I have just returned from a long weekend more-or-less marooned on Wilson Island. This is a sub-tropical mini-island in the Great Barrier reef, about 21/2 hours by fast boat from Gladstone, Queensland. On the plus side, the snorkeling was marvelous, the food was excellent, they run an open bar and the company was hilarious; on the negative side, it takes about fifteen minutes to walk all the way round Wilson Island and it poured with rain and/or blew a gale most of the time that we were there. For about 24 hours, we thought we might be stranded there by rather large seas, but fortunately, we escaped on schedule.
All that time with nothing much to do, meant that I was able to read Hilary Mantel’s latest novel from cover to cover. It is called Bring up the Bodies and is a sequel to Wolf Hall (which won her the Booker prize). Both are about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII and therefore, among other things, about the importance of producing sons to inherit the kingdom. Henry worked his way through six wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived) and despite a quite astonishing number of miscarriages/stillbirths/infant deaths only two daughters and one rather sickly son survived past infancy.
Now I can understand how, in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses from which Henry VII emerged as a rather unlikely monarch, his (second) son Henry VIII might have been rather antsy about shuffling off this mortal coil and leaving only daughters behind him. But all the same, Henry VIII’s obsession with having a son does seem to have been rather over the top. Edward, his only legitimate son, was crowned aged 9 and died aged 15. Mary, his older daughter, then came to the throne and was nicknamed Bloody Mary, at least by the Protestants. Elizabeth, his younger daughter, then became queen and seems to have made a pretty good fist of the job, all things considered, although she, of course, as the Virgin Queen(?) left no children what-so-ever.
But despite this singular failing, the universe did not implode and peace broke out all over England and Scotland because she left an agreed heir. In order to avoid civil war and other such bloody struggles over the succession, agreement between those who command armed force is what is required, a consensus of some sort. As recent events in the Middle East have reminded us, not even tyrants can continue to rule if enough people with access to arms are prepared to die to get rid of them.
So my question is, were monarchs in the seventh century obsessed with producing male heirs? So far as I am aware, none of them have left us their thoughts on the matter and I am not even remotely qualified to speculate.But …
Certainly many seventh-century kings were not succeeded by their sons. Just thinking of Edwin of Northumbria, for instance, Aethelfrith took over Edwin’s father’s kingdom of Deira and married Edwin’s sister. Edwin in turn, with East Anglian help, killed Aethelfrith, by which stage he already had two sons. When Edwin in his turn was killed by Cadwallon (of Gwynedd?) and Penda of Mercia, he had three sons and a grandson, but none of them succeeded him. Instead, his cousin succeeded him in Deira and his sister’s son by Aethelfrith (Eanfrith), succeeded him in Bernicia. Two more of Edwin’s nephews then went on to rule the combined Northumbrian kingdom of Deira and Bernicia (Oswald and Oswiu).
So the two kingdoms stayed in the family, so to speak, or rather families, but direct father to son succession seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. I am aware that a huge amount has been written about succession among the Picts, at least partly because father to son succession does not seem to have been the ideal, let alone the norm. But among the Angles it seems to have been unusual in the seventh century, even when kings had several sons. I am thinking of Mercia, as well as Northumbria, where brother to brother succession was fairly common.
But did they care? You see, I can understand why it might be taken for granted that queens/wives of kings might want their children to succeed, especially if they outlived their spouse, but why would kings care? or care very much? In other words, in the seventh century, was this sort of family feeling an individual/nuclear family sort of thing, or a broader clan/lineage sort of thing?