Age at death of British monarchs: a neglected element in historical understanding?

This essay is an exercise in counterfactual history. It asks what would have happened had some British monarchs lived longer (or, in some long-lived cases, died sooner). 

The king is dead, long live the king! The sheer continuity of the monarchy may make it seem part of the background of British history, perhaps distracting attention from the personalities of individual kings – and, from 1542, of queens regnant as well.[1] No doubt, if pressed for an example of the death of a monarch which formed a major landmark, most practitioners would cite Mary I ("Bloody Mary"), whose reign ended in 1558, since the accession of her half-sister Elizabeth I opened the way for England to become a Protestant country. Probably, without resort to reference books, few enthusiasts for Britain's past could add that Mary was 42 when she died, the second youngest of the five Tudor monarchs. In the apparently seamless web of the kings and queens of England, from William the Conqueror (1066-87) to George VI (1936-52), it is easy to assume that individual sovereigns died because they had reached their allotted span of time. Indeed, two poignant statements echo from royal deathbeds both speak of death as a timeous and natural eventuality. "The King's life is moving peacefully towards its close,'' George V's doctor announced, two hours before his death in January 1936.[2] Two and half centuries earlier, in 1683, Charles II had roguishly apologised to his courtiers for taking "a most unconscionable time a-dying". Aged 70, George V had indeed achieved the "threescore years and ten" that Psalm 90 defined as the natural lifespan, but it is probably not generally appreciated that Charles II had fallen considerably short, dying at 54. Did the timing of their deaths have any historical implications? In the case of Charles II, as argued below, probably not: the central issue of the last years of his reign was that he would be succeeded by his openly Catholic brother, the Duke of York, who became James VII and II. Charles would have needed to survive well into his seventies to outlive the threat, and even then posterity cannot be sure that the Duke of York would not have fathered a son and raised him in the Romish faith. By contrast, it may be pointed out that if George V could have equalled the longevity of his grandmother, Victoria, he would still have occupied the Palace when Attlee kissed hands as Prime Minister in 1945. A postulated extra decade could pose some interesting might-have-beens.

It is well to acknowledge that any attempt to measure the significance of the dates of death of British monarchs is fraught with difficulties and challenges. When I first became interested in history, back in the nineteen-fifties, the party trick for a smart youngster was to learn the dates of the kings and queens of England (Scotland did not figure in my native Essex). I was fortunate in having a (non-smoking) elder brother who had collected an album of cigarette cards of English monarchs before the War. While I use more sophisticated sources nowadays, I freely admit that the study of British royalty has formed only a marginal part of my overall interests, and, in writing this essay, I have not pursued every source on every monarch. Generally, I have referred to the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to see how far traditional assessments of past rulers may have changed – generally, they have not[3] – while I am sufficiently remote from the adversarial discourse that passes for historical debate to admit that even Wikipedia can be useful for basic facts and dates.[4]

While there are no doubt shortfalls and lacunae in my updating of the biographical information gleaned from my brother's cigarette cards, a more serious problem lies in the extent to which the study of History in general has come to discount the 'kings and queens' approach.[5] There are exceptions: the personality of Henry VIII naturally remains important, if not necessarily central, to studies of the English Reformation. By contrast, it is of much less relevance to the financial problems that preceded the English Civil War whether the reckless debts were run up by James VI and I or by his son Charles I. (Charles, however, is more important in explaining how the conflict so rapidly involved Scotland, since his canny father would probably have been slower to interfere with the Presbyterian regime, however much he disliked it.) Politically, of course, the personality of individual monarchs usually meant much less after the Hanoverian succession: George III's invocation of his Coronation Oath to oppose the admission of Catholics into the House of Commons was echoed by his son, until Irish reality forced the entire Protestant establishment to back down in 1829. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that two major constitutional crises, in 1831-2 and 1911, occurred barely one year into a new reign, where an inexperienced sovereign replaced a much cannier (and probably more conservative) veteran. As it happens, the Hanoverian succession was also the point at which British monarchs began to survive to riper years: only one, George VI, died before the age of 67, and three survived into their eighties.

Attempts to focus on the significance of a monarch's death at a specific age are necessarily counterfactual: as Michael Lynch reasonably asks, what might James II of Scotland have achieved had he lived for another twenty years? Unfortunately, even if James II had managed to avoid being killed by an exploding cannon at the age of 29, we cannot be sure that he would have been granted as much as two additional decades. He might have been extinguished six months later – by the next battle, the next epidemic, or some infection from the defective latrines at the next castle that he visited. From the fifteenth century, life expectancy among the kings of Scots was deplorably low. But, for all the psalmist's allocation of seven decades, most medieval English monarchs also died young: between 1066 and 1588, only five survived beyond sixty.[6]  Hence, both in England and Scotland, it may seem irrelevant, even utopian, to speculate on the possible achievements of longer reigns, and simpler to accept that most monarchs died in what we would now regard as middle life.[7] It is an approach that accepts the fragility of medieval life, but it may also recall Voltaire's protest against historians who merely related that "one barbarian succeeded another" on the unstable Asian frontiers of the Roman Empire: "what is that to us?" While we must accept that the culture of the times expected rulers to prove themselves in battle, we should also recognise that the potential for instability at the untimely death of a monarch was usually mitigated by firm rules of succession, plus the availability either of an adult heir or a minor who could be shielded by a responsible tradition of regency.[8] The importance of the inter-relationship of these key elements – agreed rules of succession, the availability of an identifiable heir, and the disinterested wardenship of regency – was dramatically illustrated when all three broke down in Scotland during the decade after the death of Alexander III in 1286. However, the succession crisis in the northern kingdom also illustrates that – in this, as in so many other historical issues – Scotland was something more complex than a mere copy of England.

Something should be said about causes of death among British monarchs, if only to avoid the charge of a purely arithmetical speculation that ignores the reality of violence, widespread sickness, endemic disease and poor medical care. Four monarchs died as the result of accidents: William II of England (allegedly), Alexander III and James II of Scotland, and William III of Great Britain.  Two were formally executed: Mary, Queen of Scots (who had abdicated) and her grandson Charles I. Others were murdered, sometimes after they had been deposed, while deaths in battle and on campaign were frequent. Yet, even while acknowledging the transience and fragility of life in times past, we should be careful in describing the nature of royal deaths. In his long-influential History of England, G.M. Trevelyan seemed relieved that Henry V was halted in his tracks by "sudden death": had he conquered France, England might well have found itself run from Paris. In fact, Henry had been racked by dysentery for several months: his death, at the age of 35, was untimely, but it was neither unexpected nor indeed sudden – except insofar as death is, in medical terms, an instantaneous event. Henry IV and Henry VII, who died at 45 and 52 respectively, both suffered recurrent and debilitating bouts of ill health for several years in later life. Retrospective diagnosis is virtually impossible, but suggested causes such as cancer or tuberculosis are enough to indicate that their longer-term survival was unlikely. While they fell well short of even the lifespan that might have seemed normal in the Middle Ages, their deaths were probably not totally unexpected. Edward IV's illness and death, at the age of 40, were undoubtedly premature, but as there had been rumours of his passing three weeks earlier – he rallied briefly – the event itself could also hardly be termed "sudden". Premature and untimely may perhaps regarded as adjectives similar  in meaning, but they are not synonyms for sudden or unexpected.

England under the Normans  The cliché status of 1066 as perhaps the most widely remembered date in English history is partly explained by the origins of the crisis of that year in the failure of Edward the Confessor to father an heir, coupled with a lack of agreed rules of procedure to determine the succession. The battle of Hastings was, in any case, the culmination of an existing struggle for supremacy within the English kingdom between the overmighty Godwinssons and the Norman advance guard acting on behalf of the Duke of Normandy. Hence the timing of Edward's death, probably in his early sixties, was of importance merely in precipitating a confrontation that had already been some years in the making.  

Occasionally, a king's death may leave us asking questions a thousand years later without realising that they may reflect the thinking of our time, not his. This point probably applied to One of the most notable initiatives of the reign of William I (the Conqueror), his decision at Christmas 1085 to commission the (almost) national survey that produced Domesday Book. The results were being still digested into two massive volumes when William I died in 1087. Scholars have speculated upon his motives for engaging in so massive an information-collecting project. Did the curious emphases of the survey, such as the insistence of counting sheep and cattle and estimating the area of woodland, suggest that the king had contemplated some major reform of the basis of taxation? Did his death cause the abandonment of such an initiative? These speculations may reflect modern priorities rather than Norman realities. There is nothing to suggest that his successor, William Rufus, was squeamish about imposing taxation: presented with carefully documented inconsistencies, for instance in manorial valuations, he would have had equal incentive to use the material to justify root-and-branch reassessment. Domesday Book may simply reflect the continuing efficiency of the machine originally created by the Wessex monarchy to buy off the Danes, the bureaucratic government that had made England such a prize in the first place.[9]  

For most of the succeeding centuries, the death of monarchs, however young they may seem to us, were generally measured episodes in a series of probably predictable events. Thus the death of William II (Rufus) in 1100, killed while hunting in his early fifties, was followed by conflict between his brothers, Henry I and Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, for control of the ancestral duchy. However, Robert was on his way back from the First Crusade at the time, and most historians assume that his return to western Europe would have been followed by fraternal conflict anyway, which might have involved two brothers or three. The arrow that killed William Rufus provided a dramatic exit, but, whenever he might have died, dynastic conflict was highly likely.

Richard I and Bad King John England's twelfth-century rulers spent much of their time in their French domains: in nine and a half years on the throne, Richard I (the Lionheart) was in England for barely six months. Richard I's death at 41 in 1199 made him one of the youngest royal casualties between Hastings and Bosworth. Might he have lived longer and thereby ensured that there was no King John? Since Richard I spent most of his adult life campaigning, it does not seem likely that he would have outlived his brother by reaching his late fifties (fighting was, by definition, a dangerous business: he died of gangrene after being hit by a crossbow bolt). Given a few more years, Richard I might have produced a legitimate son to inherit, although he does not seem to have been much attracted to normal married life.[10] We could only attribute major significance to the Lionheart's early demise by subscribing to the Robin Hood myth that Richard was a Very Good King (largely because he was not in England very much) and John was a Very Bad King (party at least because he was). We need not go to Voltairean extremes, but it is hard to see that there was really much difference between them.

Yet if Richard I's death in his early forties was probably of little long-term significance, it is surely worth speculating on the likely consequences had his brother John survived beyond the age of 48.[11] In his last years, John was fighting a civil war against discontented barons, to whom he had been forced to concede Magna Carta in 1215. Upon the king's prompt repudiation of its guarantee of basic liberties, his opponents offered the crown to the son of the king of France (later Louis VIII). By the time of John's death, Louis controlled London and Winchester, and had received the homage of a wide range of barons (which explains why John was roaming around East Anglia and the Midlands in 1216, and died at Newark). Counterfactual scenarios usually have to be tentative, but it seems reasonable to suggest two alternatives, had John managed to emulate his father, Henry II, who lived to be 66, or his son Henry III, who survived to 64. In the first, Louis would have built upon John's unpopularity and driven him from the throne. However, this may not have been likely: Louis had failed to capture Dover Castle, the key to England, some of his support was shifting back to John, and the heir to the French throne was not the ideal candidate to capture English hearts and minds. This leads to us to an alternative in which John would have either suborned or trounced his enemies, thereby re-establishing absolute control. In that case, Magna Carta would have been annulled and eradicated.

As Robert Bartlett has written, John's death "transformed the situation. Barons who could never be reconciled to John, might find loyalty to his infant son, Henry III, more palatable." The succession of a nine-year-old boy (he was a little past infancy) gave the rebel barons a plausible excuse to dump Louis and chivalrously rally around the child monarch. The new regime promptly reissued Magna Carta, a ritual re-enacted at the start of later reigns, or at times of national crisis, such as the defence of Gascony in 1225 and the defeat of the English army at Stirling Bridge in 1297. It is possible to argue that it was not until the seventeenth century that Magna Carta became iconic, while its importance today is almost entirely symbolic.[12] Perhaps if John had managed to excise his concessions of 1215 (which were modified in 1217), some other document would have materialised upon which seventeenth-century radicals and nineteenth-century constitutionalists might have based their utopian theories.  As events actually unfolded, John contracted dysentery, his charter survived and he did not. It was good fortune that the minority of Henry III was one of the historical episodes in which a regency successfully upheld royal authority.[13]

The first three Edwards For much of the next two centuries – with only four monarchs in 160 years – their age at death seems to have been of little historical importance. Edward I was long believed to have made a bold attempt to transcend his own mortality, ordering that his coffin should be carried at the head of the army he had assembled to invade Scotland in 1307.[14] Although he managed to resist the ravages of dysentery for longer than his grandfather King John, it was no surprise that he should have died – near Carlisle – a few weeks after his 68th birthday. Since it would be nearly three centuries before Elizabeth I exceeded his longevity (by eighteen months), there can be little room to wonder what he might have achieved had he been granted a longer span of life.  Edward II was deposed at the age of 42 in 1327, and killed soon afterwards.  While murder at the age of 43 made him one of the younger medieval English monarchs to perish, it is difficult to imagine that the course of history would have been greatly altered had he lived another fifteen or twenty years. (However, it might be assumed that the king of France would  have taken advantage of Edward II's internal problems to threaten English control over Aquitaine.) The most notable event in the early years of his son's reign was Edward III's decision in 1337 to claim the throne of France, a gesture that triggered the Hundred Years War. The first major English successes came in 1346-7, with the victory at Crécy and the capture of Calais. If we assume that Edward II had remained king until his early sixties and would have attempted to continue a pacific policy towards France, these campaigns would have not happened – at least, not in 1346-7. But Plantagenet life expectancy would have probably brought Edward III to the throne by about 1350, delaying rather than preventing the Hundred Years War. The royal demise that shaped the events of the thirteen-thirties and -forties was not that of Edward II, but the death, at the age of 54, of Scotland's Robert I (the Bruce, 1306-29), which reignited dynastic conflict with the house of Balliol, whom Robert had ousted. Edward III was forced into intermittent intervention, which only culminated with the English victory at Halidon Hill in 1346, and it was this incubus that tended to delay his invasions of France. Edward II, of course, would also have involved himself in the instability of Scottish affairs, looking to avenge his humiliation at Bannockburn.

Richard II By contrast, there are intriguing (but, it seems, unexplored) counterfactual possibilities surrounding the fourteenth century's other deposition, that of Richard II in 1399, who was ousted when he was 32, and murdered probably early in 1400, at the age of 33. Richard II was doubly cursed, by grasping uncles in his boy-king days, and by the lack of a son in his latter years. He became king, at the age of ten, because his father, Edward the Black Prince, had died a year before his grandfather, Edward III. This leaping of a generation would only happen once more, following the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1751. But his father, George II, outlived "poor Fred" by nine years, and the royal grandson, George III, was a young adult, aged 22, when he came to the throne. Another casualty of relentless campaigning (and probably killed by dysentery), the Black Prince died at the age of 45. Had he lived to inherit the crown, and reigned for the ten to fifteen years allotted to healthier Plantagenets, Edward III½ might well have controlled or eliminated his turbulent and assertive brothers, thereby handing on a stable realm to a Richard II in early adulthood and maturely schooled in the limitations of monarchy. With no children by his first wife, Richard decided in 1396 to cement his sensibly pacific policy towards France by marrying a French princess. Unfortunately, the bride was six years old, meaning that it would be several decades before he might hope to hand over to an adult male heir. Given that he was only 32 at the time of his deposition, this was not impossible. However, by 1399 Richard's lack of children meant that there was uncertainty over the succession, which his cousin Henry Bolingbroke ruthlessly exploited.

The history of the thirteen-nineties is usually presented in a teleological form that leads predictably to Richard's downfall. Yet it is possible to discern other possibilities in his strategy throughout that decade. The exiling of Bolingbroke in 1397 resulted not simply from personal rivalry, but from the king's determination to eliminate overmighty subjects: it was his subsequent seizure of the Lancastrian estates, intended as a permanent confiscation, that provoked Henry's return for a showdown. Little noticed is Richard II's decision in 1398 to promote the royal county palatine of Chester to a principality – with himself as the prince. Adjoining parts of north-east Wales were added to the domain, causing disruptions in local loyalties that help explain why the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr broke out in this area in 1400, although directed against Richard's supplanter, Henry IV. Richard seems to have aimed to establish a power base that could provide soldiers that could enable him to strike against both parliament in the south or the Percies in the north. He was one of the few medieval kings who obviously appreciated the strategic potential of Wales. He was also engaged in an ambitious policy designed to place English rule in Ireland on a firmer footing. Of course, merely typing or reading those words is enough to stimulate doubt about the prospects of success: whoever succeeded in securing the basis of English rule in the neighbouring island? By leading a large army to Ireland in 1394-5, Richard had briefly overawed the local rulers into accepting his overlordship. But, in the longer term, it would be open to question whether it was cost-effective to spend so much money to secure an illusory settlement: he was compelled to return in 1399 to shore up his crumbling authority. Richard II lost his crown largely because he was in Ireland when Bolingbroke returned from exile, taking advantage of the king's absence to build up a formidable coalition against him. But Richard had faced an equally menacing challenge a decade earlier, from the Lords Appellant and the savagely vindictive Merciless Parliament. In 1399, it was the month's delay in the king's return crossing from Dublin to Wales that enabled Bolingbroke to neutralise Richard's Chester power base: it is noteworthy that he surrendered at Flint: his Welsh base had been neutralised in his absence.

