There’s no denying it: feuding between siblings has been a recurring theme throughout British royal history. From Elizabeth I being locked up by her own sister, to the ugly fallout between two very senior royals in the 20th century, here are some of the scandalous sibling stories from across the ages.
1. Elizabeth I vs Mary I
It’s strange to think of Elizabeth I, one of the most towering monarchs in British history, reduced to the status of a prisoner in the Tower of London. But that’s exactly what the young Princess Elizabeth became, thanks to her half-sister Queen Mary I.
The daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Mary was England’s first queen regnant. In other words, she was the first woman to rule as queen in her own right, rather than through marriage to a king. She was also a zealous Catholic who wanted to undo the Protestant reformation enacted by her father. She brutally cracked down on prominent Protestants, with hundreds burnt at the stake. Elizabeth, daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, was as prominent a Protestant as it was possible to be and was therefore regarded as a threat to Mary’s reign.
In 1554, Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower, on suspicion of being connected with an uprising against her sister. However, lack of evidence meant she was spared the grisly fate of a traitor and was instead placed under house arrest for almost a year.
Elizabeth eventually became queen following Mary’s death in 1558, sweeping away the Catholic counter-reformation of her half-sister.
2. John vs his siblings
King John’s violent and autocratic reign earnt him his status as one of the big bad villains in Robin Hood lore. However, long before he even became king, John was embroiled in dramatic rivalries that had divided the heirs of Henry II.
The youngest of Henry’s sons, John was also the favourite. When Henry decided to gift John a cluster of castles, it caused his elder brothers, Richard (the future Lionheart), Geoffrey and Henry the Young King, to rise up in armed revolt in 1173. After months of all-out conflict, the king triumphed over his sons and re-established peace. John, who’d remained by his father’s side throughout the revolt, was gifted even more territory.
Years later, when Richard became king and went off to fight in the Crusades, John schemed to undermine his brother, forging an alliance with the French king to seize the English crown. Richard overcame this rebellion, even forgiving John’s traitorous behaviour by saying he was ‘a child who has had evil counsellors’. John was a well-behaved sibling for the remainder of Richard’s reign, eventually becoming king himself in 1199.
3. William II vs Robert vs Henry I
William the Conqueror may have been a fearsome warrior who seized and subdued Anglo-Saxon England, but even he was tested by his quarrelsome kids. An early flare up came in 1077 when his young sons, William Rufus and Henry, played a prank on their older sibling Robert, which eventually triggered an armed insurrection.
While Robert was enjoying a game of dice with his friends, William and Henry decided to amuse themselves by tipping a chamberpot over their brother’s head. A brawl broke out, but that wasn’t the end of it. When their father refused to properly punish his brothers for their little jape, an indignant Robert ordered his minions to lay siege to a castle in Normandy, after which he was forced into exile and estranged from the family for three years.
After their father’s death in 1087, William Rufus inherited the English crown as William II, while Robert became Duke of Normandy. Tensions spilled over into violence the very next year, when supporters of Robert mounted a rebellion against William, in a bid to bring England and Normandy together as one United Kingdom. The rebellion was defeated, and William II firmly put Robert in his place as a subordinate in the years that followed.
In 1100, William II was fatally shot by an arrow while out hunting. Some believe it was an assassination on the orders of his younger brother Henry, who took the crown as Henry I. Intent on toppling his sibling, Robert mounted a failed invasion of England. Henry went on to return the favour by invading Normandy and taking Robert prisoner. His luckless elder brother spent the rest of his days in captivity.
4. George VI vs Edward VIII
Not all royal sibling feuds and fallouts have been quite as bloody as the ones discussed above. A more genteel break occurred in 1937 when Edward VIII – having fallen in love with an ‘unsuitable’ woman (the twice-married American socialite Wallis Simpson) – gave up the crown. His more shy and awkward brother reluctantly took up the mantle as George VI, and the relationship between the siblings was never the same again.
Edward was annoyed that George didn’t grant his wife the right to be styled Her Royal Highness. He was also indignant when the king forbade members of the Royal Family from attending his wedding the following year. Edward became increasingly embittered at how he felt he was being treated by his brother and the rest of the family, even writing that their mother, Queen Mary, had ‘ice in place of blood in the veins’.
Edward’s much-publicised visit to Nazi Germany, and seeming sympathy for Hitler’s cause, added to the tensions between the brothers. Edward late wrote about how bitter he felt that George continued to ‘persecute’ and ‘frustrate’ him during World War II. The rift never healed, and George died relatively young in 1952. Edward continued to live as a jet-setting celebrity until his own death in 1972.