Sibling Squabbles: Royal Sibling Feuds Throughout History | History Hit

Sibling Squabbles: Royal Sibling Feuds Throughout History

Queen Mary I of England (left); Queen Elizabeth I of England (right)
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

When siblings are also colleagues, familial relations can become tense. Nowhere is this more prominent than amongst royal families, whose influence on the world stage makes inter-sibling squabbles highly visible. As a result, royal families across the world have inevitably been riddled with damning disputes, meticulous murders, cruel confinement and sneaky succession manoeuvring.

Though some sibling fights can be put down to inevitable squabbles of little consequence, the impact of others have started epic wars that have fundamentally altered the course of human history.

From childish insults to calculated murder, here are few of the most notable sibling squabbles throughout history.

Cleopatra (probably) killed all of her siblings

Upon the death of her father in around 51 BC, Cleopatra married her brother, Ptolemy XIII. Just three years later, the siblings fell out and became engaged in a bloody civil war against one another. At the same time, Cleopatra and Ptolemy’s younger sister, Arsinoe IV, claimed the throne for herself. However, Cleopatra cleverly made herself a key ally via her personal and professional relationship with Roman leader Julius Caesar from 48 BC onwards.

The sibling in-fighting came to a head at the Battle of the Nile in 47 BC. Ptolemy drowned – possibly upon his sister’s orders – in the river shortly after his defeat. Arsinoe was captured, paraded through the streets in golden shackles, and exiled. Cleopatra then married another brother, Ptolemy XIV, but was later probably part of the conspiracy that murdered him in 44 BC, in a bid to make her son her co-ruler. In 41 BC, she finally had her sister Arsinoe murdered because of her rival claim to the throne.

A Roman painting in the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus at Pompeii, Italy, depicting Cleopatra as Venus Genetrix and her son Caesarion as a cupid

Image Credit: Ancient Roman painter(s) from Pompeii, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

William the Conqueror locked up his half brother

Relations between William the Conqueror and his half-brother Odo were often strained. In 1076, Odo was tried in front of a large assembly on the charges of defrauding the Crown. However, tensions properly came to a head in 1082 when William the Conqueror ordered Odo’s arrest for having planned a military expedition to Italy.

It’s unclear what Odo’s motives were: it might’ve been that he wanted to make himself pope in light of the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. Nevertheless, Odo spent the next five years in prison, his English estates were taken back by the king and his office as Earl of Kent was removed.

Edward IV had his brother George Duke of Clarence killed

George, Duke of Clarence, played an important role in the War of the Roses, a dynastic struggle between rival factions of Plantagenets. Though a member of the House of York, he switched sides to the Lancastrians, before later reverting to the Yorkists. His brother, Edward IV, naturally grew increasingly suspicious of his brother.

In 1478, Edward IV had his brother imprisoned in the Tower of London and put on trial for, in Edward’s words, ‘unnatural, loathly treasons’. This was likely because Clarence had both alleged that Edward’s wife Elizabeth Woodville was guilty of witchcraft, and had threatened to question the legality of the royal marriage. Clarence was privately executed in February 1478, in what was rumoured via drowning in a barrel of Malmsey wine. Though this rumour is thought to be a myth, a portrait thought at one time to be his daughter Margaret Pole showed her wearing a silver barrel on her charm bracelet.

The Duke and Duchess of Clarence, Cardiff Castle

Image Credit: Wolfgang Sauber, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary I imprisoned and nearly executed her sister Elizabeth

Catholic Mary I and her Protestant half sister Elizabeth I’s fractious relationship came to a head after Mary announced that she was to marry the Catholic King Philip II of Spain, which would usher in the Spanish Inquisition in England as well as the potential birth of a Catholic heir. In 1554, the Wyatt Rebellion, which planned to install Elizabeth I on the throne, was launched in retaliation. The plot was uncovered and Mary suspected Elizabeth of being part of it, so sent her to the Tower of London through Traitor’s Gate.

After eight weeks, Mary released Elizabeth on the condition that she convert to Catholicism. Afterwards, Elizabeth was guarded in a house of arrest, was then released again and later even ‘reconciled’ with her sister.

