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Succession Crisis
"The King is dead! Long live the king! ...But who is the king?"
—Everyone in every succession dispute ever

In theory, when the King dies, his heir steps straight into the vacancy, replacing him without any fuss, but only in theory. In practice, the deaths of kings are occasions of high drama. Rival claimants — with or without Royal Blooddispute the succession, and even after the victor is crowned, they'll discover that their predecessor has left them with a host of problems, leaving their throne unstable for years to come.

The first problem is deciding who is the rightful heir. There might seem to be a single clear candidate, but any Evil Prince worthy of the name can produce documents 'proving' the Crown Prince is ineligible, and must be passed over in favor of themselves (if he doesn't decide to simply resort to outright murder). Missing heirs will come out of the woodwork, possibly impostors seizing the moment, possibly the real thing. Other powerful figures with no legitimate claims of their own but plenty of ambition (especially the Evil Chancellor) may set themselves up as Kingmakers so that they can become the Man Behind the Man for the winning side. And then there is sometimes The Usurper, who often prefers to dispense with questions of legitimacy and take the throne by force because no one else can or will stand up to him. Expect lots of backstabbery in this Deadly Decadent Court.

If the rightful heir is foreign royalty, particularly the monarch of a rival country, almost the entire court will unite to prevent them inheriting the crown, out of simple self interest. The foreign heir will object to this, vigorously, and he will have an army backing him up. When there are several candidates with a convincing legal argument, the dispute is normally settled on the battlefield, often with the death of one or more of the claimants.

Female heirs, and anyone inheriting through the female line, may have greater problems. In countries with a long tradition of ruling Queens, they'll be fine. Elsewhere, the alternative male candidates will argue that women shouldn't count, often with the help of an army. Such a situation occurred with Henry I of England's designated heir Matilda (Henry produced over 20 bastards, but only two legitimate kids who grew to adulthood, and she was the only one left by then).

Similar problems arise if there are other restrictions on who may hold the crown, such as race, religion, or magical talent. If the rightful heir is underage, they might be passed over completely, but more often, they'll get a regent. The great magnates will compete vigorously for this post, with its near-royal status and opportunity to corrupt the young ruler. However, even when the laws state that a Queen cannot rule, it is not unknown for a country to use Loophole Abuse to get out of a Succession Crisis — said loophole frequently being the laws not stating what gender a King must be. More than one nation has thus ended up with a woman King.

Sometimes there's a time limit involved: the prince must be crowned king within a specific length of time or at a specific time or someone else gets the kingship. Sometimes, though, there are no traceable heirs. The late king was childless, and all his close relatives are dead, unacceptable, or unwilling to accept the crown. This gives all the neighboring countries an excuse to nominate a friendly noble, or discover some distant relationship.

Or there can be succession mandates with serious penalties. For example, the Grimaldi family owns the country of Monaco, because, basically, they got a contract from France saying so back in the 13th Century. However, their contract ends if the current Prince (or Princess) dies without a direct descendant. There were worries for a time that Monaco might revert back to French control if both of Prince Rainer's children, who are not exactly known for participating in safe practices, were to be killed and he didn't get married and have another kid fast enough. So far, it looks like there have been some changes in the activities of the members of House Grimaldi and the chance that France will be able to take Monaco back is no longer likely.

Even if the new king is the old one's son, they'll soon discover their training didn't properly prepare them for the reality. More often, in fiction, the throne will go to someone completely unprepared, either a young prince who didn't expect to gain the throne for many years, or a distant relative or younger prince who never expected to gain the throne at all, and the kingdom will be on the brink of disaster when they take over.

The crisis may be external-if the old king died in battle, the new king is going to have to rally a defeated army and turn the war around. Or, it may be internal-examples include an empty treasury, impending (or ongoing) famine, or a brewing rebellion. Either way, the new king will be sorely tested before their crown is safe.

If there is no real heir, the trope Offered the Crown can produce this as nobles intrigue to get their favorite candidate offered it.

The Rightful King Returns is also a common way for this plot to be resolved.

Note that this trope is not exclusive to monarchies by any stretch-for a particularly common political plot in the modern day, see the United States' Twenty Fifth Amendment.

This is Truth in Television! However, the preponderance of constitutional monarchies (for those nations which still retain a monarch) make future occurrences of this trope highly unlikely. National legislatures ultimately dictate who is or is not eligible for the throne and most constitutional monarchies have clear chains of succession spelled out in law. In the UK, for example, it would take a severe disaster to eliminate heirs to get to the point where there would be a succession crisis. Even then, a country could simply declare itself a republic, averting the situation entirely. See below for Real Life examples.

Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Le Chevalier d'Eon has a Russian story arc about the Palace Revolutions that brought Peter III and Catherine II to power.
  • Code Geass is partially driven by the maneuvering of various claimants to the Britannian throne seeking to solidify their claim. The fact that the Emperor is still alive doesn't bother them too much. The end of the series has open warfare between Lelouch and others who want the throne, with Schneizel being the biggest threat.
    • The Emblem of Blood incident was a feud among the various claimants to the Britannian throne during the period when Charles became Emperor. The death of their mother inspired him and his brother, V.V., to pursue their dream of slaying god.
    • Averted in the Alternate Continuity manga Nightmare of Nunnally, where Cornelia and the Japanese expect one of these after Charles starts enacting his master plan and throws the Empire into chaos. Cornelia wants to have Euphemia succeed him and is expecting a bitter struggle, only to have their brother Schneizel shock everyone by throwing in his support for Euphie as well, leaving her with the backing of the one man who could have easily been her fiercest competitor. She stays as the 99th Emperor of Britannia at the end of the manga.
  • Katekyo Hitman Reborn! has one of these when Xanxus shows up and demands to be the 10th boss of the Vongola Family. It's not a perfect example though, because the 9th is still alive.
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist the many clans of Xing are united under the Emperor, who sires an heir with a concubine of each clan. The current Emperor is ailing and, to prevent a civil war when he dies, has promised the throne to whichever of his children can bring him the key to eternal life. Ling and May are both driven by their desire to reach the throne, Ling to ensure peace and May to protect her clan.
  • Ooku: the Inner Chambers is about harem politics, so this trope is a constant.
    • Reverend Kasuga's primary motivation in the second and third volumes is avoiding the massive succession crisis that she feared would occur if it became known that Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu died without a male heir. Anyone that has read volume one (set about 80 years later) is well aware that the secret came out at some point.
    • Two shoguns later Tsunayoshi's only heir died, and even after she hit menopause, she held off naming her niece Ienobu successor as long as possible (despite Ienobu being obviously the most qualified candidate) because her father had been rivals with Ienobu's grandfather.
    • Ienobu died with only one sickly, underage heir, reviving the succession crisis, which culminated in a scandal that brought down the senior chamberlain and the privy counselor. This rendered them unable to oppose the succession by coup of Yoshimune of Kii.
    • Yoshimune's two older daughters are in competition for the throne (as the eldest has significant physical and emotional disabilities) but she resolves the crisis by abdicating in favor of the eldest and then ruling from behind the scenes to prevent her younger daughter from seizing power.
  • Kinnikuman's final arc featured this. At the beginning of the series, everyone knew that Kinnikuman is the prince of the Kinniku tribe's royal family, but was far too stupid to be considered king. But after taking a level in badass and proving to be a worthy successor, it turns out that there was a fire in the hospital where Kin was born, and he could have been mixed up with five other babies. In true fashion, a wrestling tournament is held to see which Kinnikuman is the rightful heir.
  • While not done with royalty, the Sumimura and Yukimura families of Kekkaishi have a vicious rivalry with one another over who is the legitimate heir to the Hazuma style of kekkai that their master, Tokimori Hazuma, developed. As both families possess the Houin mark on their bodies, the result has never been truly settled.
  • Basilisk concerns a succession crisis being resolved in advance by having a proxy war between two ninja clans decide who the Shogun's heir would be. The war destroys both clans, which were on the verge of resolving their feud when the Shogun had them start killing each other for reasons that most of them didn't even know.
  • A smaller scale version occurs in Fruits Basket with the large, wealthy (and old) Sohma family. After Akito's father, Akira, dies, there's a huge dispute over whether his wife Ren or his child Akito should take over as Head of the Family. Akito ends up winning, since it's in Akira's will, but considering that we only hear about that stipulation from the head maid (who has always despised Ren) after the conflict has had some time to escalate, it's possible she made it up. The factions among the servants are still butting heads a decade or so later.
  • In Beelzebub, if the current Lord Beezlebub has too many children (read: more than one), demons are obviously going to create factions over in-fighting, and civil war will eventually start, threatening both the family itself and the entire kingdom. Case and point: Baby Beel and his older brother En. Though, it's assumed that whoever inherits the Beelzebub is the true successor to the throne. Since En did not inherit the title despite being the eldest, it's obvious who their father's successor is. This causes En a considerable amount of (somewhat childish) angst, and claim that he is an "unwanted child," perhaps in realization of that and the fact that he tends to act like a Spoiled Brat.

