The Dangerous Job of Being a British Prince

28 July 2013

Prince George Alexander Louis. The House of Windsor’s new arrival this week provoked something which is now customarily defined as a media frenzy.  Certainly in the United Kingdom this descriptive hyperbole was merited (and not for the first time as far as this particular family is concerned).  It was nigh on impossible to get away from the little prince. As republicans and monarchists were given ample (if tedious) time to air their opposing views the nation inhaled a deep here we go again breath.  Those who wish to see an end to the British Royal Family (a term sometimes considered one of those rarest of things – a triple oxymoron) were particularly vociferous.

Why the British people should stump the bill for yet another blue-blooded sponger, they argued, was beyond them.  Simultaneously, another section of the population politely raised a collective hand and suggested that young George’s blood was more likely to be green.  Yet another faction suggested that the money set aside to coddle, spoil and imbue the heir’s heir’s heir with a sense of twenty first century droit du seigneur was beyond the pale and should be given to the starving children of Birmingham instead. 

The arguments ran that this eight pound blob, as an eight pound blob born to reign, would lead a life of utter privilege, pursue a lifestyle which should have been abandoned centuries ago and be so apart from the common people as to have to feign the common touch. Yet the job of British Prince (one hesitates before saying career although Prince Harry has been known to use the noun as a verb) is not, historically, one of particular safety - in many cases far from it.  Perhaps the funds drawn from the public purse should be seen more as danger money than a living allowance.  As the roll of royals below shows, being a British Prince can be bad for your health, often to the point of extinction.

Prince Arthur #1
Arthur is not the luckiest name for princes of the realm. We all know about Richard the Lionheart and his usurping younger brother, Prince John (later King John).  Yet they had a middle brother, Geoffrey.  He died in 1186 but not before siring a child, Arthur, who was born after his father’s death in 1187.

As such, three years later in 1190, childless and possibly gay Richard made his nephew Arthur his heir.  Richard died in 1199 which then should have meant that Arthur succeeded him as king at the ripe old age of twelve.  Such a tender age among kings-in-waiting never seems to bode well during certain periods of British history, this being one.

Perhaps Richard realized this and wished to spare him.  On his deathbed he named his younger brother John his heir instead.  Yet Arthur and his supporters were decidedly unhappy about this turn of events and set about reversing this decision. A treaty followed and at first John (by now king) treated his nephew kindly.  Yet Arthur became suspicious of his uncle and fled to Angers.  A campaign followed during which he besieged his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at the Château de Mirebeau.

The siege failed and John captured and imprisoned Arthur.  He was incarcerated in Rouen castle.

One version of what happened next has John ordering Arthur’s death yet his prison guards would not commit the deed.

One evening, John got himself drunk and proceeded to Arthur’s cell, where he did for his nephew with a dagger.

Arthur's body was then unceremoniously dumped in the Seine.

Whether or not this was how Arthur died (Shakespeare has him falling from a tower in an escape attempt in his play King John), one thing is for sure.

Nothing was heard from him ever again after 1203.




The Princes in the Tower
These unfortunate boys were the sons of Edward IV whose own reign was turbulent to say the very least. Edward IV was on the thrown from 1461 – 1483 with 6 months sabbatical at the end of 1470 when his predecessor, Henry VI (who then briefly became his successor) was restored to the throne.  Once Edward had sorted that pickle out (more below) and Henry VI had slipped off his mortal coil (from, ahem, melancholy and not suffocation or strangulation as has been occasionally suggested) it seemed that Edward’s eldest son, another Edward would inevitably become king on his father’s death… which came rather sooner than expected.

Edward senior went boating one day in 1483 and soon after became ill and died (in a rather prolonged way which to some suggests foul play) when junior was only 12.  Senior managed to make his youngest brother Richard (yes, that Richard) Protector of the young uncrowned king and that was exactly what he did, placing his nephew in the Tower of London for his own protection.  He was soon joined by his younger brother, Richard.  The coronation that would secure Junior’s position as the crowned King of England never came.  Dear old Uncle Richard had the pair declared illegitimate by Parliament and was then crowned Richard III.  However, despite this, the two princes still disappeared.

