Henry VI only had to wait nine months to become King of England, whereas Edward VII had to wait nearly six decades. However, no matter how long they waited, not every aspirant monarch was given the opportunity to ascend the throne. Here are ten of England’s unluckiest royal heirs—those who waited in vain and died before they could rule.
1. WILLIAM ÆTHELING (1103-1120)
Despite the fact that Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy, had more than 20 half-siblings, William theling was most likely Henry I’s only legitimate son. He was the first English heir since the conquest of 1066, as the son of Queen Matilda (also known as Edith) and a direct descendant of the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex.
William and his retinue set sail from France aboard the White Ship on November 25, 1120. “It was overcrowded with riotous and headstrong youths,” Orderic Vitalis wrote, and several passengers had already decided to disembark. They had barely made it out of Barfleur harbor when they ran aground on Quilleboeuf rock, drunk and thinking they could beat the king—who had left earlier. According to another chronicler, the prince was transferred to the only skiff and rowed away to safety, but William demanded that they return to rescue his half-sister, Matilda of Perche, in a moment of shame or heroism. The 17-year-old English heir was lost when the boat was dragged down by drowning sailors.
William’s drunken antics threw England and the rest of the world into chaos. Because Henry I had no other legitimate sons, his death sparked the Anarchy, a years-long civil war. However, England’s Angevin Empire would not have existed if he had not died young. It would have meant the end of King John, and possibly the end of the Magna Carta as well.
2. ALPHONSO PLANTAGENET, EARL OF CHESTER (1273-1284)
Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castille, were unlucky even by medieval infant mortality rates, losing all but six of their at least 14 children. Alphonso, their third son, was named after his uncle and became his father’s heir at the age of 11 months. His parents’ relationship with their children may have been strained as a result of the constant loss, but Alphonso still received gifts from them, including a toy castle and a miniature siege engine. He was betrothed to Margaret of Holland when he was ten years old, but he died shortly before the wedding. He was buried alongside his two older brothers, John and Henry, in Westminster Abbey.
The last son of Edward I and Eleanor was born four months before Alphonso’s death and would go on to become the disastrous Edward II, whose army was famously defeated by Robert the Bruce, King of Scots.
3. EDWARD OF WOODSTOCK (1330-1376)
Edward III, unlike Edward I, had an excessive number of sons (eight to be exact), the eldest of whom was Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales. He was strong, like his father, and had a natural talent for battle—at the age of 16, he had already led an army into battle. Only ten years later, at the Battle of Poitiers, he captured the French king, paving the way for his accession as Prince of Aquitaine. The Prince of Wales died a slow and painful death in 1376, after surviving several near-death experiences on the battlefield, most likely from dysentery contracted while on campaign.
Edward of Woodstock’s reputation, on the other hand, lasted long after his death. He was dubbed “The Black Prince” because of his association with dark deeds in France, such as the violent and bloody attack on the town of Limoges (though that link remains debated).
Just a year before his father, Edward of Woodstock died. Richard II was succeeded by his 10-year-old son, Edward III. Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin, eventually deposed him, and some historians believe this sowed the seeds for England’s next civil war, the Wars of the Roses.
4. ARTHUR TUDOR (1486-1502)
Arthur’s birth, like William theling’s, signaled a new beginning. His name was carefully chosen to allude to Camelot’s legendary ruler. His father Henry VII’s Welsh identity and belief that he was descended from ancient British kings were embodied in the name. Henry VII furthered this by ensuring that his wife, Elizabeth of York, gave birth in Winchester, the old English capital, which is thought to be the location of Camelot.
When Arthur was only 15, he and his new wife, Katherine of Aragon, became ill with a “moost petifull disease and sikeness,” according to one anonymous source. Katherine recovered completely, but the young Prince of Wales’ condition deteriorated and he died a month later on April 2, 1502. His cause of death is unknown, but it was most likely either the dreaded sweating sickness or consumption, a mysterious illness that caused multiple epidemics in the 15th and 16th centuries. His parents were heartbroken, and his mother died 10 months later of a post-partum infection after giving birth to a daughter who died just days later.
Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII, succeeded him after marrying the widowed Katherine. By far the most important legacy of his reign was England’s break with Rome and adoption of the new Protestant religion, which he pushed through out of a desire to have a son and heir—all of which was complicated by Katherine’s status as Arthur’s widow.
