Created By: GameChainsaw on May 3, 2011 Last Edited By: GameChainsaw on August 14, 2011
Troped

The Wrongful Heir To The Throne

Usurpers sympathetic because the heir is a jerk.

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Usually, the Regent for Life is the bad guy. We say usually, because in these stories the rightful heir to the throne is usually a heroic figure, a nice if inexperienced youngster, or at least a decent guy who can actually claim legitimacy. While the usurper is portrayed as greedy, powerhungry and brutal, willing to exploit the regency to earn the prestige and influence to take power, at any cost.

Problem is, sometimes the positions are reversed.

The heir has the automatic advantage of legitimacy, but what if he's a monster? What if he's incompetent? Even if he is competent, what happens if the kingdom is facing a terrible crisis only an experienced and wily leader can face down, and allowing the rightful heir to take the throne would plunge everything into chaos?

This is the (rare) situation in fiction where the rightful heir to the throne is absolutely not the person for the job. It can be the end of a regency (which now has, for the genuine sake of the realm, to be extended) or it can be the king dying and the heir turning out to be a childish charlatan or, even worse, actively malicious. In this situation, the other claimant has all the qualifications but none of the claim, making for a far more complex (and potentially grey) story.

Seen it... not that often actually. I wonder if we need an index for rare tropes?

This trope can also extend into the overthrow of an evil or incompetent monarch, but only cautiously, it has to be another monarch replacing it rather than a non-monarchial La Résistance movement.

Examples

Film

  • Caligula: Nerva (John Gielgud) commits suicide because he thinks Caligula will be such a bad Emperor.
  • Played with in The Emperor's New Groove. Kuzco isn't a very good ruler, and no one seems to miss him while he's gone, but Yzma isn't exactly any better.
  • The movie Dave, where the lookalike is better at the job than the real deal.

Literature

  • I remember a short story about stupid joker king using bum as stand-in king. The bum was kidnapped and woke up as king. He ruled for short time, and woke and hes back in street as bum. The king does it again, but this time the bum's more paranoid and accidentally kills king though the screen when he heard laughing. All servants disappear the king body and the bum is permanently a king this time, as he was real good king both times.
  • In WyrdSisters, Tomjon the true heir to the throne of Lancre has no interest in becoming king and wants to become an actor instead. The witches put Verence up as an alternative, claiming that he is Tomjon's half-brother, which is true. They see no need to point out that he's the queen's illegitimate son rather than the King's and as such has no claim to the throne.
    • Another Discworld example would be Carrot, who's the rightful heir to the throne, but believes that the Patrician would do a better job and is perfectly happy to work as Captain of the watch.
  • The Man in the Iron Mask
  • More or less the case in The Prisoner of Zenda. The usurper, Black Michael isn't the most charming guy, but he's competent and loved by the people. The legitimate ruler, Rudolf, is a drunken boor who is unpopular with the people.
  • The Haldane Restoration in Katherine Kurtz's Camber of Culdi. A younger son of the House of Furstan gets a small force from his father the King of Torenth, gathers other landless younger sons who don't fancy celibacy, and they overthow the House of Haldane in neighbouring Gwynedd. After 80 years, the Festil-Furstan dynasty has degenerated, such that the latest ruler practices murderous tyranny and brother-sister incest. Camber and his family discover the last Haldane in a monastery, remove him from the cloister, get his vows dispensed, marry him to a ward of Camber's, activate psionic/magical powers in him, and help him overthrow the tyrant.

