predeceased his father too. He fell sick in 1274 while residing at Guildford. Having spent several years in the care of his paternal grandmother Eleanor of Provence it was fitting that she looked after him in his final illness. Edward and Eleanor have come in for criticism for not making the short journey from London to Guildford to visit him. However they had been abroad for most of Henry's short life, his grandmother was the better person to be with him. His mother was also pregnant at the time and it may have been fear of infection that kept the Royal parents away from their son. Like his brother he was buried in Westminster Abbey.


    Alphonso, Earl of Chester, has his own earlier blog post on this site. He was born in November 1273 while his parents were residing in Gascony. With big brother Henry still alive at the time there was nothing to suggest that Alphonso would one day be King, he was the spare to the heir. But Henry's death in October 1274 propelled the 11 month old forward in the line of succession.

    Given that Alphonso was the last surviving son to be born in to the family for 11 years (a baby boy died shortly after birth sometime in 1280 or 1281, 5 daughters were born between Alphonso in 1273 and Edward in 1284), precautions must have been taken for his health. The Royal nursery appears to have been situated in the Tower of London while the Royal couple resided in Westminster. This gave the King and Queen easy access to their children while keeping them away from the crowds at court.

    And like Henry with his toy arrows, Alphonso received his own set of playthings including a model castle and possibly some toy soldiers. As he grew older he was given more grown-up presents, including hawks and greyhounds for hunting. A wife was also proposed for him. Rather than pick up the dropped Joan of Navarre, Alphonso was betrothed to Margaret of Holland. A beautiful psalter was created as one of the wedding gifts for the future happy event.

    Bad luck struck the family once more in August 1284, when Alphonso died suddenly while his parents were in Wales. The family were devastated, not only was Alphonso starting to reach the age when he could have been groomed for government, but his death left the only son as a tiny 4 month old boy, Edward. The psalter created for his wedding was instead gifted to his sister Margaret when she married John of Brabant, and now resides in the British Library.

    Altogether there were three boys who could have been, between them, King John II, King Henry IV, or King Alphonso I. Instead England got King Edward II. It didn't work out well.

    Last month's Almost King was William Adelin

  5. Almost Kings - William Adelin

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    Born on 5 August 1103 William Adelin would have been the first Anglo-Norman King, reflecting the changes in English society since the Conquest. While his father was King Henry I of England, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, his mother was Matilda (formerly Edith) of Scotland. Her mother had been a granddaughter of the old Anglo-Saxon kings, and had married King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1070. William Adelin might even have had a claim on the Scottish throne if he had survived.

    William AdelinWilliam’s Anglo-Saxon credentials were further enhanced by his birthplace, the old capital of Winchester, and his epithet. “Adelin” was a Normanised version of the old Anglo-Saxon word “Aetheling”, the name given to the heir to the throne. However his first name still indicated his father’s Norman origins.

    At the time of his birth William had one older sister, also called Matilda. While King Henry had a large brood of illegitimate children, William and his sister were the only two legitimate children from his marriage. Whether this was by choice (some chroniclers claimed that the Queen was so pious she requested a celibate marriage after the birth of an heir) or through bad luck is unknown. But William seems to have been a healthy child so there was no need for his parents to worry too much.

    Queen Matilda had received an excellent education at the convents of Romsey and Wilton and led a cultured, sophisticated court with her husband. She would have ensured that both her children received a good education themselves, although Princess Matilda was sent off to Germany at the age of six to await the crown of Holy Roman Empress. Details on William’s education are unknown, but he would have been expected to learn Latin and French. One small glimpse of family life can be seen in 1114 when Queen Matilda took her son to visit the newly founded Merton Priory. When Henry left England to visit Normandy in 1116 he left his wife as Regent, and charters from this time were also witnessed by William, suggesting that Matilda was helping her son learn the ropes through her supervision.

    William’s mother Queen Matilda died in 1118. As William was now fifteen Henry appointed him regent, albeit with a council of advisors, during his absences. He also had a political role to play in alliances. Normandy’s long-term dispute with neighbouring Anjou frequently broke in to periods of war. In an attempt to secure Anjou’s loyalty William had been betrothed to Matilda of Anjou, the daughter of the Count, in 1113. The pair married six years later in 1119. Little is recorded of their relationship, but presumably they were happy together as after William’s early death Matilda refused to remarry, and joined a convent instead.

    Following his wedding William spent a year with his father, travelling around Normandy and learning how to keep the peace in a region known for discontent and rebellion. In 1120 he became the nominal Duke of Normandy in order to pay homage for the Duchy to King Louis VI of France (Henry felt that as King it was beneath him to pay homage for anything). However, he never formally wielded power in the Duchy. However he was starting to be named as “king designate”, suggesting that to the chroniclers at least he was being lined up for some kind of dual-kingship system similar to that in France. The French monarchy tended to crown the heir during the lifetime of the father, it might have been Henry's intention to do the same.

    Having lived a relatively healthy life until that point there was no reason to think that William would not become King William III. However the “White Ship Disaster” led to the death of William and several of his illegitimate half-siblings. William had managed to make it to the safety of the medieval equivalent of a lifeboat. But an attempt to rescue his drowning half-sister led to his boat being capsized and the heir to the throne drowned with the rest. His wife had been in a different ship otherwise she probably would have died too.

    William’s death left his father with no legitimate male heir. Henry married a second time, to Adeliza of Louvain, but they had no children together. When Henry I died in 1135 the country was up for grabs and was claimed by both William’s sister, Empress Matilda, and their cousin Stephen of Blois.

    Last month's Almost King was Frederick, Prince of Wales.