    Comicbooks 
  • In Marvel Comics' Power Pack, this was the default for the alien Snark empire every time an Emperor died, with all out war of the whole society. It was so bad, the guy proposing government by gladiatorial combat was a heroic reformer.

    Fan Works 
  • Actually addressed in How I Became Yours. Mai brings up a pretty good point that not only would this scenario be inevitable if the existence of Zuko's bastard child with Katara became public knowledge, but also that there would be some very serious social fallout in the still struggling-to-recover Fire Nation as well.

    Film 
  • One segment of The Great Race involved a The Prisoner of Zenda style plot to replace Crown Prince Hapnick with a double before he's crowned King of Carpania.
  • King Ralph has elements of this; after a freak accident cooks the entire British royal family, you've got one Evil Chancellor type trying to usurp the throne, one legitimate heir of less than ideal character who didn't know about it in the first place, and one heir actively trying not to be king.
  • During Parliament's meeting in The Princess Diaries 2, Viscount Mabrey reveals that his nephew, Lord Devereaux, is another heir to the Genovian throne. Despite Queen Clarisse's objection, the only way Mia can assume her duties as Queen is if she marries within the next 30 days. Devereaux didn't actually want the throne (he was told that was what his father wanted — it was really a lie created by his power hungry uncle), and Mia eventually does gain the crown by initiating a new law during her cancelled wedding to allow a queen to be crowned without being married. The fact that Devereaux and Mia were falling in love with each other probably helped.
  • The Japanese period piece Shogun's Samurai is set entirely around one of these. The Shogun seems increasingly likely to make his younger son Shogun when some court insiders who prefer the elder son poison him, resulting in a situation where several powerful lords (and a scheming, Manipulative Bitch mother) favor the more handsome and charismatic younger son, while the rules and a few court insiders like the Yagyu clan favor the elder son. Interestingly, the director was more known for making Yakuza films, but claimed that there was little difference in the end, summarizing it as "The old boss dies, and the question is about who will become the new boss."

