You’d have thought, from history lessons at school, that inheriting the throne in the medieval period would have been fairly straight forward – i.e. the number one son. However, from Norman times onwards it was rarely as simple as that; occasionally it involved imprisonment or death – sometimes both. Gradually, however, Parliament became involved with the process of identifying the order in which monarchs would ascend the throne.
In 1406 an act of the so-called Long Parliament which went on most of the year and seemed to deal largely with sorting out Henry IV’s account book decided who would inherit the crown in the event of Prince Henry (who would become Henry V) pre-deceasing his father without producing ‘an heir of his body’. Many historians have identified this as Henry IV seeking to restrict the number of people who could make a claim to the throne in an attempt to bolster his line which descended from the third surviving son of Edward III and which only had its grubby mitts on the crown because Henry IV had usurped the crown from his cousin Richard II (imprisonment and death). In June 1406 an act identified Henry IV’s sons in age order and their male heirs but in December this act was replaced by an earlier law (1404) restoring the succession to the king’s sons and their heirs. The term heirs means male and female children. Neither of Henry IV’s daughters were mentioned – Blanche who had been married in 1402 to Louis III, Elector Palatine and Philippa who was queen of most of Scandinavia:
…it is ordained and established, that the inheritance of the crown, and of the realms of England and France, and of all the other dominions of our said lord the king beyond the sea, with all the appurtenances, shall be settled and remain in the person of the same our lord the king, and in the heirs of his body begotten; and especially at the request and of the assent aforesaid, it is ordained and established, pronounced, decreed, and declared, that the lord the prince Henry eldest son to our said lord the king, be heir apparent to the same our lord the king,to succeed him in the said crown, realms and dominions, to have them with all the appurtenances after the decease of the same our lord the king, to him and his heirs of his body begotten; and if he die without heir of his body begotten, then all the said crown, realms and dominions, with all the appurtenances, shall remain to the Lord Thomas, second son of our said lord the king, and to the heirs of his body begotten; and if he die without issue of his body, that then ail the said crown, realms and dominions, with all the appurtenances, shall remain to the Lord John, the third son of our said lord the king, and to the heirs of his body begotten; and if he die without heir of his body begotten, that then all the foresaid crown, realms and dominions, with all the appurtenances, shall remain to the Lord Humphrey,the fourth son of our said lord the king, and the heirs of his body begotten.
As it happened none of Henry IV’s children did much in the way of begetting. Thomas, Duke of Clarence was killed at the Battle of Bauge in 1421. Henry V married Katherine of Valois and had one son who became Henry VI by the time he was nine months old in 1422. John, Duke of Bedford was married twice. His second wife was Jacquetta of Luxembourg who went on to marry one of John’s household knights and have a large family including her daughter Elizabeth Woodville. John of Bedford, on the other hand, had no legitimate children. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was initially married to Jacqueline of Hainault but the marriage was annulled without surviving issue. Humphrey then went on to marry his mistress Eleanor Cobham who was ultimately found guilty of witchcraft and imprisoned. He didn’t have legitimate children either. Given that Henry IV had six children who survived to adulthood he possibly didn’t anticipate that his line would prove quite so unprolific when he arranged for Parliament to pass the 1406 Act of Succession.
In 1460 during the reign of Henry VI which history remembers largely for the Wars of the Roses, Parliament repealed the act of 1406 at the behest of Richard, Duke of York who said that the whole thing was decidedly dodgy and reflected the fact that Henry IV was trying to shore up his line having usurped the crown from Richard II and his rightful heirs who were, of course, Richard of York’s immediate ancestors. The Act of Accord passed in October 1460 allowed Henry VI to keep the crown but identified Richard of York as his heir by-passing Henry VI’s own son Prince Edward. Richard was dead by the end of the year, killed at the Battle of Wakefield.
Richard of York, it should be added, made no comment about the note added in 1407 to the document that legitimised Henry IV’s half siblings by Katherine Swynford. Henry IV wrote on it himself ‘excepta dignitate regali’ . Those three words meant that although the Beauforts were legal they could not claim the throne. Henry IV’s marginal amendment did not go through the legal process. Parliament did not ratify his endeavours to influence who might or might not become king making Henry IV’s bar on them decidedly dubious.
Of course, Henry IV was not the last king to try and ensure the succession from beyond the grave. Henry VIII had more Acts of Succession than were healthy for any one king– the first one was passed by Parliament in 1533 (Actually March 1534) replaced Princess Mary, having bastardised her, with the Princess Elizabeth. The second of these acts made Elizabeth illegitimate whilst the third Act of Succession in 1543 legalised both princesses and stipulated the order in which Henry VIII’s children beginning with his son Edward were to inherit the throne. Henry VIII backed this act up with his will which also laid out the order in which his offspring were to inherit the kingdom. The last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth I, not only by-passed marriage and the begetting of heirs but also refused to name her successor outright much to the irritation of her council and her parliaments.
By 1701 Parliament had gained sufficient clout to prevent kings (and queens) they didn’t like from inheriting the kingdom. They mainly didn’t like Catholic Stuart kings – the 1701 Act of Settlement, identified the first available non-Catholic heir by tracing back up the Stuart family tree to Elizabeth of Bohemia (the so-called Winter Queen) who was the daughter of James VI of Scotland/ James I of England. Her daughter was Sophia of Hanover. Parliament very politely invited her to accept the crown in the event of Queen Anne, who clearly wasn’t going to have an heir of her own, dying. Sadly for Sophia, Queen Anne outlived her by nearly three months, necessitating a further Act of Settlement that invited Sophia’s Protestant son George of Hanover to take the crown in 1714.