History gives us traditions, which provide a strong foundation for our society. But eventually tradition becomes unwieldy, society moves on, and things need to be changed.
After an attempt at allowing women bishops, the latest in the firing line is the royal succession law. In the old tradition, a younger male child could inherit the throne ahead of his older sister. The change to the law gives girls and boys an equal claim to the thone, so that the firstborn child inherits ahead of any younger sibling, no matter what gender. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge William and Kate’s baby will therefore be born into a very different world... boy or girl, their child will take his or her rightful place third in line to the throne. (Unless Kate has twins, of course, when I guess things could get a bit more complicated!)
This got me thinking how many executions, wars, and heartache might have been avoided if someone had only thought of changing this law a few hundred years ago. Would Henry VIII have been so hung up about getting a male heir that he saw fit to execute so many of his wives, if a girl could have lawfully inherited? He might have relaxed a bit instead of developing an eating disorder and a morbid fascination with beheadings.
Even my own Pendragon Legacy series, while based on legend and rather than real history, has a central plot that hinges upon the old royal succession law. To provide a strong motivation for my characters, I tweaked Malory’s family tree a bit so that Arthur becomes King of Camelot ahead of his older sister Morgan Le Fay (Arthur's half sister in Malory), who feels she has been hard done by and uses her witchy wiles to snatch the throne back for her son Mordred (a nephew in Malory’s version). Cue magic and mayhem, hundreds of books, and a TV series or two. With the recent change to the succession law, however, Morgan Le Fay might have inherited the throne, in one sweep turning Arthur and his daughter into the villains of the story, and the brilliant hook my publishers came up with:
Introducing Rhianna Pendragon, Arthur’s secret daughter and Camelot’s last hope.
would need to be rewritten as:
Introducing Rhianna Pendragon, Arthur’s villainous daughter and Camelot’s darkest enemy.
Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it? Morgan Le Fay thus becomes the wronged heroine, her actions and Mordred's (while still as nasty as ever) at least justified in the reader’s mind.
Of course you might argue it’s not that simple, and heroines/villainesses are born not made. But often it’s unfairness and persecution that provides the hook for the greatest stories – and historically women seem to have had more than their fair share of unfairness and persecution. Maybe that's why women have such an affinity for historical fiction, because we can identify so closely with the heroines? Much of history is about wars and battle, and girls have had to struggle for their place in it... but thanks to the change in the succession law if Kate has a little girl next year, she's unlikely to have to fight as hard as Eowyn above!
History Girl challenge:
Can you think of a famous historical epic that would lose its plot, if the succession law had been changed during its period?
Katherine Roberts is the author of the Pendragon Legacy series for young readers.
Book 1: Sword of Light is now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook.
Book 2: Lance of Truth is available in hardcover.
Book 3: Crown of Dreams will be published in February 2013
Book 4: Grail of Stars coming in autumn 2013