Nobody disputes that the deposition of Richard II was a notable event in English medieval history, but arguably its real significance is the fact that he was ousted at the age of 32. To imagine that he might have reigned for another thirty years is not to rush to the over-optimistic assumption that he would have created a centralised and authoritarian English and Irish monarchy – that would be taking counterfactual speculation to an untenable extreme. Even so, it is worth considering the possibility that his policies would have substantially changed relationships within the island group. In Ireland, for instance, historians no longer believe that his support for English colonisation implied the Cromwellian-style deportation of the indigenous population. Colonisation projects in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certainly produced as much conflict as control, but half a century after the Black Death, there was probably space for new settlements, especially within the forests of Leinster where his army had risked being pinned down by guerrilla warfare in 1399. Coupled with his hopes – or dreams – of incorporating local rulers into a feudal system based on knightly culture, Richard II might well have established some kind of overarching structure of government in Ireland, although it is much less likely that this could have been controlled from London. The might-have-beens are necessarily shadowy, but it is surely worth emphasising that his fall at the age of 32 shattered the mirage of a quarter-century of powerful monarchy, but one with no Agincourt, no wars in France and, in Ireland, no retreat to the Pale around Dublin and the footholds of the other coastal trading towns.

The Lancastrian kings, 1399-1461/1471 Henry IV was only 45 when he died in 1413. Thirteen and a half years on the throne was a remarkably short reign for the usurping founder of a new dynasty: only George I, invited to become king in 1714, lasted a few months less.  The smooth transition to his son was an indication of Bolingbroke's success in the energetic suppression of rebellion. In 1403, as he faced the revolt of the Percies, such an outcome seemed unlikely. Two years later, Henry took the drastic step of executing the Archbishop of York for treason, the kind of arbitrary act that would have loomed large in censorious historical explanations had he been driven from the throne. Perhaps Henry's one actuarial advantage was the fact the Welsh revolt – particularly dangerous because it was national rather than feudal – was led by Owain Glyndŵr, who was already into his forties. The comparable figure in Scottish history, Robert the Bruce, had been only 31 when he launched his bid for the throne. Bruce endured his period as a hunted fugitive in his early thirties (although his legendary encounter with the spider was probably an invention of Sir Walter Scott), giving him the prospect of decades in which to re-establish himself. When the Welsh revolt burned itself around 1412, Glyndŵr, in his fifties, simply ran out of time.[15]

As so often, the succession hung by a thread. Known as Henry of Monmouth in his father's lifetime, Henry V was seriously injured at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, a wound from an arrow in the head that was fatal to ordinary soldiers, who had no access to medical treatment, such as it was. (Similar injuries had killed Harold at Hastings, William Rufus in the New Forest and Richard the Lionheart was fatally wounded by a crossbow bolt in France.)[16] Since Henry of Monmouth took a large share of control during his father's final years, as Henry IV's health declined, it is easy enough to speculate on the instability that would have ensued had he died at Shrewsbury. In the event, the new king weathered one conspiracy against him, but felt sufficiently secure to stage the reburial of Richard II in Westminster Abbey before launching himself into war against France.

Henry's military prowess – plus a combination of diplomacy and luck, the two latter elements being interchangeable – enabled him to exploit Franco-Burgundian dynastic rivalries and secure in 1420 the triumphant deal of the Treaty of Troyes. Henry married Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI, who repudiated his own son, the Dauphin, and recognised his new son-in-law as heir to the kingdom of France. "Had he lived another two months he would have become king both of England and of France," E.F. Jacob noted in the Oxford History of England. Henry died in August 1422, still campaigning in France, and probably another royal warrior victim to dysentery. However, by good fortune, Catherine had secured the succession by giving birth to the boy prince who now became Henry VI, inheriting his father's claim to the thrones of both countries.[17] Henry V was 35 at the time of his death. The Troyes settlement eventually came unstuck, but the adverb is important: as late as 1431, Henry VI was crowned king of France – although in the Parisian cathedral of Notre Dame, as the traditional venue at Rheims was not under English control – and it took the bizarre phenomenon of Joan of Arc to turn the tide of French resistance. E.F. Jacob briefly confronted the implications of Henry V's untimely death, suggesting that his project for the conquest of France "could only have been carried out had he been there for the next twenty years to supervise, negotiate and fight for the completion of the Treaty of Troyes, and above all by his own great personal influence to hold the duke of Burgundy to his engagements." But because he did not specify that Henry died in his mid-thirties, Jacob glossed over the obvious riposte that Henry V might indeed have had two more decades in the saddle (probably literally) – although equally, as already suggested, he might only have lived a few months longer before the next well-aimed arrow or the next amoebic bacterium carried him off. In fact, Jacob disavowed his own speculation. "Even granted abundance of years, would he have been successful?"

Perversely, it may even be argued that the untimely death of Henry V had remarkably little effect on the course of events. In contrast, to Richard II, the young Henry VI was relatively well served by his ducal uncles. True, at home, Humphrey of Gloucester intruded a disturbing element into the regency, although historians have generally forgiven him on account of his benefactions to Oxford University. By contrast, John of Bedford efficiently fought the boy king's wars in France: it was hardly his fault that the French discovered a strategic genius in Joan of Arc.   It has been argued that the indecisiveness of Henry VI throughout his adult life was the result of long years of dependence upon the advice of powerful courtiers in his youth. However, since the conditioning of Richard II had produced a precisely opposite character of wilful determination, this theory must be assigned to the realms of individual personality. From what we know of Henry VI, it is as likely that he would have been cowed by the authority of his royal father as much as by the wisdom of his energetic uncles. Henry VI was 39 when he was deposed in 1461, and 49 when he was killed, after a brief restoration, ten years later. The irony is that if he had survived into his mid-sixties, he would probably have left a vacuum, both in the succession and in the authority of government, that would have tempted bids for power from both the House of York and some implausibly remote Lancastrian claimant – precisely the circumstances that produced the battle of Bosworth. It is a sad tribute to his overall irrelevance that more Henry VI would arguably have culminated in the same outcome and maybe even in the same year, 1485.  

Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III The death of Edward IV in 1483 forms the well-known prelude to a melodramatic two-year period, in which his two sons were (probably) murdered in the Tower, his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester seized the crown, only to leave it – according to legend – dangling on a thorn bush at Bosworth Field, where it was appropriated by Henry Tudor. It is perhaps less emphasised that Edward died young – even for the fifteenth century – "worn out at the age of 40 by his dissolute living", as A.R. Myers put it. In fact, there is enough in the dramatic historical narrative of Edward's seizure of the throne as a boy of eighteen to assist any careful reader who cares to extend the mental arithmetic to 1483, although it is perhaps unlikely that many make the effort. Edward's father, Richard, Duke of York, had encountered resistance when he pressed his own claim to the throne in 1460. A renewed outbreak of civil war in the winter of 1460-1, savage even by the standards of the Wars of the Roses, saw Richard's severed head decorating the walls of York, complete with a mocking paper crown. In the circumstances, his son had little choice but to attempt the grab the throne. After two more bloody battles, he was crowned a few weeks before his nineteenth birthday. After a reign of twenty-two years (minus a brief period of exile), he was just short of turning forty-one when he died.

"If Edward IV had lived until his heir had attained his majority," wrote J.R. Lander, "there is no doubt that the throne would have passed peacefully and securely to Edward V." A.R. Myers went further. "If he had been succeeded by an able, grown-up son England might have taken the road towards an absolute monarchy, wealthy enough to dispense with parliamentary rights, strong enough to keep order, and basing its claims on the indefeasible divine right of hereditary kingship." The possibility is surely worth consideration. Edward IV had followed a pacific policy towards France, duplicitously persuading parliament to pay for an invasion in 1474, but allowing the French king to buy him off with a comfortable pension. He engaged in trade on his own behalf and died wealthy, a rare achievement for any British monarch. True, he was a sadist and a rapist, with a self-destructive lifestyle (he was probably bulimic) that made longevity unlikely. But his grandson, Henry VIII, who resembled him both in gluttony and physique, managed to live to 55. A similar lifespan would have taken Edward IV to the end of the fifteenth century, when his heir, Edward V, would have been around thirty, and his second son, Richard, another Duke of York, would have been an adult too. It is an intriguing scenario. As a dashing young sovereign, Edward V would probably have felt obliged to engage in knightly warfare. Relations with Scotland, intermittently hostile until the middle of the sixteenth century, would perhaps have provided a more plausible outlet for wasting blood and money than the traditional but tough enemy, France. The outcome of any war against Scotland was always uncertain, but campaigns in the elusive north would have endangered, and probably squandered, his father's political and financial gains. This, of course, can only be speculation, but it does seem reasonable to suggest that if Edward IV had lived beyond the age of forty, we might never heard of Bluff King Hal or Gloriana, since neither Henry VIII nor Elizabeth I would even have been born, let alone come to the throne. Edward IV's death, in 1483, was in itself a landmark event, but his death at forty had such extensive implications that his relatively young age deserves to be noted.

Edward V never got the chance to impose absolutism or invade Scotland, as he was brushed aside and probably murdered, by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who seized the crown for himself. Shakespeare ensured that we all know the story of wicked Richard III's thoroughly deserved death at the battle of Bosworth in 1485.[18] Even so, it may be worth echoing the comment of Rosemary Horrox that "Richard came very close to victory", and noting also that he was just 32 when he died – an age that opens speculations similar to those triggered by the deposition of his namesake Richard II. In many ways, Bosworth was a battle that Richard ought to have won.  Unpopular he may have been, but relatively few of his subjects were moved to fight against him: Henry Tudor relied heavily upon foreign mercenaries. It was not the usurper's wickedness that caused his downfall – wickedness was an effective device for commanding obedience – but his failure to secure the support of key noblemen. Rosemary Horrox points out that Richard III's position as usurper-king was also seriously undermined by the death of his only son in 1484. (Of course, he had made many of his own problems, not least by breaking the guardianship conventions of regency, and he had played his own part in reducing the available number of potential royal heirs.) But had he won at Bosworth – as, arguably, he should have done – Richard III would probably have been reasonably secure, if not necessary loved, as England's king. If he had lived to the age of sixty, he could have reigned until 1513. By then, he would have had time to father a legitimate adult male heir, even if Europe's monarchs might have proved reluctant to consign any of their daughters to his bedchamber.

The Tudors: Henry VII and Henry VIII In 2012, C.S.L. Davies pointed out that the Tudor monarchs did not call themselves Tudors, since they had no interest in reminding subjects that they were essentially Welsh adventurers. Nonetheless, the label resonates, and the sixteenth century continues to be dominated by their personalities. In fully assessing their role as determined individuals, it is argued here, we should also take account of their lifespans and the timing of their deaths. When the businesslike and enigmatic Henry VII died in 1509, he was 52.[19] The first of the Tudors had at least lived long enough for the crown to pass to the next in line, seventeen year-old Henry VIII. The younger Henry was the second son, his elder son, Arthur, having died at the age of 15. A few years earlier, his succession might not have been straightforward. Around 1502 or 1503, when Henry VII was seriously ill, an undated account of a discussion among English officials at Calais had noted open speculation that the duke of Buckingham "would be a royal ruler", passing over the problem that his dynastic claims were virtually non-existent.[20] But if nobody contested Henry VIII's right to succeed in 1509, it was also the case that nobody had prepared him for the role. His father had kept him in seclusion, insulated from all political issues and even chaperoned when he walked outdoors. Victoria would emerge from a similar purdah at much the same age with at least some instinctive grasp of her role in what was admittedly a much circumscribed monarchy. Elizabeth, in her early twenties, managed to combine house arrest with the acquisition of a shrewd understanding of the political and religious landscape. By contrast, Henry VIII embarked upon a series of impulsive gestures, which would characterise his entire reign, and he certainly never imbibed his father's sense of fiscal responsibility.[21] Even allowing for the restricted life expectancy of the times, it is reasonable to speculate that Henry VII might have survived to sixty. Henry VIII would thus have become king at the age of 25, perhaps with some experience of government – maybe, like his elder brother Arthur, as sub-ruler on the Welsh Marches – and some sense of royal finances.

Henry VIII's decision to disengage from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon is generally narrated in terms of his infatuation with Anne Boleyn. But attention to should also be given to Henry's actuarial awareness of his own mortality: by 1527, he was in his mid-thirties, and needed to move fast if he was to father a prince old enough to succeed him as an adult. The Boleyn marriage cost him a high price politically, but it did not give him a son. The most intriguing premature death in Henry VIII's reign was perhaps that of his third wife, Jane Seymour, who failed to survive the birth of her only child, the future Edward VI, in 1537. Her wedding, in May 1536, could only have been overshadowed by the recent beheading of her predecessor, but perhaps of greater moment was the death, five months earlier, of the spurned Catherine, who had just turned fifty. Whatever opinions there might have been, Catholic or Protestant, regarding the status of Henry's first two marriages, there could be no doubt of the legitimacy of any children born to Jane. Had she produced more children – and she came from fecund stock – the succession would have become more secure, for, as the crisis of 1553 demonstrated, the English political community was ready to accept a king's daughter as queen in her own right.

Aged nine when he became king in 1547, Edward VI fell under the control of Protestant nobles who ensured that he was educated in the Reformed religion, for which he became an enthusiast. Harrowing descriptions of his father's final years certainly make Henry VIII's death seem part of a timely process, and perhaps even a blessing to the man himself. Yet Henry was only 55.[22] Given just five more years, and he would certainly have ensured that his heir was educated in the principles of the Henrician Reformation, a national Church but still essentially Catholic in its rituals. Henry VIII did not live to supervise those crucial formative years of an intelligent young teenager, and England lurched sharply towards Protestantism – although this was a  course that the young king might well have followed anyway, even if perhaps less dramatically, since (as it seems) he was open to new ideas.

Edward VI, Philip and Mary I The death of the precocious fifteen year-old Edward VI in 1553 naturally invites counterfactual speculation about a reign that might have spanned the rest of the century. The most obvious might-have-been may probably be dismissed. Although he was betrothed to the infant Queen of Scots in 1543, there was never much likelihood that Mary would become his bride. An alliance that made so much sense to the English was definitely not in the interests of the northern kingdom, which would be effectively subordinated if not absorbed by such a marriage. The betrothal was repudiated within months, and the English hardly set out to win hearts and minds in their subsequent scorched-earth campaigns in the Borders, invasions sarcastically dubbed the Rough Wooing. Mary, Queen of Scots was next betrothed to the Dauphin and – more crucially – sent to France to be prepared for her future role. Had Edward lived, he might well have collided with the reality of actual events in a more damaging manner. In 1560, at the height of Scotland's religious struggle, Elizabeth sent troops to Leith in support of Protestant lords resisting the French. It was a very rare instance of an English intervention that was welcomed north of the Border, and it helped clinch the success of the Scottish Reformation. If Edward VI had lived into his early twenties, it is very likely that the knightly culture of the time would have propelled him into fighting a war, and Scotland would have proved a more inviting target than France. Thus it is possible to re-imagine the circumstances of Scotland in 1560, with the Catholic party as champions of the national cause, delaying and perhaps even preventing the country's conversion to Protestantism, thereby blocking its transfer into a geopolitical English orbit.

We should pause to note that Edward's preferred successor, Lady Jane Grey, was barely sixteen when she was briefly nominated as "Jane the Quene", and no more than seventeen when she begged the executioner to "dispatch me quickly". Had the Nine Days Queen possessed the durability of Elizabeth I, she might have reigned into the fifteen-nineties, and with a reasonable prospect of producing children by her young husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, who was beheaded just hours before her. But the scrutiny of premature royal deaths moves rapidly on to Mary I, Henry VIII's daughter by Catherine of Aragon, who reigned for five turbulent years. The significant fact about the close of her reign in 1558 was not simply that Mary's death opened the way for England to adopt a form of Protestantism, but that her death at the age of 42 removed the possibility that she might impose her own faith more deeply upon the country. One contemporary commentator who failed to see what was coming was Scotland's inflexible religious reformer, John Knox. Early in 1558, he published his memorably male-chauvinist denunciation of the "monstrous [sometimes 'monstruous'] regiment of women". Knox used 'regiment' as an abstract term, not as a collective noun: he had just two females in his sight, Mary Tudor in England and Mary of Guise, the Catholic regent of Scotland.[23] The death of the former within months of the printing of his 'first trumpet' dramatically disproved his assertion that government by females was an outrage against the natural order, since she was succeeded by a monarch of the same gender but with different (and, to Knox, more acceptable) religious affiliation. Elizabeth was not mollified by his assurance that, while female government was still an outrage against the universe, she constituted an exception. Knox was reduced to attempting to explain away the arguments of his book, "referringe myche unto the tyme that the same was written", making him perhaps the first public figure in British history to claim that his embarrassing remarks had been taken out of context. However, the death of Mary of Guise in 1560, aged 44, was followed by the return of her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, from France, who supplied Knox with a new target for his political misogyny.

It is, of course, possible to soften the sharp outlines of the landmark date of 1558: turning points in history are rarely right-angled. Having done well out of the Dissolution, the nobility and gentry in parliament had been prepared to accept a return to Rome but not any revival of monasticism funded by their own booty.[24]  The legal status of the Church in England remained opaque throughout Mary's reign, with the queen compelled to operate as its Supreme Head despite her own wish to enforce obedience to Rome: indeed, she supported the active and astute papal legate, Reginald Pole, who became archbishop of Canterbury after the downfall of Cranmer, when he fell out of favour with Pope Paul IV in 1557-8. Pole's death, not only in the same influenza epidemic that killed Mary but on the same day,[25] removed an obstacle to Elizabeth's succession – the more so as he had a faint Yorkist claim to the throne himself. Even so, Elizabeth faced strong episcopal opposition: the Bishop of Carlisle was the only prelate who would consent to conduct her coronation service. The strength of the Catholic reaction, coupled with Elizabeth's own cautious conservatism, helps explain why the religious settlement of 1559-62 did not go the whole distance of reinstating the radical Protestantism of a decade earlier.