5. HENRY FREDERICK STUART (1594-1612)
On February 19, 1594, the presumptive Henry IX of England was born in Scotland. He was James VI of Scotland’s eldest son by his Danish wife, Anne. James inherited the English throne after Elizabeth’s death, and Henry moved to London, where he was named the first Scottish Prince of Wales in 1610. Henry, unlike his younger brother Charles, was a lively, robust, and healthy young man with a passion for music and art, as well as a natural leadership ability. He was also an avid sportsman, and he fell ill and died of typhoid a few weeks after swimming in the River Thames in October 1612.
It’s possible that the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, one of the bloodiest periods in British history, would never have happened if Henry had lived. Henry’s personality, leadership qualities, and anti-Catholic sentiments may have succeeded in appeasing Parliament and avoiding the English Civil War even if he shared Charles I’s philosophy on divine rule.
6. JAMES STUART, DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE (1663-1667)
The future James II/VII and his first wife, Anne Hyde, had a son named James Stuart. He was born during the reign of his uncle Charles II, and his father was still a Protestant. As a result, he and his older sister Mary were raised as Anglicans. In 1664, he was made Duke of Cambridge, and by 1666, it was widely assumed that he would one day be King, as his father was set to succeed Charles II after his death.
Both the Duke of Cambridge and his younger brother, Charles, fell ill with what was either smallpox or the plague in April 1667, after James II and Anne had already lost one son in 1661. On May 22, 1667, Charles died. The Duke of Cambridge appeared to be alive for a time, but he died a month later, on June 20, 1667.
During the Glorious Revolution, James II was deposed, and his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, ascended to the throne.
7. SOPHIA, ELECTRESS OF HANOVER (1630-1714)
Sophia of Hanover is probably the unluckiest of all the nearly-monarchs. Through his daughter, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, she was the granddaughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England. She was born in The Hague and lived in exile for most of her childhood until she married Ernest Augustus, the Elector of Hanover, in 1692.
The 1701 Act of Settlement, which deposed Charles I’s Catholic heirs, recognized Sophia as a Protestant in the line of succession. When Anne, the daughter of James II, succeeded William III the following year, she became the heir presumptive. On August 1, 1714, Anne died at the age of 49; unfortunately, Sophia, who was already in her eighties, had died less than two months earlier from a stroke while fleeing a storm. King George I was her son.
8. PRINCE FREDERICK (1707–1751)
Prince Frederick was born Duke Friedrich Ludwig of Brunswick-Lüneburg and raised in Hanover before being sent to England in 1728, the year after his father (who he hadn’t seen in 14 years) was crowned King George II. “My dear first born is the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest canaille, and the greatest beast, in the whole world,” his mother, Queen Caroline, said, “and I most heartily wish he was out of it.”
Frederick married Augusta of Saxony-Gotha in 1736 and had nine children, but he and his parents never reconciled. He died in 1751, and several theories have been proposed as to why he died, the most well-known of which is that he was killed by a cricket ball while playing his favorite sport. Frederick’s son, George III, became known for his insanity and the loss of the American colonies.
9. PRINCESS CHARLOTTE OF WALES (1796-1817)
By 1798, George III’s son, George, Prince of Wales, had become so estranged from his wife that it was clear he would never have another legitimate child, leaving his 2-year-old daughter Charlotte as the heir. Charlotte and her father had a tense relationship because of Charlotte’s rebellious nature. She ran away from home in 1814, and against her father’s wishes, she married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld on May 2, 1816.
Charlotte was extremely well-liked in the country, in contrast to her father’s position. Her death at the age of 21 while giving birth to a stillborn son sparked a national outpouring of grief, as if “every household in Great Britain had lost a favorite child.” Her cousin Princess Alexandrina would never have become Queen Victoria if she had lived and had children, and the great industrial advancements of the nineteenth 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 rumors that surrounded him, including the rumor that he was Jack the Ripper. He was a gentle and sensitive man who most likely struggled with learning. He grew up with self-doubt and low self-esteem after being called stupid as a child.
On December 3, 1891, he proposed to Mary of Teck. Eddy, on the other hand, was already sick by the time he turned 28 in January. He died six days later, a victim of the 19th century’s last great pandemic.
The country shut down on the day of his funeral, just as it had done 75 years before for Princess Charlotte, and his death triggered a deep and genuine period of mourning for his family. “How deeply I loved him; and I remember with pain nearly every hard word and small quarrel I ever had with him, and I long to ask his forgiveness, but alas, it is too late now!” wrote his brother George. Princess Mary’s wedding bouquet was placed on his coffin.
Eddy’s fiancée married his brother, George V, who went on to become King of the United Kingdom and lead the country into World War I. There would have been no Edward VIII, no abdication crisis, and no Elizabeth II if Eddy had lived and married Mary himself.