Live Action TV

  • Game of Thrones: Renly invokes this trope when trying to convince Ned Stark to support his coupe for the throne, pointing out that he's the most qualified heir for the job.
  • Korean Historical Drama Emperor Wang Guhn is about how WG became emperor of Korea. Long story short(er): The previous Empire of Silla fell apart. Wang's predecessor Gung Ye seizes power in northern Korea and proclaims himself Emperor, while in southern Korea General Kyunhwan proclaims himself Emperor, so there's a power struggle between them. Gung then proclaims that he's not only Emperor but also the reincarnation of Buddha and starts going crazy, even having his wife and sons killed because he thinks they're plotting against him. At this point the other nobles in Gung's camp decide that he's no longer worthy of being followed as Emperor, so they ask General Wang Guhn (portrayed as Gung Ye's most loyal-yet-non-crazy subject - it was his childhood sweetheart who Gung had married and then later killed) to become the emperor. Wang refuses, but the nobles depose Gung anyway, at which point Wang reluctantly takes the throne.
  • Gung Ye himself was also this, given that he was a general for yet another would-be Emperor before he was proclaimed Emperor by the other man's former followers.
    • (Note to any Korean tropers: I'm not trying to paint this as 100% accurate to Korean history; it's just what I remember from a show I followed 10 years ago.)
    • Note to YKTTW viewers: This could do with clarification for historical accuracy, but thats a bonus. I'll try to come back to it prior to launch or shortly after.

Theatre

  • Sometimes invoked (and/or Deconstructed) in Hamlet, depending on the interpretation you watch. Sometimes Claudius is the typical evil despot and Hamlet is the rightful heir, fighting for the powers of decency. Other interpretations imply that Claudius is a decent ruler with a semi-legitimate claim to the throne (being the dead king's brother), and further that Hamlet would be a terrible ruler, since he might actually just be insane.
  • In both the Shakespeare play and Real Life, this was one of the excuses Richard III used for usurping the throne from his nephew Edward V - the latter was a child and so unfit to rule. The real Richard also cast doubt on Edward's legitimacy.

Video Games

  • Deconstructed in Last Scenario, where Evil Chancellor and Chessmaster Augustus usurped the throne by killing the capriciously cruel and terribly incompetent Empress Helga (whose coronation itself was part of Augustus' scheme) and was quite popular with the people for a short while - until he was killed by an own friend, whose life he ruined by manipulating him into killing the former emperor.
  • Subverted in the 10th Fire Emblem. After spending the first chapter getting the "legitimate" heir on the throne, he turns out (which should have been obvious from the start with his Horrible Judge of Character stats) to be horribly incompetent, and easily manipulated for the purpose of creating a world war but he isn't really the real heir in the end, and the ultimate "real" heir is said to be competent despite having admitted to having no clue on government policy despite having the love of the people.

Real Life

  • A Real Life example from English history would be King Stephen, who usurped the throne from his cousin Matilda, the rightful heir, because as a woman she was regarded as incompetent to rule by the standards of the time (the 1100s). Values Dissonance, anyone?
  • As mentioned above, King Richard cast aspersions as to the qualifications of a young king to rule. Richard the III's motivation for claiming the throne remain in the dark to this day; was he simply a powerhungry tyrant, or had he simply grown to believe that only he could do the job? We may never know. * Richard III also cast aspersions on his brother's legitimacy as well as the nephew's, though the Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville wasn't popular, so the line of attack against her marriage with Edward IV was carried through more thoroughly. Also, Richard of York (father of Edward IV and Richard III) had earlier made a similar claim because of the incompetence and insanity/catatonic episode of Henry VI.