    Literature 
  • Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth weaves together the lives of people in a little English town with the Real Life 12th century succession crisis called The Anarchy, triggered when Henry I died without a male heir, leaving his daughter Matilda and nephew Stephen to fight a long war for the succession.
  • In The Prince of Ill Luck, the bastard brother of the Duke tries to kill the Duke and his daughter so he can take over.
  • Pretty much the entire plot so far of A Song of Ice and Fire and a good chunk of the backstory. The real plot essentially kicks off when King Robert Baratheon is killed via hunting accident, leaving Joffrey as his successor, but Joffrey is not actually his son (and the kid is a sociopath with a 0% Approval Rating, to boot). Further complicating matters is that Robert was the first of a new dynasty, having led a rebellion against the previous rulers, and nobody was really settled into things as of his death — the Targaryens were only ousted fifteen years ago, and plenty of people not only remember them but actively want them back. By the time Robert's death becomes public, contenders to the throne include Joffrey and the rest of the Lannister clan, his two brothers Stannis and Renly, the last (or is she?) surviving heiress to the previous dynasty Daenerys Targaryen, and the rulers of two nations (from before Westeros was unified) that want to secede from the Seven Kingdoms. By the start of the second book, they're at war.
    • In the distant backstory, the Targaryen king Aegon IV "the Unworthy" had numerous bastard children whom he legitimised on his deathbed. This, combined with his obvious fondness for his eldest natural son Daemon (to the point of having gifted him with the dynasty's Ancestral Weapon) caused a succession crisis as Daemon and his supporters argued that Aegon intended for him to be his true heir, which led to a war and many of Daemon's descendents also attempting to claim the throne (the last of which was finally put down shortly before the start of the books' proper timeline).
    • An even earlier Succession Crisis between two Targaryen branches, "greens" and "blacks" is depicted in The Princess and the Queen.
  • The Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz starts with a contested succession.
  • The Riftwar Cycle shows this happening on two different worlds. In Magician, Lyam is named Rodric IV's heir just before he dies of battle wounds on the grounds that he is the eldest male member of the royal family still alive. Problem was, Rodric was unaware that Lyam's father (who died very soon before) acknowledged his illegitimate son Martin (Who is older than Lyam), which threatens Lyam's position (Since this means that Lyam isn't the eldest conDoin male) and, by extension, the already-shaky politics of the Kingdom. Youngest son Arutha even considers killing Martin in order to prevent dissidents from rallying behind him. Martin takes the initiative to abandon all claim to the throne and places the crown on Lyam's head himself. In Mistress of the Empire, the Imperial succession winds up including everything from assassins and magicians up to siege engines and whole armies. Others were impending in later novels. In Murder in Lamut, various barons were maneuvering for position in the expectation that one of them would become the next Earl of Lamut when the current earl became Duke of Yabon, a question that was answered in Magician when the title was given to Kasumi of the Shinzawai instead without any of the barons in Murder even being considered for the position. Two different novels have the question of the Keshian succession as part of the plot, though they were defused before an actual war broke out. One of them was amusingly subverted when everyone in the court except the actual heirs was squaring off over which prince would be the next emperor, with the war being aborted when upon the old emperor's death, one prince ordered the court to pay homage to their new emperor - his brother. The final book in the series has an all-out civil war break out over the succession of the Kingdom, as the closest living relative to the late king is the ruler of a foreign nation who many of the nobles refuse to accept because they see him as a foreigner (Helped by the fact that he brought his army with him to the old king's funeral in an attempt to influence the succession). This is actually the B plot of the novel, as there is a second crisis on Midkemia that is much, much worse.
  • The Prisoner of Zenda: "The king of the fictional country of Ruritania is abducted on the eve of his coronation."
  • In Neil Gaiman's Stardust, we have no less than seven would-be heirs to the king of peak's castle. The ones that die follow the others as ghosts.
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, there are two succession crises in the backstory. One split the north kingdom in three; the other sparked a civil war in Gondor.
    • There was an earlier succession crisis in The Silmarillion: after the death of Finw, the Noldor were split in three groups, each following one of Finw's three sons. The followers of the youngest son, Finarfin, stayed in Valinor, where Finarfin became High-king. The followers of Fanor and Fingolfin went to Middle-earth, but Fanor betrayed Fingolfin, burning the ships that took his people to Middle-earth and forcing Fingolfin to lead his people across the Grinding Ice, where many died. Fanor died before Fingolfin got to Middle Earth, but the two groups would probably have slaughtered each other if Fanor's eldest -and wiser- son, Maedhros, hadn't waived his claim to kingship and given the crown to his uncle.
  • In the Deverry series, a succession crisis causes a hundred-year three-sided civil war that sets the background for many of the flashback chapters. In addition to that, a central point of the fourth book is averting a potential succession crisis in Aberwyn, with Gwerbret Rhys dead without heirs and his only male relative, his half-brother Rhodry, missing.
  • In Nation by Terry Pratchett, all members of the British royal family resident in Britain are wiped out by a plague, and an heir far down the line of succession (currently on a sea voyage to a remote part of the British Empire) must be found and brought back to British soil within nine months to prevent a survivor of the French royal family from claiming the throne.
  • The Chronicles of Amber. What happens when an immortal king's immortal spoiled children, many of whom have been waiting for a chance at the throne and resenting each other for millennia, finally get a shot at the throne when said King goes missing? Chaos.
  • This is the entire plot of Through Wolf's Eyes, by Jane Lindskold, after the king's children are all dead. The heroine is brought in as a possible heir because she's the only survivor of the fire that took out the prince and his party, and might be his daughter. (She isn't.)
  • This is the plot of the first three books in Fiona Patton's Branion series.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley, Sharra's Exile. Danvan bids one Alton heir! Dyan sees him and raises him one!
  • In the Back Story of John C. Wright's Chronicles of Chaos, Zeus died, and the Greek gods have yet to settle on his successor. Which greatly complicates the lives of the main characters.
  • A non-royal example occurs in Lois McMaster Bujold's Literature/Vorkosigan Saga, specifically A Civil Campaign. One of the Counts dies without children, and rather than let an incompetent (and sadistic) cousin inherit the title, the late Count's sister undergoes gender reassignment surgery so she can inherit while avoiding the problem of being a woman in Barryar's male-only inheritance system. Given the fact that the Counts hold a large amount of political power, it still counts despite not being royalty, and the political wrangling over which potential heir to support is a major sub-plot of the novel.
    • The same novel also features a second Succession Crisis when a different Count is discovered (by the newly available gene-sequencing tests) to be one-eight Cetagandan ghem. Since the Cetagandans occupied Barrayar for around twenty years, this is not incredibly uncommon, but in this specific case, the Cetagandan blood was on his father's father's side, meaning that his grandfather was not the son of his great-grandfather. Sparks a huge debate over whether this retroactively invalidates the grandfather's inheritance of the Countship, and hence cuts the unfortunate Rene out of the succession.
    • There is also a passing mention of "the Countess who was declared a man so she could inherit" some time in the remote past. Not to mention the Count Vortala who named his horse as heir, though that turned out to be a subversion; not only did Vortala patch up his feud with his son and reverse his decision before he died, but the result was a legal precedent enabling Counts to name someone other than a blood relative as their successor should they see fit, which was used to head off several more crises over the years.
    • Barrayar has been teetering on the brink of a succession crisis throughout most of the Vorkosigan Saga. If anything happens to Emperor Gregor, there is currently no clear line of succession. Vordarian tried to trigger a succession crisis in Barrayar, a sub-plot of The Warrior's Apprentice had another attempt to trigger one, and Gregor's suicide attempt and subsequent disappearance (over just how Royally Screwed Up the Vorbarra dynasty is) nearly set off another one in The Vor Game. Many of the main characters of the series are very high on the list of possible successors, and wish that Gregor would hurry up and produce lots of kids, already, to get them off the hook. (In Cryoburn, fortunately, he and his wife have produced several.)
  • Similarly, one incident mentioned in the backstory of the Honor Harrington universe involves the daughter of the previous Emperor of the Andermani Empire stopping a civil war between her incompetent brothers by having the parliament declare her a man. No actual surgery, but the same effect.
    • Just to be clear how screwed up the whole thing was, it's worth it to mention that the can of worms was opened when one of the said brothers, the ruling Emperor, decided that his prized rose bush was worthy not only of talking with, but of being made Chancellor. Naturally, the rest of the family wasn't really amused, but it still left a problem of deciding who is to call the shots after the loony was shipped into an asylum. Fortunately for them, the Cool Big Sis was smart enough to ensure the support of the army and went on to become the greatest Emperor in Andermani history. Y'see, those Andies are a really... colorful bunch sometimes.
    • Another crisis (on a much smaller scale) happens when Honor is believed to be dead, with no direct heir for her Steading on Grayson. In this case, there is someone who is her closest living relative who would be the clear legal heir (and who inherits her Manticorian title and lands), but the politics surrounding it make things more difficult. The solution is for Honor's parents to get busy, resulting in Honor getting a couple of siblings.
  • In C. S. Lewis's Prince Caspian, when Caspian's uncle has a son, he intends to kill Caspian, whose throne he usurped, so that there will not be a Succession Crisis.
  • In William King's Warhammer 40,000 Space Wolf novel Wolfblade, the impending death of the High Lord causes a great deal of politicking among the Navigators. And Cezare attempts to control it by creating a succession crisis in the House of Beliasarus, by killing the Elders who selected the Celestarch and then the Celestarch. He fails.