History has pointed an accusing finger directly at Richard III who, as the next in line to the throne, had the most to gain by disappearing the boys. Yet he was already king and the boys' mother later allied herself to him, hardly a sign a doting mother might give that she believed the boys' uncle to also be their executor.  There are other names in the frame for the disappearance of the princes but my personal favorite is Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby.

Why her? Richard and his wife Anne had lost their only son, Edward, suddenly when he was only ten years old -so they had no heir.  The next in line to the throne was a young man of the name Harri Tudur (in Welsh) or Henry Tudor in English.  Margaret Beaufort desperately wanted Henry on the throne because he just happened to be her son.  As Parliament had delegitimised young Edward and Richard it could just as easily have a change of heart.

Sure enough, the disappearances of the princes coincided with Henry Tudor arriving in England from his exile in France. Richard III, after only two years on the throne, was beaten at the Battle of Bosworth Field just two years later.  His body was hurriedly flung in an unmarked grave. Margaret’s son became Henry VII.

Although the bodies of young Edward and Richard were never found (possible remains have never been DNA tested) the remains of Richard III were positively identified through mitochondrial DNA in 2012 having been discovered in a car park in the English city of Leicester (pronounced Lester if you are reading this far west of Europe in what Edward would have called The New World had he lived a further seven years, long enough for Columbus to ‘discover’ it).

Prince Alphonso
Edwards, Richards, Henrys.  No wonder British children have struggled with the period of British history known as The War of the Roses (even though it was more accurately called the War of the Cousins at the time).  We will give those names a brief rest while we take a look at the short life of Prince Alphonso. Yes. Alphonso.

Alphonso was the ninth child of Edward I (I lied about any respite from certain names) and Eleanor of Castile and was born in 1273.  You might conclude that he, although a prince, could never possibly become King of England being number nine yet for a while it was very likely.  Edward and Eleanor (who loved each other dearly, history records) had a tragic run of extremely bad luck when it came to their children.  Of the eight children born before Alphonso, four daughters and a son were already dead (due to infant mortality rather than violence).  Two other daughters, Eleanor and Joan would live to 1298 and 1307 respectively, old enough then to marry and have children of their own (Eleanor had two, Joan had eight).

Yet Alphonso was not born to be King.  There was a previous son, Henry, born in 1268 who was to be the future King of England.  However, only a year after Alphonso’s arrival, Henry expired at the age of six, making Alphonso the heir apparent.

As much as a King Alphonso of England may very well have put a stop the endless lists of very familiar names, if only temporarily, it was not to be.  Edward and Eleanor continued to produce offspring and six or seven (jury’s out) more followed.  Out of these, three daughters – Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth made it in to adulthood.  A son is thought to have been born in 1280 but there is little evidence (not even a name) for this child who probably died at birth.

Then, in 1284 along came Edward, a healthy baby boy and Eleanor’s 16th child.  Just as Henry had died a year after Alphonso’s birth, so Alphonso patiently waited twelve months before duly expiring himself at the age of 11.  He was already betrothed to be married when he died.

As for young Edward, oh dear oh dear oh dear.  He became the very first English Prince of Wales and after his father’s death he became Edward II. Yes, that King Edward whose reign was marked by apparent ineptitude, political backbiting and military setbacks.  His close friend Piers Gaveston was executed (pictured above) for provoking the nobility with his offensive behavior. Edward was eventually deposed and imprisoned by his own wife, Isabella.   Edward was murdered shortly after probably by strangulation.

The red hot poker scenario is most likely medieval propaganda.

So much, then, for Prince Alphonso and his younger brother Edward.

Prince Lionel
Fortunately for the realm, Edward II’s son, Edward III proved to be a much better King and his reign lasted for fifty years, beginning in 1327.

While Prince Charles today may be impatient to become the monarch, Edward’s sons should probably have worried more about outliving their father than anything else.  Ultimately, none of his six sons would become king and that included Prince Lionel.

