Henry II was succeeded by more than one of his sons, the last being John.
Edward III should have been succeeded by his son, the Black Prince. Had he been, perhaps the Wars of the Roses would never have happened.
Henry VII should have been followed by his eldest son Prince Arthur, but instead the country got Henry VIII and the seismic changes which accompanied his reign.
Henry VIII then of course famously had a bit of difficulty siring a legitimate male heir and the one he finally produced, Edward VI, also died whilst still a teenager. What would the country have been without the reigns of Mary I or Elizabeth I?
Charles I was not destined to rule; his elder brother Henry was the heir, but died when still a teenager. Would there have been civil war if Henry had lived and reigned?
Back in Anglo-Saxon times there were also some occasions where the elder brothers' deaths had far-reaching consequences.
A few instances even in the early part of the period leave me thinking, what if?
Offa of Mercia went to a great deal of time and trouble to secure the legitimate succession of his son, Ecgfrith. Offa and his predecessor, Æthelbald, were only distantly related, and neither was directly related to the kings who had come before. In Mercia during the eighth century there were several contenders for the throne upon every death of the king, and Offa was determined to make the way easier for Ecgfrith. Bloodshed was one of the preferred methods, and letters show that it was not approved of . Alcuin of York wrote a letter in 797 in which he said of Ecgfrith: 'You know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son.'
But Offa went further, having Ecgfrith anointed by Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield. (It's probable that the archbishop of Canterbury had refused to do it.)
It was all for nothing, however. Ecgfrith died only a few months after becoming king. The history of Mercian kingship for the next almost one hundred years is one of rival families vying for the throne. The secure dynasty which Offa envisaged was not to be. It might not be stretching a point to suggest that had there been a stronger dynasty, Mercia would have remained an independent kingdom instead of being absorbed by Wessex.
Probably one of the most famous kings who should never have expected to rule was Alfred the Great. He was the youngest of the five sons of King Æthelwulf of Wessex (839-858.)
Æthelwulf went on pilgrimage in 855, taking with him his youngest son, Alfred, and leaving his domains in the hands of his eldest son Æthelbald (Wessex) and second eldest Æthelberht (Kent and the Southeast.) When he returned, he had with him his new wife, Judith of Flanders.
The welcome was perhaps not what he was expecting. Æthelbald refused to hand back Wessex, and for a while the kingdom was divided - although historians argue the precise nature of this division. Upon his father's death, Æthelbald married his stepmother Judith, which earned him the opprobrium of the chroniclers, particularly Asser, who said that his actions were 'against God's prohibition and Christian dignity, and also contrary to the practice of all pagans ... incurring great disgrace from all who heard of it.' Asser went on to report that the king controlled Wessex for only two and half 'lawless' years after his father.
So the crown passed to his brother, Æthelberht, but he died in 865, and was succeeded by the next brother, Æthelred, who died in 871. He had children, one of whom later rebelled, but who must have been too young to rule in 871. Thus Alfred, the fifth son, became king.
His grandson, Athelstan, famous victor of the battle at Brunanburh, was said to have been a particular favourite of Alfred's. But he was not supposed to be king.
When Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, died in 924, it seems that his legitimate son, Ælfweard, was declared king in Wessex, while it's generally accepted that the supposedly illegitimate Athelstan was chosen as king of the Mercians. The case might not have been quite so simple, but it's irrelevant because a mere sixteen days later, Ælfweard was dead. Another brother, Edwin, described as a king by Folcwin, deacon of St Bertins, drowned in rather suspicious circumstances.
Athelstan died without issue and the throne passed to two of his half-brothers, and eventually to the young son of one of those ahlf-brothers. This young son, Eadwig, was famous for having reportedly being caught in bed with his wife and her mother, and banishing the cleric, later saint, Dunstan. He lost half his kingdom two years later and was dead by the age of nineteen. He was almost universally loathed, whereas his younger brother, who succeeded, was known as Edgar the Peaceable, whose reign was free from Viking raids, and renowned for monastic reform.
This reign saw the renewal of Viking raids, and the invasion forces of Swein Forkbeard and then his son, Cnut. Fighting Cnut for control of the country was Æthelred's son, later known as Edmund Ironside. Energetic, successful as a military commander, he was nothing like his father. Unfortunately, as mentioned in my last blog post he died, possibly murdered, in 1016. He was probably still only in his twenties.
In fact, Edmund was a son who didn't make it, having followed a brother who didn't make it. His brother, Athelstan, died while still young, and left a will which provides a wealth of information. From it, we learn that his grandmother, usually reviled for her supposed involvement in the murder of Edward the Martyr, played a huge part in his upbringing. It also shows that he was good friends with a family of Mercians who had strong links with Edmund Ironside.
With some of these cases, it might have been viewed as a good thing that the reigns were cut short; Eadwig, who tried to buy the loyalty of his noblemen, was perhaps no huge loss to the monarchy. Edward the Martyr was not shaping up to be the tactician that his father Edgar had been.
But the loss of Edmund Ironside was perhaps more significant. He didn't die without issue, but these Anglo-Saxons' nicknames are very telling. Edmund's son became known as Edward the Exile, because he spent most of his life in Hungary. His son was a contender, for a while, for the throne in 1066. But whilst being a teenager was no bar for succession, by the time Edward the Confessor died, powerful court factions and a family named the Godwines had changed the political landscape.
All these kings feature in my new book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, available for pre-order HERE or HERE