The Kings Who Never Were: Part I

Tomorrow will be a momentous day, as millions will witness history being made with the coronation of King Charles III and his consort, Queen Camilla. Charles’s accession to the throne happened seamlessly and without challenge upon the sad passing of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II in September of last year. But, as history has shown, the succession hasn’t always been so straightforward or peaceful, and never was this more true than during the regal rollercoaster that was the Middle Ages. So to mark our new king’s special day I’ve been looking at the historical heirs who never got to wear the crown, those who were legitimately in line but were sidelined by fate or foul means. The crimson path to the medieval throne was frequently littered with dead or discarded rival claimants, and what follows – presented in two parts – is just a few examples of the ones that got away, the kings that never were.

The medieval Coronation Chair, commissioned by Edward I in 1296,
will be centre stage for the coronation of Charles III

An Heir of Obscurity: Edgar the Ætheling

Born sometime between 1052 and 1056, Edgar the Ætheling was the closest male relative of the childless Edward the Confessor, and as such he was the natural heir to the throne when the king died in January 1066. The clue to his entitlement is in the name: Ætheling means ‘prince’, or a noble being groomed for the throne. Yet despite having the support of key Saxon nobles, he was to be sidelined by Harold Godwinson, the most powerful earl in the land, and to add insult to injury he was forced to submit to William the Conqueror twice.

Harold Godwinson, who sidelined Edgar and seized the throne from Edward the Confessor’s natural heir

Edgar was a fully paid-up member of the ruling Saxon dynasty, being a direct descendent of Alfred the Great, the grandson of Ethelred ‘the Unready’ and the great nephew of the Confessor himself. However, at the time of the king’s death he was only a boy, and England needed an experienced ruler and warrior. Harold, who had acted as the Confessor’s right-hand man, managed to persuade the council of nobles that he was the man for the job, despite being related to the dead king only through marriage to his sister. But following Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings the Saxon nobles, led by Archbishop Ealdred of York, ignored the triumphant William and elected Edgar as their king instead, ‘as was his proper due by birth’. This proved to be a short-lived choice, as just weeks later a furious William was marching on London with his formidable army, and the young Edgar was left with no option but to accompany the nobles to a rendezvous at Berkhamsted Castle where he, along with his companions, submitted to the Conqueror.

Berkhamsted Castle, the site where Edgar and his party of Saxon nobles submitted to William the Conqueror in December 1066

Edgar seems to have made very little impression at court, or on the politics of the new regime, but he did do a few things of note. In 1068 he was so appalled with Norman rule that he became involved in the ill-fated northern uprisings, even leading a Northumbrian army in 1069. But when the rebels were crushed he fled north to Scotland where his sister had married the king of Scots, Malcolm III. Advised to give up the cause, the thwarted Edgar again submitted to William and was subsequently accepted at court, where he remained, according to one chronicler ‘for many years, silently sunk into contempt through his indolence, or more mildly speaking, his simplicity’.

He did, however, become friends with two of William’s sons, William Rufus and Robert, Duke of Normandy and fought for both in several campaigns. He is even reported to have joined a crusade to the Holy Land around 1102. But he largely fades from the historical record soon after 1106 when he was captured in Normandy whilst fighting alongside Duke Robert against Henry I, and although he was released after a spell in prison, he spent the remaining years of his life in obscurity. Only one further, rather sorry reference to him survives: in 1125 Edgar was reported as growing old ‘in the country in privacy and quiet’, with not even the date of his death being recorded.

It seems that the boy who would be king was destined to live his life in the shadows of greater, foreign men.

Edgar the Ætheling, the last Saxon king who never was

Too Nice to be King? Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy

Born c.1052, Robert was the eldest son of William the Conqueror, so under the inheritance system of primogeniture he was heir to the English throne following the Norman invasion in 1066. However, father and son were very different people, and the resulting clash meant that they never really got on. Robert was left behind in Normandy whilst, despite his efforts to claim his birth right, he was beaten to the English crown by both of his younger brothers.

