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The Wrongful Heir to the Throne
"Heaven doesn't always make the right men kings!"
—Fritz von Tarlenheim in The Prisoner of Zenda

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, power-hungry 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 Succession Crisis 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.

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.

This trope allows for an easily set up villain; we live in democratic times, at least in the free world, where, unlike in previous eras where divinity was linked with kingship, being "in line to the throne" is not considered an automatic mark of the right and capability to lead. Setting up a character as someone who is born for the throne but has none of the skills or personality for the job makes for an easy Evil Overlord or other evil dictatorial figure for the hero to fight. Used as more than a cheap set up for a villain, this tool sets up an obvious Aesop; its not the circumstances you are born into which should decide your position in life, but who you are as a person and how you react to those circumstances, and a system which bases its system of leadership selection around lineage is bound for failure.

Historically, in Real Life, however, this trope is a mixed blessing at best. True, your current king may be an improvement, but he has set a precedent that the throne belongs to whomever can connive his way into it — often enough without the excuse that the current king is worse than he is. It can set the stage for decades if not centuries of civil war.

Examples

Anime & Manga
  • Legend of the Galactic Heroes Reinhard von Lohengramm deposes the last Kaiser of the Goldenbaum dynasty, an 8-month old baby.
  • While Crown Prince Odysseus of Britannia in Code Geass is not as egotistical or racist like his father or some of his siblings, he is somewhat of a milquetoast Inadequate Inheritor compared to the more competent Schneizel el Britannia, or the actual usurper, Lelouch vi Britannia.
  • In Ooku: The Inner Chambers a Gender Flipped Shogun Tsunayoshi and one of her attendants Emonnosuke discuss the 'mandate of Heaven' theory mentioned below under Real Life. By the end of her reign Tsunayoshi believes herself to be this trope, and would welcome someone to kill her. It's unclear if she got her wish or if another trope motivated her murder.
  • In One Piece, Wapol is the king of Drum Island, but is such a Jerk Ass and The Caligula that he forced any doctor that didn't work for him personally off the island so the people would have to beg to him for treatment. When he fled the island when it was attacked by pirates, the people were happy to see him go. So happy that the idea of him returning puts the island into a panic.

Fan Fiction
  • In the Rumpelstiltskin retelling The Dressmaker Queen, heir to the throne Prince Leopold Gray is lacking a kindness gene. However, because of the simple fact that he was the oldest, he was to be the king. His grandfather finally had enough and decided to pass on the crown to Gray's younger brother. Needless to say, it doesn't end very well....

Film
  • 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.
  • The Man in the Iron Mask has King Louis XIV of France, who is bankrupting the country with unpopular wars and keeping many mistresses. His brother Philippe is kept prisoner to prevent him from claiming the throne.
  • Commodus from Gladiator. While his father Marcus Aurelius is preparing to revoke Commodus' right of succession (partially because he sees that Commodus is an Inadequate Inheritor), his death prevents him going through with it, thus Commodus is technically his legitimate successor.
  • In Shrek the Third King Harold dies, meaning that Fiona, and by extension Shrek, are rightful heirs to the throne. Neither really wants this position, especially Shrek, so he goes on a quest to find Fiona's teenage cousin, Arthur.
  • In the first film, Thor initially isn't ready to be king of Asgard because he's an immature, impulsive prat. By the second film he's gained the maturity and wisdom required to be king but has matured to realize that he doesn't have the necessary ruthlessness and voluntarily gives up his claim to the throne. He'd much rather be facing evil, protecting the innocent, and fighting the good fight than sacrificing others and having them die for him, however necessary it might be.
  • In Dragonheart, Prince Einon is not only a spoiled brat of a prince that thinks making war is fun, he's got half of a dragon heart inside him because the first time he tried it for real during a peasant uprising he nearly died. In the same battle his father - who wasn't cruel but he was far from the most giving of kings, hence the peasant uprising - also died, making Einon king. Now he's still a spoiled juvenile brat, he's unkillable (as long as the dragon he shares a heat with lives) and has the political power of kingship behind him. This turns him full-blown sadist, giddily cracking down even harder on the peasantry and personally abusing anyone he can get away with. The alternative would have been his mother, the kind-hearted and sympathetic queen, but she just had to save her child. She quickly realizes what a mistake this was, and spends a large part of the next several years trying to undermine his worst plans, up to and including hiring dragon slayers to hunt down his benefactor.