"Snoo-PINGAS usual for those Rolling Updates I see!
Community Feedback Replies: 34
  • May 3, 2011
    randomsurfer
    Caligula: Nerva (John Gielgud) commits suicide because he thinks Caligula will be such a bad Emperor.
  • May 3, 2011
    elwoz
    I'm afraid I can't think of any examples, but We Should Have This One.
  • May 3, 2011
    Rolf
    I remember a short story about stupid joker king using bum as stand-in king. The bim was kidnapped and woke up as king. He ruled for short time, and woke and hes back in street as bum. The king does it again, but this time the bum's more paranoid and accidentally kills king though the screen when he heard laughing. All servants disappear the king body and the bum is permanently a king this time, as he was real good king both times.
  • May 4, 2011
    GameChainsaw
    Bump ba-da bump bumb BUMP!
  • May 4, 2011
    DragonQuestZ
    Name should indicate the sympathy. Usurper Is Better Than The Heir?
  • May 4, 2011
    PaulA
    ^^^ Rolf, I've seen that story in a TV adaptation of the Arabian Nights. Don't remember what it's called, though.
  • May 5, 2011
    GameChainsaw
  • May 5, 2011
    jaytee
    Sometimes invoked (and/or Deconstructed) in Hamlet, depending on the interpretation you watch. Sometimes Claudius is the typical evil despot and Hamlet is the rightful heir, fighting for the powers of decency. Other interpretations imply that Claudius is a decent ruler with a semi-legitimate claim to the throne (being the dead king's brother), and further that Hamlet would be a terrible ruler, since he might actually just be insane.
  • May 5, 2011
    Rolf
    ^^Yeah? I think it IS book version of arbian nights! Cannot remember title, but it had a super-story of lady telling stories to prevent from being killed by (arabian version of king)
  • May 5, 2011
    randomsurfer
    Korean Historical Drama Emperor Wang Guhn is about how WG became emperor of Korea. Long story short(er): The previous Empire of Silla fell apart. Wang's predecessor Gung Ye seizes power in northern Korea and proclaims himself Emperor, while in southern Korea General Kyunhwan proclaims himself Emperor, so there's a power struggle between them. Gung then proclaims that he's not only Emperor but also the reincarnation of Buddha and starts going crazy, even having his wife and sons killed because he thinks they're plotting against him. At this point the other nobles in Gung's camp decide that he's no longer worthy of being followed as Emperor, so they ask General Wang Guhn (portrayed as Gung Ye's most loyal-yet-non-crazy subject - it was his childhood sweetheart who Gung had married and then later killed) to become the emperor. Wang refuses, but the nobles depose Gung anyway, at which point Wang reluctantly takes the throne.

    Gung Ye himself was also this, given that he was a general for yet another would-be Emperor before he was proclaimed Emperor by the other man's former followers.

    (Note to any Korean tropers: I'm not trying to paint this as 100% accurate to Korean history; it's just what I remember from a show I followed 10 years ago.)
  • May 5, 2011
    NoirGrimoir
    • Happens a couple of times in the Wheel Of Time series. People don't exactly like how Rand is taking over everything on the continent, but he's usually a better leader than their former rulers so in those countries' people don't grumble too much about it. It also helps that he can shoot levin-bolts with magic. I mean, whose gonna argue?
  • May 6, 2011
    LogicallyDashing
  • May 6, 2011
    JohnDiFool
    Hmm would Shrek count, vis a vis Prince Charming? Shrek wasn't a "usurper", exactly, but he wasn't an expected contender for the throne.
  • May 6, 2011
    azraelfinalstar
    • Played with in The Emperors New Groove. Kuzco isn't a very good ruler, and no one seems to miss him while he's gone, but Yzma isn't exactly any better.
  • May 7, 2011
    Blork
    • In WyrdSisters, Tomjon the true heir to the throne of Lancre has no interest in becoming king and wants to become an actor instead. The witches put Verence up as an alternative, claiming that he is Tomjon's half-brother, which is true. They see no need to point out that he's the queen's illegitimate son rather than the King's and as such has no claim to the throne.
  • May 7, 2011
    TonyG
    ^^^Shrek is not an example. Prince Charming wasn't a legitimate heir to the throne, as he didn't get to marry Fiona. His mom the Fairy Godmother had promised it to him, but otherwise has no legitimate claim, whereas Shrek, being married into royalty, does.
  • May 7, 2011
    dalek955
    Should we include toppling a loser monarch who's already on the throne?
  • May 18, 2011
    Octagon8
    This trope really needs alert of unmarked spoilers, as usurpation tends to get along with the death of former rulers and examples can hardly be added without giving away spoiling information.