If Mary had reigned into her fifties, giving her another ten or fifteen years, it seems reasonable to assume at least five likely developments. First, and most obviously, the threat to English (and Scottish) Protestantism would have been much greater. Of course, there was nothing new about the burning of heretics: a steady supply of Lollards had died in the flames since the early fifteenth century. Henry VIII had burned around sixty martyrs, for professing either Wycliffe's old heresy or Luther's newer version. Mary's campaign, which began in 1555, eliminated almost three hundred, the last of them, a batch of five in Canterbury, dying two days before the queen herself. Clearly, if Protestant activists had continued to be roasted with such deterrent barbarity in similar numbers, the cause of reformed religion would be forced on to the back foot. Even so, it might have been a question rather of retreat rather than defeat. Around three times the number of martyrs managed to escape to the continent. There they would probably have continued to represent much the same political (and assassination) threat to Mary as the Jesuits later posed to Elizabeth, while access to the printing press would have ensured that Protestant material continued to find clandestine circulation in England itself. In theory, it seems hard to believe that the intensity of the Marian persecution could have been sustained indefinitely, and it is possible to imagine a de facto settlement, the counterpart of Elizabeth's determination not to make windows into men's souls, in which external conformity with Catholic practice was combined with private intellectual commitment to Protestant ideas. But that may be criticised as a best-case scenario, no more likely than the other conceivable extreme, the outbreak of French-style religious civil war. These were perhaps medium- to long-term developments. It may be more worthwhile to focus upon a much more likely short-term probability: even a brief prolongation of Mary's reign would have meant that England would have remained in the Catholic camp during the crisis of the Scottish Reformation in 1559-60. Lacking effective external support, the Protestant cause might have been routed.

Second, Mary would have faced persistent criticism and possible unrest as part of the fall-out from the loss of Calais in January 1588. The queen herself is said to have blamed her own final illness upon the disaster, predicting that the town's name would be found carved into her heart. The fall of Calais, which was the key depot for the export of English woollen, was a side effect of Mary's unpopular marriage in 1554 to Philip of Spain, who had become joint-sovereign of England, but only for this wife's lifetime. Even with this restricted status, Philip had been able to coerce his wife into declaring war upon France, with disastrous results. The Spanish marriage was unpopular, the more so as Spain had no intention of allowing English merchants access to its own lucrative transatlantic trade. Elizabeth was able to liquidate the unnecessary conflict in 1559, in a treaty which incidentally but handily conferred international recognition upon her succession. As an incoming and Protestant monarch, she escaped the obloquy for the Calais disaster that would certainly have dogged her half-sister.

Third, unrest in the Netherlands from 1566, culminating in the open revolt of the Dutch, would certainly have encouraged Philip to demand that his English realm functioned at least as a supply base for his counter-campaigns, and probably also as a source of men and money – the latter an attractive prospect, since financial reform had been one of the positive achievements of Mary's reign. As the Dutch conflict became increasingly polarised as a religious struggle in the years after 1572, pressure to support the Habsburgs could only have exacerbated internal tensions within England itself.

Fourth, Philip would have attempted to reinforce his constitutional position, enlarging his role as king-consort either to dictate who would succeed Mary (indeed, he claimed to have been responsible for Elizabeth's accession), or to enable him to rule in his own right, like William III, after his co-monarch's death. Already by 1558, there was little prospect that his marriage to Mary would produce an heir, and the urgency of controlling the succession could only have increased in the years that followed. Given that there would have been little goodwill towards him in parliament, even if it were summoned, it is possible that he might have sought papal intervention to designate himself as full and enduring king of England: Rome certainly had no compunction in purporting to depose Elizabeth in 1570.

This brings us to the fifth and perhaps most probable outcome had Mary achieved something like a conventional lifespan for the time and reigned to 1570 and beyond: there would have been no Elizabeth to take over. As heiress presumptive, she would certainly have been the focus, knowingly or otherwise, of plots against her half-sister. Confinement in the Tower was not a healthful experience, especially with the looming threat of judicial murder. Even under more civilized house arrest, she would have been closely guarded to prevent any danger of escape overseas. Most likely, her life in the fifteen-sixties would have mirrored the experience of Mary, Queen of Scots during her years of captivity in England, and her existence would probably have been terminated in the same brutal way. We know that when Mary died at the age of 42, Elizabeth succeeded her. But had Mary lived to her mid-fifties, it is unlikely that Elizabeth would have survived to take her place.

Curiously, the surrender of Calais triggered a counterfactual dismissal of Mary's prospects from G.R. Elton, an uncharacteristic foray from a historian noted for basing his theories upon his formidably detailed study of Tudor administrative records. "From that day, her regime was doomed; even if she had lived she had forfeited the loyalties which, less than five years before, had so easily brought her to throne." "Doomed" is a portentous word: rebellions against Tudor monarchs were notably unsuccessful, and it is hard to discern a court faction sufficiently strong and determined to depose her. However, Elton went further, scoffingly dismissing Mary as a failure even had she survived the influenza of 1558. "If Mary had lived, we are often told, there is no knowing what might have happened.  ... but if we are to judge from what happened while she lived we must doubt very much whether she, her agents and her policies could ever really have done more than put off the consequences of the 1530s by a few years." It seems safer to endorse the irony perceived by Felicity Heal, who has suggested that Mary proved to be the destroyer of Catholic England "not so much in her policies as in her person, her failure to reproduce, and her early death."

Elizabeth I With Elizabeth, the counterfactual exercise turns inside out. She became queen at the age of 25, and survived to within a few months of her seventieth birthday: only Edward I among medieval English kings came close to equalling her longevity, and it was not overtaken until the time of George II. In fact, an attack of smallpox brought Elizabeth close to death in 1562, and the risk of assassination if anything grew throughout her reign, as the Counter-Reformation legitimised acts of terror – for instance, in 1584 claiming the life of another Protestant ruler, William of Orange. This makes it all the more remarkable not only that Elizabeth never acknowledged an heir to her throne, but that there was no agreed procedure for identifying the next monarch. In theory, the succession was regulated by statute, a procedure used in the reign of Henry VIII, although the king himself had varied the rules in his Will. However, in practice, no measure that passed the two houses of parliament could become law without the royal assent, and it would have been dangerous even to initiate such a measure without Elizabeth's approval. From time to time the House of Commons earnestly begged the queen to resolve the uncertainty, and occasionally – to her intense annoyance – the Lords joined in. Sometimes she returned the heartfelt answer that it was no fun being heir to the throne, and she did not wish to inflict the burden upon another, but more often she turned down their approaches in fury. The promises of her early years, that she would marry and produce an heir, became steadily less persuasive, while her  diplomatic dalliances in pursuit of a husband seemed increasingly farcical. The Puritan MP Peter Wentworth was sent to the Tower for pressing the issue of the succession in 1593, and died there three years later. His Pithie Exhortation, published posthumously in 1598, urged that: " A wise Prince by naming his heire will provide for the safetie of his kingdome: and if hee haue no sonne, he will be the more carefull to establish his successor." Yet Elizabeth managed, for forty-four years, to avoid the issue of naming England's next ruler. As she had remarked in 1561, "more people worship the rising than the setting sun". 

The core issue concerned the claims of descendants of Henry VII's two daughters, Margaret, the elder, who had married James IV, and Mary, the younger, grandmother of Lady Jane Grey. Henry VIII's Will – which the king may or may not have approved[26] – had passed over Scotland's child ruler, Mary Queen of Scots, but it was not clear whether this had legal validity. Elizabeth did nothing to clarify the mystery, telling a Scottish envoy in 1561: "when I am dead, they shall succeed that has the most right". The twenty-first century may admire her tactful use of a gender-neutral pronoun, but there was undoubted risk in the tactic of kicking the crown along the road. Essentially, Elizabeth's reticence meant either that the realm must wait until she named a successor on her deathbed, or – assuming that she might be incapable – a cabal of advisers would unveil their choice on her behalf, a procedure that had not worked well for Lady Jane Grey.

When Elizabeth was thought to be dying in 1562, some of her ministers favoured transferring the crown to Henry Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon. Like the Duke of Buckingham, whose name had been canvassed in similar circumstances sixty years earlier, his main attraction was that he was a safe pair of hands, in this case Protestant hands. Although only in his late twenties, and thus a promising prospect for a secure reign, he had served his time in the Tower during the reign of Mary I. Since medieval royalty had married off surplus daughters to the nobility, any prominent family that had survived the Middle Ages was likely to have some faint claim to the throne. The Earl of Huntingdon was descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the murdered brother of Edward IV. He wisely decided that it made more sense to be loyal and durable than probably false and potentially fleeting, and declined to be considered a candidate. In any case, a marginal Yorkist claim probably now seemed passé.

With Huntingdon refusing to rise to the bait, Elizabeth's advisers prepared to fall back on Lady Catherine (or Katherine) Grey, Jane's younger sister. Unfortunately, Catherine Grey appears to have been designed to provide ammunition for John Knox. After a brief dynastic marriage, dissolved on political grounds, she became pregnant by the Earl of Hertford, brother of Henry VIII's queen, Jane Seymour. Although the couple had probably exchanged wedding vows, no formal marriage could be proved, thereby rendering their children illegitimate and thus technically ineligible for the throne. A furious Elizabeth sent them both to the Tower, where security was so lax that Catherine managed to produce a second child. She was released after the smallpox crisis, but was shuttled around Essex and Suffolk under house arrest, at the expense of reliable courtiers who complained about the costly burden. The constraints of genteel imprisonment probably help to explain how she apparently contracted tuberculosis, dying in 1568 at the age of 27.[27] There remained miscellaneous claimants with similar pedigrees, but they were mostly ruled out as unsuitable.[28] Even without the hardships of internment, Catherine Grey would have found outliving Elizabeth a challenge. Yet Catherine cast a long shadow. In 1595, the Earl of Hertford tried to overturn the invalidation of their marriage in order to legitimise Catherine's children. He quickly found himself confined to a cell on the banks of the Thames and in the company of ravens.

The year that Catherine Grey died, 1568, saw the unwelcome arrival in England of Mary Stuart, technically the ex-Queen of Scots since her forced abdication a few months earlier. There ensued a Rubik cube of dynastic intrigue that extended, in slow-motion complexity, over two decades. Elizabeth aimed to avoid recognising Mary as heir to the English crown, but probably hoped to return her to Scotland provided the country's Protestant revolution was safeguarded. Mary wanted both to recover her Scottish throne and uphold her Catholic faith. She also dreamed of becoming the potential or even the actual queen of England, and sometimes foolishly intrigued to those ends. In time, a third level of ambition intersected, as Mary's son James sought to sideline his mother as discreetly as possible while advancing his own interests. The logjam was broken in the manner that logjams are usually broken, with an axe. The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 once again threw into relief the question of a Stuart succession. Here, the key point about Elizabeth's longevity was not simply that she reigned for 44 years, but that she managed to stay alive, and without indentifying her successor, for sixteen years after killing her chief rival – longer, in fact, than the combined reigns of her two half-siblings.

There were certainly arguments in favour of a Stuart succession, notably that it would finally clinch the Union of the Crowns intermittently sought for three hundred years. Once the English recovered from the shock of a Scottish monarch – for James VI was very Scottish and undoubtedly shocking – it was confidently assumed that the wealthier (and warmer) southern kingdom would assert its primacy and assimilate the new royal dynasty, both culturally and politically. Yet, in the early years after his mother's death, there were considerable problems. James had been reared as a Protestant, but he was occasionally forced to make ferociously Presbyterian noises to appease the powerful and unforgiving Kirk: he told a delighted General Assembly in 1590 that the Anglican communion service was "an evil said mass in English". Might he disrupt England's carefully balanced religious settlement? Until 1594, he lacked any direct heir himself, which would have meant that his inheritance of the English throne would simply prolong the uncertainty regarding the ultimate destination of power. (A son born that year was tactfully named Henry, and other children followed: only two survived to adulthood.) Most alarming of all was the likelihood that, had he become king of England in the years immediately after his mother's beheading, James would have felt the need to avenge her execution with much the same filial piety and token savagery that Charles II was obliged to display in 1660 – a prospect hardly attractive to those of Elizabeth's ministers who had intrigued for Mary's elimination.[29] The prolonged extension of Elizabeth's reign allowed passions to cool. Eventually, James contented himself by allowing Fotheringhay Castle, scene of his mother's beheading, to fall into ruin.[30]

Elizabeth resisted her cousin's campaign for recognition, assuring James that she would do nothing to undermine his claim to the English throne – provided he behaved himself. It would have required a remarkably patient young man to have sat through a decade and a half hoping for a favourable outcome, and James – whose judgement did not match his undoubted intellect – was anxious to escape the constraints of his narrow northern realm. A complication and a threat was the existence of a possible competitor, his cousin Lady Arbella (or Arabella) Stuart, who shared his descent from Henry VII and had the advantage of an English upbringing. Born in 1575 and not yet having engaged in the ladylike practice of clandestine marriage (that came in 1610), Arbella might have made a malleable monarch. Another possible beneficiary of the complicated rule of succession laid down in the Will of Henry VIII was Anne Stanley, daughter of the Earl of Derby. No doubt recalling the fate of Jane Grey, both Arbella and Anne kept a low profile. Philip III of Spain provided a minor complication, with what J.B. Black called "the elaborate and fantastic plan" to support his sister, the Infanta Clara Eugenia, as the Catholic candidate. Since she was already the joint ruler of the Spanish Netherlands (foreshadowing Victoria, she had married a cousin called Albert), the project was hardly attractive to France. In any case, it would have required the conquest of England, which Spain had notably failed to achieve. 

James attempted to advance his interests by initiatives that tended to undermine them. He was almost certainly fortunate that Elizabeth rejected his attempts to strike a deal over his mother's execution. Even by the brutally cynical standards of the sixteenth century, his offer to acquiesce in Mary's death provided he was named as Elizabeth's heir would have constituted a public relations disaster. There followed a surreptitious but energetic campaign to win diplomatic support for his claim. This could only be counter-productive: there was little that other European rulers could do to help him, and, since most of the big players were Catholics, James was obliged to emphasise his status as the orphaned son of a queen martyred for her faith. The conversion to Catholicism in 1593 of Henri IV, the Huguenot claimant to the French throne, could only throw doubt upon James and his motives. (In the event, his hints that he might ease the position of England's Catholics only led to the disappointed hopes of the Gunpowder Plotters, who sought revenge by attempting to blow him sky high in 1605.) In the late fifteen-nineties, James published statements of his belief in divine right, perhaps not a tactful manifesto aimed an England attached to some form of parliamentary government. In the event, it was not God, as he asserted, who chose him to succeed Elizabeth I, but her principal minister, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. But Salisbury only entered into confidential correspondence with Scotland's king in 1601. James sometimes resented Elizabeth's longevity, but it was her durability that enabled him to live down his own misjudgements. Indeed, as late as 1601, when Salisbury in effect took James by the epistolary scruff of his neck, there was still some danger of a breakdown in relations: the madcap rebellion by the Earl of Essex that year aimed to recognise the Scottish succession, and Essex was caught with a potentially compromising letter from James among his confidential papers. Reported deathbed scenes must always be treated with scepticism, since the central character was not in a position to repudiate misleading reports. Elizabeth was said to have feigned astonishment when asked to name her successor, but the real surprise was that, even as she lay dying, there was still no agreed mechanism for conveying the crown to its next holder. While everyone who mattered agreed in 1603 to accept that she had named "our cousin of Scotland", the Stuart succession certainly could not have been guaranteed at any time in the preceding four decades.

Kings of Scots When James VI was borrowing cash from the merchants of Edinburgh to hurry south and clinch the Union of the Crowns, kingship in Scotland had evolved over at least six centuries from a much longer background of poorly documented Pictish and Scottish rulerships. It suited James VI to push his pretensions back through two thousand years of royal tradition, tracing his claims to absolute power to the legendary Fergus I, said to have conquered the country around 330 BC.  However, in claiming to rule by divine right, James VI departed dramatically from the traditions and practices of most of his medieval forebears. Scotland's complex monarchy must be discussed on its own terms, and not as an inefficient local variant of Norman and Plantagenet England.

The rulers of the northern kingdom were kings, not of Scotland, but of Scots:[31] the phrase conveyed a lingering notion of a reciprocal relationship between sovereign and people. Traditionally, monarchs were enthroned by their nobles on the Stone of Scone, a relic of the days when election from a broad royal cousinage was the basis of choice. Kings of Scots sought to enhance their status, most notably by elaborating a formal coronation ceremony, at least from 1249 – a development that became all the more important for the Bruces after Edward I removed the Stone of Scone and incorporated it into the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.[32] Thus David II, crowned in 1331, was the first Scottish monarch to receive unction, the rite of anointing that implied a quasi-sacerdotal role. The Scottish Church gradually threw off the jurisdiction of the provinces of York and Trondheim, but it was not until 1472 that James III secured the elevation of the bishopric of St Andrews into an archdiocese, an indirect enhancement of the prestige of the monarchs that prelate would crown. James III also issued coins depicting himself wearing an imperial crown, a statement of absolute sovereignty that implicitly repudiated English claims to overlordship. Malcolm III had accepted the suzerainty of William the Conqueror in 1072, but Richard III sold out the claim in 1189 to raise money to go on crusade. Edward I revived English pretensions in 1291, seizing the Stone of Scone to underline his point. Its incorporation into the Coronation Chair meant that future English monarchs were crowned with their buttocks hovering above the symbol of Scottish sovereignty.