Literature
  • Discworld:
    • In Wyrd Sisters, 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 it's not because they share a father, but a mother - the Queen got lonely while the king was fooling around with the peasant girls.
    • Guards! Guards! introduces 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.
      • In later books, Carrot demonstrates he's not entirely Wrongful when he uses the implication of his Rightfulness to push the Patrician in certain directions.
  • A double dose in The Prisoner of Zenda. The legitimate ruler, Rudolf, is a drunken boor who is unpopular with the people. The usurper, Black Michael, isn't the most charming or popular guy either, but at least he's competent and respected. But the impostor, Rudolf Rassendyl, puts them both to shame and would make a better king then either of them, prompting young von Tarlenheim's quote at the head of this page.
  • The Haldane Restoration in Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novel 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 - and the new King never forgives them for it, leading to the terrible anti-Deryni backlash of the next several books.
  • Mercedes Lackey likes this one:
    • In the Bardic Voices series, Kestrel was the rightful king of Birnam after his uncle deposed his father. It turned out that the father was taxing the people heavily and wasting it on personal luxuries while the uncle was ruling the kingdom wisely. Kestrel publicly abdicated the throne in favor of his uncle because he did not think himself competent to take it.
    • Played with in The Black Swan. While Queen Clothilde is evil, she's also a pretty good ruler. Her son Siegfried, the rightful king, is an incompetent moron with zero skills in politics or diplomacy (though admittedly, that's mostly because his mother raised him to ensure he wouldn't become a threat to her power).
    • Played with again in Oathbreakers from the Heralds of Valdemar series. The throne of Rethwellen is empty. The King's eldest son and designated heir is poised to take it, and he's a right bastard; the younger Spare To The Throne was an irresponsible philanderer, but matured after running away to avoid being murdered by his brother and is now leading a rebellion to take the crown. The twist comes in with the fact that the Crown Prince is not necessarily the legitimate heir; the country has only defaulted to boring old succession because the enchanted Sword that Sings that's supposed to choose the king has been missing for a generation. If the protagonists can find the sword in time, and it does indeed choose the younger brother, then the rebellion will have morality and legality on its side.
  • Damadora in the Belisarius Series.
  • In Susan Dexter's The Wizard's Shadow, it quickly becomes obvious that the regent uncle is a far better ruler than his nephew the king — and far too conscientious to do anything but step aside when his nephew is old enough.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Robert's rebellion against King Aerys Targaryen: no question Aerys is the rightful king, but he also has this nasty habit of burning people alive.
    • After the rebellion, Ser Barristan gave this as a justification for why he accepted Robert's pardon and served him: while Aerys's son Viserys may have been the rightful king, he was also "his father's son" in many unfortunate ways.
    • Mentioned as part of the backstory in the discussion of what happened after the death of King Maekar. Maekar's oldest two sons both had children, who technically should have been ahead of their uncles in the line of succession, but who were considered "unacceptable" for various reasons.
    • Renly tries to invoke this trope to justify taking the throne for himself. He has no legal claim, but he thinks he would be a better king than either of his nephews or his dour older brother.
    • Tyrion Lannister spends much of the second book trying to make the kingdom a better place despite Joffrey. Joffrey's regent, Tyrion's sister Queen Cersei, is no better, and Tyrion actually resorts to drugging her with a laxative to keep her out of his way for a day. When their father Tywin shows up to take his place as Hand of the King and de facto regent, he may be a grade-A Jerkass, but his Pragmatic Evil approach still makes him a far sight better for the realm than Joffrey.
    • The people who accept Joffrey and his siblings' illegitimacy generally view Stannis as the legitimate heir to the throne. While he would certainly make a better king than Tommen, he is a stubborn, self-righteous and inflexible man and he would not hesitate to sacrifice all and everything in Westeros to make sure what he sees as "the right thing" happens. His rule would probably be a blooodbath.
    • In the backstory, the supporters of Daemon Blackfyre in the Blackfyre Rebellion saw King Daeron II ("Daeron the Good") as this. They were believers in Asskicking Equals Authority and preferred a warrior-king to the bookish Daeron.
  • In the Farseer trilogy, Prince Regal declares the MIA Prince Verity dead in order to have legitimacy for his reign.
  • The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell has Arthur as King Uther's Heroic Bastard son and Mordred as King Uther's legitimate but treacherous grandson. Unfortunately, Arthur is far too Lawful Good to make himself Regent for Life.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, Prince Serg, legitimate heir to the Barrayaran empire, is very much the Caligula. The succession issue is resolved when Serg is allowed to lead a spectacularly overmatched invasion force and the superior candidate Aral Vorkosigan is made regent to the next legitimate heir Gregor, who happens to be six years old.
    • Subverted when Serg's father Emperor Ezar reveals that since Aral actually has a stronger claim to the throne than he did (something Aral disputes) that makes Ezar's whole line "wrongful heirs" at least according to the strict rules of succession. This is convenient for Ezar because anyone wanting to depose young Gregor would have to either kill Aral, which has proven to be remarkably difficult to do, or offer him the throne, which he'd commit anything short of genocide to avoid.
  • In The Granite Shield, the rulers of a fantasy England are entirely legitimate, but also apostates who deny their divine status. A vicious civil war develops when a Royal Bastard is born and raised in the proper faith.
  • The Queen in Tanya Huff's A Woman's Work is well aware that her son is not up to her standards of Evil Overlordness and is a romantic idiot. After the conquest of a neighbouring kingdom, she notices that the youngest princess of the deposed royal family has a very practical frame of mind who quickly agrees to a marriage to the Queen's son, after having arranged for her two brothers to die in a failed suicide attack and her eldest sister to have unfortunately become deceased. Queen Arrabel cheerfully expects that her son will suffer a tragic accident very soon after their first child is born, making the daughter-in-law the new heir to the throne, and is quite pleased at the thought of having a competent successor. She's also quite careful not to eat any food given to her by her new daughter-in-law.
  • In Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn, Prince Bryan looks like a gorgeous handsome hero, but as you get to know him over the years, you realize that he's going to be a bratty jerkass king and a terrible husband to the narrator's sister, to whom he's engaged. Adding to the fun, the guy's very paranoid about being poisoned, so getting rid of him may be difficult.