  • This is one of the four thousand subplots of The Wheel of Time. After Queen Morgase of Andor dies or is believed to have died, her daughter Elayne comes to the capital to take her throne, only to find herself embroiled in a huge war of succession against about half the noble houses. Some of them oppose her because they believe she's a puppet of The Dragon Reborn, some believe she's a puppet of the Aes Sedai, some because of offenses against them by Morgase who was being mind-controlled by one of the Forsaken, and some just because they saw it as their opportunity to grab power.
  • The Heralds of Valdemar series features this as a subplot several times. Valdemar's laws require that the Heir be of the nobility, be related to the ruling monarch as at least a cousin, and that they be a Herald. The last part is most important, since it's the Companions who do the Choosing and they're awfully picky about who is and is not fit to be a Herald.
    • In the Arrows trilogy, until Elspeth is Chosen, Selenay has to make do with cousins, (one of them the nephew of the Manipulative Bastard who was trying to gain control of the throne) and even after she's chosen, the court is anxious since there's only one heir and they're at war-what if something happens to Elspeth? And Elspeth nearly doesn't become Heir-In-Fact, since the Manipulative Bastard that Selenay trusted like an uncle hired a nurse to ensure that Elspeth grew up as a selfish, self-absorbed brat who was terrified of Companions; when that fails, he waits until she's old enough to start noticing boys and attempts to set up a blackmail situation that would have Elspeth crippled as a useful Heir -it's only foiled because the Queen's Own is very on the ball. Ironically, Elspeth later abdicates in favor of her recent half-brother and -sister, in order to become the first new Herald-Mage.
    • Much earlier in the history of Valdemar, during Vanyel's time, a crisis is brewing because the king is suffering from a wasting disease that leaves him sterile. This fact is very carefully concealed, and Vanyel, who is gay, makes a secret deal with the king's consort to sire an heir to preserve the line of succession (this is not the only child he conceives under similar circumstances, either). Six hundred years later, his Secret Legacy of mage powers manifests itself in Elspeth.
  • This is the backstory of the Codex Alera series. A battle between the crown prince's army and a barbarian horde killed the main character's parents, as well as the crown prince. The crown prince had no heir and was the only person in the line of succession, which is why the nobles are ruthlessly scheming. When the Tavi is revealed to be the dead prince's son, this Succession Crisis moves from the background of the story to the foreground. Later on it turns out that the entire crisis was engineered, with the crown prince having been assassinated during the battle by a conspiracy of other lords in order to destabilize the First Lord.
  • Matter by Iain M. Banks starts out with the king assassinated on the eve of his final triumph by his pseudo-loyal counsellor, when the crown prince has already died in the same campaign, the next older brother has to flee the world to escape the counsellor, and the next oldest prince is still underage and unprepared to be king. Intrigue ensues, of course. At one point the princess, who long ago emigrated and joined The Culture, toys with the idea of turning male permanently and claiming the throne, just to mess with people's heads.
  • Though it never comes to be, This is one of Thirrin's main worries in Cry of the Icemark. She marks a relative to reign while she is gone, and if she doesn't come back, that line takes over—which goes straight to the whole foreign ruler trouble. To make matters worse, there is no one else who can claim to be an heir—Thirrin is only just fourteen, and childless.
  • In the Belgariad, the throne of Cthol Murgos goes to the eldest heir of the last king. Thing is, the others will be executed. So even before the king dies, his children are usually out to kill each other. When Taur Urgas died, the battle was on. Urgit, the weakest (but most clever) of his sons, took the throne through virtue of having stolen a key to the royal treasury and hiring assassins. And then it turns out he's not even Taur Urgas's son in the first place, but nobody who knows this is willing to say anything, because nobody wanted a legitimate heir of Taur Urgas on the throne. Also, in the first series the great houses of Tolnedra were squaring off over which would produce the next Emperor since the current one was old and had no son. The crisis ends up aborted when the Emperor adopts a talented General as his son and heir.
  • In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "The Scarlet Citadel" when Conan is believed dead, the people resort to choosing quickly.
    "Not entirely," broke in Pelias. "They have heard that you are dead. There is no one to protect them from outer enemies and civil war, they think. Naturally, they turn to the strongest noble, to avoid the horrors of anarchy. They do not trust the Poitanians, remembering former wars. But Arpello is on hand, and the strongest prince of the central provinces."
  • There was a succession crisis going on in the background of the Ciaphas Cain novel The Traitor's Hand, with the governor of the planet Cain was on having died without naming a successor a year before, and the issue had yet to be resolved by the time war broke out over a totally different issue. However, since General Zyvan tricks the Council of Claimants (which consisted of the various nobles hoping to become governor) into voting itself out of the loop for the duration of the crisis, it has very little impact on the story.
  • Defusing a succession crisis in Nabol (Whose dying Lord refused to name an heir just to spite everybody) was a subplot in the Dragonriders of Pern novel Dragondrums.
  • Prince (later King) Jonathan of Tortall grew up under the pressure of needing to marry and produce heirs in order to prevent this. It became especially urgent after the death of his only close relative and heir, Duke Roger. All other relatives were distant and had no strong claim, and thus there would have been a huge war among the nobility if Jonathan had died without an heir. Luckily he and Thayet popped out five kids (including three sons) before the second quartet.
  • This happens a couple times in Warrior Cats, despite the fact that the Clans' hierarchy is set up in a way to avoid it: the Clan deputy always succeeds the leader, and the deputy must be chosen before the moon reaches its highest point during the coming night (so that the leader will not be without backup for more than a day).
    • In the first series, most of ShadowClan comes down with a deadly disease, and both the leader and deputy die. That's when Tigerclaw, who had been exiled from ThunderClan as a traitor, steps in and claims leadership. ShadowClan did not know of his previous actions, so they were grateful for such a strong cat as leader.
    • In the second series, Tallstar, leader of WindClan, announces with his dying breaths that Mudclaw is no longer his deputy: Onewhisker now is. Since deputy succeeds leader, and Tallstar managed to announce his decision only to Onewhisker and the leader of ThunderClan, who is Onewhisker's friend, many WindClan cats don't believe it, and start a civil war supporting the old deputy.
    • The guidebook Code of the Clans explains how this setup came to be: The deputy-becomes-leader rule started after there was a case where a leader selected his son as his successor. The son led his Clan into a needless fight, where half the cats disagreed with his choice and those that did listen nearly drowned. He realized that the deputy, due to her rank, had more experience in being in charge of the Clan. The rule that states that the new deputy must be chosen before moonhigh was created after a new leader waited too long to choose her deputy. She died of sickness, leaving the Clan leaderless and with two more dead cats who had attempted to fight for leadership. Eventually the spirit of the previous leader tells the medicine cat in a dream to choose who the new leader will be.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe reveals that Palpatine's death caused one of these for the Empire, due in large part to Palpatine having habitually played his possible successors off against each other to keep them off his back. The pretender Trioculus and the council of Grand Moffs that had replaced Tarkin managed to keep things together for a while, but they were eventually brought down by clashes with both Zorba the Hutt and the Heroes of Endor, and the Empire splintered into a number of warlords vying for the top position. They were briefly united again under Thrawn and later the resurrected Palpatine, but splintered again after the death of each. The remains of the Empire were only finally united for good when Admiral Natasi Daala got fed up with the whole mess, gathered the warlords together, and executed them when they failed to get their act together.
  • Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde features a frame story with a virtual reality game, the player of which is the illegitimate child of a king. Said king has just died, and named the player his heir, passing over three legitimate sons. The protagonist of Heir Apparent, Giannine Bellisario, must play the game until coronation—or she dies. In real life.
  • In Griffin's Destiny, the elves are faced with a potential crisis: The king is sick with a plague with a low survival rate, and the next three in line (the king's younger brother and his two sons) are about to go to war with the neighboring human empire. The only other member of the royal bloodline is Jelena, the king's newly discovered daughter, who is a hikui (a half-human). As hikui were considered second-class citizens at best, this would be like Barack Obama being the Democratic nominee for president in 1964. Ultimately averted, as the council of nobles agreed to support Jelena if it came to that (save one noble, who agreed not to oppose her) and the King's brother and younger son survived the battle with the humans.
  • Invoked and deliberately averted in Dirge for Prester John by the Abir, which decides the king by lottery. And even the the king does die, just plant him and wait a little while. He'll keep ruling in tree form.
  • The Firebird Trilogy had a rather draconian method of averting these, set in place after a group of young disinherited nobles and royals tried and failed to take over the government, backed by popular support: The only members of the royal and noble families legally allowed to reproduce are the head and the direct heir. On top of that, once enough heirs have been produced to drop someone in the family to fifth in the line of succession, that person was required by law to commit suicide (in times of war, this could be modified to being sent to the front lines to serve until dying for their country).
  • The main story of the Safehold series opens with the ending of a succession crisis over an Earldom. The resolution is notable because the decision is made not based on legal arguments, but on the fact that the 'rightful' heir bribed the Corrupt Church arbiters.
  • In Andre Norton's Ice Crown, the missing Ice Crown is supposed to pick out the heir.
  • In Julie Kagawa's The Iron Daughter, a crisis has emerged about whether the current Iron King is the true one.
  • This is the main political problem in Elemental Blessings.
  • Interesting variation in Quest Of The Unaligned. The protagonist, Crown Prince Alaric, must complete the titular quest before the summer solstice, or he will be ineligible to become king of Caederan. Further complicating things is the fact that the current king and queen have badly screwed up the realm, most of the nobility are counting on Prince Alaric to fix things, and the next heir in line will continue to screw things up. The upshot is that if Alaric can't complete his quest, Caederan will probably have a civil war on its hands.