Claims for English overlordship, renewed intermittently until 1548, were of little practical importance after the early fourteenth-century wars for Scottish independence. The real constraints on the power of Scotland's monarchs were internal. In practice, their direct authority was restricted to areas in the east and south of the country. Even there, they were locked in rivalry with powerful aristocratic families, in what Michael Lynch termed a "danse macabre". Fortunately, Scotland evolved a countervailing culture that permitted strategies of containment. Michael Lynch emphasised the emergence during the fourteenth century of a sense of the community of the realm, most dramatically expressed in the fiery language of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. This enabled the nobility to take charge during the crown's frequent bouts of incapacity in the two following centuries, variously caused by the absence or the minority of the king. On balance, Michael Lynch argued, the kings of Scots benefited from this process, since it underpinned their rule, but at the expense of being compelled to accept robust criticism, intermittent rebuffs and the occasional rebellion.[33] Jenny Wormald further inverted the interpretative process. Implicitly viewing the expansion of royal authority as a step towards the nation state, and hence as a Good Thing, most historians had viewed the cyclical periods of regency as retrograde episodes, in which the boulder of centralisation that had been so painfully rolled uphill came crashing back to the semi-anarchic starting point. But for Jenny Wormald, the minorities that characterised so much of the period from 1406 to the early fifteen-eighties represented a "safety valve", the default position from which monarchical ambition was the deviant force. By definition, this political culture of consensus by constraint made the personality of individual rulers less important, and subordinated their lifespan, long or – too often – short, to the overall continuity of fragile stability.

As they adjusted to the trauma of importing a king from Scotland, the English elite were shocked to discover that their new fellow subjects had been inclined to ensure that their rulers' lives were brutish and short – a view popularised by Shakespeare, although he had to go back to the eleventh century for the tale of Macbeth.[34]  "They have not suffered two kings to die in their beds, these two hundred years", an English MP remarked in 1607, shortly before James VI and I imprisoned him in the Tower of London. This was an exaggeration. True, James I had died in his early forties when assassins cornered him in a sewer in 1437, while an official enquiry into the disorder sparked by a revolt in 1488 laconically observed that the 37 year-old James III "happinit to be slane" during the upheaval. But the English had played their part in foreshortening the lives of Scottish rulers, James IV at the age of 40 at Flodden in 1514, Mary (literally foreshortened at Fotheringhay in 1587), not much older at 46. However, in earlier centuries, there had been kings of Scots whose survival record would not be equalled until the eighteenth century: David I and Robert III both lasted until their late sixties, William the Lion reached 72 and Robert II died at 74. Dynastic succession was smoothed by a general agreement to recognise primogeniture, although it is possible that this is a retrospective view based more on accidents of individual episodes than acceptance of a binding principle. Thus when Malcolm IV (the Maiden) died at the age of 24 in 1165, the throne passed to his brother William, who reigned for five days short of 49 years. The death of the childless David II in 1371 at the age of 46 was, it seems, genuinely unexpected, and brought to a close the relatively brief rule of the Bruces. Nonetheless, he was peacefully succeeded by his nephew, Robert II, who, although eight years older and the yesterday's man of Scottish politics, established the house of Stewart in a reign of nineteen years.[35] From 1406 to 1625, every Stewart monarch ascended the throne in childhood, often in infancy. Their right to inherit was generally accepted, although their attempts to exercise wide authority were resisted.

The Scottish succession crisis, 1286-91 The major succession crisis in medieval Scotland, which followed the death of Alexander III in 1286, stemmed from the deaths in close proximity of his immediate heirs, a complication that would have created difficulties for any European country in that era. Alexander was 44 when he rode his horse over a cliff in Fife. His son and daughter had died shortly beforehand. A widower, Alexander had promptly remarried, and was galloping in the dark with the intention of spending what was left of the night with his bride, Yolande of Dreux.[36] It is striking that Scotland's nobles – the turbulent Bruces excepted – accepted, as his successor, Alexander's two year-old granddaughter, Margaret (although, initially at least, they preferred the term 'lady' to 'queen'). This was despite the complications that she was an infant, a female (the country had never experienced a queen regnant) and the daughter of the king of Norway, who was in no hurry to risk sending her across the North Sea. Indeed, much depended upon the survival of the Maid of Norway, since she was not only Alexander's sole direct descendant but virtually his only close relative.

The young queen was obviously a major diplomatic prize. On the face of it, the 1290 Treaty of Birgham made Edward I of England the triumphant winner. He secured the promise of a marriage between the Maid and his own heir, the future Edward II, who had been born at Carnarvon in 1282, making the designated couple at least of similar age.  "The peaceable union of the whole island was close in sight," wrote G.M. Trevelyan, whose Whiggish interpretation sought to anticipate the Union of the Crowns by three hundred years. In reality, the proposed alliance was probably a might-have-been too far. Even if the nuptials had taken place – and such betrothals sometimes came unstuck – the future Edward II was obviously destined to be based in southern England, perhaps with occasional excursions to Gascony. As king consort of Scotland, he could have exercised little influence. If his bride were made to perform her wifely duties in Whitehall, real authority north of the border would have remained with the Guardians appointed after Alexander's untimely death (assuming that any survived so long – it was a risky assignment). Indeed, the Scots had negotiated – or thought they had negotiated – an agreement at Birgham that would preserve the identity and autonomy of their realm. This was apparently underpinned by a declaration that the rights of neither kingdom had been diminished, a clause that Ranald Nicholson described as "far less a guarantee of Scottish independence than a retention by Edward of the right to deny it".

In the short term, Birgham triggered a race for custody of the Maid. Edward sent a ship to Norway laden with tempting delicacies, including sturgeon and ginger, but the sailors succumbed to food poisoning and King Eric refused to allow his daughter to embark. Instead, the Maid was despatched in a Norwegian vessel to be handed over in Orkney, still a Norwegian dependency. She barely survived the voyage, dying a few days after her arrival in late September 1290. As so often in the Middle Ages, the cause of her death remains a mystery. Sea-sickness may have been a factor, but the most likely explanation – food poisoning once again – is intriguing, given that the Norwegians were a fishing people who knew how to cure and safely preserve their catches. 

At this point, the rules of succession broke down. Scottish convention could handle primogeniture when it extended to brothers, nephews or even an infant grand-daughter, but in 1290 there was no agreement on wider kinship. An older principle, tanistry, lurked in the background, permitting claims from a broad range of collateral relations. The Scots made the crucial mistake of turning to Edward I as the arbiter, with turbulent consequences for the decades that followed.[37] All of this prompts the reasonable counterfactual conclusion that much of the dramatic instability, probably including the enduring symbol of Bannockburn itself, would have been avoided had Alexander III not been killed at the age of 44. If he had lived for another ten or fifteen years, he might well have fathered an heir.  The next reign would probably have begun with a minority, but the Scottish political community was capable of handling that form of transition. The might-have-been is surely more than an imagined chimera. It transpired that Queen Yolande was already pregnant as Alexander galloped recklessly towards her bed, although conception could only have occurred within the previous few weeks. Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage later in the year, perhaps not a surprising result of bereavement.[38] By her second marriage, to the Duke of Brittany, Yolande produced at least six children. Reputedly, in his days as a widower, Alexander had set his face against celibacy, with one monastic chronicler attributing to him an eclectic taste in women, including even nuns.[39] There is every reason to assume that his marriage to Yolande could have produced an Alexander IV, under whose sway the history of Scotland might have unfolded, if not peacefully – for that would be too much to hope – at least in conformity with the legacy of his forebears.

Thus while the dynastic crisis that unfolded after the death of Alexander III stemmed in part from the fact that his death in 1286, at 44, was untimely, it was caused much more by the breakdown of accepted rules of succession four years later – as would be underlined by the peaceable transition of the crown that followed the equally unexpected demise of David II in 1371. Generally, however, because the Scots monarchy was embedded in the community of the realm, the loss of individual kings, whether youthful or mature, was of less consequence than in England, whose rulers sought to dominate their subjects. Even the untimely deaths generally had few profound effects. In 1249, Alexander II had led an army to seize Argyll and the Western Isles from the king of Norway. Aged 50, he died in mid-campaign, with most of mainland Argyll absorbed but not the Hebrides. In the event, this setback to Scottish expansion was little more than temporary. Although his son, Alexander III, became king at the age of seven, by his late teens he was in effective control of the country, and renewed pressure upon the Norwegians. Haakon IV failed to impose his authority on the far-flung dependencies in the invasion that culminated at the battle of Largs in 1263. Three years later, the Hebrides were transferred to Scottish sovereignty, although for centuries Scotland's kings found it challenging to impose more than nominal authority in the islands.

The unlucky Stewarts The Stewarts had such an extraordinary run of actuarial bad luck between 1437 and 1542 that it seems remarkable that they continued to call all five monarchs James: the most durable, James I, survived only to 42.[40] James II, killed in 1460 at the age of 29 besieging Roxburgh, had been so effective in imposing internal control that Michael Lynch asked: "what might he have done if his reign had gone to its expected full term rather than ending unexpectedly after a mere decade?" This counterfactual speculation is founded not on fantasy but on artillery. Cannon was a new feature in European warfare, dramatically mobilised by the French in the early fourteen-fifties to end three centuries of English rule in Gascony in just three years. Scotland was a relatively poor country, whose nobles could not match the resources available to the king, limited though these appeared in European comparisons. The Stewarts set out to maximise the revenue of the crown, and spent the proceeds on armaments.  James IV developed a navy, floating firepower initially intended to subdue the Hebrides. In 1514, he sought to use his fleet in alliance with France, to make Scotland a force in European affairs. His best gunners were at sea when he clashed with the English at Flodden, with the result that his poorly-officered artillery failed to make an impact. The sequel bears out Jenny Wormald's argument that minorities redressed the essential balance of Scottish politics: successive regents ruling on behalf of the boy king James V reduced the effective royal revenue by over fifty percent within a decade by purchasing support among the nobility – and thus reducing the crown's capacity to finance the armaments needed to assert central control. James V's stoical response on his deathbed to the news that his first and only child was a daughter – "it cam wi' a lass, it'll gang wi' a lass"[41] – has obscured two remarkable aspects of his passing. The first was that he was the only Stewart who managed to die in bed in the 219 years between Robert III in 1406 and James VI and I in 1625. Did he die, as romantics have been inclined to assume, of grief on receiving news of the failure of the latest Scottish invasion of England, or – perhaps more likely – of some straightforward but undiagnosed fever, which could explain the reported delirium of his final hours? Whatever the cause, it should surely stand out that he was still a young man, thirty years of age. "Had James V lived," Jenny Wormald commented, "... the history of the sixteenth-century monarchy might have more closely paralleled those of the English, French, and Spanish." His widow, Mary of Guise, proved a formidable regent in the fifteen-fifties – too effective for John Knox, certainly. A political partnership between Mary of Guise and James V might have resisted the Scots Reformation with some success. No doubt, as Jenny Wormald concluded, his death at the age of thirty "removed the growing threat of autocracy". Nonetheless, the daydream would inspire his grandson, James VI.

The Stuart monarchs of Great Britain, 1603-1688 James VI and I was 58 when he died in 1625.  Neither on policy grounds nor those of sheer humanity is it easy to wish to have had any more of him. As Bruce Galloway demonstrated, in constitutional terms, the early years of his reign were the most creative, although his project for the formal union of the two kingdoms displayed rather more ambition than tact. In 1604, he ended the ruinously expensive war with Spain, and reaffirmed the Anglican settlement at the Hampton Court conference. The publication of a new translation of the Scripture, the Authorized Version of 1611 (still widely known as the King James Bible), was a rare example of a masterwork designed by a committee, and a triumph that incidentally helped to give his two kingdoms a common literary language.[42] The Union project lapsed after 1608, and the Great Contract aimed at solving the crown's financial problems was rejected by parliament in 1610. Perhaps James VI and I may be excused failing to foresee the long-term complications that have arisen out of his policy of the Plantation of Ulster – the continuation of a policy applied in the Hebrides from the fifteen-nineties. Nor was he fully responsible for his impotence in European affairs, so dramatically revealed by the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, and his humiliating inability to offer effective support even to his own daughter, the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia.

Yet it is hardly likely that the underlying weakness of his regime, the financial instability of the crown, would have been tackled had James VI and I reigned longer. Indeed, in his last years, power passed in stages to his son, Charles, and to the king's favourite – and his son's friend – the Duke of Buckingham. Nonetheless, Barry Coward argued that "[t]he accession of Charles marks a definite turning point in the history of the 1620s." On a personal level, James VI had further weakened the royal finances by his reckless extravagance, but he had retained his innate wariness in matters of high policy, for instance collecting taxes from parliament to fight the Spanish but refraining from actual hostilities. Charles and Buckingham embarked upon a war that brought no glory at massive cost. The 1627 Forced Loan was one consequence, straining the fault lines already threatening social cohesion. Like his father, Charles I attempted to rule without parliament, a convenient scheme if it worked, but one that merely magnified pent-up grievances when elected members had eventually to be appealed to for support. Thus the obvious target for counterfactual speculation – might the English Civil War have been avoided had James VI and I lived longer? – hardly arises.

It is only with regard to Scotland that some difference may perhaps be discerned between the two. His adventurous and alarming early life had left James with little affection for Presbyterian divines, but it is tempting to conclude that he would not have confronted the Kirk and people with the aggressive device of a new and modified prayer book, as Charles I did in 1637. Yet James did succeed in re-establishing episcopacy, however anomalous the role of bishops in the Church of Scotland. He attempted to restrict Calvinist doctrine by proposing the Five Articles of Perth in 1621, and it may be worth noting that this little-known episode occurred exactly half-way between the 1604 Hampton Court conference and the National Covenant of 1638 – and it is also worth recalling that James failed. Most historians place the origins of the English Civil War (and its wider ramifications) in a context that comprises both reigns: the personality of the two kings was undoubtedly a contributing element in the developing crisis, but little purpose is served by retrospectively wishing the father a longer reign. As for the controversial Buckingham, he was murdered in 1628, days before his thirty-sixth birthday. Yet Charles managed, without his friend's help, to embroil himself in civil wars north and south of the Border. Buckingham, it may be assumed, would neither have dissuaded him nor added anything to his popularity. It is certainly possible to shift the focus of the causes of the Civil War from the underlying financial problems of the crown to the personality of Charles I  and his remarkable talent for making enemies, and enemies whom he could not easily overcome. Unfortunately, it would have required James VI and I to live to an unlikely old age to change the story. Even then, there can be no guarantee that James would not have made some of the same mistakes, especially since Charles would almost certainly have taken an increasingly active role as his father's health further declined.  

There is a finality about the execution of Charles I that might seem to rule out speculation about the consequences of his survival. As the enemies who sought the downfall of his minister Strafford had so bluntly put it, "stone dead hath no fellow". In the pages of history, the doomed king seems to be forever stepping on to the scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, wearing two shirts to ensure that he would not shiver in the January cold. Yet Charles was only 48, and his attempt to escape overseas in 1647 had been frustrated by bad luck. It is possible to envisage a scenario in which he took refuge on the continent – or in Scotland – seeking to recover support and becoming a focus for the increasing discontent aroused by Cromwellian rule. The Restoration in 1660 is one of those episodes that hindsight may regard as highly likely,[43] but which was not foreseen by contemporaries. There had been no serious attempt to turn to the exiled Charles II when Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. Two years later, so well-informed a political enthusiast as Samuel Pepys only became aware at a late stage that the king was to return. Had Charles I survived death in battle, assassination and all the attendant hazards of seventeenth-century life, he would have been 59 in the early months of 1660 – the age achieved by his Nemesis, Cromwell. It is unlikely that the ascendant faction of the Army would have trusted him, making the most likely outcome of General Monck's march south from Coldstream the creation of a renewed military dictatorship. Perhaps Monck would have attempted to split father from sons, establishing some sort of shadow monarchy. On the eve of his execution, Charles had warned his youngest son, eight year-old Henry (later Duke of Gloucester), against Roundhead machinations: "do not be made a king by them". The idea of using Henry as a puppet was not seriously pursued. He returned with his brother, Charles II, in 1660, but was dead within a few months, a victim of smallpox, exacerbated – so Pepys asserted – by the incompetence of his doctors. Even if Charles I had died in the later sixteen-fifties, his shadow would still have loomed over his sons. It is thus entirely possible that in beheading the middle-aged monarch in 1649, the Commonwealth signed its own death warrant eleven years later.

The poignant scene at the deathbed of Charles II in 1685 may foster the illusion that his race was run and his natural lifespan exhausted. In fact, as noted above, he was 54: even by the unhealthy standards of the time, he might well have lived into the next decade. He had steadily consolidated his authority since the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, making it possible for his Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, to accede to the throne with no immediate opposition. Those who had sought to bar James VII and II had been divided on the claims of the potential alternative candidates: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, the king's illegitimate son, and William of Orange, his nephew by marriage.[44] Had Charles II reigned for another half dozen years, fighting fit and on top of his job, he might have passed on the crown to his brother without incident. But Charles II struggling with ill health through long years of decline would soon have re-awakened the issue of the succession. The Duke of York would have attempted to tighten his grip on the government, possibly leading his opponents to turn to William of Orange, the obvious countervailing force, issuing precisely the invitation to intervene that was actually sent to Holland in 1688.[45]

The later Stuarts The fate of the tail end of the Stuart dynasty provides a grim reminder of the eternal proximity of mortality in that era. Mary II died in 1694 at 32, another victim of smallpox. History buffs are so familiar with her rear-end role of the royal pantomime horse called William-and-Mary that few will regard her as an independent personality. It was a wifely subordination that she welcomed, yet she presided over the government efficiently enough during her husband's lengthy absences on the continent and in Ireland. Elizabeth I had recovered from a severe bout of smallpox at much the same age, and gone on to reign for four decades. Had Mary II survived her husband and reigned until 1730, we can only speculate on such major topics as the Protestant succession and the evolution of cabinet government. William III succumbed to complications following a riding accident in 1702. Since he had endured two serious illnesses and been in the thick of three dangerous battles, not to mention the constant threat of assassination, he was perhaps fortunate to have made it to 51. Although the loss of Mary had left him personally isolated, his death has been seen as removing the best hope of containing the increasingly aggressive party conflict between Whigs and Tories. Yet his main aims – the Protestant succession, the union of Scotland and England and the renewal of war against France – were all successfully pursued under his successor. Anne was a sad figure, 37 at her accession but with her health broken by seventeen pregnancies, not one of which produced an adult heir.[46] Informed contemporaries believed that the last Stuart monarch was ready to go when she died in 1714, but nonetheless we might pause and note that she was only 49.