Live Action TV
  • Game of Thrones: Renly invokes this trope when trying to convince Ned Stark to support his coup for the throne, pointing out that he's the most qualified heir for the job.
    • Viserys Targaryen also proves to be that: After his father was killed for being The Caligula, he became obsessed with getting his crown back at any cost.
    • Joffrey is also an example, of a sort: his mother, Queen Cersei, is his regent, and she is a bad ruler, but still better than Joffrey. A subversion, however, because Joffrey is also not the rightful king himself, although he doesn't know it.
  • 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.
  • Prince George in The Palace, though only in a potential sense. In Episode 8, Princess Eleanor starts a rumour about King Richard's possible illegitimacy so that he will be forced to take a paternity test before his coronation. She knows that if he is indeed illegitimate, she will become queen, as the Prime Minister would never allow the supremely unsuitable George to be Britain's head of state.
  • On Justified Theo Tonin is The Don of the Detroit Mob and everyone is too scared of him to challenge his rule. However, Theo's son, Sammy Tonin, is widely considered to be weak and incompetent and many of Theo's lieutenants would love to replace him as heir apparent. Quarles thinks of himself as Theo's adopted son and sees himself as the proper inheritor. However, his habit of abusing and torturing male prostitutes is too much for Theo to handle and he banishes Quarles from Detroit. Quarles tries to regain his position but is foiled when he runs afoul of Boyd and Raylan. Theo's right hand man, Nicky Augustine, is the next potential usurper but he also makes the mistake of going after Raylan and Sammy uses this to discredit Nicky and then have him killed. With Theo forced to flee the country, it remains to be seen if Sammy will be able to hold on to power or if someone else will take over the Detroit Mob.

