Eleanor Herman is the author of Sex with Kings, Sex with the Queen, Sex with Presidents and Off With Her Head.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, wrote Shakespeare. Yet the head that would have worn the crown, but for the happenstance of birth order, often lies uneasier still.
Such an uneasy head is perhaps best exemplified by Harry, Duke of Sussex, whose coming book, Spare, refers to his second-rate status after that of his older brother William, Prince of Wales, the heir. In March, 2020, Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, decamped to California, leaving royal life to become woke global philanthropist eco-celebrities. Since then Harry has been skewering his nearest and dearest with all the jealous rage an eternal runner-up can muster.
It is likely Harry’s relatives fear his book will have the family skeletons tumbling out of castle closets. Will the prince berate his father, King Charles, for infidelity to Harry’s mother, Diana? Will he blast Camilla, Queen Consort – the Other Woman who became the Wicked Stepmother? Will he chastise William for bigotry when advising him not to rush into things with Meghan, who is of mixed race? Or will he aim his most venomous barbs at his sister-in-law, Catherine, Princess of Wales, for making Meghan cry about whether the flower girls should wear tights at their wedding? Reports have already revealed that the book describes an incident where William allegedly physically attacked Harry.
Given Harry’s past philippics of outraged victimhood, few are optimistic that the spare will spare anyone. In an Oprah interview and a six-part Netflix documentary, part of a reported US$100-million deal with the streaming service, Harry accused Royal Family members of racism, emotional abuse and financial abandonment.
Harry is not the first spare to stir up royal unrest; indeed, the tradition is almost as old as the monarchy itself. The 15th-century version of a spare’s Oprah interview/Netflix documentary/tell-all autobiography was to pick up a battle axe and fight his older brother in open rebellion. That’s what Edward IV’s younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, did.
Though enriched and honoured by the king, George just couldn’t accept that he always came in second (or third, or fourth, as he got kicked further from the throne with each mewling son Edward produced). The king pardoned his brother for treason more than once, which only seemed to encourage his defiance. George accused Edward’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, of using witchcraft to murder his wife and Edward of being a necromancer who poisoned people. He denounced Edward as a bastard, the product of their mother’s adultery, which meant that he, George, was the rightful king.
Finally, in 1478, Edward felt he had no choice but to execute the traitor. According to the story, which may be apocryphal, the king permitted the condemned to choose the manner of execution and George, infamous for riotous partying, chose to be drowned in a butt (a 100-gallon vat) of his favourite malmsey wine.
Poor Edward had even less luck with his youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. When Edward died at the age of 40 in 1483, Richard, seemingly a staunch supporter until then, imprisoned Edward’s 12-year-old son and heir in the Tower of London along with his younger nephew and grabbed the throne for himself. The little princes disappeared and have remained disappeared to this very day.
Three hundred years before these paragons of brotherly love, John, the younger brother and heir of Richard the Lionheart, also simmered with bitterness and envy. After Richard went on crusade in 1190, John raised a rebellion against the king’s chancellor, set up a rival royal court, took control of London, and formed an alliance with Richard’s arch-enemy, Philip II of France. When the Lionheart disappeared on his way home from the Holy Land, John mused hopefully that he must be dead.
Richard was, in fact, imprisoned by Henry VI of Austria, who demanded a proverbial king’s ransom of 150,000 marks ($23-million in today’s money). John not only refused to help raise the funds, but also offered his brother’s captor 80,000 marks to keep the king in prison a good while longer. The brothers’ exasperated 70-year-old mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, squeezed her nobles dry and emptied church coffers to spring Richard. Upon his return to England, he forgave John, saying he was merely “a child” – he was 27 years old – ”who has had evil counsellors.”
Similar fraternal disputes were also occurring across the English Channel in France. Louis XIII’s brother and heir, Gaston, demanded his older brother share power with him as soon as he turned 18 in 1626. The king refused. Gaston was furious that Louis’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, wielded enormous power while he himself, a prince of royal blood, had none. Handsome and personable, Gaston was more popular than the morose, hypochondriac king and attracted many supporters. With dizzying frequency, he boomeranged from loyalty to rebellion and from reconciliation to foreign exile.
He sent an army to invade France, plotted Richelieu’s assassination, and conspired with Spain to support a coup that would make him lieutenant-general of the realm. Gaston secretly married the sister of Charles IV, Duke of Lorraine, a fierce enemy of Louis, knowing his brother would not grant him permission. When Louis found out, he had the marriage annulled. But he never lifted a finger against Gaston, evidently unwilling to drown his brother in a butt of champagne or anything else. Gaston’s perpetual treachery, the king stated, was because of evil advisers.