    Live-Action TV 
  • I, Claudius
  • The Doctor Who story "The Androids of Tara". Basically a version of The Prisoner of Zenda Prince Reynart must be crowned at a specific time. Trying to stop him is an evil count, who plans to kill him or prevent his attendance so the next in line, Princess Strella takes over- or more specifically an android double. However, the prince has an android double of himself and Strella looks exactly like Romana. Spare a thought for Mary Tamm, who had to play both roles and doubles of each.
  • Dynasty is the Wuxia story of the Yongzheng Emperor's ascension, reign and assassination.
  • A variation occurs in Farscape's Look at the Princess trilogy. Moya's crew lands on a Sebacean planet where succession goes through the eldest child regardless of gender, but only if they are married (to someone who can give them viable offspring) by a certain age. Since Princess Katralla's DNA was poisoned by her younger brother, she despairs of ever finding a Sebacean male who is compatible and thinks she will have to forfeit the throne. This is particularly problematic since Prince Clavor will lead the society into destruction at the hands of the Scarrans if he is allowed to rule. Fortunately for her, John shows up.
  • Much of the first season of Downton Abbey revolves around a variation of this: instead of a country trying to figure out who will be the next monarch, it's a group of nobles—the Crawley family, the head of which holds the title Earl of Grantham—trying to determine who will be the inheritor of their estate and its title, after the heir presumptive dies aboard the Titanic. The current (6th) Earl, Robert would very much like to leave as much as possible to his eldest daughter, Lady Mary, but the terms of his marriage contract with his wife Cora put the kibosh on that. You see, the 5th Earl foolishly stipulated that Cora's fortune would be entailed to the estate—that is, assigned to whomever inherited the title "Earl of Grantham." With a few rare exceptions—and this isn't one—British peerages go to "the heirs male of the body" of the grantee; they cannot be inherited in the female line. Lord and Lady Grantham went on to have three daughters and no sons. The solution was for Mary to marry the next male in line, her second cousin and good friend of the family Patrick Crawley (the Earl and Patrick's father were friends growing up), and thus keep hold of her mother's money, but then the Titanic happened, and Patrick was on it. The next closest male relative is the Earl's third cousin once removed (and thus fourth cousin to Mary and her sisters), and he's a Self-Made Man who's not sure he wants to marry Mary and give up his career as a corporate-law solicitor to "run the estate" (i.e. be an idle aristocrat). Eventually he does, quite happily we might add...but he's so very businesslike about that it drives the Earl mad.
  • Merlin is actively trying to prevent this throughout the course of the show by keeping Arthur alive, the undisputed heir. Were he to die at least before he married Gwen, quite honestly, it's hard to imagine what could happen. Then it gets complicated when it's revealed Morgana is his older half-sister, which apparently gives her a legitimate claim to the throne despite her being a female bastard.
  • Game of Thrones featured this by the end of season 1, with Robert's death precipitating his surviving brothers, Renly and Stennis, as well as House Stark to revolt though House Stark did so primarily because of Joffrey's execution of Lord Stark - the "King of the North" idea came afterward.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • One story arc in the Popeye comics featured King Blozo of Spinachia being pressured into marrying because his subjects were fearing this trope. He didn't like the idea of having a wife but was reconsidering because the people of Spinachia was threatening to depose him and elect a President.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The classic Avalon Hill game Kingmaker is about the Wars of the Roses, see Real Life, below.
  • In 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the death of the chief modron Primus would always set off a Succession Crisis between the four secundi - the only time that modrons would fail to act as a unified force. Slightly subverted in that the decision process involved a cutthroat competition instead of out-and-out war.
    • And once a Secundus became the new Primus, a Tertian had to be promoted up to fill than empty Secundus spot, and then a Quarton had to be promoted up to fill the Tertian position, and so on all the way down.
    • In the Eberron campaign setting, this is what set off the Last War. King Jarot kicked the bucket, and, thanks to the military buildup during his reign for an invasion that never came and his habit of encouraging his children to squabble incessantly, he paved the war for a century-long war that split the unified kingdom of Galifar into twelve current nations of Khorvaire and only ended when one of the original five provinces was wiped off the map and the great-grandchildren of the royals who started it decided things had gone on long enough. Way to go there, Jarot. Unusually, the problem wasn't that there wasn't a dedicated heir, since on his deathbed Jarot declared the queen of Cyre the new ruler of Galifar; it's that of the five possible heirs, one decided that he had the divine right to be king, one believed he had the military right to be king, and one believed it was time to abandon the old tradition of kicking out the old royal family of each nation and handing them over to the new ruler of Galifar's kids.
    • The classic 1st edition module "Destiny of Kings" is all about this. The PCs must find and rescue an 18-year-old prince before his uncle claims the throne.
    • This is set up as a potential plot hook in the Al-Qadim setting. Grand Caliph Khalil al-Assad al-Zahir, Master of the Enlightened Throne, Most High Sovereign of the Land of Fate, the Worthy of the Gods, Scourge of the Unbeliever, Confidant of the Genies, has no sons (despite the best efforts of his harem). It's left up to the GM just what the reason is; suggestions include all his sons are being raised in secret, and a cursed item in the harem causing sterility.
  • The core Back Story of BattleTech is a Succession Crisis that lasted over 400 years, with 5 powers each claiming the throne, known as the Succession Wars. All of these powers have had internal Succession Crises of there own along the way.
    • House Davion had a succession crisis that caused a civil war so bad that they rewrote the rules of succession to be exceedingly specific, so that there could be no ambiguity as to who would succeed who. It... didn't work. Well, technically, the rules would have worked, but when the populace (and various nobles) simply accepted a new ruler in clear violation of those laws, they were shown to be nothing more than ink on a page. A civil war erupted a few years later.
  • In the Legend of the Five Rings setting, they seem to happen regularly to supply plot prizes for the year's tournaments.
  • Part of the Scarlet Empress' policy of keeping anybody from accumulating the power to overthrow her was to make the line of succession as obscure and convoluted as possible. Her Dynasty consists of twelve extended families, and she herself continuously delayed officially announcing a successor, ultimately stating that she would do so on the 1000th anniversary of her reign. This lack of clear succession is one of the reasons why, in the wake of her mysterious and unexpected disappearance, the Realm is on the verge of collapse.
  • The second Civil War that tore apart the Third Imperium in Traveller was initiated by the assassination of Emperor Strephon and his family. With no clear hiers there were a dozen nobles fighting one another until Virus destroyed their fleets.
  • This happens from time to time in the Empire in Warhammer Fantasy. When an Emperor dies, the Elector Counts often argue on who would be the next Emperor. Once there was the time of the Three Emperors, where three Counts declared themselves as the true Emperor of the Empire.

