Recently we discussed changes to the succession laws in 2013 that allow the eldest child, not just the eldest male, to inherit the crown. Because the rules aren’t retroactive, Princess Charlotte is the first female member of the British Royal Family to directly benefit from the rule change, meaning that even if she is followed up by a younger brother, he won’t trump her in the line of succession.
So, in honor of that, we’re going to go back and look at the elder daughters who could have ruled if absolute primogeniture had been in place from the get-go – well, from the Norman Conquest.
Cecilia of Normandy & Constance of Normandy, Duchess of Brittany
I’m calling out two daughters of William I (or William the Conqueror) here, who saw three of their brothers – Robert Curthose, William II and Henry I – rule. Robert, the eldest, inherited Normandy when their father died, while William II inherited England. Cecilia, who was born in-between the two, inherited nothing – in fact, she lived as a nun. She entered religious life as a child, a decision made by her parents. She became the Abbess of Holy Trinity in 1112, at which point her even younger brother, Henry, sat on the throne. She died in Caen, France in 1126 around the age of 70.
Constance was younger than Cecilia – and William for that matter. She was not, however, younger than Henry. When William “mysteriously” died during a hunting accident in 1100 the throne passed to Henry, despite the fact she was an able-bodied older adult. Constance is believed to have been the most intelligent and talented child of her parents – reportedly her mother’s favorite. She remained single until she was around 30, remarkable for the 11th century, and married Alan IV, Duke of Brittany in 1086. Rumored to have been poisoned, she died in 1090 and is buried in Rennes.
Matilda of England, Holy Roman Empress
I know, I know – Matilda is a bit of a tricky case. She was in fact Henry I’s sole legitimate offspring when he died in 1135, but even with that endorsement, the throne was still taken by her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Not a younger brother, sure, but still a pretty telling example of what English magnates thought of a woman on the throne. Civil war followed for the next 19 years until Stephen reached a gentlemen’s agreement with Matilda’s son, Henry II. Cool, cool, cool.
Eleanor of England, Queen of Castile
Daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor was the sixth of her parents’ eight children. Her older brother, Richard I, succeeded their father to the throne in 1189 and died in 1199. The next eldest sibling still alive at that point was Eleanor, however the throne passed to her younger brother, John. And really, considering that John brought about the Magna Carta, it’s certainly one example where you can’ t help but wonder, what if?
Eleanor married King Alfonso VIII of Castile when she was 12 years old in 1174. Not only was theirs a love match, but Eleanor ended up wielding considerable political power at her husband’s court. In other words, she was really her mother’s daughter. She died 28 days after her husband, reportedly of grief, in 1214.
Margaret of England, Duchess of Brabant
Margaret, daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, married John II, Duke of Brabant when she was 15 years old. Her time at his court was miserable – he humiliated her with a succession of mistresses and had his bastards raised in her household. She gave birth to only one surviving child, John, in 1300, and was widowed in 1312. Little is know of her widowhood, but she lived another 22 years, dying in her late 50s.
While not enough is known of her character to estimate what kind of leader she would have been, likely she would have enjoyed the English crown more than her actual life. And England might have, too. She was ousted in the succession by her younger brother, Edward II, who was a complete disaster as king and ended up getting kicked off the throne by his wife and her lover.
Elizabeth of York, Queen of England
We’ve covered Elizabeth many times before, but it’s worth remembering that regardless of what happened to the Princes in the Tower, she was the eldest born child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. When Henry Tudor ascended the throne in 1485 he married her knowing that she was critical to his success and yet very careful not to base his claim through her. Part of this is because, with her brothers gone, she was the next legitimate monarch by blood and right. Alas, she was a woman. She became queen of England but as consort not regnant. Her claim to fame is bequeathing us Henry VIII, for which we are not grateful.
Mary I, Queen of England
Mary is even more of an anomaly in this group because she did in fact rule England. She makes this list because despite being born in 1516 she took second place to a younger brother born in 1537. Male primogeniture ensured that when Henry VIII died in 1547, his rule was followed by that of a literal child as opposed to his fully-grown daughter. The real tantalizing twist to imagine is how history would have unfolded had she ascended the throne at 31 as opposed to 37. There’s a real possibility that she would have had time to produce a healthy offspring and fully bring England back into the fold of Catholicism, ensuring a Catholic succession.
Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia
The only daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark, Elizabeth was the middle child between her elder brother, Henry, and her younger brother, Charles. When Henry died in 1612, 12-year-old Charles became the new Prince of Wales and Elizabeth was married off to Frederick of the Palatinate, beginning a dramatic and ultimately disastrous stint in Prague. Irony of ironies, while her brother Charles would rule England right into the Civil War and the House of Stuart would eventually die out thanks to Catholic sympathies, it was through Elizabeth that the subsequent House of Hanover staked its claim. The current Royal Family are direct descendants of Elizabeth, not Charles.
Mary II & Queen Anne
Like Mary I, both Mary II and Queen Anne ruled as queen regnants, however their path to getting there certainly wasn’t easy. Born to Charles II’s younger brother, James Stuart, Duke of York, no one expected either woman would ever see the throne. But when Charles died in 1685 without a legitimate heir, the York family was thrust forward on to the throne. James, a Catholic, was unpopular, but tolerated because his heir was his Protestant daughter Mary, however in 1688 he and his second wife, Mary of Modena, produced a son, threatening the further creep of papacy. The Glorious Revolution ousted James and his second family and Mary and her husband, William of Orange, were called forth from the Netherlands.
When Mary died in 1694 her husband ruled without her – as her first cousin, they were both grandchildren of Charles I – until 1702 when the throne passed to her younger sister. Anne ruled for 12 years as the last Stuart monarch. Without any surviving children and limited Protestant family members, the throne passed to her cousin – a grandson of the Elizabeth Stuart mentioned above – George of Hanover.
Victoria of the United Kingdom, Empress of Germany
The eldest of Queen Victoria’s nine children, Victoria (Vicky) was displaced in the succession by the birth of a younger brother before she turned one. More intelligent and studious than the future Edward VII, it was a cause of constant irritation to their father, Prince Albert, that their genders weren’t reversed so that Vicky could succeed her mother. Instead she was married at the age of 17 to the future king of Prussia, her talents squandered as they spent 30 years waiting for his father to die to inherit the throne, only for her husband to last but a few more weeks. Politically opposed to her son, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Vicky lived out her days as a liberal stalwart in an increasingly conservative Berlin, following her mother to the grave in 1901.