In the event, the transition to the House of Hanover was smoothly managed. In 1701, Louis XIV had recognised James VIII and III as Britain's king in succession to his father, but he took no action to support the Pretender after Anne's death. While the queen herself was said to be troubled by qualms of conscience at the exclusion of her half-brother, there was no possibility of the kind of deathbed naming ceremony associated with Elizabeth. In any case, 1714 was not 1547: Anne could not have overridden the statutory force of the Act of Succession. The major obstacle to accepting the Pretender was the exiled Stuart dynasty's firm adherence to its trademark Catholicism: the last legitimate member of the male line would die a cardinal in 1807. Even some Tories, the upholders of legitimacy, put their Protestantism before their monarchical principles, leaving the remaining Jacobites too weak to attempt a coup in 1714. G.M. Trevelyan attempted to dramatise the situation, exaggerating the machinations of Bolingbroke, Anne's principal Tory adviser, to overturn the Hanoverian succession. "Five months, five weeks even, might have seen the stage prepared, but the Queen died in five days, and all Bolingbroke's plans fell in ruin around him." In Mark Kishlansky's felicitous phrase, "the crown passed as peacefully as the Queen". By the time assorted Stuart sympathisers attempted rebellion, a year later, George I was firmly in place, while the death of Louis XIV left France under the rule of a regency that drew back from foreign adventures. A Franco-British treaty in 1716 ushered in fifteen years of diplomatic co-operation – long enough for the new dynasty to strike firm roots.

While with hindsight, an eighteenth-century Stuart restoration looks very unlikely, that may be an assessment that mainly derives from the circumstances of 1714-15.[47] We simply cannot know what might have happened had the practical issue of the succession arisen at some later date. One conjunction of events in 1714 might have panned out differently had its ramifications emerged over a longer period. The Act of Succession had conferred the crown upon the Electress Sophia of Hanover. Her attraction lay not simply in her Protestantism, but in the fact that she had two generations of legitimate male descendants, a fecundity that had so tragically eluded Anne.[48] Nonetheless, the English parliament – Scotland fell into line at the Act of Union – initially contemplated importing a queen from Germany. Although ambitious, Sophia kept a relatively low profile during her years on the dynastic substitutes' bench, appreciating the need not to offend the easily-outshone Queen Anne and thereby inflaming her innate Jacobite sympathies. However, Sophia died in June 1714 – at the magnificent age of 83 – within weeks before Anne's death on 1 August. In short, the British public barely had time to take stock of their new king-in-waiting. Had the succession been delayed, it is possible that their enthusiasm for the Elector Georg of Hanover would have proved muted. As a symbol of John Bull and the stability of pudding time, King George I won a measure of bluff acquiescence from his new subjects. As an expectant heir restlessly marooned in a German statelet, he might well have been more proactive – and, very likely, ham-handed – in advancing his cause in Britain, all the  more so as it was not difficult to guess that Anne's ministers kept open back-channels of communication with the exiled Stuart court in France. Plots, conspiracies and cabals might well have followed, had Anne survived to the end of the decade – or if Mary II had emulated Elizabeth in surviving smallpox to reign until 1730. While the Franco-British alliance deprived the Jacobites of the most threatening source of external military intervention, it also tended to neutralise the objection that the Stuarts were French puppets.

The handover to Hanover It is perhaps a paradox that the monarchs imported from Hanover finally found the secret of longevity just as the personality of the sovereign ceased to be so central to British politics. George I and George IV both died at 67. At 76 and 81, George II and George III each broke the survival record, although George III was mentally incapacitated through the last decade of his life. In an amusingly embarrassing diatribe in August 1836, William IV expressed his hope that his life "would be spared for nine months longer", so that his niece Princess Victoria would come of age and the country be spared a regency headed by her mother, the Duchess of York, who – he alleged – was "incompetent" and "surrounded by evil advisers". Perhaps his lack of tact helped him to survive for five dogged weeks beyond Victoria's eighteenth birthday, to die at the solidly Hanoverian age of 71. Victoria herself outperformed them all, exceeding her grandfather's lifespan by a few months. 

With parliamentary government still an evolving system in the eighteenth century, the king's ministers remained to a large extent the king's choice. Since the Hanoverians were good at reproduction, but deficient in the wider skills of parenting, the heir to the throne tended to dramatise his alienation by patronising the opposition. However, when George II became king in 1727 and the future George IV designated Prince Regent in 1810, they found it convenient to maintain in office men they had previously censured. George I's death in 1727 was unexpected, in the sense that his health was good and he had felt able to travel to Hanover, where he died, apparently of a heart attack.[49] "Although the crisis was unexpected, it was not unforeseen," insisted Sir Robert Walpole's biographer, J.H. Plumb: "for death was too capricious in the eighteenth century for an astute politician to neglect its possibility." Biographers sometimes persuade themselves that they have penetrated the thought processes of their subjects, and Plumb's assertion may be an example of this fantastical empathy. True, Walpole had cultivated the Princess of Wales, who, as Queen Caroline, would become his champion, and he had established links with aristocrats close to the heir to the throne – such were the manoeuvres of courtly politics. Yet Walpole acted like a politician who expected to be deprived of office. Court gossip Lord Hervey quoted him as accepting his impending dismissal: "It is what I as well as the rest of the world expected would be whenever this accident happened" – "accident" here meaning an unpredictable event. Walpole's fall would hardly have been a surprising outcome at the hands an incoming monarch who had described him as a scoundrel and a dirty buffoon – although George II seems to have been incapable of expressing moderate disapproval. Britain's first prime minister survived through sheer luck. The new king had identified as his preferred chief adviser, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Spencer Compton, who did not want the responsibility.[50] Walpole delighted the royal couple by proposing a handsome civil list – a royal salary package, and one that included a large pay rise. Only one politician possessed the skill to steer such an expensive measure through the Commons. Walpole remained in office.[51]

The factional manoeuvres surrounding the accession of George II may obscure the more fundamental point that there was no serious challenge to the legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession. Not since the time of Henry IV, three centuries earlier, had the founder of a new dynasty reigned for so brief a period as George I. Yet so confident was the new regime of its stability that Walpole's ministry faced down ancient and sometimes chaotic coronation customs, having no fear that their rejection would spark pro-Jacobite disorder.[52] In comparison with the U-turns, actual and potential, contingent upon the deaths of earlier monarchs, the personalia of ministerial changes in 1727 may be dismissed as a rearrangement of the sedan chairs on the deck of the royal barge. But Walpole's survival was a notable marker in the evolution of the office of prime minister, a demonstration that the power of controlling the House of Commons was now a counterbalance to the vagaries of royal favour.

Poor Fred Two decades later, Frederick, Prince of Wales mounted a more sophisticated project to take control of the nation when the "accident" of succession devolved upon him. In his early forties, and the estranged son of a monarch who was in his mid-sixties, it seemed to be a contingency worth planning for.[53] George II seemed in failing health, and grimly reconciled to Frederick's succession, to judge from his comment that "his son, for whom he did not care a louse ... would live long enough to ruin us all." Not only did the Prince of Wales identify favoured politicians who were to be appointed to office when he came to the throne,  he even compiled a detailed list of men whose election he wished to secure to his first House of Commons. Potentially of greater importance were the ideological implications of his project. Frederick had embraced the theory of a Patriot King, who would rise above party to bestow wise government upon his people.[54] Above all, the Hanoverian dynasty was to be rebranded in a welter of Englishness – Frederick was one of the pioneer patrons of cricket – with the hereditary incubus of Hanover offloaded to a second son.[55]

Frederick's revolution from above never happened. In March 1751, he was unexpectedly struck by severe pains in his side, followed by two weeks of fever. Although his doctors were sure he had recovered, a further attack was enough to kill him within minutes. His death was blamed on a burst abscess in the lung, giving rise to the legend that he had been hit by a cricket ball.[56] By dying at 44, "Poor Fred" was the ideal candidate for a heroic lost leader: there was even a twentieth-century biography that attempted to present him as an inspirational model for Edward VIII.[57] Yet it is unlikely that the reign of King Frederick would have produced any seismic change, let alone an Anglo-Hanoverian version of an enlightened despotism. As with most attempts to construct an opposition in the one-party Whig state, he had collected a disparate band of irreconcilables and lightweights, hardly the united force needed to challenge the parliamentary ascendancy of the Pelhams. In any case, Frederick would have come to the throne with a burden of personal debt spectacular even by Hanoverian economics, and would have needed complaisant MPs to save him from bankruptcy. "The death of the heir to the throne could not lengthen the life of his father," Paul Langford observed, "but it rendered its consequences less predictable." In the event, George II survived for another nine years, long enough for his grandson to come of age and hence avoid the complications of a regency. Although George III inherited Frederick's Patriot King fantasies, he too found his freedom of manoeuvre restricted by party politics, while his brief personal choice as prime minister, his former tutor the Earl of Bute, failed to live up even to his own expectations. Most of the main themes of late eighteenth-century politics, such as Britain's responses to the American and French revolutions, can be narrated without much reference to the identity of the country's sovereign.

Parliamentary Reform, 1830-32 However, it may be argued that Hanoverian personality did intersect with one of the major political issues of the early-nineteenth century, the Reform crisis of 1831-2. The death of George IV and the advent of Lord Grey's Whig ministry make the year 1830 seem a turning point at which Britain launched itself towards the Victorian era and the modern world that lay beyond. Few regretted the passing of the passing of a "contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling" sovereign (as a close observer described him), an obese spendthrift who wallowed in self-pity. Nor was his lifestyle conducive to a healthy old age: a typical meal could include a pigeon and a steak pie, washed down by most of a bottle of white wine, a glass of champagne, two glasses of port and a brandy. (This particular menu was consumed three months before his death; it was breakfast.) Yet to recognise that George IV largely engineered his own demise by gluttony and sloth need not be to accept that his death was bound to occur at the age of 67, and at a precise and predestined moment in June 1830. His successor, William IV, lived for four years longer. Their next surviving brother, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, became that rarity among British royalty, an octogenarian. (In 1837, he became king of Hanover, where one of his first acts was to cancel the constitution. Had Victoria succumbed either to assassination or to her first experience of childbirth, Britain would have been obliged to put up with King Ernest's reactionary militarism until his death in November 1851.) Since George IV came from durable stock, it is entirely reasonable to consider the possibility that he might have survived into the middle of the eighteen-thirties, to inject his own very special quality of petty petulance into the national debate on parliamentary reform.

If the death of George IV was, in Walpole's sense, one of the accidents of 1830, it is also important to stress that there was nothing inevitable about the formation of Lord Grey's ministry. Since its split over the French Revolution in the early eighteen-nineties, the Whigs had adopted the fatal course for an opposition party of immersing themsevesf in an oppositionist mentality, a very effective self-fulfilling strategy for avoiding power. Three years earlier, the political future had seemed dominated by the businesslike Liberal Tories, and notably by their newly-fledged prime minister, the 57 year-old George Canning. "We were not liberals or tories in those days," Gladstone told A.C. Benson seventy years later. "We were Canning or non-Canning." Canning's death less than three months after forming his government naturally pitchforked him into the well-populated lost-leader category. More remarkable was the inability of the Canningites to find a successor: the Liberal Tories possessed impressive administrative skills which seemed suited to every office except that of prime minister. Prosperity Robinson (alias Goody Goderich) was ready to throw up the task after a few months in Downing Street when George IV sacked him. William Huskisson was killed by a railway engine.[58] Alienated from Wellington's hardline Tories, the remaining Canningites joined Grey. Indeed, two of them, Melbourne and Palmerston, are viewed through a post-1830 filter as quintessential Whigs.[59]

In accepting the distasteful possibility that George IV might have lived longer, counterfactual historians will be bound to speculate on how he might have responded to the 1831-2 Reform Bill crisis. However, here we encounter a conceptual challenge. Lord Grey's ministry, which made the idea of changing the system of representation into a practical possibility, was the product of instability following the 1830 general election. The British people (or some of them) went to the polls in the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation, the overdue concession in 1829 of the right of Catholics to sit, if elected, in the House of Commons. One of the few major political changes – and certainly one of the few enlightened reforms – carried by the old system, it provoked a Protestant backlash that contributed to a broad coalition in support of constitutional surgery. However, the general election only happened in 1830 because the king had died, it being constitutional practice that the legislature expired with the monarch. In the normal course of events, the House of Commons elected in 1826 might have lasted until 1833. Historians of parliamentary reform have noted that the issue had been dormant for much of the preceding decade. After a brief flurry of interest in 1822, petitioners gave up badgering the House of Commons to change the voting system, conscious perhaps that they were wasting their time. It is possible that an election delayed until 1832 or 1833 would have revealed much less public unrest on the issue than was apparent in the immediate aftermath of Catholic Emancipation. Hence, while it is reasonable to speculate on how Canning or his predecessor as prime minister, the long-serving and cautious Lord Liverpool, might have reacted to the emergence of the Reform issue in the actual circumstance of 1830-1 had they lived longer, it may seem inappropriate to second-guess the actions of George IV to developments that were themselves contingent upon his death.

Nonetheless, it does seem worth contrasting George IV and his successor, William IV.[60] There can be no doubt that George IV opposed parliamentary reform: when commissioning Goderich to form a ministry in 1827, he had interposed "a decided negative to that destructive project". By contrast, his brother delighted (and, indeed, surprised) his Whig ministers four years later by his apparent sympathy for their planned Reform Bill. "There never was such a King," one of them wrote in enthusiastic tribute to William IV. "He not only acquiesces in but espouses the measures deemed necessary by His Ministers, however disagreeable they must in their nature be to Royal Palates." Famously, in April 1831, "Reform Billy" as the radical papers called him, not only consented to a general election to break the Commons deadlock over the Bill, but even volunteered to take a cab to Westminster to dissolve parliament before the House of Lords could pass a damaging censure motion. Yet, as events unfolded, it became clear that William IV's enthusiasm for parliamentary reform was secondary to his wish to prevent a clash between the two Houses. That, in turn, was the product of his determination to preserve the power of the Lords, which led him to attempt to refuse to guarantee to create enough peerages to force the measure through the upper chamber. In the event, he gave way, as George IV had been forced to swallow Catholic Emancipation in 1829.[61] Viewed in terms of the limited power of the crown in the face of fervent public opinion, it may seem unlikely that the outcome of the saga of the 1831-2 Reform crisis would have been different had George IV remained as king.  Some allowance must be made for the pressure-cooker intensity of a concentrated political crisis: a solution that seems unthinkable on Monday may become acceptable by Thursday and inevitable on Saturday. However, filtered through the prism of personality, there can be little doubt that the Bill had an easier passage with William IV on the throne. But here the limitations of the counterfactual approach must be frankly faced.  Had George IV continued to oppose the creation of peers in May 1832, it is reasonable to speculate that the country would have been forced into a third general election in two years – but, beyond that, it is impossible to know whether there would have been revolutionary violence or simply a firm restatement of a popular majority for change – even if obtained through an absurd mishmash of unreformed constituencies – sufficient to compel the compliance of any half-way sane monarch (the adjectival phrase is important). In any case, there are indications that waverers among the peers were ready to abstain rather than block the legislation, rendering the role of the monarch much less crucial, no matter who wore the crown.

Victoria and Albert Victoria became queen at eighteen, and reigned until she was 81.[62] For Victoria herself, the "central turning-point", as Lytton Strachey called it, in those six decades on the throne was the death, in 1861, of her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. "The Prince Consort was little more than forty-two years of age when he died," wrote Justin McCarthy. "... No one in the kingdom seemed less likely to be prematurely cut off". What did his loss mean? The well-informed Richard Monckton Milnes regarded  Albert as "of inestimable value as an intermediary person between Ministers and our excellent but not clever Queen". As Victoria herself put it, "he thought for her always ... then there was no need for her to think" adding "but I must think now".[63] That was precisely what her ministers feared: Palmerston gloomily predicted that, in foreign policy matters, the Queen would seek "to conform to what she from time to time may persuade herself would have been at the moment the opinion of the late Prince", thereby causing "no end of difficulties for those who will have to advise her".[64]

Others saw Albert's death as a more momentous event. To Disraeli, it marked "the destruction of that long-mediated [-meditated?] plan of establishing court-influence on ruins of political party which the late Prince had been working out with perseverance equal to George the Third, and talent infinitely greater." "A few years more, and we should have had, in practice, an absolute monarchy," he remarked to his acolyte, Lord Stanley. Characteristically, he could sugar-coat this alarming sentiment when it suited his purpose. "We have buried our Sovereign", he told the envoy of Saxony. "If he had outlived some of our 'old stagers' he would have given us, while retaining all constitutional guarantees, the blessings of absolute government." Claiming to speak for the "younger men" who aspired to cabinet office, Disraeli insisted that "there is not one who would not have bowed willingly to his experience". The internal contradictions of the statement – an enlightened despotism that respected constitutional rights – are enough to condemn it as a serious analysis, and even his generally indulgent biographer Robert Blake commented that "Disraeli sometimes went rather far".[65] It is more likely that in choosing to target such sentiments at a minor German diplomat, Disraeli intended them to be reported in court circles, both at Windsor and, via Dresden, to Rosenau, in Albert's native patch. However, in his 1867 study of The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot – not given to flights of fancy – echoed Disraeli, specifically naming Palmerston as the 'old stager' who frustrated Albert's emergence as Britain's uncrowned  Patriot King: "he died ere he could have made his influence felt on a generation of statesmen less experienced than he was, and anxious to learn from him". Half a century later, Lytton Strachey elaborated and exaggerated the point. "He was only forty-two, and in the ordinary course of nature he might have been expected to live at least thirty years longer.... as time went on, the Prince's influence must have enormously increased." Could any politician, "however able, however popular", Strachey asked, "...have withstood the wisdom, the irreproachability, the vast prescriptive authority, of the venerable Prince?" He even fantasised that, under Albert's leadership, "an attempt might have been made to convert England into a State as exactly organised, as elaborately trained, as efficiently equipped, and as autocratically controlled, as Prussia herself."

