Forks, branches and the last Plantagenet King


I suppose that many of us have wondered at one time or another what our lives would have been like if we had made a different decision at some crucial point; where would that fork in the road have taken us? This tangle of alternative paths and branches amounts to a set of parallel histories in which our life — and perhaps the whole world — would have been different. This idea has been a very fruitful one for literature and films (Fatherland by Robert Harris and One by Richard Bach immediately spring to mind), but in reality, it is almost impossible to predict what would have happened if an alternative path had been taken. You can reconstruct events easily enough when you know the actual end-point, but in a complex, interconnected system, there are so many potential alternatives ahead that you can't predict the outcome given the events with any kind of certainty.

My mind took this uncharacteristically philosophical turn because we finally got around to watching our recording of Britain's Real Monarch, in which Tony Robinson reports findings by Michael K Jones suggesting that Edward IV was illegitimate, thus changing the whole line of succession to the British throne. The evidence seems quite strong: either Edward was conceived at a time when his father Richard, Duke of York was in France, or he had a gestation of 11 months. So either his mother was a horse, or his father had fantastically heroic sperm. Oh, and his mother Cecily Neville was prepared to testify that he was a bastard.

The programme then went on to follow this line of succession, to see if they could trace the real British monarch. The search ended in a tiny Australian outback town with Michael I — endearingly, a staunch republican1. He knew about his Plantagenet ancestry, but not that he was actually the rightful heir to the throne. I thought that he took the news pretty well, in the circumstances. His ancestors were titled (indeed, he is an Earl) but poor, after Henry Hastings (who would have been Henry X) blew the remaining family fortune (£5.5 million today!) backing a horse in the Derby of 1867. It was clear that Michael was very happy in his job (at an agricultural institute researching rice cultivation), his friends and his family, and remarkably phlegmatic about what might have been.

Watching him playing with his grandchildren, having a cold stubby with his mates at an Australian Rules football match, and driving a fork-lift truck I couldn't help thinking that he would make a great King, if only because he so clearly doesn't want to be one. We might also have a Queen Nolene and Princes Jet and Zak — how cool would Prince Jet be? But then, if Michael _had_ succeeded the throne, would he be the same relaxed and carefree person?

I'd be amazed if there weren't other examples of illegitimacy in the Royal lines2, so there are probably lots of potential alternative monarchs. But the programme mentioned a few dramatic changes to the history of Britain that might have happened if Michael's line had gained the throne. Scotland might still be an independent country, and as Henry VIII would not have got to the throne, Britain might be a Catholic country. As a Catholic, Mr. Bsag was particularly pleased by the latter idea, but I pointed out that we might never have met.

My father's ancestors were Huguenots. This Protestant movement, which developed in France in the 16th century, worried the Catholic church and monarchy (those darned monarchs again). In 1572, thousands of Huguenots were killed in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris. Facing death and political and religious repression, many Huguenots fled to friendly Protestant countries in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They went to Holland, Germany and Switzerland, as well as to England, where they settled in Spitalfields, London.

But I'm falling into the same trap that I cautioned against at the start of this entry; history is so complex that I can't point to one change in Royal succession and extrapolate to my father's ancestors choosing to settle somewhere other than London. The problem is that thinking about 'what ifs' is fun, and therefore hard to resist!

1 U.S. readers: not that kind of republican: the opposite of a monarchist.

2 Patrilineal succession is a really bad idea in an age before DNA fingerprinting, and when Kings spend a lot of time fighting wars abroad.

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