Courage, military prowess and a strong physique are about all William and Robert had in common. While William was tall and intimidating, Robert had been given the childhood nickname of ‘Curthose’, meaning ‘short breeches’ or ‘short legs’, a label that stuck throughout his life. And while William hadn’t got where he was without living up to his ducal name of ‘the Bastard’, Robert was affable, talkative and laid back. Perhaps it was this last trait that undermined his success, as he often lacked the motivation to follow through things he’d started, and he could be given to bouts of lethargy.

Robert’s formidable father, William the Conqueror, shown here with his two half brothers, Odo and Robert

Left in nominal charge of Normandy while his father dealt with resistance to his rule in England, the two fell out badly in 1077 when William declined Robert’s request to hand him full control of the duchy. The split saw Robert team up with King Philip I of France against his father, and when the two came visor-to-visor in battle it’s said that son nearly killed father until he realised who he was and let him go. In the end it was Robert’s mother, Queen Matilda, who stepped in and managed to broker a truce between her husband and son. Consequently, in 1080 the newly reconciled pair returned to England together, and Robert went on to lead a campaign against the Scottish king, Malcolm III, on behalf of his dad. But, true to his genial character, Robert turned the fighting into friendship, making terms with Malcolm and even becoming godfather to his baby daughter Edith.

The affable Robert Curthose

An uneasy peace held between William and Robert until 1083 when Matilda died, and amid the profound grief caused by her loss the relationship broke down completely. Now aged around thirty,  Robert had still not even been given the dukedom of Normandy, something William steadfastly refused to do until his own death in 1087. With his father’s passing Robert could finally claim at least this prize for himself, but when it came to the English throne he discovered his younger brother, William Rufus, had already been crowned on the say-so of his late father. The only positive to cling onto was that William II subsequently agreed to a reciprocal deal with Robert which recognised one another as their rightful heir.

In 1097 Robert embarked on a crusade to the Holy Land, in which he excelled himself and earned great admiration from his fellow warriors for his part in capturing Jerusalem in 1099. But when he returned to Normandy a hero, along with his new Italian noble wife and armed with renewed pride and ambition, his hopes were to be dashed again. He received the unwelcome news that William Rufus had died, and that the crown had now been seized by his youngest brother, Henry.

The Battle of Tinchebrai, Robert’s last fight against his brother

After a failed invasion of England in 1101 to claim the throne he’d been promised by William Rufus, Robert returned to Normandy to celebrate the birth of his son in 1102, only to meet his little brother again in battle at Tinchebrai when Henry returned the compliment and invaded Normandy. Robert was supported by loyal nobles and friends including Edgar the Ætheling (see above), but things didn’t go his way, and both he and Edgar were captured. Hauled back to England, Robert was imprisoned for the rest of his life, giving up on his dream of ever wearing the crown. After twenty years of incarceration at Devizes Castle he was moved to Cardiff, where he spent his remaining years learning Welsh and writing poetry. He died in 1134 at around the grand age of 80. There is a Welsh poem attributed to him, and reading it you can’t help but feel sorry for this easy-going and affable – if a little hapless at times – chap. It gives us an idea of what was going through his weary mind in his final years:

‘Woe to him that is in the power of his enemies;
Woe to him that is not old enough to die;
Woe to him that beholds what is not Death’

Perhaps, in the end, Robert Curthose was just too nice to be king…

Cardiff Castle, where Robert spent his final years as a prisoner of his youngest brother

The Nautical Rave that Sparked Anarchy in the UK: William Adelin

Despite fathering a string of illegitimate children, Henry I only had two legitimate offspring: a daughter, Matilda, and a son, William Adelin, his latter name being a Latinised version of the Saxon ‘Ætheling’. With a healthy baby boy born ‘in the purple’ – meaning that he was born when his father was already king – Henry could have been forgiven for feeling confident that he’d secured the future of his royal line. But heartbreak was to come, and William was taken from this world aged only seventeen in what was, in fact, a totally avoidable tragedy.

