11 Of History's Most Patient Heirs

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Vote up the heirs with the most eventful waits

In a monarchy, the common refrain “long live the king!” isn’t always a sincere statement. If you’re next in line for the throne, you've got even less reason to wish for longevity for the king (or queen). The trouble with being the heir apparent is that there’s no apparent way of knowing just how long the wait will be. Sometimes it's very little time, but as this collection shows, the period can stretch for decades.

These are some of the heirs who had the longest waits - and quite a few didn’t even get to rule at the end of it all. Some were outlived by the monarch, while others outlived the monarchy itself. From the seven decades Charles III had to endure, to the Brazilian princess who likely destroyed her own chances of ascension for a good cause, this collection looks at history’s most patient heirs.

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  • Akihito (Japan) - 37 Years
    Photo: Website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 4.0

    Years as heir: 1952 - 1989 

    How he filled the time: Born in 1933, Akihito was evacuated to the countryside during WWII. He officially became heir apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1952 at age 19. One of his first official duties as heir apparent was to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as Japan’s representative. A studious royal, Akihito completed a degree in political science at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University in 1956. He’s also a marine biologist who has been published in multiple journals. 

    He met and fell in love with Michiko Shoda at a tennis court in 1957, and despite efforts to keep the couple apart, they married in 1959. After 37 years as heir apparent, he succeeded his father in 1989 and focused on trying to move Japan on from the memories of WWII. As emperor, he traveled a great deal more than his predecessors and brought a more informal touch to the imperial family.

    Citing failing health, he worked with Japan's parliament to formally abdicate the throne in 2019.

    • Age: 88
    • Birthplace: Tokyo Imperial Palace, Japan
  • Rudolf, Crown Prince Of Austria (Austria-Hungary) - 30 Years
    Photo: Károly Koller / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Years as heir: 1858 - 1889

    How he filled the time: Rudolf was the Crown Prince of Austria from birth until his untimely demise 30 years later. An intelligent man with a more liberal outlook than his autocratic father, Rudolf held little affection for his parents. He performed his military duties well, and a state visit to Britain in 1887 was a great success. The future seemed bright for the young prince.

    He married Princess Stéphanie, daughter of Belgian King Leopold II, but it proved to be a deeply unhappy union. Rudolf had many affairs and passed on the inevitable result of his extracurricular activities to his spouse, rendering her unable to bear any more children after their first, Elisabeth. Among his many lovers was teenager Baroness Marie Alexandrine von Vetsera of Austria.

    She accepted an invitation to the prince’s hunting lodge at Mayerling, Austria, in January 1889. The following morning the lovers were found deceased by the lodge staff in an apparent murder-suicide. Although the prince’s unhappy marriage and strained relationship with his parents were a burden, there was little to suggest Rudolf was contemplating taking his and his lover’s lives. Accordingly, some theories have emerged that there was something more to the story. The scandal has been the subject of numerous plays and works of fiction, while the site itself is a tourist attraction.

    Emperor Franz Joseph moved quickly to cover up his son's scandal and had the lodge converted into a convent. His brother Karl Ludwig became heir apparent until his 1896 demise; after that, the next in line was Karl Ludwig's eldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The emperor’s nephew also never saw the throne, as he was slain in the summer of 1914, igniting a chain of events that led to the outbreak of WWI. Who knows how different things may have been if Rudolf had lived?

    • Age: Dec. at 30 (1858-1889)
    • Birthplace: Laxenburg, Austria
  • Juliana (Netherlands) - 39 Years
    Photo: Spaarnestad Photo via Nationaal Archief / Flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    Years as heir: 1909 - 1948 

    How she filled the time: The only child of the long-reigning and formidable Queen Wilhelmina, Juliana became heir apparent from birth. She was subject to a strict upbringing, but had the same headstrong character as her mother. She met her future husband, a German prince from a minor family, at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany. The two were soon wed and she had her first child - the future Queen Beatrix - two years later. The couple had four daughters in all.

    Juliana spent WWII in exile in Canada, while her husband remained in London at the side of the queen. Juliana’s long wait for the crown came to an end in 1948 when Wilhelmina abdicated the throne after 58 years. Juliana would rule for more than three decades during a period of Dutch rebuilding and decolonization. As queen, she was known for her love of cycling and her more informal approach to rule. 

    Like her mother, she too stepped aside in 1980 for her daughter to take her place. Beatrix would in turn rule for 33 years before abdicating for her son, Willem-Alexander.

    • Age: Dec. at 94 (1909-2004)
    • Birthplace: Noordeinde Palace, Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • Isabel, Princess Imperial Of Brazil - 41 Years
    Photo: Joaquim José Insley Pacheco / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Years at heir: 1846 - 48, 1850 - 1889 (did not become empress)

    How she filled the time: Isabel was the heir presumptive rather than the heir apparent, an important legal distinction. Any surviving sons of her father, Emperor Pedro II, would push her back down the pecking order. When her brother Pedro Afonso was born in 1848, he became the next in line, but unfortunately didn’t live to see his second birthday. Pedro II was a popular and successful emperor who ruled Brazil for 58 years, but was still very much a man of his time. He did not believe a woman, even his beloved daughter, could rule after him. 

    Isabel might not have ascended to the throne, but she did make an enormous mark on the history of Brazil. She served as regent in her father’s stead on three occasions while the emperor was ill or abroad. During the third and final regency, she signed Lei Aurea (“The Golden Law”) into law in 1888, which formally abolished slavery in Brazil. 

    Although a popular move, it made Brazil's wealthy plantation owners and urban elites enemies of the crown. The former slaves themselves might have been legally freed, but without any state support, they often had no options but to continue to toil as sharecroppers. The Emperor was deposed in a coup in 1889 and lived out his final years in exile with the royal family in France.

    • Age: Dec. at 75 (1846-1921)
    • Birthplace: Paço de São Cristóvão, Brazil