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"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.
Anime & Manga
- Legend of the Galactic Heroes takes this Up to Eleven when 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 usurper Lelouch vi Britannia, who is actually a Villain Protagonist (by this point).
- Caligula: Nerva (John Gielgud) commits suicide because he thinks Caligula will be such a bad Emperor.
- Played with in The Emperors New Groove. Kuzco isn't a very good ruler, and no one seems to miss him while he's gone, but Yzma isn't exactly any better.
- 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 to go through with it, thus Commodus is technically his legitimate successor.
- 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 because Tomjon is the illegitimate one -- their shared father is the palace Fool, not the former king.
- 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.
- More or less the case in The Prisoner of Zenda. The usurper, Black Michael isn't the most charming guy, but he's competent and loved by the people. The legitimate ruler, Rudolf, is a drunken boor who is unpopular with the people.
- The Haldane Restoration in Katherine Kurtz's 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.
- In the Mercedes Lackey 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 Mercedes Lackey novel 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 insure he wouldn't become a threat to her power).
- Damadora in 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 conscientous 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 why he accepted Robert's pardon and continued to serve 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.
- 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.
- In the Farseer trilogy, Prince Regal declares the MIA Prince Verity dead in order to have legitimacy for his reign.
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.
- 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 ineffectual Regent until someone decides to claim it for themselves.
- In both the Shakespeare play and Real Life, this was one of the excuses Richard III used for usurping the throne from his nephew Edward V - the latter was a child and so unfit to rule. The real Richard also cast doubt on Edward's legitimacy.
- Exploited Trope 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.
- Fire Emblem:
- Subverted in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. After spending the first chapter getting the "legitimate" heir on the throne, Prince Pelleas, he turns out (which should have been obvious from the start with his Horrible Judge of Character stats) to be a very kind-hearted person... but also quite 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 (Soren) never finds out. . As a bonus, poor Pelleas's life is completely destroyed as a result of being said heir, to the point of killing him off - UNLESS it's not the first playthrough, where if the player does it right he survives. And then, after Pelleas either 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 Micaiah, the person who was actually the legitimate heir of the neighboring country of Begnion; she did find out the truth, but her sister Sanaki had been running the place pretty well, and she considered Daein her home more than Begnion. (If Pelleas lives, he'll become one of Queen Micaiah's court advisors and do a better job as such than as a King)
- At the end of the Birthright route in Fire Emblem Fates, Princess Camilla refuses to become the Queen of Nohr after the deaths of her father (King Garon), older brother/heir (Xander) and little sister (Elise), since she believes herself to be unfit for the task. The one who reigns is her Teen Genius younger brother, Prince/now King Leo, and it's all but said that he'll do a great job.
- 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.
- 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, even people at the time thought they would have been better off putting up with a woman for a generation.
- 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.
- 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 flount 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, 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.