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 The King is dead! Long live the king! ...But who is the king?

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 Blood - dispute 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. 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 may set themselves up as Kingmakers so that they can become the Man Behind the Man for the winning side.

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 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. 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 are 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 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 (it may be internal), an empty treasury, impending famine, brewing rebellion - but 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.

This is Truth in Television! See Real Life, below.

Examples of Succession Crisis include:


Anime & Manga

  • Le Chevalier d'Eon has a Russian story arc about the Palace Revolutions that brought Peter III and Catherine II to power.
  • In Code Geass Emperor Charles may be still alive, but many of his relatives want a shot at his throne.
    • 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... Well, for a while, anyways.
  • In Umineko no Naku Koro ni it's the Ushiromiya family's crazy hierarchy that causes the murders, in theory.
  • This is part of Ling's motivation for seeking the Philosopher's Stone in Fullmetal Alchemist. His father, the Emperor of Xing, has one foot in the grave. Because he had so many children with concubines drawn from rival noble houses, the empire is bound to be torn to shreds by a succession war when he croaks. His hald-sister Mei is also involved: The two of them are searching for the key to eternal life (read: Philosopher's Stone) albeit not together. Ling prevails and becomes The Emperor, but he takes his little sister and her clan under his wing AND declares the Xingese clan in-fighting system abolished.
  • Lady Kasuga's primary motivation in the second and third volumes of Ooku: the Inner Chambers is avoiding the massive succession crisis that she feared would occur if it became known that Shogun Tokeguwa Iemitsu died without a male hier. Anyone that has read volume one (set about 80 years later) is well aware that the secret came outat some point.
  • 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.
  • In Anatolia Story, Yuri Suzuki / Yuri Ishtar arrives to Hattusa aka the Hitite Empire via Time Travel... riiiiiight in the middle of a major one. Her Love Interest, Prince Kail, is one of the biggest candidates to be the successor of the already old King Suppilinuma I, but his Wicked Stepmother and current Queen Consort Nakia (aka the one who brought Yuri there with her magic) wants to make her son Judah the heir to make him a future Puppet King that will obey her orders, even when the poor boy adores Kail and does NOT want to reign. For worse, the King actually dies and his Ill Boy eldest son Arnuwanda becomes King, and when he's about to make his half-brother Kail his official heir and Number Two... he's murdered in VERY suspicious circumstances...


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; 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.


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.


Literature

  • 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 Robert Baratheon is killed while hunting, leaving behind an heir who turns out to not actually be his son (and is a sociopath, to boot). The rest of the books focus on the so-called "Game of Thrones". Further complicating the succession crisis is that the dead king was the first of a new dynasty, having led a war against the previous lot, and nobody was really settled into things as of his death--the Targaryens only ousted fifteen years ago, and plenty of people not only remember them but actively want them back. By the time his death becomes public, contenders to the throne include his son (not really his son, but a product of Brother-Sister Incest by the queen), his two brothers, the heir to one of the old Kings in the North (before Westeros was unified), the last surviving heiress to the previous dynasty, and the ruler of a nation that wants to secede from the Seven Kingdoms. By the start of the second book, they're at war.
  • 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. Problem was, Rodric was unaware that Lyam's father (who died very soon before) acknowledged his eldest son Martin, which threatens Lyam's position 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.
  • 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 JRR 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 Finwe, the Noldor were split in three groups, each following one of Finwe's three sons. The followers of the youngest son, Finarfin, stayed in Valinor, where Finarfin became High-king. The followers of Feanor and Fingolfin went to Middle-earth, but Feanor 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. Feanor died before Fingolfin got to Middle Earth, but the two groups would probably have slaughtered each other if Feanor'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.)
  • Three of Fiona Patton's four Branion Realm books center around royal successions, but the most obvious crisis (illegitimacy) is averted on the ground that the royal family is semi-divine. The king is literally possessed by a fire god, and since everyone in his family has fiery eyes, all that is needed to find his successor is to see who has the brightest eyes and can set a building on fire. This doesn't stop other royals from scheming, but it does have the effect of having the oldest child - whether she's female, illegitimate or insane - automatically inherit, because the Living Flame doesn't seem to recognize any criteria other than blood relationship. This drives the entire plot of the third book, in which the rightful heir doesn't believe in the religion of the Living Flame, even though he is its avatar on earth. Something like Jesus converting to Islam, or the English crown going to a Catholic. So one of the Flame's followers seduces him, has his firstborn child, and raises the kid to overthrow his father and return the throne to the proper faith.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley, SHARRA'S EXILE. Danvan bids one Alton heir! Dyan sees him and raises him one!
  • In the Backstory 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 Vorkosigan Saga, specifically A Civil Campaign One of the Count's 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.
    • 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.
    • 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, and a sub-plot of The Warrior's Apprentice had another attempt to trigger one. 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 clear how screwed up was the whole thing, it's worth 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 to become the greatest Emperor in Andermani history. Y'see, those Andies are 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 CS 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 40000 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 series. 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 whom 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 claim 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 assasssins. 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.
  • 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 amongst 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. 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.