This seems to take Albertmania a little too far. Experience might well have helped the Prince Consort to exercise influence, as he memorably demonstrated through his deathbed advice that helped moderate the fierce British diplomatic response to the Trent incident. It seems much less likely that he could have accumulated substantial political power. The dismissal of Palmerston from the Foreign Office in 1851 had been a victory for the royal couple, who had protested against his maverick foreign policy. In the next eight years, five ministries collapsed, either through internal dissension or their inability to sustain parliamentary or electoral support. If ever there was a phase in which an ambitious prince might have constructed his own coalition amidst the ruin of party, it was the eighteen-fifties.[66] In the event, Palmerston settled in office from 1859 at the head of an emerging Liberal party, which not only coalesced in parliament but (as John Vincent demonstrated) began to establish something like a mass organisation among the electorate. By the eighteen-eighties, a firm two-party system, usually tightly controlled by its leaders, had relegated the crown to a secondary role. It should be noted that Albert had concentrated on supporting specific, non-partisan projects, such as the Great Exhibition and the establishment of a boarding school in Wellington's memory. Some insight into his personal strategy may be found from his role as Chancellor of Cambridge University, a post to which he was elected in 1847. There, he supported both institutional and curriculum reforms, acting as an intermediary with the politicians, but essentially he worked through well-placed academics already operating within the institution.

Had he lived, Albert might well have used his intermediary role to moderate his wife's hostility to Gladstone. There would have been some issues, such as the 1870 Education Act, where their common seriousness of purpose would have worked in tandem. It is also unlikely, as David Cannadine suggests, that Victoria "would have been so beguiled by, or become so infatuated with, Disraeli". However, not even Albert's intellectual liberalism would have been sympathetic towards the eclipse of the Irish landlords in the eighteen-eighties, nor is it easy to imagine him displaying any enthusiasm for Home Rule. His stiffly Germanic personality would probably have been tarnished in public esteem – however unfairly – by the rise of Prussian militarism.[67]

Overall, it is remarkable how rarely Albert seems to have been referred to in the political diaries and discourse of the decades that followed his death.[68] The appearance of instalments of the five-volume biography by Sir Theodore Martin – in fact conveying Victoria's eulogy and elegy to her husband – provoked solemnly loyal reviews, but little sense of enduring loss. Martin himself summarised his opinion of the Prince in his 1885 Dictionary of National Biography article, saying that he had crammed eighty years of work into forty years of life – a generous tribute, but one that spoke of finality rather than incompletion. David Cannadine speculates that the Queen might have taken "a very different political trajectory had Prince Albert lived for another thirty years". This seems likely, but the plain fact is that, by the late-nineteenth century, the opinions of the sovereign on most public issues no longer greatly mattered (although Victoria could still cause problems for her ministers through the vehemence of her prejudices expressed in private). In 1869, the equerry Henry Ponsonby tried to persuade Gladstone of a similarity between Albert and William III. The prime minister rejected the comparison, insisting that the Prince Consort had been too "warm and kind" to have achieved a revolution: "he had not the indomitable will of William nor could he ever have perpetrated the Glencoe massacre." The Highlanders of Balmoral would no doubt have been reassured had they known this.

Albert's death, more than a century and a half ago, marks the last untimely royal decease that  arguably might have affected Britain's constitutional development. As Stanley Weintraub put it in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "the ceremonial and symbolic monarchy which gradually evolved after 1861 may well have been the result of the loss of Albert at the height of his intellectual powers". Disraeli had greeted Albert's death as "the commencement of a new reign", not foreseeing that his widow would survive long enough to embark upon a tentative third phase, in which the invisibility that had characterised the quarter-century after her husband's death was punctuated by spectacular public appearances in London in 1887 and 1897, and in Dublin three years later. Just as the prolonged post-Fotheringhay coda to the reign of Elizabeth I helped James VI to consolidate his position as heir to the throne, so did Victoria's record-breaking longevity gave her eldest son the time and space to live down his association with the 1890-1 Tranby Croft baccarat scandal.[69] Unfeeling and unfilial jests were attributed to the Prince of Wales as he dragged out the years awaiting his accession. "I don't mind praying to the eternal Father," he is said to have remarked, "but I must be the only man in the country afflicted with an eternal mother." The English-speaking world came to assume that its Queen-Empress was immortal. When the news finally came from Osborne in January 1901 that the 63-year reign was over, the Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery exclaimed: "Who ever thought that Queen Victoria could die?"

The twentieth century: the House of Lords crisis, 1911 Obesity and grey hair made the new king seem older than his 59 years. In choosing a regnal name not heard in England for three and a half centuries (and never used in Scotland), he was perhaps defying the fates: the previous two Edwards had reigned very briefly, and both died tragically. Edward VII only narrowly escaped the same fate: in 1902, he survived appendicitis, which required surgery that was then very dangerous. Sometimes nicknamed "Edward the Peacemaker", the king's breezy popularity helped inject elements of public goodwill into relations between Britain and France, but the negotiations that led to the 1904 Entente were the work of political compromise and military liaison.  His death, at the age of 68 in 1910, can hardly be regarded as a surprise, the more so as he was a chain smoker who suffered from severe bronchitis. Although he was the "Uncle of Europe", we may dismiss the pleasant fantasy of a 72 year-old "Tum-Tum" knocking together the crowned heads of Europe  in the summer of 1914, and thereby saving the world from war. (In any case, he disliked his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, which is at least some testimony to his personal judgement.)

The rejection by the House of Lords of the 1909 budget triggered two years of political and constitutional conflict. As with the reign of William IV, that of George V opened with a crisis would ultimately turn on the question of whether the king would create enough additional peers to force through legislation limiting the veto powers of the upper House. In his last year, Edward VII had strongly resisted the idea, even talking – a little prematurely – of abdication if pressed on the issue. At that stage, however, a mass creation of peers was still one possible contingency among several conjectural outcomes, and Asquith's Liberal government agreed that it would be unconstitutional to demand assurances from their sovereign in relation to circumstances that might not arise. Two years later, those options had narrowed, and the need for decision confronted the relatively inexperienced George V. Like Henry VIII and Charles I, he had come to the throne because of the death of an elder brother:  Albert Victor had died at the age of 28 in 1892.[70] (The loss of "Prince Eddy" did little to diminish the royal family's collective IQ, and it is alarming to picture him trying to grasp the issues involved in 1911.) With George V very much in the hands of his experienced courtiers, one central question for them, as for historians, was – how would Edward VII have responded to Asquith's demand that the king must agree to swamp the Lords with new creations?[71] This, in turn, goes to the heart of the counterfactual enigma: could it be assumed that Edward VII in 1911 would have taken the same position as Edward VII in 1909, or would the old king have responded to changing circumstances? His successor's bad luck was compounded by the disagreement of his two closest advisers, Lord Knollys and Sir Arthur Bigge (soon to become Lord Stamfordham). Knollys, who had favoured abdication in 1909, now swung around to counsel the king that he had no choice but to accept his ministers' demands. Bigge was infuriated by his colleague's insistence that "he was convinced that his late Majesty would have followed his advice. This quoting what a dead person would do is to me most unfair, if not improper, especially to the King [George V] who has such a high opinion of his father's judgment."

The clinching constitutional argument was that if the king rejected Asquith's officially tendered advice, ministers would have no alternative to resign.  George V was persuaded by Lord Knollys that the Unionist [Conservative] opposition leader, Arthur Balfour, would not or could not form an alternative cabinet, leaving the country – and the Empire – literally without a government. The assumption seemed reasonable. Although the two general elections of 1910 left the Liberals and Unionists evenly balanced in the House of Commons, over 120 seats had been won by the Irish Nationalists and the Labour party, both habitual allies of the Liberals. The prospects for a minority Unionist ministry thus seemed slight, and a third general election in less than two years was hardly an attractive prospect. The king capitulated, and the Liberal leader in the upper house, Lord Morley, was authorised to threaten the peers that their lordships would be swamped if they rejected the Parliament Bill. However, it later transpired that the king had not been given the full picture. In August 1911, Balfour coldly informed Stamfordham that he would have been ready to form a government "to protect His Majesty" from an open-ended demand to coerce the Lords. If forced to the polls, he would have campaigned against a measure "which by implication carried Home Rule with it", and with "great hopes of carrying the country".  George V learned two years later that he had been denied information that would have had "an important bearing and influence" upon his response to the demand to make peers. In 1931, he denounced his treatment as "the dirtiest thing ever done", and wished he had been sufficiently experienced to instruct Asquith to put his case in writing, thereby deferring the decision and perhaps allowing other options to emerge.[72] On balance, it might be thought that Knollys served his employer badly but his country well. Prolongation of the constitutional crisis was hardly in the national interest, while Balfour's strategy would have risked invoking the king's name in angry political debate, causing long-term damage to the monarchy.[73] In the context of this discussion, the key question is whether the outcome might have been different had Edward VII survived to face the crisis. It would certainly have been much harder to browbeat a wily and experienced septuagenarian sovereign. Knollys would hardly have dared deceive a man he had served for forty years, and to whom he owed his own peerage.  Whatever the prohibitions of his Liberal ministers, it is highly likely that Edward VII would have made it his business to explore the intentions of the opposition. In each of these matters, it seems reasonable to argue that the transition of the crown to the far less confident George V permitted real differences in the process through which the crisis unfolded. But these still cannot determine whether the outcome would have different: would Edward VII have agreed to a large-scale creation of peers, as Knollys claimed to believe, or would he have refused, as Bigge insisted? If insoluble, the question remains intriguing, and helps to place in broader context the pressures upon the rookie ruler, George V.

A Royal Marriage crisis? After a quarter of a century on the throne, George V had become a cautious and sagacious monarch. To speculate that his life might have moved peacefully towards its close in, say, 1938 or 1941, might seem to defy medical prognosis, since the king had undergone two major operations in 1928-9. His official biographer, Harold Nicolson, concluded that the prolonged ordeal "left him delicate and older than his sixty-four years". Nonetheless, his father had survived for eight years after major surgery for appendicitis, and – as with every demise of the crown – there is no reason to assume that the king's death in January 1936 was a predestined event. "The old King was never better in his life than he is now," his private secretary boomed in December 1935. "He's good for another seven years at least."[74] True, in his final months, George V was worried by the infatuation of his eldest son – 'David' within the family[75] – with the controversial American, Wallis Simpson. "After I am dead", he predicted, "the boy will ruin himself within 12 months", and Edward VIII did indeed abandon the throne ten and a half months into his reign.  

Since Edward VIII could only abdicate once he had become king, the events of December 1936 would seem to necessitate the death of George V. However, Philip Williamson has pointed out that the term "Abdication crisis" is a misleading description of what was in effect a royal marriage crisis.[76] Indeed, the actual removal of the king was remarkably straightforward, given the kaleidoscope of interests spanning classes and continents that needed to be reconciled to the upheaval. Even the predictable members of the awkward squad were neutralised: Winston Churchill was shouted down in the Commons, and Eamon de Valera kept a low profile, using the episode to redefine the constitutional status of the Irish Free State. It is thus worth asking what might have happened had his son's royal marriage crisis occurred during the lifetime of George V.

Yet the question may still seem impossible. The problem of Edward VIII's planned marriage to a divorcee arose in its actual form because 'David' felt that, as king, he could "get away with" defying convention. In particular, his accession exempted him from the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, which would have allowed George V to veto his choice of bride. However, it may also be argued that the royal marriage crisis would almost certainly have arisen on the same timetable but in a subtly different form. Throughout 1935, it had become clear that the Prince of Wales was emotionally dependent upon Mrs Simpson. A figleaf of respectability was provided by the mari complaisant Ernest Simpson, who accompanied them on holiday as a convenient if cuckolded chaperon. But by July 1936, Ernest had found a new partner, and the Simpsons agreed to divorce.[77] The reasons behind their decision again bear upon the validity of a counterfactual analysis. Perhaps Wallis was ruthlessly positioning herself to become Edward VIII's consort, the theory celebrated that Christmas in an unofficial carol: "Hark the herald angels sing / Mrs Simpson's pinched our king." But it may simply be that the Simpson marriage had run its course: for both partners, it was a second recourse to the divorce courts.[78] Thus the divorce, like the infatuation of the Prince of Wales, could well be seen as part of a process that would have unfolded even had the lifetime of George V been prolonged.

The news that Wallis would soon be free to marry again encouraged the international press to predict that she would become Britain's queen. Yet it may be that the royal marriage crisis would have broken even without the sizzling sensation of her second divorce, simply because American journalists in particular were already reporting the scandalous friendship.[79] Once the story was loose in the United States, two developments were likely to follow. The first was that the reports would spread to Canada, where they would damage the standing of the crown in a Dominion where 'David' had been very popular. This would have raised questions of Imperial unity – or, at least, of Commonwealth solidarity – thus posing Edward VIII's private life as the political issue that the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, had been keen to evade.[80] Second, the polite self-denial of the British press could not have been indefinitely maintained while the story raged around the world.[81] Thus, it may be reasonably argued that the scandal would either have engulfed 'David' as Prince of Wales at about the same time as the actual Abdication, or perhaps – had the Simpsons not divorced – within a year or two afterwards, given the openness of his relationship with Wallis.

However, a royal marriage crisis involving the heir to the throne would have taken a different course to the events of December 1936 that ended the career of a king. As was demonstrated by the experience of the next (and latest) Prince of Wales, the Establishment answer to the problem of a too-eligible heir to the throne was to mount irresistible pressure upon him to embark upon conventional matrimony. True, George V found great difficulty in discussing any personal matter with his heir, and he also hoped that 'David' would never marry, "and that nothing will come between Bertie [George VI] and Lilibet [Elizabeth II] and the throne". The king's hopes were unrealistic: 'David', admittedly living a stress-free life in exile as Duke of Windsor, lived until 1972, which would have relegated the squeaky-clean Yorks to the sidelines for over three decades. In any case, there was a far more demanding element at work than the preferences of the sovereign. "Hit won't do, 'Arold," J.H. Thomas told Nicolson. "I know the people of this country. ... They 'ate 'aving no family life at Court." 'David' had ignored the "signs and hints" from his parents that "the time had come for me to take a wife and settle down",[82] but he could hardly have indefinitely defied public and political demands that he must put an end to the gossip by staging a fairy-tale wedding to a wholesome bride: a king might abdicate, but a Prince of Wales could not resign. Suitable Protestant princesses were in short supply, notably because the memory of one war and the prospect of another ruled out the numerous German variety. His cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, ever the dynastic manipulator, helpfully drew up a list of eighteen available princesses – what 'David' himself called "the 'grab bag' of the Royal marriage market" – but the youngest was only fifteen, and too many were objectionably Teutonic.[83] However, some duke's daughter might have been persuaded to lie back and think of England, trading a loveless marriage (hardly an unusual experience among the upper classes) for the honour of providing an heir to the throne.[84] What role Wallis Simpson might have played in such an arrangement must remain decently veiled. Perhaps an appropriately delectable debutante might even have given 'David' something of the domesticity that he had never realised he needed.

To summarise, the Abdication as it had happened in December 1936 was obviously predicated upon the death of George V, since Edward VIII could only renounce the throne once he had acceded to it. But the underlying royal marriage crisis would probably have erupted at about the same time had he remained Prince of Wales, since its timing would have been determined by actual developments, David's blatant infatuation, the Simpson divorce and the lurid journalism of the American press. Its most likely outcome would have been an arranged marriage within the British aristocracy, which would have allowed David subsequently to become king and reign for perhaps thirty years. Perhaps his alleged sympathies for Hitler might have complicated British public life, but plenty of Appeasers managed to change track after September 1939. If the royal marriage had discharged its function and produced a male heir, a thirtyish Edward IX might have succeeded to the throne, either during the Swinging Sixties, or – given the Duke of Windsor's death in 1972 – at precisely the moment when Britain entered upon an uncertain destiny within the European Common Market.

Churchill v Halifax, 1940  In November 1935, George V told Ramsay MacDonald that he did not expect to live more than five more years. This raises an intriguing question: what would have happened had it fallen to George V, rather than to his son George VI, to commission a prime minister upon the resignation of Neville Chamberlain in 1940? For some decades after the Second World War, the episode was dominated by a Churchill historiography – much of it shaped by the historian-statesman himself – that amounted to a Churchill hagiography: nominally, the choice had lain between Winston and Viscount Halifax, but the latter had promptly ruled himself out, admitting that a prime minister in the House of Lords was an impossibility. This objection was gradually questioned, and may now be regarded as comprehensively dismissed by Andrew Roberts. The British constitution is infinitely flexible and, in time of overwhelming crisis, a resolution of the House of Commons could have allowed Halifax to speak, while simple legislation might have declared him a full the member of the House, perhaps representing the notional St Stephen's division of Westminster. George VI was certainly not alone in believing that the peerage could have been set aside for the course of the War. While some, like Baldwin (who was not consulted) believed that "the country wanted Winston", it is striking how widespread was the support for the alternative among the political elite: Chamberlain, the Labour leadership, the Conservative chief whip and George VI himself all preferred Halifax.