Fearful of a similar situation between her two sons, Louis XIII’s widow, Anne of Austria, kept the younger one, Philippe, duc d’Orléans, dressed in girls’ clothing far longer than was customary for little boys at the time and called him “my little girl.” As an adult, Philippe often paraded around court in his wife’s dresses and jewellery and focused on interior design, which reassured courtiers fearful of another Gaston in the royal family.
Despite complaints from the church about Philippe’s behaviour, his older brother, Louis XIV, and the queen mother encouraged both his cross-dressing and his homosexual love affairs in the belief that they would render him incapable of leadership. This belief was disproved when Philippe led an army in the Spanish Netherlands starting in 1667, showing extraordinary bravery on the battlefield and achieving numerous important victories. Louis, evidently fearful of which way Philippe would turn his guns, put the kibosh on his military career. Philippe dutifully returned to interior design.
In 1774, Louis XVI’s ambitious 19-year-old brother and heir, Louis Stanislas, comte de Provence, asked to join the royal council and was turned down. Furious, he instigated a slander campaign, writing pamphlets mocking the king and accusing queen Marie Antoinette of sexual immorality with countless men – including a third brother, Charles, comte d’Artois – and women. Other writers followed suit. Pornographic pamphlets such as The Royal Dildo and The Uterine Furors of Marie Antoinette fuelled public hatred of the queen and helped push the nation toward revolution and the king and queen to the guillotine. Provence would become King Louis XVIII, after Napoleon’s downfall decades later, revelling in the crown that had cost his brother his head.
Some spares, unwilling to dip their toes into treason, wallowed in a life of self-indulgence and embarrassing sexual shenanigans, perhaps intentionally punishing their rival siblings with bad press. George III, scrupulously faithful to his wife, with whom he had 15 children, found his womanizing brothers a thorn in the royal side. An outraged husband found Henry, Duke of Cumberland, in flagrante delicto with his wife, sued the prince for adultery, and won damages worth millions of dollars in today’s money. Both Henry and another brother, William, Duke of Gloucester, secretly married highly unsuitable women, causing the scandalized king to propose the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which greatly circumscribed any descendant of George II from marrying without the monarch’s permission.
This act affected another spare, Princess Margaret. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth did not give her 23-year-old sister permission to marry the divorced Peter Townsend, with whom Margaret was desperately in love. Once she turned 25, Margaret could have married him but would have lost her royal status. Broken-hearted, she gave him up. Like most spares, Margaret suffered the constraints of royal protocol without any hope of getting the top job. After five years of partying, she married the sexually omnivorous Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon.
Both the princess and her husband had countless love affairs and divorced in 1978. Over the years, Margaret suffered from depression and had a nervous breakdown. Dutifully supportive of her sister and the monarchy, she numbed her pain with alcohol, drugs, chain-smoking and sex. After years of ill health, she died in 2002 at the age of 71, a sympathetic, somewhat tragic figure. We were left to ponder: What would her life have been like if she had been the older daughter?
Elizabeth’s two oldest sons, Charles, Prince of Wales, and Andrew, Duke of York, were always rivals – Andrew jealous of Charles’s position and Charles jealous of his mother’s favouritism of Andrew. According to author Angela Levin, in the 1990s Andrew reportedly tried to persuade the Queen to skip Charles in the line of succession if she died before William turned 18. In this scenario, William would become king, with Andrew serving as regent, and Charles would be cut out altogether. Her Majesty did not approve of this idea, which was contrary to British law.
Andrew would have fit in well as a brother of George III. Dubbed “Randy Andy” and the “Playboy Prince” in his younger years, Andrew was forced in 2020 to give up his royal duties over allegations of sex with a minor and his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. He has lost his military affiliations, 230 patronages, his office in Buckingham Palace, and his armed police protection. His cherished position as colonel of the Grenadier Guards was given to Queen Consort Camilla. He was moved to the bottom of the Royal Family website, below Harry and Meghan, proof that his disgrace is complete.
Harry, too, in his younger years, indulged in embarrassing escapades. He showed up at a costume party dressed as a Nazi, got in a scuffle with a photographer outside a London nightclub, was photographed butt naked in Las Vegas playing strip billiards, and has admitted to abusing drugs and alcohol. While we can forgive the youthful indiscretions of a prince who lost his mother when he was 12, it is harder to stomach the petulant whining of a privileged 38-year-old detailing the misery of being trapped in a palace, with a coronet that pinched, and people who were mean to him and his wife.
Shakespeare, fascinated by kingship, its glories and burdens, wrote, “My crown is in my heart, not on my head; not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, nor to be seen: my crown is called content, a crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.”
Nor, for that matter, their younger brothers.