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 trying to determine who will be the inheritor of their estate and its title, after the heir presumptive dies aboard the Titanic. And when they find someone, he's a Self-Made Man who's not sure he wants to give up his law career to "run the estate" (i.e. be an idle aristocrat).


Tabletop Games

  • The classic Avalon Hill game Kingmaker is about the Wars of the Roses, see Real Life, below.
  • In 1st Edition Dungeons and 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.
    • 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.
  • The core Backstory 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.


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.


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.
  • 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.
  • A succession crisis frames much of Dragon Age: Origins, but the protagonist only gets involved after the civil war is mostly over. Problem is, the only candidates for the throne are the former king's wife (Anora) a smart lady but one who isn't of royal blood herself, and the bastard son of the former king's father (Alistair), with a paranoid regent and manipulative bastard with a facade of righteousness making 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 can also assert themselves as a contender, assuming they chose the Human Noble origin. And maybe, as Hot Consorts as well.
    • 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.
    • The situation with the bastard son would be even worse, if the other nobles found out that his real mother was an elf. Elves are despised by most humans. Luckily for him, all human-elf pairings result in a human child (i.e. no Half Human Hybrids).
    • 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.
  • In The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 only blood heir is unpopular enough that another 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.
    • 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.


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, 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 of William Rufus, Henry I, Richard I, Edward II, Richard 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, and 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. 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 ongoing succession crisis of the Wars of the Roses. (Your Mileage May Vary as to any or all of the foregoing.)
    • 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.)
    • 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 (Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, and his successor) and an Anglo-Dutch alliance (Any other available claimant). 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.
      • The Soviet Union also suffered this towards the end of the Cold War, eventually contributing to its dissolution.
    • 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 "Republic", 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 derrière 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, 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-à-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 til 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 a sort-of succession crisis, as 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.
  • 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, it's announced after his death.
  • When the Pope dies, the Sacred College of Cardinals elects his successor from among their numbers at a Conclave. 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. Upon 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.
  • 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.
      • This was followed by a new wrinkle when 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 are never allowed to gather at a single function) to ensure such a crisis won't happen in the future.
    • 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.
      • Cromwell's own son having proved not up to the job. Besides, people were getting tired of being Oh So Seriously Pious all the time and were ready to have some fun.
    • 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 with many Mexican (and foreign) experts, this could happen in Mexico if the president dies due to natural causes. by an accident or being judged for 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 that possibility.
  • 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.
  • There are worries that North Korea may be heading towards this with the death of "Beloved Leader" Kim Jong-Il. While he's appointed Kim Jong-Un as his heir, it's yet to be seen whether his brothers, the army, or the party are going to respect his position.
  • 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 Hasan, while the Sunnis recognize Ali and the three Caliphs who preceded him.
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