Tabletop Games
  • In Exalted, the Realm is on the edge of civil war with the Scarlet Empress vanished. The Empress' eldest and most powerful child, Mnemon, would be a shoe-in for the throne (despite the fact that the Realm has no rules for succession; the Empress is supposed to be immortal), except for one thing: she's an absolute bitch at best, and Ax-Crazy at worst (Depending on the Writer). About the only thing the other factions can agree on is that Mnemon is not the one they want to take the Scarlet Throne, leading to it being occupied by an absolutely ineffectual Regent until someone decides to claim it for themselves.
  • BattleTech the First Prince of the Federated Suns became Caleb Davion, after he killed his father Harrison Davion when informed that his cousin Julian Davion would be named the rightful heir. Caleb promptly made a series of increasingly bad military choices that has led to the Federated Suns being in more danger of being conquered by its enemies than it ever has been before, and then was killed fighting the Draconis Combine. Julian is now returning to take the crown himself and presumably attempt a Big Damn Heroes moment.

Theatre
  • This is a very common trope in Shakespeare's history plays, especially the plays dealing with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster.
    • Richard II was also this due to his capricious incompetence, and was eventually deposed by his cousin who would become Henry IV.
    • Averted in Henry IV Part 1, and Henry IV Part 2, Prince Hal (the Prince of Wales) hangs out with lowlifes and is complicit in a robbery later defeats Henry "Hotspur" Percy who has rebelled against Henry IV in part 1 In Part 2 he reconciles with his dying father then arrests his former companions.
    • Henry VI Part 1'' Charles VII of France retakes his throne from the minor Henry VI with the help of Joan of Arc.
    • Henry VI Part 2" Richard, the Duke of York points out that Henry IV's claim was probably illegitimate, believes that he has a stronger claim to the throne, and conspires to rebel against King Henry. His son Edward completes the job in ''Henry VI Part 3"
    • '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
  • Exploited in Last Scenario, when Evil Chancellor and Chessmaster Augustus arranged the inheritance of the throne by the capriciously cruel and terribly incompetent Princess Helga. He quickly usurped the throne by killing her 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, Helga's father.
  • 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 "legitimate" heir never finds out. After Pelleas reveals that he's not the legitimate heir or is killed, depending on the path the player takes through the story, the country winds up being run by the person who was actually the legitimate heir of the neighboring country of Begnion; she did find out the truth, but her sister had been running the place pretty well, and she considered Daein her home more than Begnion.
  • In RuneScape, a returning rightful king has done some unpleasant things in his attempts to claim his birthright. The nature of these things suggests that he is perhaps not the most benevolent potential ruler.
  • Played with in Dragon Age: Origins, where Alistair, the resident Hidden Backup Prince, does not want to be king because he sees himself as this. He's got only the best of intentions, but he's rather convinced that he would be a terrible king. Subverted in that, if the player character forces the issue and insists he take the throne, he turns out to be an excellent ruler.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: Your crew has to sort out a crisis on Kashyyyk (the Wookiee homeworld). Turns out Zaalbar is the younger son of the local chieftain Freyyr, exiled because he attacked his older brother Chuundar (and using his claws, a major taboo among Wookiees) after learning that Chuundar conspired with Czerka to have his own people harvested as slaves. Chuundar justifies this by saying Czerka has the resources to burn their forest to the ground, Czerka supplies weaponry and technology, and if a few villagers (including political enemies) get shipped off-world in chains, then it's a fair deal. He also sent his father into exile to keep the arrangement intact. Your actions determine how the mess pans out.

