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The royal history of ‘spares’ helps us understand Harry’s memoir

Second sons face the pressure and scrutiny of being crucial to ensuring succession of the monarchy. But they have no guarantee of ever becoming king.

Charles, Prince of Wales, is shown with his sons, princes William, right, and Harry in London on Feb. 13, 2014. (Alastair Grant, Pool/AP)
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Prince Harry’s highly anticipated memoir will be released on Tuesday. Despite tight security measures, there have already been several leaked bombshells, and the book’s release promises to further fuel royal drama with its raw account of the prince’s experience in the royal family. That’s evident from the title itself: “Spare.”

Merriam-Webster defines the noun “spare” as “a duplicate … kept in reserve,” and the title is undoubtedly a reference to the phrase “an heir and a spare.” As the second child of King Charles III, Harry is the “spare” to the heir — older brother William, the Prince of Wales.

Royal spares have occupied an interesting and complicated role within English history. They have been absolutely necessary to the continuation of the monarchy and royal lines but could also prove problematic politically at times, leading to bloodshed or attempts to overthrow the king.

Spares, specifically younger sons, have long held positions of prominence in Britain’s noble peerage, an indication of not simply their importance as royal princes but also as claimants in the line of succession. The second son of the English sovereign has, historically, been bestowed the title of “Duke of York,” a tradition that began in the 15th century with Prince Richard, the second son of the Yorkist King Edward IV (r. 1461-1470 and 1471-1483).

Following the Netflix series "Harry & Meghan," Prince Harry went on a media tour for his memoir, "Spare," released on Jan. 10. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

This position proved important because in the premodern world, death was an omnipresent aspect of everyday life for everyone, regardless of social status. Plague and disease often did not discriminate between the elite and the poor. It was therefore critical for a monarch to have multiple heirs so that the line of succession was secure. Spares saved royal dynasties on numerous occasions, ensuring a smooth future transition of power when an heir apparent died.

For example, the future Henry VIII became heir to the English throne at age 15 after the death of his older brother, Arthur, the Prince of Wales, in 1502. Arthur probably died of the mysterious “sweating sickness” that swept through 16th-century England or perhaps even the plague.

Arthur’s parents, King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, were shocked and much grieved by the royal heir’s sudden death. For Henry VII in particular, his son’s death was also a political blow. He was the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty, which had only ruled for less than 20 years after a series of lengthy and bloody civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. (Henry had won his crown during the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.) Thankfully, the king had another son, as well as two daughters, to inherit the throne, which tempered his grief.

A similar situation occurred a century later during the reign of James I (r. 1603-1625). James had inherited the throne from his cousin Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, and had been an attractive candidate because he already had an heir (Prince Henry Frederick) and a spare (the future Charles I), as well as a daughter, Elizabeth. So important was the issue of succession that when James ascended the English throne (he was already king of Scotland), the sickly Charles, who was 3 years old, was left behind in Scotland until a year later when it was determined that the young prince was well enough to join his family in England.

From an early age, Charles stood in sharp contrast to his older brother, who was viewed as a promising future king. Henry Frederick was tall, excelled at sports and was popular among the people; Charles was small, awkward and had a speech impediment. But when Henry Frederick died at age 18 (most likely of typhoid), the spare Charles, who was not yet 12, was thrust into the spotlight as the new heir apparent.

He was able to ensure a smooth succession for the newly founded Stuart dynasty. Yet this plan proved far from perfect, considering that Charles’s reign as king (1625-1649) ended in his own execution for treason against the English state and the overthrow of the monarchy for a decade.

These cases reveal how it was necessary and useful for a monarch to have multiple children to potentially succeed them.

But there were also instances in which having too many sons threatened the stability of the monarchy. Indeed, this issue was one of the primary catalysts for the Wars of the Roses, when the descendants of King Edward III (r. 1327-1377) fought over the crown..

The problem emerged when Edward IV became king amid the civil wars. Edward had two younger brothers, George and Richard (later King Richard III), but they were pushed down the line of succession when Edward had two sons of his own. Sensing the throne slip further away from him, George made several attempts to subvert and even overthrow his brother. Time and again, Edward forgave him, until finally, in 1478 — after George was convicted of conspiring with others to use black magic to bring about Edward’s death — Edward had his brother removed as a political threat and ultimately executed (supposedly drowned in a barrel of wine).

The often problematic and uncertain role of second sons extended beyond royalty and reflected larger social systems at play. Most of premodern Europe practiced primogeniture, a system of inheritance rights that favored the firstborn child, usually the firstborn son. Legally, everything (land, money, titles, etc.) would go to the eldest child. This left second sons and other younger children in a strange position; like royal children, they could inherit titles, money and land but typically only if/when their older sibling died.

This drove many of them to try to make their own way. During the Middle Ages, many younger sons joined the Crusades to gain military fame, fortune and estates in the Holy Land. Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem — he specifically rejected the title of “king” — was the second son of a French count, Eustace II of Boulogne.

The Catholic Church also offered great opportunities for second sons, and many elite men (and women for that matter) chose to take holy orders. For example, Henry Benedict Stuart, the second son of James Francis Edward Stuart, the Jacobite claimant to the English throne (known as the “Old Pretender”) became a cardinal in the 1740s. At the time, it may have seemed unlikely that Henry Benedict would ever have a real chance of becoming king, as his father had fought unsuccessfully for decades to “reclaim” the British throne for the Stuarts. Plus, he had an older brother, Charles Edward (“the Young Pretender”). Through the Church, Henry gained prestige, position and incredible wealth from the revenue generated from abbeys and parishes.

It’s no surprise, then, that leaks indicate that Harry’s memoir includes details of significant strife inside the royal family — British history is filled with strained relationships between royal brothers, especially when the throne is at stake.

Indeed, William and Harry would not be the first siblings to disagree over the question of roles within the monarchy or the family. The very title “Spare” clearly speaks to Harry’s personal experience and evokes a complicated legacy for second sons and younger royal children in British history. They were integral parts of the monarchy with specific duties (marry well, produce children to keep the dynasty going, etc.) and therefore faced public scrutiny. But they also had no guarantee of ever ending up on the throne.


An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the younger sons of Edward III and his wife Philippa of Hainault fought each other for the crown in the Wars of the Roses. In reality, it was primarily descendants of Edward's from later generations who fought, like great grandsons and great-great grandsons.