Was Ed Miliband right to stand against his brother David for the leadership of the Labour party in 2010? Or should he have stepped aside to give his elder brother a clear run? There was much media debate over his decision to challenge David, and relations between the brothers have remained cool and distant to this day. Half a century earlier, John Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Ted were all viewed as potential American presidential candidates. But Robert waited until after his elder brother was dead, and no one pressed Ted’s claims until Robert was dead too. The rights of seniority were strictly upheld.
Throughout history, sibling rivalry has been as familiar as mutual love and support. Clashes of personality and competition for parental attention have always stirred passions. The Book of Genesis describes how the rivalry between Cain and Abel sprang from Cain’s resentment that God favoured his younger brother. The very first murder in history, a case of fratricide, was over the rights of the first-born. Gender has proved an equally problematic issue, with a marked preference for sons still common in many parts of the world today. In Britain, for almost a thousand years, the royal succession has been governed by both gender and birth-order. Sons succeeded according to age, with the rights of daughters recognised, very grudgingly, only from the mid-Tudor period. The story of Henry VIII’s children underlines the strength of these conventions. His son Edward was only nine at his father’s death, but it was accepted that a male child must take precedence over adult half-sisters. The three half-siblings had little love for another, and when Protestant Edward died at fifteen he tried to bar the Catholic Mary from the succession. Yet in the event, even most Protestants accepted that Mary should be next in line, rather than her younger half-sister Elizabeth (a Protestant) or Lady Jane Grey. Two years later Mary seriously considered executing Elizabeth, reminding us how bitter sibling hatreds can be in either sex. In the next century, it was the conventions of royal succession that triggered the so-called Glorious Revolution. In 1688 James II, a Catholic convert, fathered a baby boy (later to become the Old Pretender), who immediately took precedence over his two adult half-sisters, who were both Protestants. The fear of Catholic and arbitrary rule stretching far into the future proved more than the political nation could accept. The rules of succession have now been changed to enshrine gender equality. But the principle of seniority still applies—and with the Queen’s eldest child and grandchild both male, it will be many years before a royal princess takes precedence over a younger prince.
Is it a natural human instinct to privilege the first-born? It has not in fact been a universal practice. Some societies have favoured the youngest child, or given them all equal rights. In Anglo-Saxon times, it was often the ablest son rather than the eldest who took the crown, sometimes after a Darwinian struggle. But for centuries, English landed estates and titles passed to the eldest son, which families saw as the best way to preserve their estates intact down the generations. Younger sons were often bitterly resentful. It was convenient for families to have ‘an heir and spare’, but how was the spare to live, and what was he to do? And if the eldest son was irresponsible or not very bright, would it not be better to transfer the inheritance to a more capable younger brother? Such issues were fiercely debated in families, in print, and on the stage. Shakespeare explores the rights and responsibilities of older and younger sons in As You Like It, and several playwrights, including the female spy and writer Aphra Behn, addressed the issue of disinheriting an unsuitable heir.
Social values have changed greatly since Shakespeare’s time. And against the Milibands’ rivalry we can set the close bond between Serena and Venus Williams, all the more impressive given the younger sister’s more glittering career. Yet sibling issues still have resonance today. The nation celebrated Prince Harry’s wedding, but what role will be found for another heir’s spare?
Featured image credit: The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession. Attributed to Lucas de Heere. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.