A historian should feel a strong sense of déjà vu on reading about Prince Harry’s rebellion against his family. Rebellious ‘spares’ are a constant feature of English history since at least 1066. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s characteristically vivid new book The World: A Family History offers plenty of gory examples from ancient Egypt, medieval China and even, when we move away from royalty, within dynasties such as the Kennedys. While the Byzantine emperors preferred to poke out the eyes of family members who competed for power, the Ottoman sultans regularly had their brothers strangled within hours of acceding to the throne. North Korea, where Kim Jong-un appears to have disposed of his half-brother by having him poisoned at Kuala Lumpur airport, is a recent example of lethal sibling rivalry within a ruling dynasty.
Turbulent princes might but presumably will not turn to the Bible. A constant refrain there is the way younger sons supplant elder brothers. These stories were probably tailored to justify the seizure of the ancient throne of Jerusalem by younger sons. The Bible describes how King David (himself a youngest son) chose Solomon as his heir, unaware that another son, Adonijah, had already tried to seize the throne from his dying father and his much younger brother. The theme of younger brothers gaining not just human but divine preference is there in the story of Jacob and Esau, even if Jacob was younger than his twin only by a matter of minutes. The worst case of sibling rivalry, the sale of Joseph into slavery by his jealous brothers, culminated in their humiliation when they appeared as supplicants in front of their unrecognised brother, now the Pharaoh’s vizier in the greatest empire on Earth.
Primogeniture is not entirely to blame for resentment on the part of younger princes. Elective monarchies too have had their share of sibling conflict.