The apparent problem was that Halifax did not want the job. He did indeed use the argument that he could not respond to the moods of the Commons from the red benches of the Lords, but equally rejected the alternative of transferring between the chambers on the grounds that he was "too tired to start that racket again". His objection that he could not make satisfactory ministerial appointments because he was "without knowledge of the proper men available" was remarkably unconvincing. As a member of the cabinet, he was ideally placed to measure the calibre of his colleagues for senior roles, Attlee would nominate the Labour ministers, and junior posts could be filled in consultation with colleagues and the whips. Recognising that Churchill would be the new government's defence supremo, Halifax was on stronger ground in recalling the strains that had arisen during the previous conflict, when Lloyd George had taken charge of the War, thereby bypassing and soon supplanting Asquith. But the clashing duopoly of 1915-16 was not necessarily a predictor for a possible triumvirate of 1940: with Attlee running the Home Front and Churchill in control of strategy, there was space for an intermediary with the feline talents of the Holy Fox. Most unpersuasive of all was Halifax's insistence that he was not capable of holding the highest office in the Empire. He had, after all, served with success in its second-highest post, governing three hundred million people as Viceroy of India.

Although conscious of his relative inexperience and lacking in confidence, George VI nonetheless made the case to Chamberlain that Halifax was "the obvious man" to succeed him. But when the outgoing prime minister assured him that "H. was not enthusiastic", the king abandoned his position and accepted the inevitability of Churchill. It is likely that George V would have taken a stronger line. True, in 1923, when the choice was also between an MP and a peer, he had acquiesced in the appointment of Stanley Baldwin over the more experienced Marquess Curzon. However, the two episodes were far from identical. In 1923, an incoming Conservative prime minister would face the emerging Labour party as the principal opposition in the House of Commons; in 1940, the new leader was expected to form a coalition. Although also an ex-Viceroy, the conceited Curzon was widely seen as impossible a personal choice as Halifax in 1940 was generally acceptable (within the political world). Nor was there any possibility in 1923 that Curzon might return to the Commons.

The closer parallel with 1940 was the formation of the National Government in 1931. Here the king had been very active, consulting with the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties to secure their participation in an emergency coalition, and resolutely refusing to accept the resignation of the beleaguered Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald.  George V insisted that MacDonald was the only possible leader of a rescue ministry, and MacDonald told his divided cabinet that he "could not refuse the King's request". In contrast to 1911, the king was well informed about the intentions of the opposition parties, and it is possible to see his role in arguing for a National Government more as one of choreography than persuasion – in Philip Williamson's terminology, a 'facilitator' not an 'instigator'. Nonetheless, he took his responsibility very seriously, was active (and, it seems, enjoyed himself), and undoubtedly influenced MacDonald. It is not only likely that George V would have taken a far more active role than his son dared in 1940, but it is also highly probable that he would have firmly opposed the appointment of Churchill. Biographers are tactfully silent about relations between the two men after 1918, but it is well established that, during the first decade of his reign, the king disliked Churchill's political style, and had seen little in his contribution to wartime decision-making that would have encouraged trusting him in 1940. George V might well have pressured Halifax to accept the premiership, as he had cajoled MacDonald – and Andrew Roberts suggests that, at some level, Halifax perhaps hoped to be drafted. Like most politicians in that era, his values had been shaped in the Victorian era, in which duty to the country and loyalty to the crown were prominent elements. Confronted by a revered and ageing sovereign who insisted that he attempt to form a government, Halifax would have found it as difficult to refuse as had MacDonald – and all the more so if he secretly wished to acquire the prize without seeming to covet it. On one point, we may feel reasonably certain. In May 1940, George V would have been on the verge of his 75th birthday. Assuming that his health and his faculties permitted him to exercise his role as king, it may be taken for granted that he would have regarded the selection of a wartime prime minister not only as one of the major decisions of his reign, but almost certainly as the last important responsibility placed before him. As in 1931, he would have exercised his prerogatives to the full – with greater determination than the diffident George VI – and it is likely that his weight would have been thrown behind – and even upon – Halifax.

Would it have made any difference? As so often with the counterfactual, an alternative outline of events may be sketched for the immediate aftermath of a decision, but it is impossible to guess what might have happened beyond that point. A Halifax cabinet might have proved short-lived, perhaps breaking up over an attempt to seek peace terms from the vengeful Nazis. More generally, any verdict upon the selection of the prime minister in 1940 depends upon a wider assessment of the importance of Churchill's leadership in the defeat of Germany. In a rare moment of modesty, he attributed victory to the British lion, claiming that his own role was merely to give voice to its roar. A more realistic conclusion might be that it was the United States that won the War in the west, and that – in the last resort – the machinations and the personalia of British politics were no longer of surpassing importance.[85]

Reflections "A family on the throne is an interesting idea", Bagehot wrote in 1867. He might perhaps have inserted the clarifying adjective, "harmonious". As the role of the British monarchy changed from the political to the ceremonial, so the passage of the crown from generation to generation became less of a potential national turning point and more of a bump on a minor road. As its political significance declined, so too the mystique and the popularity of the institution could be more effectively shared among royal offspring and cousins, although the House of Windsor (as it became known from 1917) was slow to adopt the notion of constitutional training for its heirs. George V's official biographer, Harold Nicolson, found it "hard to manage or swallow" almost two decades of his subject's life before he came to the throne. "For seventeen years he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps."[86]  The lack of advance training in statecraft explains why both George V and George VI (who, in fairness, had not been expected to succeed) lacked confidence in confronting major issues early in their reigns. But the family image of monarchy did make it possible for the heir to the throne to carve out autonomous areas of activity and concern: Edward VIII, as Prince of Wales, was informally allocated the overseas Empire, while his next and latest successor in the role has embraced the environment, as well as other causes that require the treading of a fine line between areas of community concern and issues that are politically divisive. By the second half of the twentieth century, the Windsors were well fitted to function collectively – as "The Firm". Hence the death of George VI in 1952, at the age of 52 – the youngest monarch to die since Queen Anne – was a tragedy in personal and family terms, but carried few, if any, political implications.[87]

This essay makes no plea for a return to the days of kings-and-queens history, and certainly does not seek the abandonment of discussions of class, gender and race, examinations of social conditions or explorations of the machinations of high politics that concern scholars today. Yet it will still be acknowledged that the personalities and attitudes of Britain's monarchs were central to the unfolding of events at least until the early eighteenth century, and they would intermittently reappear as part of the political equation at crucial moments in the two hundred years that followed. The argument here is that, in assessing the impact of Britain's monarchs, we should take account of the age at which they died, in order to make some estimate of the likely impact upon events should they have lived longer – or, in rare cases of longevity, had they died much earlier. It may be objected that the overwhelming impression derived from this survey is that life was much shorter than we have come to expect in the modern western world. Given that it was invariably fragile, liable to abrupt termination by accident, disease or violence, it might therefore seem preferable to accept its transience as part of the given conditions of the past. Indeed, this essay acknowledges that the theoretical possibility of survival beyond actual early death in no way implies that any sovereign could have counted upon an additional twenty or thirty years: a fever that killed at 30 might equally have proved fatal at 32. Yet it remains the case that some monarchs did enjoy lengthy reigns, a few ruling into their sixties, and even beyond. In a number of episodes, it is striking how different the outcome might have been had a king or queen survived for even two or three additional years. With an early-forties Mary I still on the throne, Scotland's attempt at a Protestant Reformation in 1559-60 would have lacked the decisive support of English military intervention.  Had Anne struggled on into her fifties, Britain's political nation might have had time to take a hard look at the Elector Georg, and to decide that they did not like what they saw. George IV would have been acting in character had he proved an obstinate obstacle to the 1832 Reform Act. Edward VII might well have rediscovered the Hanoverian within him, and made a last ditch stand against emasculating the House of Lords in 1911. In other cases, an extra decade would almost certainly have changed the narrative. John and Charles I both perished in their late forties: had they survived to sixty, Magna Carta would have been extinguished and the Restoration either deferred or permanently ruled out.

Perhaps the most surprising point to emerge from this discussion is how rarely historians take account of the surprising youth of many of Britain's lost monarchs. The actuarial misfortunes of the Stuart dynasty are acknowledged because recurrent minorities and regencies form a dominant theme in the history of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scotland, but there is little recognition of the fact that Richard II was only 32 when he was ousted, or that Edward IV died at forty. Hence the implications of their early deaths go unexplored. Richard II might well have created an authoritarian, centralised monarchy in England, and perhaps even established some form of shaky ascendancy in Ireland. In the case of Edward IV, the implications of his possible survival to sixty are almost entirely negative – no Little Princes in the Tower, no Crookback Dick, no Bosworth Field, no Tudors ... and so  on. It will be objected to such arguments that they are necessarily speculative. Worse still, the might-have-beens can suggest possible alternative scenarios only in the short term. They can offer little guidance about developments over a longer period, as new challenges and an ever-widening range of options presented themselves. However, this criticism may be countered by emphasising that the essential purpose of the counterfactual approach is to highlight the importance of what did happen by reminding ourselves that actual events might very easily not have come about at all – at least, not at the time and in the manner that they have shaped British history. Thus it is widely agreed that the influenza that killed Mary I at the age of forty opened the way for England to become Protestant, while the typhoid that eliminated Albert at 42 helped ease royalty on its path to an essentially ceremonial role. In both cases, the underlining of what did happen – the triumph of the Reformation and the final establishment of constitutional monarchy – implicitly depend upon the assumption that Mary would have entrenched her faith and Albert might have imposed his ideas of government. The argument offered here is that historians should take account of the age at death of British monarchs, examining how events and issues might have unravelled had they lived longer. "The king is dead! Long live the king!" The mantra celebrates the continuity of the monarchy. It should not prevent us from examining the implications of the lifespan of individual monarchs.

ENDNOTES  As this is an essay in interpretation and commentary rather than a work of scholarly research, references are omitted, except for a few abstruse sources. Historians quoted are identified in the text, and may be easily located from their published works if sources are required. I repeat my appreciation for the essays in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Endnotes mostly offer additional comment. Readers who may have found this essay stimulating, intriguing or annoying are asked to make its existence known to other working historians, and to anybody interested in hos history functions.

[1] Mary, Queen of Scots, who succeeded as a baby in 1542, was the second undisputed female British monarch. (The Scots had been prepared to accept Margaret, the Maid of Norway, but she died after crossing the North Sea.)  In 1553, England had a choice of two queens, Jane Grey and Mary Tudor. Henry I's daughter Matilda had failed to establish her not-unreasonable claim after his death in 1135.

[2] The famous bulletin was issued at 9.25 on the evening of 20 January 1936. Curiously, "towards" is often quoted as "to", even by Harold Nicolson in his biography of George V: thus can a familiar phrase take on a life of its own. It is now well-established that the king's physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, decided to short-circuit the process later that evening, giving his sovereign a fatal injection to meet the publication deadline for next morning's edition of The Times. However, nobody doubts that George V had only hours to live.

[3] The major exception to this continuity of assessment is Richard III, actively championed by partisans who hold that the last Yorkist king has been subject to "negative perception" (also known as Shakespeare) and who challenge the view – as the website of the Richard III Society puts it – that "it was lucky that Good King Henry Tudor got rid of him for us". I tread carefully here, relying upon Rosemary Horrox as my guide.

[4] Indeed, Wikipedia usually calculates the age at death of British monarchs.

[5] As an undergraduate, I was told that it was wrong to refer, in an essay on the Industrial Revolution, to the role of changes in fashion during the reign of Queen Anne in the development of the textile industry: the correct time identification was to the early 18th century. Since the fashions emanated from the court of Queen Anne, this was puzzling.

[6] Henry I (67), Henry II (66), Henry III (64), Edward I (68), Edward III (64). William the Conqueror probably just failed to break 60, but his exact date of birth remains uncertain. Despite the reputation of medieval Scotland for violence, two of its  monarchs, David I and Robert III, lived to their late sixties, while William the Lion and Robert II proved even more durable, reaching 72 and 74. In a note in International Journal of Epidemiology, xxxiv (2005), M.P. Carrieri and D. Serraino state that the average life span of males born in landholding families in medieval England was 31.3 years. However, those who survived to the age of 25 could expect to live to 48.3 years. Again, as an average figure, 48.3 is compatible with the possibility of an appreciable number of upper-class people living to 60 and beyond.

[7] Thus a book from which I learned a great deal about biography, W.L. Warren's King John (1961), examined the circumstances of his death in detail but omitted to comment that John did not survive to reach the age of 50. (I have not consulted revised editions that have appeared since.) The outstanding Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy (by John Cannon and Ralph Griffiths, 1988) combines insightful essays on the evolution of the institution with inset 'box' biographies of individual rulers. Yet rarely do the latter indicate the monarch's age, either at accession or death. The 'cigarette card' emphasis upon regnal years has obscured an actuarial aspect that is arguably equally important.

[8] But Robert Bartlett emphasises the perceived danger of instability at the start of a new reign in 12th- and 13th-centuries, fears that often hurried the coronation ceremony to underline the legitimacy of the recognised heir.

[9] It is not always stressed that Norman barons frequently succeeded to scattered estates held by a single Saxon landowner. This indicates the existence of detailed records, probably geld books, from before 1066. Domesday Book may simply have been intended to bring these up to date – and with the unfortunate effect that the preceding documentation was then destroyed as being no longer required.

[10] Bizarrely, Richard took his wife, Berengaria of Navarre, on crusade with him, but they spent little time together, either then or later. The chances of a legitimate heir seem slight.

[11] Charles Dickens noted John's age as part of his celebration that "in the forty-ninth year of his age, and the seventeenth of his vile reign, was an end of this miserable brute."

[12] Wikipedia states that in 2019, Article 29, banning arbitrary arrest and guaranteeing trial by peers, was still law in New Zealand. Its symbolic importance in the late 20th century was captured by the comedian Tony Hancock: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?"

[13] Two successive regents, William Marshal and Hubert de Burgh, dominated events.

[14] The story of Edward I's wish to campaign posthumously is now doubted. If it was indeed his desire, it certainly did not intimidate the Scots. Michael Prestwich in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ignores the legend.

[15] The multiplicity and shifting relationships of the Welsh principalities and lordships before 1282 leaves little scope for age-at-death discussion. Hugh Kearney saw the death in 1093 of Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth (south Wales) as making possible "a more forward policy of conquest and colonisation" by the Normans. However, Rhys was already paying homage (and, in effect, protection money) to the crown, and it was Norman marauders who beheaded him: he was in his early fifties, and the ancestor of the Tudor dynasty. Llywelyn the Great had unified most of Wales by the time of his death, in his late sixties, in 1240, but lack of agreed succession rules enabled Henry III to roll back his annexations, leaving his nephew Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to struggle for control of Gwynedd (north Wales). Llywelyn was nearly 60 when he was killed resisting Edward I's conquest; his brother Dafydd was brutally executed by the English at the age of 45. Llywelyn's only daughter was confined to a convent in Lincolnshire, Dafydd's surviving son to a cage in Bristol Castle, ensuring that neither produced children. The rebellion led by Owain Glyndŵr perhaps indicates that a leader with some ancestral pretensions would always emerge provided there was a Welsh revolt based on national sentiment. Perhaps the key question was why this happened only once after the Edwardian conquest.

[16] David II of Scotland had survived a similar head wound from an arrow at the battle of Neville's Cross in 1346. Here medical aid may also have been crucial, since his English captors wished to keep him alive in order to collect a ransom.

[17] Now surplus to dynastic requirements, Catherine embarked upon a spectacular relationship with an obscure Welsh gentleman called Jasper Tudor. Although their six children were of doubtful legitimacy, one of their descendants emerged in the 1480s as the only (slightly) plausible Lancastrian claimant to the throne.

[18] Living in the reign of Henry VII's grand-daughter, it made sense for the Bard to play up the negative side of Richard's career, nor was denigration difficult. However, Richard III found occasional defenders through subsequent centuries. In 1924, a group of them founded the Fellowship of the White Boar (his heraldic symbol) to honour his memory. The process of rehabilitation was accelerated by the publication, in 1955, of a major biography by the American scholar, Paul Murray Kendall. Nonetheless, the degree of public interest aroused by the excavation in 2012 of what were claimed to be his remains, buried under a car park in Leicester, was surprising. The operation proved to be a publicity triumph for the University of Leicester, which mobilised DNA testing (from a collateral descendant in Canada) to identify a badly hacked skeleton as the one-time king of England. Even by the sometimes strange conventions of British ceremonial, the subsequent interment of Richard III's bones in the local cathedral was an odd ritual. There is usually a Duke of Gloucester in the royal family, and it happened that the current holder of the title, the Queen's cousin, was another Richard. He solemnly contributed a reading from the Bible describing how Moses carried with him the bones of Joseph.

[19] In discussing the succession, Henry VIII's biographer, J.J. Scarisbrick, called Henry VII "the old king". No doubt this was a useful device to avoid repetition of a potentially confusing regnal name, but it risks the unconscious assumption that a dead monarch must have been an elderly monarch.

[20] Nonetheless, Henry VIII had Buckingham beheaded in 1521, allegedly for listening to prophecies of his own death.

