Royal baby succession: Queens (and kings) who might have been

Boy or girl, the new royal baby will follow Prince William to the throne, overturning generations of archaic legislation that ensued from the tradition of male primogeniture. As prime minister David Cameron put it, “The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter, simply because he is a man just isn’t acceptable anymore.”

A firstborn Princess of Cambridge will thus be spared the ignominy of moving down the line of succession—into fourth place—if her parents subsequently give birth to a boy.

The most recent female heir to suffer that fate was Queen Victoria’s oldest child, Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa. A year after she was born in 1840, the queen had a boy, Albert Edward or Bertie, who eventually became Edward VII in 1901.

Princess Victoria married Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, giving rise to a German branch of the family. But had she been crowned Queen Victoria II, she would have left the British throne to her son, who had already succeeded his father as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Which has led some to wonder whether, with a German monarch in Britain, would there have been a World War I?

Graphic: The birth of Prince William and Duchess Kate’s first child means a reworking of who is next in line for the British throne. The baby is expected sometime this month.
Graphic: The birth of Prince William and Duchess Kate’s first child means a reworking of who is next in line for the British throne. The baby is expected sometime this month.

Indeed, if the rules of male primogeniture had never existed, there would have been no Charles I (who had a living older sister when he was crowned—Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen of Bohemia). Likewise, no Henry VIII (whose older sister was Margaret Tudor). And just think what ugly fates his six wives would have been spared as he tried to produce a male heir of his own. (“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”)

Forms of male primogeniture were long dominant across European royal families, but there is at least one example of female royal primogeniture: The Balobedu people of South Africa’s Limpopo Province have a Rain Queen—a role that passes from  mother to oldest daughter and was apparently the inspiration for British author H. Rider Haggard’s 1877 novel “She,” (as in She Who Must Be Obeyed). There’s no current Rain Queen, though: The most recent woman to hold the title, Makobo Constance Modjadji VI, died in 2005 at the age of 27 just two years after ascending to the throne, leaving a son and an infant daughter. The child’s father was a commoner, though, leading to a crisis in the current line of succession.

Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer at The Washington Post magazine. She joined the magazine in 2014 after spending two years as the editor of the daily Style section, with a focus on profiles, personalities, arts and ideas.
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