Prince Harry’s highly anticipated memoir provides intimate details about his very public and often contentious life as part of—and apart from—the British royal family. But what is the significance of his choice of the book’s one-word title, Spare?
The answer to that question lies in the phrase the heir and the spare.
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What does the heir and the spare mean?
The phrase the heir and the spare (and its variations, such as the spare to the heir and an heir and a spare), is an informal way of referring to the two children of a monarch who are first and second in line for succession.
The first in line for succession to the throne is, of course, the heir. In the expression, the word spare, then, is a bit of an irreverent joke: if something happens to the heir (they die), there is another one to take their place—a “spare.”
Historically, the phrase has almost always referred to the two eldest sons, as most monarchies have practiced male-preference or male-only primogeniture succession, in which the closest living male relative to the monarch is next in line for the throne.
According to Prince Harry, his father, now King Charles III, used the phrase in reference to him and his brother William when speaking to Princess Diana after Harry’s birth. (William is the heir to the throne.) In his memoir, Prince Harry makes it clear that he felt that he was treated as the “spare” by the media and some members of his family.
The history of heirs and their “spares”
The phrase the heir and the spare was in use for a long time before it was applied to William and Harry. The coining of the phrase the heir and the spare is attributed to Consuelo Vanderbilt, the wife of the Duke of Marlborough, who is said to have used it to refer to her sons John and Ivor Spencer-Churchill after Ivor’s birth in 1898. (The Duke is said to have only married Vanderbilt for her family’s money—the marriage was eventually annulled.)
Of course, the concept that the phrase refers to predates the expression—it has been a common concern among monarchs and aristocrats around the world for centuries. Before modern advances in hygiene and medicine, the death of an heir was much more probable, and so the common practice among monarchs was to try to have a “spare” heir (or two) to ensure that the throne passed down their line rather than go to, say, a conniving brother or uncle.
There have been multiple instances in the history of the English monarchy in which the primary heir has died and a secondary heir has become king, including Henry VIII and Charles I.