[21] Henry's rapid decision to marry Catherine of Aragon should perhaps be excluded from these strictures: young male monarchs frequently sought brides, to enjoy the benefits of married life and to discharge their duty of ensuring the succession.  Henry cannot be blamed for failing to foresee the failure of the marriage to produce healthy children – with the single exception of the future Mary I. It is, however, intriguing to speculate on the possible career of the son born in 1511 who died after seven weeks. A Prince of Wales in his thirties as Henry VIII's vitality declined after c.1540 might have added an element of instability to dynastic politics.

[22] He died on the 90th anniversary of his father's birth, but it would be straining the counterfactual to imagine Henry VII living so long.

[23] "Poor Knox had indeed got his timing wrong," commented Jenny Wormald. "He published his book in early 1558, when ... he had no reason to expect Mary Tudor to die in the near future."

[24] In fairness, it should be pointed out that most had paid a market price for monastic estates, even if the terms of payment (by instalments) had been favourable.

[25] G.R. Elton called Pole's death "a fateful coincidence". It was a coincidence in the sense that it happened at the same time, but it stemmed from the same cause as Mary's demise: epidemic disease.

[26] Henry VIII's Will was signed during his final illness with a "dry stamp" (a wooden-block forerunner of the rubber stamp). It may have reflected his wishes, or it may have been a forgery by well-placed advisors.

[27] She was initially held near Romford, a convenient base should she have to be whisked to Whitehall.

[28] A younger sister, Lady Mary Grey, was a person of restricted growth, who also made an illicit marriage.

[29] Thirteen of the men who had signed the death warrant of Charles I were executed. The bodies of 3 prominent deceased regicides, including Cromwell, were exhumed and their heads cut off. The Lord Protector's head was eventually secretly buried at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

[30] Mary was executed in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle, an indoor event staged to allow for the compulsory attendance, and hence the involuntary sharing of responsibility, by several hundred Midlands worthies. [Additional note, September 2021: The Daily Telegraph, 28 September 2021, reports the discovery of a letter dated to 1584 from Mary, Queen of Scots, in which she offered to renounce all claim to the English throne and respect Scotland's Protestant Reformation, if permitted to return to her former realm as joint sovereign. James VI vetoed this.]

[31] There were, of course, also two queens, Margaret (1286-90) and Mary (1542-67).

[32] In 1950, the Stone of Scone was stolen from Westminster Abbey by a group of young Scottish nationalists, who accidentally broke it. It was returned in 1951, in time for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. In 1996, John Major's Conservative government agreed to return the Stone of Scone to Scotland, where it was given a bizarre pastiche of a state funeral. At the time, Major promised that it would return to the Abbey for future coronations, although it would now be a bold UK government which attempted to do this. Over the centuries, it has been suggested that neither the Stone purloined by Edward I nor the one recovered in 1951 were the originals.

[33] G.W.S. Barrow noted that in medieval Scotland, it was "common enough for men of all classes ... to address their sovereign with extraordinary bluntness", an approach that would not have been advisable in England, where, for instance, Richard II insisted on his subjects kneeling in his presence.

[34] Macbeth was probably first performed in 1606, and specially for James VI and I. This was safe enough, since the king believed he was descended from Banquo. Shakespeare may have been taking a bigger risk with Othello in 1603-4, in which the exceptionally unpleasant villain was called Iago (=James).

[35] The Stewarts (stewards) became Stuarts under French influence in the 16th century.

[36] Alexander III was extraordinarily unlucky: the cliffs at Kinghorn are not particularly high. Given that monarchs spent a great time in the saddle, it is remarkable how few suffered riding accidents. William III of Great Britain died in 1702 of complications (pneumonia) following a fall allegedly caused when his steed stumbled on a molehill, or so his Jacobite enemies believed as they toasted "the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat". James VI and I had probably sustained a similar injury on his journey south in 1603, but without long-term consequences.

[37] The Scots surely ought to have twigged from the Birgham negotiations that Edward I was not the friendly neighbour they hoped for: he had already seized control of the Isle of Man, a Scottish dependency. Moreover, the general statement that Edward acted as arbiter ignores the technical process: the two principal claimants, Balliol and Bruce, each appointed forty assessors, to whom Edward added a further 24, chosen from Scottish worthies. It was this 104-strong collegiate body that adjudicated the issue. If only, the historian may wonder, the Scots could have found some other arbiter: the lack of an archbishop may have been a factor here. So too was the fact that many Scottish nobles also held estates in England, making them (for those holdings) Edward's vassals. Berwick-upon-Tweed railway station has a pleasantly incongruous plaque recording that the decision was reached in the Great Hall of the castle. Its ruins were demolished for the railway.

[38] Comparison may be made with William II of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, who died in 1650 at the age of 24, a victim of smallpox. His wife gave birth shortly afterwards to a boy, who survived to become William III both of the Netherlands and of Great Britain. On such threads did dynastic succession hang.

[39] Monastic chroniclers were of course notoriously salacious and uncharitable about other people's sex lives: projection may be suspected.

[40] James I died in 1437 at 42; James II in 1460 at 29; James III in 1478 at 36; James IV fell at Flodden in 1514 aged 39; James V was 30 when he died in 1542.

[41] In the event, the Stuart line continued because the "lass", Mary, Queen of Scots, married her cousin, Darnley, thereby transmitting the dynastic surname down to 1714.

[42] Few historians nowadays would accept the view that Scotland was becoming intensively anglicised, but the shared literary language almost certainly helped the exchange of radical religious ideas. Hence the paradox that the Westminster Confession of 1646 has remained one of the basic statements of Presbyterian belief, although in 1986 the Church of Scotland dissociated itself from the Confession's statement that the Pope is the Antichrist.

[43] Historians are, very properly,  advised to avoid the term 'inevitable'.

[44] Monmouth simplified the choice by leading a failed rebellion which culminated in his own (unusually botched) execution in 1685 at the age of 36. Had he escaped the block, Monmouth might well have continued to divide the opposition to James for many years ahead. He did in fact rise after several whacks to reprove the axeman for his incompetence.

[45] After being tactfully removed from public life in 1680, James, Duke of York, was restored to the Privy Council in 1684. A shadowy conspiracy, the 1683 Rye House Plot, had allowed Charles to consolidate his position. It is a measure of the brutality of the times that an innocent woman, Elizabeth Gaunt, was burned alive (the punishment for alleged female traitors) as part of the crackdown.

[46] Anne had survived smallpox at the age of 12, but lost two small daughters to the disease in 1687.

[47] Had there been such a belated Stuart restoration, historians would of course queue up to explain its inevitability.

[48] A friend of Leibnitz, Sophia was an impressive person. Her ability to speak Dutch helped her in dealing with William III. She was the 12th child of Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, and daughter of James VI and I.

[49] The standard explanation of George I's death was "apoplexy".

[50] Plumb claimed that, as Speaker, Compton spent days on end personally administering the oath of allegiance to MPs so that they might demonstrate their loyalty to their new sovereign, leaving Walpole free to win the king's confidence.

[51] Walpole further marginalised Compton by sending him to the House of Lords (Earl of Wilmington from 1730), appointing him to the nominal office of Lord President of the Council and, during the 1733 Excise Crisis, making him a Knight of the Garter. Wilmington did briefly succeed Walpole as prime minister in 1742, but died the following year. Four American cities are named after him.

[52] The lord of the manor of Fingrith Hall at Blackmore in Essex was ex officio Chamberlain to the Queen, and entitled to guard her chamber at the coronation. In return, he collected the furniture and fittings as his fee, a remarkably generous deal. The squire offered his services in 1727, but was refused.

[53] Frederick's mother, Queen Caroline, shared her husband's dislike for their eldest son, once expressing the unmaternal hope that the Earth would swallow him and consign him to Hell. As early as 1744, Frederick pressured one politician to join him, urging him to "remember that the King is 61, and I am 37."

[54] Frederick planned to base his fourth son, Prince Henry, born in 1745, in the Caribbean, with the title Duke of Virginia, backed by an income of £20,000 a year to be raised in the American colonies. His transatlantic subjects might not have seen the wisdom of this. Prince Henry's sole mark on British history stemmed from his subsequent unauthorised marriage to an alluring commoner, which led to the 1772 Royal Marriages Act.

[55] George II had contemplated a similar split, although he would have preferred relegating the Prince of Wales to the Electorate, and making his second son, William ("Butcher"), Duke of Cumberland, king of Great Britain.

[56] A tennis ball was also blamed. Modern speculation has pointed to a pulmonary embolism.

[57] Eerily subtitled The People's Prince, it was published three weeks after the Abdication.

[58] Canning was (at least indirectly) one of the casualties of the notorious funeral of the Duke of York, obsequies conducted at enormous length and in Arctic conditions. Huskisson was hit by Stephenson's Rocket at the opening ceremony of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. A heavily built and clumsy man, and in poor health, Huskisson could not decide which way to jump as the engine bore down on him, thereby symbolising the dilemma facing politicians of the centre in 1830.

[59] Another Canningite, Robinson / Goderich (later Earl of Ripon) also joined the Grey cabinet, but later veered back to Peel and the Conservatives.

[60] William IV came to the throne because George IV's only child, Princess Charlotte, had died in childbirth in 1817, at the age of 21. Her death caused an outburst of national grief. Church interiors were swathed in black crepe: Wennington in Essex remained in mourning until 1871. The overwhelming sense of loss seems to have prevented any speculation about the impact Charlotte might have made, had she become queen. It is easy to assume that the monarchy would have been shaped by her husband, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg: certainly, many of the ambitions for royal power attributed to his nephew Albert (discussed below) might have been more easily achieved in an earlier decade. Leopold became king of the Belgians in 1831 (having rejected the throne of Greece). The historian of the Low Countries, E.H. Kossmann, described him as "a withdrawn, somewhat mysterious figure whose influence was not easy to determine although it could be seen that it was constantly increasing". Leopold was principally interested in European affairs, and happy to leave the domestic politics of Belgium to his ministers. However, it may be too easily assumed that Charlotte would have been a deferential consort. She was, after all, the daughter of Queen Caroline, whose hedonistic vulgarity accounted for much of her popularity, and Charlotte was reported to have shown signs of unconventional high spirits in her teens. Leopold died in 1865, which would have ended his possible ascendancy at much the same time as Albert's death.

[61] As Duke of Clarence, William IV had supported Catholic Emancipation.

[62] In A.L. Beier at al., The First Modern Society, David Cannadine has called Victoria "the last Hanoverian sovereign", although with a protective question mark.

[63] She was speaking on the first anniversary of Albert's death, to E.W. Benson, headmaster of Wellington College, one of Albert's pet projects.

[64] In the first shock of her grief, the Queen declared her "firm resolve ... that his wishes – his plans – about everything, his views about every thing are to be my law!" Fortunately, her interest in most areas of policy was limited, but foreign affairs did indeed promise to cause problems.

[65] But David Cannadine has rejected the historians' chorus of derision to suggest that Disraeli may have had a point.

[66] Bagehot implicitly recognised this point, without facing that it contradicted his assumptions of Albert's influence. "In the confused interval between 1857 and 1859 the Queen and Prince Albert were far too wise to obtrude any selection of their own. ... they saw ... that the world was settling down without them, and that by interposing an extrinsic agency, they would but delay the beneficial crystallization of intrinsic forces." If the Palace was not prepared to make a bid for effective control in the "confused interval" of 1857-9, it was never going to undermine the parliamentary system.

[67] Bismarck's appointment as Minister-President of Prussia in September 1862, ten months after Albert's death, opened a new and militaristic chapter in German history.

[68] As David Cannadine has put it, "the cult of Albert was more a sign of his widow's lachrymose determination to commemorate him than of her husband's authentically wide appeal." Disraeli rejected the offer of an unusual honour, a royal visit to his own deathbed, explaining: "She would only ask me to take a message to Albert."

[69] Although concealed from the public, the relationship between the Prince of Wales and the Countess of Warwick was always liable to explode into scandal, not least because she was known, from her husband's courtesy title, as the Babbling Brooke.

[70] The future George V, then Duke of York, inherited his brother's fiancée, Princess May of Teck (later Queen Mary).

[71] The scale of the likely demand in 1911 added to the crisis. Lord Grey initially talked of requesting no more than 21 creations, although William IV would probably have been required to create around 50 peers had the Lords continued to resist the Reform Bill, fewer if the Anglican bishops had been prevailed upon to abstain. By ennobling heirs to existing titles, the overall size of the upper House might have been increased only briefly. In 1911, Liberal leaders talked of creating 400 to 500 new peerages, and Asquith got as far as drawing up a list of 248 candidates.

[72] Asquith had refused to allow the King to consult the opposition leaders, but it remains a mystery how George V remained so totally unaware of their thinking. There must have been other avenues, e.g. through London Society, that could have provided a back-channel to Balfour, and nothing could have prevented the king from consulting the highly political Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson. Perhaps Balfour was less enthusiastic about leading a king's party than he claimed.

[73] The 1925-6 political crisis in Canada is instructive. The Liberal prime minister, Mackenzie King, emerged from the 1925 Dominion election with fewer seats than the Conservatives (100 to 115), but with the balance held by 22 MPs from an agrarian reform party, the Progressives. When King's minority administration was defeated, the governor-general, Lord Byng, rejected his advice to call a fresh election and commissioned the Conservative leader, Arthur Meighen, to form a ministry. Meighen was soon defeated, leaving Byng no alternative to an election, in which the Liberals campaigned against alleged imperial intervention. The King-Byng affair led to the 1926 Balfour Report which defined the status of the Dominions. It effectively destroyed Byng as the crown's representative, much as the 1975 political crisis in Australia focused hatred upon the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.

[74] Lord Wigram's opinion was not a medical assessment. In retrospect, it looks like a bullish attempt to counter concerns about the king's decline, and was specifically advanced to encourage "Tommy" Lascelles to accept a job at the Palace. George V himself told Ramsay MacDonald at about the same time that he did not expect to live for more than five years. It seems that nobody, least of all his son and heir, expected the king to die so soon.

[75] I use 'David' below because Prince of Wales, Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor can be confusing terms when used in the same narrative.

[76] Philip Williamson is the modern biographer of Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister who managed the Abdication. His comment appeared in A. Olechnowicz, ed., The Monarchy and the British Nation.

[77] Under the restrictive divorce laws of the time, couples could not secure a valid divorce through collusion. To guard against this, divorces were granted provisionally (by decree nisi), subject to a six-month delay before being made absolute. This procedure, which had prevented Parnell from defending his honour against Captain O'Shea in 1890-1, similarly complicated the 'David' and Wallis affair in 1936-7.

[78] Refusing to countenance either dissolution of matrimony, some Catholics referred to Wallis as Mrs Spencer, the surname of her first husband.

[79] A student newspaper in Colorado offered a jejune but perhaps typical comment: "Pussy cat, pussy cat / Where have you been? / I've been to the palace / To see the queen. / Pussy cat, pussy cat / What did you see? / I saw Mrs Simpson."

[80] Baldwin's biographer G.M. Young told Evelyn Wrench that "what keyed him [Baldwin] up in the Abdication crisis was his romantic attachment to Canada. If Canada goes – Canada, the eldest child of the Commonwealth – then everything goes." But Young was notably unsympathetic to his subject, and Wrench was a noted Empire enthusiast.

[81] When the story finally broke in Britain early in December, the Glasgow Herald referred to "the rumours and uncertainties which have caused anxiety during the past few weeks". How the story might have been teased out in Britain was illustrated by a feature in an Australian newspaper, Smith's Weekly (14 November 1936), enterprisingly decorated with cuttings from the American press, which ostensibly it derided for "feeding its readers with the fantastic idea that the former Baltimore girl is to become England's Queen."

[82] The dated and sexist phrase "take a wife" described how men selected their brides. It was not intended to refer to David's standard practice in securing other men's wives as sexual partners.

[83] An Orthodox princess would also have been acceptable, as the Eastern Orthodox churches were in communion with the Church of England: Marina of Greece, the Duchess of Kent, maintained her own faith. But the Bolsheviks had markedly reduced the supply, and most Balkan dynasties were absurd.

[84] One of George V's younger sons, the Duke of Gloucester, had been extricated from an affair with a married woman, and steered into mumbling a proposal to the daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch. They married in November 1935. George V's daughter, Princess Mary, married an earl, and 'Bertie', the Duke of York, was happily married to the daughter of an earl.

[85] Churchill was only elected leader of the Conservative party five months after he became prime minister. It is highly unlikely that the party's MPs would have chosen him under any other circumstances. Once installed, he proved difficult to dislodge. To what extent was his personality a factor in the close general elections of 1950 and 1951? Roy Jenkins pointed out that an opinion poll in 1951 showed that Conservative voters already preferred Eden as leader. The Daily Mirror launched a thinly veiled attack on him as a warmonger during the 1951 campaign ("Whose finger on the trigger?"). But one of my earliest memories is a slogan VOTE FOR CHURCHILL painted along a wall in the marginal constituency of Hornchurch.

[86] George V established a notable stamp collection. A courtier made a bad mistake when he commented that "some damned fool" of an anonymous bidder had reportedly paid a huge sum at auction for a single stamp.   

[87] The crown was formally involved in the political arena through the selection of a new prime minister in 1957 and 1963, although on both occasions the Conservative party to some extent shielded Elizabeth II by carrying out its own internal soundings. The party introduced machinery to elect a leader in 1965. Given the 'grouse moor' image of the two prime ministers who emerged, Macmillan and Douglas-Home, it is possible that reputation for impartiality of George VI, a resolute countryman, would have suffered had he been the sovereign to commission them. (This would have been unfair, as Elizabeth II also took part in field sports.)

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