The crown of England did not always pass from father to first born son; sometimes sons died before their fathers or younger brothers grabbed the throne. Many of these might have been forgotten by history leaving us unaware of the paths not taken. English history might have been very different if they had Eustace, Alphonso or Louis on the throne – here are ten men who nearly became the King of England in the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the greatest prince never to become King, he was the eldest son of King Edward III, and often led the English armies during the early stages of the Hundred Years War. His military victories, including at the Battle of Poitiers (1356) made him very popular, but he was very ill in the last 10 years of his life, and died in 1376, aged 45. His father would outlive him by one year.
The son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry was called by a poet of his time “the best king who ever took up a shield, the most daring and best of all tourneyers.” He was even crowned twice to be a kind of associate King of England, but his father never allowed him to have much real power. This would lead to the young Henry rebelling against Henry II, nearly overthrowing his father. In 1183, just after he pillaged a monastery, the young Henry fell ill and died few days later. When Henry II learned of his death, he remarked, “He cost me much, but I wish he had lived to cost me more.”
Robert was the eldest son of William the Conqueror, and it seemed he was destined to rule the Norman Empire. However, when his younger brothers, William Rufus and Henry, dumped a full chamber-pot over his head as a joke, it soon led to Robert rebelling against his father. At one point, he nearly killed William during a battle. When William died in 1087, he only made Robert Duke of Normandy, and made William Rufus King of England. Robert would go on to become one of the leaders of the First Crusade, but as he was returning William Rufus died in a hunting accident, and their younger brother Henry seized the throne to become Henry I. Robert and Henry would quarrel over the kingdom and duchy, ending with the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106. Robert Curthose was captured and would be kept as a prisoner for almost thirty years until his death in 1134.
Because King John’s rule was so unpopular, in 1216 the English barons invited Louis, the son of King Philip II of France, to take over their country. Later that year, Louis landed with an army in England, and was welcomed in London. Within weeks he had taken control of over half the kingdom, but when King John died in October, the barons who supported Louis switched sides in favour of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III. Two defeats in battle in 1217 put an end to Louis’ English adventure, but he would go on to be Louis VIII, King of France, from 1223 to 1226.
Since King Richard I had no children of his own, he designated his nephew Arthur to be his heir. However, when he was mortally wounded in 1199, Richard changed his mind, since Arthur was only twelve years old, and named John to be his successor. Arthur tried to rebel against King John, but was soon captured and imprisoned – his ultimate fate has remained a mystery. In some accounts it was written that John had him murdered. One chronicler even stated, “After King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time, at length, in the castle of Rouen, after dinner on the Thursday before Easter, when he was drunk and possessed by the devil, he slew him with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine.”
The son of King Henry VI, he is the only heir apparent to the English throne ever to die in battle. His fate was caught up in the Wars of the Roses, and at the age of 17 he led the Lancastrian forces at Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. After the Yorkists won the battle, they found Edward hiding in a grove. Although he begged for his life, Edward was executed on the spot.
The only legitimate son of King Henry I of England, William Adelin was set to succeed his father. However, on the night of 25 November 1120, William was on board the infamous White Ship, with over 300 other people. With many of passengers and crews drunk, the ship crashed into a rock off the French coast. As it sunk, William was able to get onto a small boat and row away. However, when he heard his half-sister crying for help, he ordered the boat to turn around, and it was soon swamped and sunk by people desperate to get on board. Only one person, a butcher named Bertold, survived the sinking of the White Ship.
The son of King Stephen, Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne does not seem to have had a good reputation among medieval writers. The Peterborough Chronicle, for example, says “He was an evil man and did more harm than good wherever he went; he spoiled the lands and laid thereon heavy taxes.” He died suddenly in 1153, just after he had plundered a church, and was buried at Faversham Abbey. His grief-stricken father then made a deal with Henry of Anjou to make his successor – he would go on to be Henry II.
The son of Edward I of England and Eleanor of Castile, he was going to be their heir. Named after his godfather, King Alfonso X of Castile, at the age of 10 he was engaged to the daughter of the Count of Holland. Sadly, Alphonso died on 19 August 1284, just a few months before the wedding was to take place. His brother would go on to become King Edward II.
Edward was only a few months old when his father, King Edmund Ironside, died in 1016. The new king, Cnut the Great, had Edward and his brother Edmund sent to his half-brother in Sweden, with instructions to have the children murdered. However, the Swedish noble spared them and secretly sent them to Kiev for their own protection. Later, the boys lived in Hungary, although they had to evade assassins sent by Cnut. When King Edward the Confessor learned decades later that Edward was still alive, he recalled him to England and named him his heir. However, two days after landing in England in 1057, Edward the Exile was dead – possibly murdered. His own son, Edgar the Ætheling was almost the King of England too – after the death of King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, an assembly at London elected the fifteen-year-old Edgar to be the new king. However, his support soon crumbled as William the Conqueror marched with his army on London, and a few weeks later Edgar submitted himself to the Norman ruler.