Lionel was son number three but the second to survive childhood.  You don't hear much of Prince Lionel now, but one of his employees, Geofrey Chaucer, who was a page in the prince’s household in his youth, would go on to write The Canterbury Tales.

Lionel, according to the habit of marrying princes off to wealthy noblewomen, took the Countess of Ulster as his wife. She died in 1363.

Lionel then packed himself off in 1368 to northern Italy where he had been promised an enormous dowry by the Lord of Pavia to enter in to marriage with his daughter Violente.  The marriage went ahead and was followed by months of celebrations during which time Lionel must have really impressed his new father-in-law.

While partying in the town of Alba, Lionel was taken ill where he died in the most horrible agony.  Speculation of the time pointed towards to, you guessed it, the Lord of Pavia.  What was used to poison the luckless Lionel is not known, but Alba is now the home of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

Lionel’s younger brother John of Gaunt (above) would have more luck, not in terms of becoming king, but by being a father of kings.

The Black Prince
Although Lionel was second in line to the throne, any time he spent wondering if he would ever be king was, then, something of a waste of time. Even his older brother, Edward (known to history romantically as The Black Prince) would not ascend the throne.  Edward should have become Edward IV but died a year before his long-lived father.

Edward is remembered for his notions of chivalry, even though he was not averse to burning and pillaging French towns, levying unaffordable taxes and arranging the occasional massacre.  Payback came when he suffered a long illness caused by amoebic dysentery which, after ten years did for the Black Prince in 1376.

Edward was the first English Prince of Wales not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become king.  Yet he had, through his marriage to Phillipa of Hainault, provided himself and the country with an heir.  Duly, his son Richard, became king on the death of his grandfather in 1377.

Even Richard had not been born to rule. He had had an older brother (yet another Edward) who would normally have been the king, but who died at the age of seven in 1372.  Another spare, rather than the (original) heir, he was only ten when he became King.

Prince Arthur #2
We have already seen the way in which those in the way of Henry VII, the Princes in the Tower, were disappeared (possibly by Henry’s own mother, possibly by his predecessor Richard II, possibly by other hands).  Once on the throne in 1485 Henry married Elizabeth of York in 1486.  Elizabeth was the older sister of the two young princes who had vanished in the Tower of London. You really couldn’t make this up.

Once on the throne Henry became convinced that he was to be the founder of a dynasty and that his first son would bring back a golden age for the kingdom.  He had his historians proclaim him related to the legendary 6th century King Arthur and that the city of Winchester was Camelot.  When his wife Elizabeth was near term with her first child he had her rushed to Winchester where she gave birth to a boy who he named Arthur (this was a gamble as it could easily have been a girl).

When Arthur was two in 1488 he was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon (who was only three years old herself) and the two exchanged letters until they finally met when Arthur was 15 in the November of 1501.  The marriage was brief but, seemingly, happy.  After the bedding ceremony (when they were put to bed by the entire English court, must have been embarrassing) the young couple travelled to Arthur’s official residence, Ludlow Castle.

Little is known of what happened there during the next few months but by the April of 1502 the young couple were both desperately ill from a highly virulent disease known as the English Sweating Sickness, now thought to be a viral pulmonary syndrome.  Catherine survived but Arthur died.

Arthur had a younger brother, Henry, who was not made Prince of Wales until it became apparent that Catherine was not carrying Arthur’s child.  It was forbidden for a man to marry his brother’s widow at the time but a dispensation was sought (and gained) from the Pope.  Catherine and Henry were finally married in 1509 just a few days before her new husband was crowned King Henry VIII.

Arthur’s death may have crushed the dream of his father, Henry VII, that England was about to enter a new golden Age.  Yet his son, Henry VIII, would father a child who would become Elizabeth I. Her 44 years on the throne provided much wanted stability for the kingdom and facilitated a sense of national English identity.

So, being a British prince certainly had its dangers and many who were born to be king never made it.

Perhaps they should have left it to the girls in the first place?


First Image Credit Flickr User Gene Hunt
Private Eye Cover Gwydion M Williams



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