From the start Henry invested heavily in his designated heir, ensuring that he received the best education the twelfth-century world had to offer, as well as extensive training in politics, governance and knighthood. In 1118 William was named officially as Henry’s regent in England while the king was away in Normandy, and the following year the young prince was married to the daughter of the Count of Anjou. The Count’s lands lay to the south of Normandy, so the advantageous match promised future lands and a key ally. Young William couldn’t have been better prepared for the English throne.

Henry I, father of William Adelin

Perhaps all this early adoration and attention had made young William a little on the cocky side, but in what some contemporaries described as ‘the glittering vengeance of God’, the good times were about to come to a tragic and abrupt end. In November 1120, William was in Barfleur with his father and a group of family and friends when arrangements needed to be made to return to England. Henry was approached by a sea captain named Thomas fitzStephen, offering to transport the king across the channel in his posh, sleek new vessel called the White Ship. Henry had already made other arrangements, but William jumped on the idea, fancying the challenge of racing dad home whilst sailing in the latest upmarket style.

William Adelin

The day for departure was 25th November. The weather was fine, the conditions favourable and crossings at this time of year were fairly common. For the young prince, this was a chance for a right royal bash, so he gathered together a group of his friends, half siblings and cousins and ordered copious casks of wine for the passengers and, probably unwisely, the crew. King Henry set sail first and everyone back on the White Ship drank themselves silly whilst awaiting their turn to depart, so by the time they weighed anchor everyone on board was out of their heads. Unfortunately, that included Captain Thomas fitzStephen, who merrily obliged William’s competitive spirit by attempting to race out of the harbour and chase the king. However, hampered by very light winds the ship needed help, so Thomas ordered his crew to row, but with all aboard more than three sheets to the wind, the ship staggered its way out of harbour before the port side crashed into a rock just below the water’s surface. The ship sank into the dark and freezing water, taking most of those on board, including William Adelin, with it. When the devastating news reached England grief swept through the court as King Henry and all those who had lost friends and relations were plunged into mourning. One chronicler recorded that ‘no ship was ever productive of so much misery to England’. Now, with no surviving male heir, Henry had to consider his options. In 1127 he arranged a grand ceremony to announce that his daughter, Matilda, would now be his official heir, an unprecedented move by a medieval monarch.

The White Ship disaster that caused so much grief, and ultimately, war

One of the passengers that initially boarded the White Ship serendipitously decided to disembark just before the revellers set sail, complaining of a stomach upset. And this is one of the great ‘what if’s’ of history. For this lucky escapee was Stephen of Blois, a cousin of William, and it was he who went on to snatch the English crown from Matilda after Henry died in 1135, thereby setting in motion the two decades of brutal civil war that today we call ‘The Anarchy’. But that, of course, is another story…

All the regal grooming lavished on William may have been as wasted when the White Ship claimed his life, but King Charles III will no doubt draw on the many decades of preparation he’s had as he embarks on his own kingly journey tomorrow. So I hope you enjoy watching a new chapter of our rich and unique history unfold, and do join me next week for some more intriguing tales of our lost medieval heirs.

29 thoughts on “The Kings Who Never Were: Part I

  1. Another excellent post my love; with three very interesting and ultimately sad stories. I was particularly surprised by the the White Ship, I’d always assumed that had gone down in a storm, not a torrent of drinking! It does indeed make you wonder… what if?

    Talking of drinking – I’ll raise you a glass and toast you to King Charles III ”Long live the King!”

    I’ll look forward to part two.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an exceedingly good point, Carol! Maybe all that training he had for kingship didn’t include enough about strategy! 😉


  2. Remember when they found the remains of Richard III under the parking lot? Afterward, they traced his DNA and found his descendents on three continents, Canada and Australia being two of them. All of them we just regular people and I remember the one in Canada was a carpenter. Someone — illegitimate maybe? — was smart enough to get out while the getting was good.