    Videogames 
  • A lot of strategy games are based around a succession crisis. This is not only because it's a highly realistic story, but due to the fact that they are based around wars, that this is actually not that far off from reality. Similar to a group of rebels fighting against a corrupted government.
  • Happens a lot (as you might expect) in the 4X strategy games Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, set in respectively the Middle Ages and the Renaissance/Colonial era.
    • Special note goes to the Crusader Kings 2 expansion pack The Old Gods, in which the Norse faction is required to adopt gavelkind successionnote  until they reform their religion (if ever). This inevitably results in various succession crises, as your heirs start fighting each other over who has a better claim on a title. Vicious intrafactional fighting follows, since this is the Vikings we're talking about.
    • One of the live action trailers for Crusader Kings 2 shows how one can engineer succession crises in neighboring kingdoms and take advantage of them to invade.
  • Tales of Vesperia has a succession crisis going on in the background, involving one of the main characters, Estelle. It is resolved rather abruptly when Alexei's insurrection and the Adephagos crisis catapult Ioder into the role of acting Emperor. His performance nets him the support of both the Council and the Knights, making him as-good-as-permanent Emperor. Estelle seems rather relieved at this turn of events, as it allows her to continue her travels and pursue her dreams of being a writer.
  • A succession crisis is what sets several major events of the video game Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume into motion. Depending on the path that the player picks, it also plays out differently, and you play a part in deciding who comes out on top: or so it looks. Kristoff and Langrey are guaranteed to either die or get imprisoned, and the only thing that changes is whether the realm is so badly fractured that Joshua is unable to keep it from collapsing after he takes the throne.
  • A Succession Crisis in fact appears in Tactics Ogre but this actually does not take into play as a key event until later, as the ethnic cleansing and liberation of Walstania are more important in the early parts of the game. It is resolved by the end of the game, either by talking Kachua, the rightful heir as the former king's biological daughter, out of committing suicide in front of Denim or by allowing her to do that and making her adoptive brother, the NEXT closest thing the heir, giving him the custom class of "Lord".
  • Interestingly enough, the events of Final Fantasy Tactics are set forth by a Succession Crisis, and unlike another game made by some of the same people, Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together, this takes central stage early on, but later the plot about corruption in the Church becomes more important, and the War of the Lions is relegated to the background. In fact, the succession crisis was ultimately instigated and extended by the church, in an attempt to reclaim their moral authority and position of power that was usurped by the strong monarchy.
  • There are two concurrent succession crises in Dragon Age: Origins:
    • The Fereldan succession crisis frames much of the main plot but the protagonist only gets involved after the civil war is mostly over. Problem is, the only candidates for the throne are the late king's wife (who isn't of Royal Blood herself), the bastard son of said king's father (by an elven mother, no less, which would make him a target of Fantastic Racism if anyone ever found out), and the Player Character (but only if they are of the Human Noble origin and choose to run for it). All the while a paranoid manipulative regent with a facade of righteousness makes the mess even murkier. Just to add to that pressure, a nigh-on unstoppable horde of monsters has nearly destroyed the standing army and is getting very close to wiping out the country outright. The remaining army is on the brink of civil war and all foreign aid has been blocked at the borders until far too late to make a difference. Without getting a king/queen to sort this mess out soon, the country is utterly boned.
      • The Player Charcter can also Marry either the late king's wife (if male) or Half Brother (if female) doubly solidifying their possible claim to the throne AND also giving a boost to their spouse's claim.
    • The Orzammar Dwarves are in the middle of a succession crisis of their own. One candidate, the son of the late king, is suspected of framing one sibling for the murder of their brother. The other candidate, the head of another noble house, claims the king said on his deathbed that he did not want his remaining son to be king, but no one else can verify this.
    • A succession crisis is averted in Dragon Age II when Viscount Dumar is killed during the qunari uprising. With no leader available and no heir, the Templars step in and assume total control over the city, which actually makes things worse because the Knight-Commander Meredith is refusing to let a new Viscount be decided, citing the "blood mage problem" as justification for her military rule and that she will allow a new Viscount to be elected once the crisis is averted. If Hawke sides with the Templars at the end, s/he becomes the new Viscount upon Meredith's death.
    • It's All There in the Manual that the two strongest clans in Nevarra are gearing up for one of these (the current King and his likely successor are both childless old men).
  • In The Witcher 2, the king isn't even dead. That doesn't stop anyone from waging wars over the kings illegitimate sons to have a better position once he's dead. The king doesn't like that a bit. Then he dies and things go really to hell.
  • In World of Warcraft, even though King Magni Bronzebeard of Ironforge (and of Khaz Modan) is still alive, there will be a crisis in the future for his daughter got pregnant as a result of Emperor Dagran Thaurissan of the Dark Iron Dwarves kidnapping her and doing her while she was under his spell (or so it would seem). Even if the bastard heir is accepted by the king, the rest of the Ironforge dwarves might rebel in sheer horror and disgust at the thought of a half-Dark Iron being their king.
    • Indeed, the crisis comes to pass in the World of Warcraft novel, "The Shattering", which details the events leading up to the upcoming Cataclysm expansion. It has emerged that King Magni turned to stone in a ritual to protect his people from the Cataclysm, paving the way for Moira to seize power. The crisis was eventually defused after the Council of Three Hammers was formed as a power-sharing measure.
    • There was also a succession crisis in the dwarven backstory, called the War of the Three Hammers. It ended up splitting the dwarves of Ironforge into the Bronzebeard, Wildhammer, and Dark Iron clans.
  • Features twice in Blaze Union. In the B route, it's revealed that this was one of the reasons that Luciana and Aegina were ordered assassinated; Alanjame didn't want to deal with a Succession Crisis-inspired civil war while he was trying to take over the country, and in the C route, the fact that Soltier doesn't have an heir and Bronquia would almost certainly destroy itself over picking a new Emperor is why Gram Blaze has no choice but to make sure he stays alive.
  • In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the game begins immediately with the simultaneous assassination of the Emperor and his heirs. The Elder Council, lead by High Councilor Ocato, essentially form a Regency. This succession crisis is compounded by the fact that the forces of Oblivion are no longer magically impeded from invading Cyrodiil.
    • It is downplayed, mostly from a deliberate choice on the part of the designers to avoid complicated politics in favour of a relatively simple black-and-white saving the world story, partly from the fact that you early on find out there is a rightful (bastard) heir who is accepted by the relevant authorities. Then he sacrifices his life to stop the Daedric invasion, setting the stage for the succession crisis in Skyrim's backstory.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim also takes place during a succession crisis in Skyrim. Traditionally, when the High King of Skyrim dies, his replacement is elected by the Jarls. But because Skyrim is also a province of the Empire, the Empire tends to back the candidates who will keep Skyrim loyal. After Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak killed High King Torygg, setting off the events of the game, the province is divided between seccessionist and loyalist Jarls. Since nobody commands a clear majority, the province is in danger of falling into civil war.
    • A succession crisis occurred earlier before Skyrim and after Oblivion. Ocato is named Potentate (kinda like a more permanent Regent), but is soon done in by Thalmor assassins. War breaks out again as several jockey for the throne, eventually ending with Titus Mede claiming it.
  • Averted, mostly, with the King's Quest universe. King Edward was childless, but he outright stated that tasking Graham with recovering the three treasures was more of a way for him to know the kingdom was in good hands, and a final test for his best knight. The Fan Sequel took it a step further by creating a legendary first king who handed the throne to his trusted knight when he died in battle without heirs. The king's brother was very displeased at being passed over, and founded the Black Cloak Society. In the Air Gem's final test Graham can choose whether or not to make the protagonist of King's Quest: Mask of Eternity heir to the throne.
  • Disgaea: Hour of Darkness starts with the Netherworld in the midst of one of these. The rightful heir, Prince Laharl, had been sleeping for several years after his father's death, leading most of the Netherworld to forget about him. The first couple chapters involve him dealing with the numerous contenders looking to be the next Overlord. Disgaea Dimension 2 shows that several years later, this still hasn't blown over, with a sudden appearance by an angel claiming to be Laharl's long-lost sister and rightful inheritor of the throne, and a large faction of demons refuses to accept Laharl's position, and have their own heir to the Overlord title they wish to place on the throne.
  • Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars is entirely based around this trope. After the previous king's death, the choice falls between his two sons Roland (good) and Archibald (not so good). The four royal seers to make the decision fall to "tragic accidents": one dies in a boating accident (hit by magical lightning), one slips and falls from the castle wall, one is "randomly" attacked by a dragon, and one dies of food poisoning. Archibald accuses his brother of murder and has him exiled. The player is a general who may choose to support either brother and may even switch sides halfway through. The canonical ending has Roland win, though, becoming the next (and last) King of Enroth.
  • Prior to the events of Suikoden V, there was the Falenan Succession Conflict. After the death of their mother, Princess Falzrahm fought her elder sister Crown Princess Shahrewar for the throne. Rather than a flat-out civil war, both sides took advantage of the royal cabal of assassins known as Nether Gate to kill off supporters on both sides. Eventually, Shahrewar withdrew her claim, only to be promptly assassinated by Falzrahm to ensure the conflict wouldn't continue. Ironically, Falzrahm only ruled for two years before passing away. Having grown up in this poisonous environment, their daughters decided to nip any potential problems in the bud: Arshtat took the throne, while her sister Sialeeds and cousin Haswar agreed to never marry or have children.
    • Unfortunately, this didn't quite work out as planned. Although the next queen (Lymsleia, the protagonist's younger sister) was never in doubt, a crisis occurred with regards to who would marry her and become royal consort and head of the country's military. This is traditionally decided through a tournament of champions, but since House Godwin won it through drugging or discrediting all potential threats to their champion, a lot of people were upset with this choice. The Godwins then tried to solidify their rule by assassinating the current Queen and Commander right away, when Lymsleia is still too young to rule on her own. The prince (the protagonist) was able to survive this assassination attempt, and much of the country begins to look to him as preferential to Gizel Godwin as leader of the Queendom (including the father of another contender for Lymsleia's hand, with whom the Prince takes refuge). And thus the stage is set for the civil war that comprises the majority of the game.
  • Some of the Total War games allow this to happen if your faction leader buys the farm in certain circumstances — usually when the leader dies without any male heirs, but it can also happen when heir presumptive is unpopular enough that one of his royal siblings rebels in an effort to take succession. The manual for the first Medieval (which allowed you to choose which side to support) actually suggested engineering one of these to dispose of a weak family line, and a savvy player who sees one coming can pick his best general, give him the biggest army, and then marry him to a princess. If you're going to have a succession crisis, it's best to make sure it's a quick one.
    • The Stainless Steel mod for Medieval II takes this further, with rulers that can get traits like "Offends the Nobility" and distinguihes between bastard children, appointed regents in case of no blood heir, and actual blood heirs. Unpopular kings or unpopular heirs can cause civil wars in that mod.
  • The manual of Homeworld: Cataclysm reveals the Taiidan Empire fell due a rather unusual one: after the death in battle of Emperor Riesstiu IV the Second at the end of the first game, the empire could have solved the lack of an heir (caused by Riesstiu having all possible heirs executed out of paranoia) by simply cloning him (with Riesstiu regnal name suggesting he too was a clone of Emperor Riesstiu), except the Taiidan Rebellion destroyed the data on his genetic code. Immediately after, generals and fake heirs started shooting each other for the right to rule, with the Rebellion taking over as they were distracted.

