Sunday, 1 September 2013

Golden boys by Mary Hoffman

I am currently reading Dan Jones's excellent book The Plantagenets. It's a huge slab of book and yet takes us only from Henry l to Richard ll, which is where I usually begin. (Apparently a second volume is planned). It opens with the story of the fate of The White Ship and that has led me to muse on just how many "lost princes" there are in English Royal history and why there has been so much insistence on having a "spare" as well as an heir.

William Aetheling (1103-1120)

William was only seventeen, known as the "Aetheling," the equivalent of the later Prince of Wales title that puts the stamp of "heir to the throne" on the firstborn son of the king. Much was expected of young William, the son of Henry l and Matilda of Flanders. He was good-looking and "a prince so pampered" according to Henry of Huntingdon, that he seemed destined to be "food for the fire."

But it was another element that claimed the prince. Married for just a year (to Matilda of Anjou) and already Duke of Normandy, William seemed to have the world at his feet. He boarded The White Ship at Barfleur, supposed to follow his father's vessel across the channel. But like many a seventeen-year-old he saw no harm in a little drink or two first; he would easily overtake the king's ship in the calm waters.

One or two drinks turned into a full-blown binge,not just for the young prince and his courtiers but also - disastrously - for the captain and crew. When the ship did finally set sail, it hit a rock in the harbour and went down with a massive hole in its side. William and some friends made it into a life-boat but the Aetheling turned back to rescue his illegitimate half-sister (a Matilda, like William's mother and wife). The life-boat was then swamped by survivors scrambling to board it and it too sank. There was only one survivor of this shipwreck - a butcher, who had never intended to go to sea.

You might say that nothing in William's life became him like the leaving of it. A whole courtful of golden boys and girls went down with The White Ship and Henry l was left without a male heir. The widowed king re-married quickly but had no more sons and THAT was was led to the whole Stephen versus Matilda battle for the English throne, Matilda having been Henry's daughter and not deemed worthy to reign as a mere woman. (Matilda was clearly the equivalent of Amelia in the twelfth century).

Henry the Young King (1156-1183)
Henry, the "Young King," was crowned in his father's lifetime, an odd practice that the current Prince of Wales might like to see revived. He was the second son of Henry ll and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his older brother having already died. (But Henry and Eleanor had three other "spares" including two who would go on to be King - Richard l and John).

Young Henry had wide blue eyes and red-gold hair; he was crowned at the age of fourteen, married to Margaret of France at sixteen (and crowned again just to make sure) but by eleven years later he was in conflict with his father and younger brother Richard and caught dysentery campaigning against them. He died at twenty-seven.

The Black Prince (1330-1376)

By the time you get to the Black Prince, who died two centuries later, the title of Prince of Wales has been established for the heir. He was hardly a "boy," since he died at forty-six, but he was another victim of dysentery and died a year before his father, Edward lll. The Black Prince was the father of Richard ll, himself a younger brother, and his death heralded what would be another fight for precedence between brothers and their sons, later known as the Cousins' War or the Wars of the Roses.

Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502)

Here's another golden boy whose early death gives us one of the biggest "what if"s of counter-factual historical fiction. Arthur was the oldest son of Henry Vll and should have been the second Tudor king. He was married to Katherine of Aragon in 1501, at the age of fifteen, after a two year betrothal. Whether that marriage was consummated or not became, more than twenty-five years later, the subject of much speculation and inquiry as Henry Vlll, Arthur's younger brother, sought to disentangle himself from having married his brother's widow. Arthur died of "the sweating sickness" or perhaps TB within months of his wedding, and the rest is history - some of the most popular aspects of it.

Henry Stuart (1594-1612)

Henry Stuart was another handsome young prince who died tragically young. He was the older son of James l of England and Vl of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. He was another athletic and popular Prince of Wales, much more popular than his father in fact. But he died, probably of typhoid fever, after swimming in the Thames, aged only eighteen.

Frederick Louis (1707-51)

This is a rather neglected "lost prince," the eldest son of George ll and Caroline of Brunswick. He too is denied "boy" status but he did die before is father, of an abscess on the lung. Fortunately, Frederick had married and had a son, who became George lll.

Edward Vlll (1894-1972), later Duke of Windsor

And so to the 20th century, where another golden boy, who did reign as king for most of 1936 but was never crowned, found a new way to disappoint all the expectations loaded on him. Fortunately, there were several "spares" and his younger brother became George Vl, the father of the present Queen.

Don't you think all these lost princes would make a good book? Are you listening, Dan Jones? It's only seven in eight hundred years, unless I've missed someone out, but the consequences each time one was lost were enormous for English history.


DLM said...

You could include Edward VI and even the Princes in the Tower, too. The latter may not fit precisely in the tower, but their absence was one of the central reasons the battle of Bosworth Field gave us the Tudor dynasty.

Petrea Burchard said...

I think you should write the book. This is a wonderful post.

Wild Blogger said...

There was also Albert Victor (known as "Eddie" to his family), Edward VII's eldest son, who died of influenza in 1892. His younger brother became George V.

Raimo Kangasniemi said...

William Aetheling's mother was Matilda of Scotland, niece of Edgar Aetheling(c.1051-after 1126), the last Anglo-Saxon king of England who briefly ruled in 1066. Matilda of Flanders was his paternal grandmother.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Fascinating - the White Ship alone would be a wonderful book (or film).

Sue Bursztynski said...

I've always been fascinated by the White Ship story. Think how very different history might have been if a bunch of sailors hadn't gotten drunk one night in the early twelfth century. But all the other lost princes also make for fascinating "what ifs".