Western Animation
  • Earl of Lemongrab of Adventure Time is this. He's a dysfunctional, socially inept, mentally maladjusted, overly-sensitive, obnoxious, rude failed science experiment who has the right to the throne of the Candy Kingdom, because Princess Bubblegum made him specifically to be her replacement if something should happen to her. He's not evil - just a butt - but he obviously doesn't know what he's doing when he's ruling a kingdom.
    • To make it even worse, he doesn't even want the position. Only going along with it because he feels its his duty to do so.
  • Done very interestingly in Avatar: The Last Airbender; both of the siblings who are potential heirs to the throne of the Fire Nation believe the other to be this. Zuko thinks Azula shouldn't inherit because she's an unstable manipulative little sociopath. Azula thinks Zuko shouldn't inherit because he's "weak" (read: sincerely believes in doing what is honorable and right, has a sense of mercy and compassion, and wants to end the century-long war and restore balance rather than Take Over the World even at the cost of committing genocide on two civilisations).
  • Played for Laughs in The Simpsons episode "Simpsons Bible Stories." King David (played by Bart) is overthrown by "Goliath II" (Nelson) as revenge for David killing his father. David eventually manages to reclaim his throne, but it turns out Goliath was a benevolent king who built libraries and hospitals. David is arrested and taken to prison.

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?
    • Considering the disastrous result-a 19-year Civil War so bad it was called "the Anarchy"-even people at the time thought they would have been better off putting up with a woman for a generation. And in the end, Matilda even won after a fashion: her descendants, not Stephen's, ended up with the throne, starting with her son, Henry II.
    • In this case it was really probably more of a no-win situation, since even with the gender issue aside, neither Stephen nor Matilda were particularly nice people, nor did they really possess the temperament to make for particularly good rulers.
  • As mentioned above, King Richard III cast aspersions as to the qualifications of a young king to rule. Richard's motivation for claiming the throne remain in the dark to this day; was he simply a power-hungry tyrant, or had he simply grown to believe that only he could do the job? We may never know. Richard 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.
    • A lot depends on how much you trust the well-known accounts of Richard III's reign, most of which (like Shakespeare's version) were written by people casting aspersions on Richard's own legitimacy in order to invest the otherwise ineligible Henry VII with some kind of legitimacy. For instance, other accounts say that Edward V and his brother were excluded from the throne on the grounds of them issuing from a marriage that by the law of the time was bigamous (Edward IV having married Elizabeth Woodville while still being engaged to another woman according to the testimony of a bishop) without Richard's doing. Let's also not forget Henry IV's accession to the throne by the deposition and murder of Richard II, where Edmund Mortimer, who had a better claim to the throne than Henry but was still a child, was prevented from becoming king.
  • This is exactly what happened to King Edward VIII of England. He was always meant to be the king, as the oldest son, and his brother Albert was very much in favor of that particular line of succession. As things would have it, though, Edward VIII was absolutely, positively determined to marry outside of the acceptable social circle, and to a widely-rumored-to-be Nazi sympathizer during the prelude to World War II, no less. Edward's determination to flout the accepted rules and standards of the throne meant that he could not be king, not in the eyes of the Parliament, and not in the eyes of the people. Faced with this pressure, he abdicated his throne to his brother Albert, who reigned as George VI, which caused a whole host of problems for Britain's new leader.
  • The "mandate of heaven" theory in China explicitly calls for this: when the current dynasty grew corrupt, the mandate of heaven would pass to another man, who would overthrow the emperor, become emperor himself, and found a new, currently incorrupt dynasty. Chinese historians have been known to smooth out facts to make history flow more neatly in this pattern.
  • Tsar Peter III of Russia was an idiot who was allowing the country to go to the crapper. His wife, their union an arranged marriage when he was younger, was Sophia, a German princess from a poor family, and she was a tad more competent and deposed him. She's better known today as Catherine the Great.
    • Most of the stories about Peter's madness were in fact made up by Catherine's spin doctors, but the guy still managed to piss off many influential people in his empire, including the Life Guards. Maybe not an idiot or madman, but definitely not a competent, shrewd ruler.
  • In 1830, King Charles X of France was overthrown by riots throughout Paris. He declared his 10-year-old grandson Henry to now be King Henry V, with his distant cousin Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans as Regent. However, Henry was still too closely linked to Charles for many revolutionaries to handle, so as a compromise, when the Duke of Orleans went over to the French National Assembly in Paris in his role as Regent they proclaimed him to be King instead.

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