Charles I was bullied by his big brother Henry

Though Charles I is said to have looked up to his elder, more physically robust, heir apparent brother Henry, Henry didn’t return his affections. An anecdote states that in around 1609-10, when Charles was 9 years old, Henry snatched the hat off a bishop and put it on the younger child’s head, before telling his younger brother that when he became king, he would make Charles the Archbishop of Canterbury so that Charles would have a long robe to hide his ugly, rickety legs. Charles reportedly then stamped on the cap and had to be dragged away in tears.

Charles II’s sons fought against each other in battle

Charles II’s sons, the half brothers the Duke of Monmouth and the Duke of Grafton, fought on opposite sides during the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. The battle was the culmination of the Monmouth Rebellion, also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion, which aimed to depose James II, largely on the basis of his Catholicism. Dissident Protestant the Duke of Monmouth led the rebellion, while his half brother, the Duke of Grafton, commanded the royal troops in Somerset. The Duke of Monmouth was later executed for his part in the rebellion.

Historian of Monarchy Anna Whitelock joins Dan to talk about the dynamics of royal families, the dangers of hereditary power and some of the most important royal sibling rivalries through history including Henry VIII and Arthur, Prince of Wales, Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor and William II and Henry I.
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Mary and Anne and excluded their half brother James from the throne

Mary and Anne, the two surviving daughters of Catholic James VII and II and his first wife, were raised as Protestants at the request of their uncle, Charles II. After James VII and II had a son, also named James, a threat emerged in the form of an heir presumptive who was also a Catholic. In 1688, Mary and her husband William of Orange successfully led the Glorious Revolution to depose Mary’s father, James VII and II.

James fled London for France, which the English Parliament were able to claim as an abdication. Scotland proved more complicated, so the Convention of Estates assembled, and decided to offer Mary and William the throne on the grounds of the Claim of Right. Thus, Mary and Anne’s teamwork meant that they excluded their half brother from the throne.

Napoleon’s siblings all despised him

Napoleon once said, ‘My relations have done me more harm than I have done them good.’ Indeed, his many siblings – Joseph, Lucien, Elisa, Louis, Pauline, Caroline and Jerome – had been raised to the status of royalty as a result of their brother’s career, but still harboured sibling rivalries towards him. Lucien reportedly hated Napoleon from childhood, believing him to be a megalomaniac, and Napoleon later banished him to Italy for marrying a woman he didn’t approve of.

The rest of the Bonapartes were united in their hatred of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, which resulted in Napoleon taunting his siblings with the honours that he lavished upon his wife and children, and not them. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, and his sisters and sisters-in-law were furious that they had to carry Josephine’s train at the ceremony at Notre Dame. After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon bitterly turned against most of his family,

Louis Bonaparte defending Dutch independence against Napoleon. Painted by Ten Kate

Image Credit: Herman Frederik Carel ten Kate, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Edward VIII saw his brother’s death as a ‘nuisance’

Edward VIII, who was 11 years older than his disabled brother John, described his death as ‘little more than a regrettable nuisance’. Prince John, the youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary, suffered from severe epilepsy and autism and died in 1919, aged 13, after suffering a severe seizure. He had generally been kept out of the public eye at Sandringham until then, earning him the nickname the ‘Lost Prince’.

Moreover, writing to his mistress, Freda Dudley Ward, Edward wrote that John had only been a ‘brother in flesh’ and had ‘become more of an animal than anything else.’

George VI forbade members of the royal family to attend Edward VIII’s wedding

In early December 1936, King Edward VIII proposed to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite who was once, then almost twice divorced. This triggered a constitutional crisis, with the governments of the United Kingdom and Dominions of the British Commonwealth strongly opposing the union. As a result, Edward abdicated later the same month and was succeeded by his brother Albert, who became George VI. Edward was then given the title of Duke of Windsor.

This created a lifelong resentment between the brothers, which was first marked by George VI forbidding members of the royal family from attending his brother’s wedding to Wallis Simpson. Later, the Duke of Windsor regularly rang George VI to ask for money, to the point where the King simply stopped taking his calls.

Lucy Davidson