  • May 19, 2011
    Bisected8
    Another Discworld example would be Carrot, who's the rightful heir to the throne, but believes that the Patrician would do a better job and is perfectly happy to work as Captain of the watch.
  • May 19, 2011
    EternalSeptember
    ^ More like it needs spoiler tags, since not all of these happen with main characters or in the middle of plots to be spoiler, only some, so those some can be tagged.
  • May 24, 2011
    TBeholder
    Qualified Versus Legitimate?
  • May 26, 2011
    Tifforo
    In Code Geass, Crown Prince Odysseus seems to be less clever and have fewer skills than some of his younger siblings and is called "the mediocre prince" by Lelouch. He is also disliked by fans because, at a time when one of his younger siblings was 28, he became engaged to the 14 year old Tianzi in a political marriage.
  • May 26, 2011
    Auxdarastrix
  • June 7, 2011
    lars_h
    How about the movie The American President? The lookalike is better at the job than the real deal.
  • June 7, 2011
    amazinglyenough
    ^Are you possibly thinking of "Dave''?
  • June 10, 2011
    kjnoren
    We already have The Usurper and The Evil Prince as tropes. I'm going to plunder this for examples to the former - it could use a few more.
  • June 10, 2011
    captainbrass2
    In both the Shakespeare play and Real Life, this was one of the excuses Richard III used for usurping the throne from his nephew Edward V - the latter was a child and so unfit to rule. The real Richard also cast doubt on Edward's legitimacy.

    Another Real Life example from English history would be King Stephen, who usurped the throne from his cousin Matilda, the rightful heir, because as a woman she was regarded as incompetent to rule by the standards of the time (the 1100s). Values Dissonance, anyone?
  • June 10, 2011
    deuxhero
    Subverted in the 10th Fire Emblem. After spending the first chapter getting the "legitimate" heir on the throne, he turns out (which should have been obvious from the start with his Horrible Judge Of Character stats) to be horribly incompetent, and easily manipulated for the purpose of creating a world war but he isn't really the real heir in the end, and the ultimate "real" heir is said to be competent despite having admitted to having no clue on government policy despite having the love of the people.
  • June 10, 2011
    Jordan
    More or less the case in The Prisoner Of Zenda. The usurper, Black Michael isn't the most charming guy, but he's competent and loved by the people. The legitimate ruler, Rudolf, is a drunken boor who is unpopular with the people.
  • June 11, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    This sounds a bit like the Haldane Restoration in Katherine Kurtz's Camber of Culdi. A younger son of the House of Furstan gets a small force from his father the King of Torenth, gathers other landless younger sons who don't fancy celibacy, and they overthow the House of Haldane in neighbouring Gwynedd. After 80 years, the Festil-Furstan dynasty has degenerated, such that the latest ruler practices murderous tyranny and brother-sister incest. Camber and his family discover the last Haldane in a monastery, remove him from the cloister, get his vows dispensed, marry him to a ward of Camber's, activate psionic/magical powers in him, and help him overthrow the tyrant.

    @captainbrass2 If memory serves, Richard III also cast aspersions on his brother's legitimacy as well as the nephew's, though the Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville wasn't popular, so the line of attack against her marriage with Edward IV was carried through more thoroughly. Also, Richard of York (father of Edward IV and Richard III) had earlier made a similar claim because of the incompetence and insanity/catatonic episode of Henry VI.
  • August 14, 2011
    GameChainsaw
    ... flaming hell, this exploded after I abandoned it. Coming back to this with due haste.

    Ok, I'm going to put this together and launch it.
  • August 14, 2011
    GameChainsaw
    @Dalek: I'm not sure. Thats opening the trope further than I'd already intended it. On the other hand, a decent leader toppling an incompetent ruler out of necessity does seem to fit the spirit of the trope.

    Ok, postponing the launch. We need some discussion.
  • August 14, 2011
    GameChainsaw
    More from me, lot of stuff coming up as I see it. The Usurper is related, but I'd say this qualifies as a Sub Trope of it.

    EDIT: So was the film The American President or Dave? I need that clarified by someone.

    EDIT: I've followed Daleks recommendation and extended this to the overthrow of an incompetent monarch, as long as it is by another monarch and not a La Resistance style populist movement.

    EDIT: The major issues are resolved. This is basically ready to launch in my book. I'm just waiting for those five hats.
  • August 14, 2011
    randomsurfer
    It was definitely Dave not The American President. TAP is about a single President who finds love, Dave is about a man who is forced into a Prisoner Of Zenda ploy when the president is taken ill.
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