Picture the scene: it is a dark night in late November. A cross-channel ferry is about to set sail for England. A posh young man, a boy really, boards the ship with his posh mates. They’re not short of money and before long they’re seriously drunk. Some of the other passengers disembark. They hadn’t signed-up for a booze cruise — and, what’s more, the young men are carrying knives. Well, I say ‘knives’ — what I actually mean is swords.
At this point, I ought to mention that the year is 1120; the young man is William Adelin, heir to the throne of England; and the ‘ferry’ is the infamous White Ship.
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Anyway, back to the story: the wine keeps flowing and, before long, the crew are drunk too. Not far out of port, the ship hits a submerged rock and rapidly sinks.
In all, hundreds are drowned — and yet that is just the start of the tragedy.
William’s father, King Henry I, had gone to great lengths to proclaim an heir. As the son of William the Conqueror, he knew just how messy succession could get. He had himself inherited the throne from his brother, William Rufus. This second William had died of a chest complaint — specifically, an arrow in the lungs (the result of a hunting ‘accident’). Henry was determined that his son would inherit the throne without mishap — and so carefully prepared the ground for a smooth transfer. Indeed, the name ‘Adelin’ signified that the third William was the heir apparent.
The sinking of the White Ship left Henry with one remaining legitimate heir, his daughter Matilda. She was a formidable character, also known as Empress Maud (by virtue of her first marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor). She was, nevertheless, a woman — a big problem in an age when monarchs were expected to lead their men in battle. When Henry died in 1135, Maud’s cousin — Stephen of Blois — seized the throne. This was widely welcomed by the English nobility, but Maud wasn’t giving up easily, and she had powerful allies. Her second husband was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou; her illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, was a wealthy baron; and her uncle was King David I of Scotland.
Stephen was assailed on all sides — by Geoffrey in Normandy, by Robert in England, by invading Scots and rebellious Welshmen. The civil war (if that what’s you can call this multi-sided free-for-all) dragged on for almost 20 years. There weren’t many set-piece battles, but there was lots of looting and pillaging in which countless nameless peasants perished.
In the end it was the death of another heir — Stephen’s son, Eustace — that opened the way to peace. The war-weary king agreed that Maud’s son (the future Henry II) would succeed him. And thus ‘The Anarchy’ came to end: two decades of pointless devastation — and all because some young fool got pissed on a boat.
One might view the entire episode as an indictment of the hereditary principle. But arguably the opposite is true. In a violence-prone pre-democratic society, a clear line of succession is in fact the best guarantee of stability. It is only when the system is disrupted by other factors — for instance, medieval misogyny or 17th century wars of religion — that things go sideways.
Of course, a genetic lottery is no guarantee of competence. So, wouldn’t it be better to choose the best qualified candidate? Unfortunately, in a medieval context, ‘best qualified’ means the bloodiest bastard with the strongest supporters — and there’s only one way a question like that gets settled.
Restricting the short list to the ruling family doesn’t help much either. Just look at the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors. They fudged the line of succession using adoption and other methods, which meant it wasn’t clear who the next emperor would be or should be. This was a recipe for murderous paranoia — as documented by Tom Holland in his 2015 book, Dynasty. It’s a great read, though the subtitle — The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar — gives away the ending.
By restricting the shortlist to one — the next in line — the potential for dispute, though not eliminated, is at least minimised. Furthermore, the heir apparent can be prepared for high office. He (or occasionally she), can build up the relationships on which a monarch depends — and acquire the necessary skills, both on and off the battlefield.
It’s true that some heirs lose patience and shove their predecessors aside. But more often a ruler is strengthened by having a designated successor. A sense of continuity stretching into the future — even beyond death — is the best incentive for loyalty in the present. Instead of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ it’s a case ‘here today, heir tomorrow’ — a very different proposition.
Supposedly we don’t do dynasties in the democratic age. There’s no need to restrict the range of claimants to the top job when the question of succession is settled peacefully at the polls. Furthermore, the stakes are lower — our leaders don’t have absolute power, nor to they hold it for life. Angela Merkel — now into her 15th year as German Chancellor — is exceptional among western leaders. She’s sat opposite five British Prime Ministers — Tony Blair (who had 10 years at the top), Gordon Brown (only three), David Cameron (six), Theresa May (also three) and Boris Johnson (one, so far).
And yet we shouldn’t underestimate the continuing importance of the designated successor. Angela Merkel tried to arrange one for herself — in the person of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. To the relief of headline writers everywhere that didn’t work out, but other heirs apparent have been more successful.
Consider Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Their relationship was notoriously difficult — with fits of the ‘teebie-geebies’ disrupting their time in government together. But the partnership was also critical to their success. They achieved what had eluded the Labour Party (and has since): three thumping majorities in a row.
Their double-act also cemented their victory over the Labour Party. The New Labour project was bigger than the leadership of one man alone. Tony Blair might fall, but New Labour would continue — and, back then, there was nothing that the Labour Left could do about it. When Blair did fall, in 2007, John McDonnell couldn’t even get the signatures to challenge Brown for the party leadership.
It helped that Gordon Brown had all the clout and patronage that came from his partnership with Blair, while escaping the blame for Blair’s failures. But then that, of course, is the great privilege of the heir apparent — inheriting power, but not responsibility for past mistakes. There is the benefit of continuity, but also the chance for a fresh start. The king is dead; long live the king!
The Blair-Brown years were followed by an equally important, though more harmonious, relationship — between David Cameron and George Osborne. It helped that Osborne was four years younger than Cameron — therefore settling who ought to be Prime Minister first. Nevertheless, the assumption that Osborne would be Prime Minister next was self-fulfilling in its impact on the Conservative Party’s internal politics.
Or, rather, it would have been were it not for Brexit — which was to the Cameroons what the White Ship was to the House of Normandy. The decision to call the referendum may have been Cameron’s not Osborne’s, but it sunk them both.
Intriguingly, we now see the emergence of a third partnership between a leader and his heir — Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. In this case, there’s absolutely no doubt as to the order of seniority. The rapidly-promoted Chancellor is sixteen years younger than the Prime Minister. So, this is not a deal between brothers, it’s more of a father-son relationship.
In a year when a plague nearly killed the former, the medieval parallels are rather too close for comfort. Yet even before his illness, there were doubts about Johnson’s political longevity. Some leaders are more about becoming than being Prime Minister and Boris seems to be one of them.
The perception that the PM might not be around forever could be a destabilising factor. Which is why Rishimania suits the current regime very well. Sunak is popular enough to provide a plausible replacement should one be needed, but sufficiently dependent on the established order not be a threat to it. Best of all, as Chancellor in a time of crisis, he’s fully occupied. Idleness leads to boredom and that, in turn, leads to impatience — a dangerous thing in an heir apparent.
Last week, in America, another heir apparent was appointed — Kamala Harris, who was chosen by Joe Biden as his running mate. A Vice President is, of course, a designated successor — and yet most never become President. Of the 14 Veeps since the Second World War, only four went on to become President.
Biden may become the fifth. But whether this 78-year-old serves a full term or even makes it to the election is uncertain. Hence the interest in Harris — the most significant Vice Presidential pick of the modern era.
One of the great advantages of democracy is that we can choose leaders who are neither senile nor insane. Unlike medieval kingship, the electoral process tends to weed them out. But clearly that can’t be taken for granted. Some blatantly unsuitable candidates are coming to power — and the pandemic is a threat to the others.
It’s not just about us electors anymore — successors matter too.