    Visual Novels 

    Webcomics 
  • This is one of the biggest problems that faces the Sharen clan in Drowtales. Though Diva'ratrika has largely retired from public life and only officially remained alive, since she was in fact murdered by three of her daughters her daughters have squabbled to assert their own authority. Nishi'kanta has been broken by the taint and the loss of her family, and is thus considered out of the running, but she has disappeared and her plans are unknown, making her a potential Wild Card. As the only unbroken, loyal daughter, Sil'lice is the favorite of what little remains of both Diva herself and those who were still loyal to her like Sker, but she was framed for treason and has few followers left alive. Snadhya'rune, the would be favorite, has pretended to have no interest in ruling, and she certainly has no interest in ruling the Sharen, just the empire. The biggest contenders for the Sharen throne are Sarv'swati and Zala'ess. Sarv'swati continues to control the empire through an impostor Puppet Queen, but Zala'ess has the largest family and amassed the great clans of Nuqra'shareh to back her claim. The fallout when those two inevitably meet up again will no doubt be enormous.
  • In The Silver Eye, Gallitan has one after their king and queen both die within a week of each other, leaving behind only their newborn son.

    Web Originals 
  • Look to the West, being set primarily in the 18th and early 19th centuries, naturally has a lot of them. It even references the Yongzheng Emperor's strategy mentioned in the introduction to this trope...not that it works if the Emperor writing the note is quietly bonkers and chose a son who had died years before as heir.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • The aftermath of Alexander the Great's short-lived empire puts A Song of Ice and Fire to shame. Half a dozen weak next of kin (the first was a mentally ill half-brother), scheming women, poison, scores of generals battling for supremacy and ripping off kingdoms for themselves resulting in division of his empire, you name it. That's what happens in a culture where the strongest get to rule by killing their rivals.
  • Succession crises started the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Hundred Years War, and the Wars of the Roses, among many others. In medieval England alone, the deaths (sometimes murders) of William Rufus, Henry I, Richard I, Edward II, Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III all led to irregular successions, and other countries have histories no less colorful. In Tsarist Russia, this was particularly a very common thing, with the many Palace Revolutions resolved by the Leib Guards, before the strict succession laws were introduced by Paul I.
    • Re. England: The death of Edward the Confessor also caused a succession crisis with far-reaching consequences. Henry I's death was followed by a nasty civil war called the Anarchy, as Matilda (Henry's only surviving legitimate offspring) was a woman, and so many nobles recognized Stephen, Count of Blois, as King, a claim Stephen backed up with an army; the issue was settled ad hoc by allowing Stephen to reign but having Matilda's son Henry succeed him rather than Stephen's son Eustace. Richard I's death without an heir split the succession between his underage nephew Arthur of Brittany and his unsavory brother John; the British nobles were persuaded to accept John on the basis of "better the devil we know", and ganged up to force some restraints on him when he (as they expected) got out of hand. (John's seven-year-old son was readily accepted as his successor when John died suddenly, soon after the ganging-up at Runnymede.) Edward II was a borderline case, as he was deposed and (allegedly) murdered for Conduct Unbecoming, and his wife and her lover became regents while his son (Edward III) was underage. Richard II's death was not the cause of an irregular succession but its consequence, and neither did Edward V's death cause a succession crisis as he had not even been crowned before he was passed over (you could perhaps argue that he and his brother were murdered to prevent the possibility of a future succession crisis, which is why some people try to pin the blame on Henry VII). Richard III's death ended the Wars of the Roses in favour of a line that had been officially excluded from succession by Henry IV. The death of Edward VI was followed by an irregular succession (Jane Grey, then Mary I), and from the Catholic point of view, so was the death of Mary I.
    • Re. Russia: The period of palace revolutions was largely the result of the law instituted by Peter I, that every reigning Czar or Czarina could name his or her successor freely. (Peter was probably trying to avoid a repeat of Russia's "Time of Troubles", which lasted from 1598 to 1613 and involved six usurpers out of seven actual rulers.) This law resulted in succession being resolved by palace guards, who, being twenty years old young men, usually picked some pretty and adventurous princess, paying little attention to whether she was Romanov or not exactly.
    • Re. the War of the Spanish Succession: the Spanish Habsburgs bred themselves into extinction by a series of incestuous marriages, leading to rival claimants backed by France (Philip V Bourbon, Duke of Anjou), Austria (Archduke Charles, second son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I) and an Anglo-Dutch alliance (Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria was their first choice, but when he keeled over they decided the Austrians were less threatening). The Anglo-Dutch for a while supported Charles of Habsburg, but when his elder brother Joseph I died, this made Charles the new Emperor, and they did not want him to rule both the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. So, when the dust finally settled, Philip got to keep the throne of Spain on condition that he renounce any claim to the throne of France (the current king of Spain, Juan Carlos, is a direct descendant). So instead of becoming King Charles III of Spain, Archduke Charles became Emperor Charles VI-and since he had no son, his death would directly lead to the War of the Austrian Succession.
      • The Soviet Union also suffered this towards the end of the Cold War, eventually contributing to its dissolution. Or rather it was a crisis of reassignment of powers between the union center and the constituent republics; some of the latter, pushed by growing separatist movements, demanded more powers reassigned to them from the union center. The fall itself happened when the Russian Federation, the central republic, jumped on the separatist bandwagon, leaving the union center the center of exactly nothing.
      • Spain has actually had a few succession crises. When Philip V became King, one of his main priorities was to centralize and formally unify Spain (Spain had been practically unified for about 200 years by this point, but officially the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were separate countries), and this meant settling on a succession law. Castile traditionally used male-preference primogeniture (a female could succeed to the throne if there were no immediate male heirs; this was the system used in England and Britain until 2013), while Aragon historically preferred semi-Salic Law (a female could only succeed to the throne if there were no male heirs whatsoever). In an attempt to pacify Aragon, which had largely opposed him in his own bid to become King, Philip introduced semi-Salic law for all of Spain. 120 years down the line, this became a problem: King Ferdinand VII, considered a liberal, had no sons, only a very young daughter, Isabella. Under Philip's law of succession, this made Ferdinand's younger brother Charles the heir to the throne. However, Charles was a committed reactionary and believer in the "divine right of kings." So instead, Ferdinand ignored the laws of succession and declared Isabella his heir. Ferdinand's death in 1833 led to the first of three wars based on this issue.
      • In 1936, Charles' last male-line descendant died, making the exiled King Alfonso XIII (the heir of Isabella who had been forced from the throne in 1931) the heir to both lines of the Spanish Royal Family. Ironically, the Carlists (those who has supported Charles and his heirs) opted to ignore this (while producing a conspiracy theory that Alfonso XIII wasn't really Alfonso XII's biological son) and instead declared the Duke of Parma, a distant relative of the Spanish Royal Family who had supported the Carlist cause, to be Charles' rightful heir. In 1975, the monarchy was formally reestablished and Alfonso XIII's grandson King Juan Carlos I took the throne.
    • Re. the Austrian War of Succession: Things were further complicated by the fact that the Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy and that the Prince-Electors in theory could choose whomever they wanted. The situation was comparable in the latter stages of the Polish-Lithuanian "Commonwealth", although here succession was more often settled by bribery than force of arms (although there was a Polish War of Succession in 1734/35).
  • The Ottoman Turks of the 16th Century had a novel way of avoiding this. With the Sultan usually having many male children via his various harem wives, it became standard practice for the Sultan on his deathbed to name his heir, and the palace attendants would simply strangle all the other potential claimants in their beds. Job done... except that having more than one wife meant that they could start the succession crisis on behalf of their children well before he died and when one of the kids survived they tended to be angrier.
    • Another story on how the Ottomans did things (possibly not accurate, as it came from a history professor but heaven only knows how right he was): All the various princes/contenders would be farmed out to different provinces to practice ruling and government. When the Sultan died, those sons would race for the throne, and whichever of them landed his derrire on it first would get the title, usually followed by a period of fratricide. The point is that the Succession Crisis was built in to the process, in a way that (at least in theory) encouraged survival of the fittest.
      • That is probably a Panglossian interpretation ex post facto, as the first on the throne would not necessarily be the best man for the job, and fratricide and internecine strife had a great potential for weakening the Ottoman Empire vis--vis its neighbors and rivals.
    • In fact both the murder of rival heirs and the farming out of same to the provinces are true, the former practice leading to the latter for exactly the reasons stated. The practice of murdering the late Sultan's other sons ended abruptly when a Sultan died young and many of the executed sons were mere children which proved more than the Turks could stomach. The final system, in operation till the end of the Empire, was to literally imprison sons inside the harem until and unless they succeeded, a practice that probably contributed to the high number of mentally disturbed sultans.
    • Of note with regards to the Ottoman custom of strangling other male heirs was the death of Bayezid I as a captive of Timur, which caused his sons to squabble over the Ottoman territory.
    • This Klingon Promotion style of succession led often to situations where there were no other male members of the Othman family line alive except the sultan apparent. To prevent the extinction of the family line, the later sultans invented the practise of Kafes, literally "golden cage", where the other male members of the dynasty were incarcerated, to keep them alive but not endangering the regime of the Sultan.
  • The Roman Empire had a similar problem. Theoretically, the position of Emperor was not inherited: new emperors were supposed to be appointed to the position by the Senate (or by the Senate and the Army, depending who you asked. The Praetorian Guard would claim that the appointment was made by them, as they tended to overthrow any Emperor who didn't bribe them upon assuming the throne, and they once auctioned the throne off outright). This tended to lead to civil wars, since pretty much any senator or general officer could be proclaimed emperor. There was a workaround where an Emperor could nominate a successor during his reign by adopting a respected politician or general - this usually quashed any rival claimants to the throne, but not in every case. The Five Good Emperors (Nerva to Marcus Aurelius) were all "adoptive", and Aurelius's decision to appoint his biological son as heir proved to be a tragic mistake, since the son's name was Commodus and his malfeasances led to his assassination and another brutal round of civil wars (Tellingly, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire begins with the reign of Commodus). The Byzantine Empire went in for dynasties, which produced more stability.