    All the Plantagenets and their family murders. It makes me nostalgic for the old days. Imagine, if you will, family therapy for Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I, Geoffrey, and of course, John. I can see it as a hilarious stage play for the historical sophisticate. They’d probably murder the shrink.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Marilyn. As a proud member of the RIII Society I followed the incredible journey that was the discovery of his remains in Leicester. It’s a remarkable, almost supernatural story, and I think it’s rather fitting that some of his descendants live across the pond.

      But you are so right about the Normans and Plantagenets, and that’s precisely why I love them so much! They take some beating for outlandish stories and entertainment value, don’t they? There’s more to come in the next instalment next week, so I hope you enjoy those too. Mad lot, but I love them! 🙂


      • I read a sci fi book where in the future, they follow the battle and intentionally bury him exactly where they found him, including painting the spot in parking lot. It’s a sci fi series where historians are the time travelers. Great when you like sci fi AND history.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The first book in the series is called:
        Just One Damned Thing After Another
        The Chronicles of St Mary’s, Book 1
        By: Jodi Taylor

        It’s all set in England and the author is a Brit too, so it’s right up your alley. I want to be an historian for St. Mary’s!


  3. What a great idea for a blog, all these men who were groomed to be a king as Charles III has been but who, unlike him, never got the chance. I’m rather drawn to Robert Curthose and feel sorry that he had to end his days incarcerated like that. But it’s arguable that William Adelin somewhat deserved what he got!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sarah, glad you enjoyed this first instalment of our lost heirs. 🙂 I can’t help feeling sorry for poor old Robert Curthose either. It seems that he had a really raw deal because of his toxic relationship with his dad, but he didn’t deserve what he got at all. And you’re not alone in your thoughts about William Adelin, even some of the contemporary chroniclers agree. Seems to me that all that early attention lavished on him went to his head – rather like the booze! The arrogance of youth, eh? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Do you know what Alli? Just the other day I was sorting out some photos of Gloucester Cathedral and came across one of the tomb of Robert Curthose, and began thinking along the same lines as you. It also reminded me of the fact that we also had at least two kings who were never crowned.

    Anyway, that said, this is a most fabulous post. You’ve written about this part of our history in a way that really wants me to read more, and you’ve also provided some marvellous images to illustrate everything that you’re talking about 😊

    I loved the way you told the story about the White Ship. How could anybody not be interested in our history when you write about stories like this. Your posts have always been really engaging, but I reckon that this one has to be one of your best so far. Wonderful stuff Alli. I can’t wait for Part 2 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow Malc, what a very kind thing to say! Thank you so much for your support, which is always very much appreciated. It’s your kind of comments that keep me going. 🙂

      How eerie that you were looking at pictures of Robert Curthose’s tomb so recently – you must have read my mind, again! 🙂 I did notice when I was looking at photos of it myself that the effigy of him seems quite flattering, in that his legs look quite lengthy to me! As for the White Ship, again thank you for such kind comments and I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. I love these ‘what if’s’ of history, especially when they arise from such incredible events. It’s precisely this kind of story that drew me into the Middle Ages in the first place and has held onto me ever since. So if I can engage someone else in this wonderful time of our past I feel I’ve done what I set out to do.

      Thanks again, Malc, and I hope you also enjoy Part 2 next week. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you about Robert Curthose’s legs looking longer than his name suggests Alli, but the effigy is quite striking nonetheless. Have you seen it in the flesh so to speak?
        As regards the White Ship tragedy, you’ve really brought the story to life as you always do, and like I’ve said before, as long as you keep writing, I’ll keep reading and supporting you. How could I not? Fortunately, It doesn’t sound as though I’ll have to wait too long for the next instalment 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks again for the support, Malc, it really does mean a great deal. 🙂 And I hope you enjoy Part 2, which I’m hoping to get out by the end of the week. 🙂 As for Robert Curthose’s effigy, well I have been to Gloucester Cathedral before but it was so long ago I can’t remember it that well (another visit due, I think!). But I studied the photos and it does, as you say, look quite striking. I think it’s quite fitting that he has an impressive tomb – including the leg extensions! – to ensure his memory lives on after his dad and brothers kept him in the shadows in life. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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