    • The Byzantine Empire was still subject to these, though - especially in its period of terminal decline. Even the appointment of the last Byzantine Emperor, at a time when Byzantium amounted to Constantinople and a sliver of Greece, was the subject of a succession crisis; Demetrius Palaeologus tried to seize power in Constantinople while his brother Constantine, the rightful heir, was in the Morea. The decline of the empire itself can be attributed to multiple succession crises; the Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade was the result of an exiled Byzantine prince bribing the crusaders to depose the ruling emperor and seize control for himself, while the main reason the Battle of Manzikert resulted in more than mild border adjustments and coughing up some ransom was the Emperor being promptly deposed after the Sultan sent him home and the whole thing slagging down into civil war.
  • The Frankish Empire had a different type of succession crisis under the Merovingians and Carolingians (until Louis the Pious and his sons): Here the king would divide his realm up among his sons, which frequently led to wars among them as every one of them tried to expand at the expense of the others. And when a king succeeded to get the whole empire by war, murder and/or being lucky enough that his rivals died childless, he would then divide it among his sons and the process would start again. (Germany and France got their start as separate political entities after the division of the Frankish empire among the three sons of Louis the Pious).
  • Yongzheng, the Chinese emperor who won a bloody succession crisis (and killed all but one of his brothers in the process), also tried to avert future crises by... Keeping a succession note prepared when he's alive but hiding it in a location only known to very close confidants. So the succession was made loud and clear when the emperors' health still allowed them to do so, but it's announced after his death.
  • When the Pope dies, the Sacred College of Cardinals elects his successor from among their number at a Conclave.note  The system wasn't always this clear, though. Over its two thousand-year history, the office has seen Popes try to name their own successors, Popes installed by force of arms, and elected Popes contested by candidates chosen by powerful kings or emperors. Individuals who had strong backing to the Papacy but who the church does not recognize as legitimate are called "Antipopes". At one point there was a dispute between two claimants, so the Cardinals chose a third man to replace them, but neither of them stepped down, leaving three men who claimed to be Pope!
    • Eventually, two of the popes were talked into resigning and a new pope was elected who was recognized by everyone. (Or almost everyone: the third pope refused to step down, and spent the rest of his life living in the castle of one of his remaining supporters, where he would regularly perform excommunication ceremonies on the entire rest of the Catholic church for not Respecting his Authoritai.)
    • And all of this says nothing about yet another problem-even when the College is allowed to choose the Pope normally, the bickering can last for a very long time indeed. Several conclaves in the Middle Ages dragged on for months, until eventually, in 1268, the town of Viterbo (where the cardinals had been "electing a pope" for three years) first put the cardinals into forced seclusion, then denied them all materials or sustenance save bread and water, and finally removed the roof of the building the cardinals were meeting in, at which point they promptly elected Gregory X. However, Gregory was off fighting in the Crusades, and he didn't return to take office for another eight months. Upon finally taking the papal throne, Gregory instituted new rules that included requiring the election be held in a closed room, limiting the cardinals to one meal daily after three days in conclave, bread and water after five days, denying them separate quarters, and cutting off their pay for the whole time they were in conclave. A modified form of these rules remains to this day, and since then, very few conclaves have lasted more than a few weeks.
      • Under the current rules enacted by John XXIII, conclaves go to a runoff between the top two candidates if no Pope is elected within a week of the beginning of the conclave, and the number of votes needed to be elected Pope drops from 2/3 to a simple majority.
  • This happens even in republics.
    • Before William Henry Harrison's term, exactly what would happen when a President was unable to fulfill the duties of office had not been settled-perhaps they thought that if the President got sick, the Vice Prez would fill in until the President could return. Harrison got sick, all right-and then he died and the question had to be answered, because Harrison wasn't coming back. John Tyler answered it by stating that he was the President, not the Acting President. Certainly, the Whig party of the United States of America thought THAT was a crisis, as Tyler was essentially a Democrat.
    • Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke towards the end of his term. The solution used in this case-the VP picked up some duties while Wilson handled whatever his wife Edith felt he was up to, and the whole thing was kept secret from the public-was deemed less than optimal. This led to the Twenty Fifth Amendment, which set out detailed rules for Presidential succession in case of death, illness, or other incapacity. US law has also codified a line of succession 18 people deep (who by tradition are never allowed to gather at a single function) to ensure such a crisis won't happen in the future. If anyone other than the Vice President succeeds to the Presidency, under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 [3 USC 19] he or she would "act as President," in the words of the act, unless and until such time as someone qualifies for the presidency constitutionally (e.g., through election). The act uses the title "Acting President." For reference, the Speaker of the House is next in line after the Vice President, but the US has never experienced a scenario like that yet.
    • Historian Simon Schaama has interpreted the Restoration in England in this way-Charles II became king not because England needed a successor for Charles I, but for Oliver Cromwell, and his son wasn't up to the job.
    • A Canadian example occurred when Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, died in office just after being reelected in 1891. Macdonald had dominated his Conservative party for so long that, when he died, there was no immediate successor. From 1891 to 1896, the Conservative party had four separate leaders, who each became Prime Minister in turn. Sir John Abbott eventually resigned when he got tired of the job, Sir John Thompson came to be seen as Macdonald's natural successor but died in office, Sir Mackenzie Bowell was forced out of office by a Cabinet revolt, and Sir Charles Tupper eventually took over in the last few months of the Conservatives' mandate. By the time of the 1896 election, the Conservative party was so damaged that it was said that "not even Sir Charles Tupper could put it back together again." Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party won the 1896 election handily, and Laurier would serve as Prime Minister until 1910.
    • According to many Mexican (and foreign) experts, this could happen in Mexico if the president dies due to natural causes, by an accident or is convicted of federal crimes (like treason), since the Mexican Constitution forbids the president to even quit the office, even if it's the last thing he/she can do, but the authors never though about these possibilities.
    • Occurred in Australia after the disappearance and presumed death of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967. The job of Prime Minister was expected to go to Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Billy McMahon, however Leader of the Country Partynote  and Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen became Acting Prime Minister.note  He despised McMahon and refused to let him become Prime Minister, saying the Country Party wouldn't serve under him. Instead the job went to John Gorton. However by 1971, McEwen had resigned, and Gorton had lost the support of the partynote . Gorton then held a motion of confidence in his leadership, which was tied-he then resigned as Leader and Prime Minister. McMahon finally became Prime Minister... only to lose the election to Gough Whitlam the next year.
  • Succession crises are even possible and significant today. For instance, analysts of the Middle East are currently afraid of a looming crisis in Saudi Arabia, where the last of the sons of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud are in their old age, and nobody's sure who of his grandsons is really fit to take the throne. Since the Al Saud is nothing if not a Deadly Decadent Court (o.k. only deadly metaphorically-ostracism and reassignment to Antarctica are preferred to poison), this could lead to turmoil in one of the region's most important powers.
  • The reason for the split between Sunni and Shi'a Islam was a dispute over who should have succeeded Muhammad as Caliph. The Shi'ites only recognize the short reigns of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali and his son Hassan, while the Sunnis recognize Ali and the three Caliphs who preceded him.
  • When Brazil's first Emperor (Dom Pedro the First) inherited the throne of Portugal, he had to choose between remaining Emperor of Brazil or become Dom Pedro the Fourth, King of Portugal, because the Brazilians, not wanting to be a colony of Portugal again, wouldn't allow their ruler to be the ruler of Portugal as well. He decided to stay in Brazil and pass the Portuguese crown to his daughter, Maria the Second. Unfortunately, her Evil Uncle Miguel managed to usurp the throne and Pedro returned to Portugal to rescue her and restore her to the position. Upon leaving, he abdicated the Brazilian throne in favor of his son Dom Pedro de Alcantara, who'd later become known as Dom Pedro the Second as soon as he became Emperor. Because Pedro II was still a minor when Pedro I abdicated, the Empire of Brazil was ruled by regents until he was deemed ready to rule. During that time, republicans attempted to show Brazil didn't need a monarch. At first, there was a trio of regents; then another trio; then a regent being the sole ruler; then another one; and then the Government decided to declare Pedro the Second an adult so he could finally claim the throne despite being only fourteen years old back then. Forty-some years later, a coup d'etat by some rich landowners ended his rule and Brazil has been a republic ever since.
    • Because it was established by coup, the republic was at first a huge scam favoring the rich-and as it turns out, Brazil really did need a monarch back then if it was going to have anything resembling constitutional democracy. Perhaps unfortunately for Brazil, Pedro II and his daughter Isabella were so self-conscious that they didn't even bother to contest the coup. Brazil buffeted between democracy and dictatorship for almost a whole century after the fall of the monarchy.
      • In a recent non-binding referendum, 20% of the people voted to restore the monarchy.
  • Speaking about Portugal, a Succession Crisis caused when the King disappeared in a battle resulted in Portugal being once ruled by Felipe II of Spain.
    • Portugal has had a few succession crises through the years, the first in the 1380s. Ferdinand I, the last king of the first Portuguese ruling house, had been at war with neighboring Castile for years. His only child was a daughter, so he married her off to King John I of Castile and declared that John would become heir to the Portuguese throne. However, many Portuguese nobles feared this would threaten Portuguese independence, so instead they proclaimed Fernando's illegitimate half-brother, John of Aviz, to be King. The subsequent war was won by the latter, who became King John I of Portugal and founded the Aviz Dynasty of kings.
  • Japan:
    • The four decades without a male being born into the Japanese Imperial Family almost caused them to make the country stop being a Heir Club for Men.
    • The Ōnin War was precipitated by a succession crisis in the Ashikaga shogunate. The shogun Yoshimasa, seemingly preparing to abdicate, announced that, since he had no sons of his own, his younger brother Yoshimi would serve as his heir. The next year, Yoshimasa's son Yoshihisa was born. This led to a feud between the Hosokawa and Yamana clans. Fighting broke out in 1467 and lingered on for about a decade, by which time Kyoto was reduced to ruins and, ironically, Yoshimasa was still shogun.
  • Britain normally avoids this sort of thing in modern times because Parliament actually has the final say on who is crowned, but in 1936 they had a particularly unfortunate one after Edward VIII declared his intention to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. (It was a different time., and even then the two of them being seen schmoozing with Those Wacky Nazis was at least as much of a scandal.) The actual crisis wasn't so much that Edward couldn't be replaced if he agreed to abdicate, which he eventually did, but the serious questions about his younger brother George's ability to take over; he'd had no real training for the job and didn't particularly want it either, to say nothing of his severe speech impediment and subsequent lack of self-confidence. He did alright in the end.

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