David Cofield - Heirs Apparent: Royal Succession in Númenor and Middle-earth


I am an American Southerner of mainly English ancestry, so that I feel very closely related to the hobbits.
I have been reading Tolkien since I was 12 years old and can quote large sections of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit from memory. I teach a college level world history course to high school sophomores (aged about 15-16).
I have been a member of Mensa for nearly twenty years.
I find Tolkien's works to be very historically consistent with the present world: his peoples and nations behave in an historically valid manner. By writing articles for "Beyond Bree" which focus on the historical detail behind the stories, I hope to reveal yet another level of depth and detail which Tolkien lavished on his creation.




When the Realm of Númenor was established at the beginning of the Second Age, the Dúnedain were given a lifespan three times as long as those of men in Middle-earth.

Númenor's first king, Elros Tar-Minyatur, and his descendants were granted even longer lives which averaged 400 years each in the early centuries (Unfinished Tales 218). Such longevity creates special problems, including overpopulation and a resultant strain on resources. In a royal family these problems are compounded by the need to hold and maintain power. Inevitably, jealousies and rivalries amongst children, grandchildren, and more distant descendants arise as the sovereign ages. In J.R.R. Tolkien's lifetime the British Royal Family experienced two such periods, first in the 1890s when Queen Victoria withheld power from her adult son and grandson, and again in the 1920s and 1930s when King George V's heir, denied responsibilities, indulged in a life of pleasure which eventually led to his abdication. Tolkien's House of Elros avoided many of the pitfalls long reigns can entail in its earlier centuries of power. In the later millennia of the Second Age Númenor's royal family, like much of the rest of its culture, lost its early wisdom and declined into disaster.

When Elros Tar-Minyatur died after a reign of 410 years in Second Age 442 he left a living son, grandson, and great-grandson in the direct line of succession. Any rivalries which had or might have developed between the three generations were quickly dispelled when Elros' son Vardamir chose to pass on the scepter to his own son Amandil, then aged 250 years. This avoided a short reign of 29 years (Vardamir died in 471) and enabled Tar-Amandil and his son Elendil to enjoy the positions of King and Heir in their prime. For the next 2400 years succeeding Kings and Queens of Númenor took care to avoid having more than two generations of heirs at one time. This was accomplished first by delaying marriage and the birth of children until at least the middle of their second centuries, then by the policy of resigning the scepter some years before choosing to depart. Not only did this policy help allay family tensions, it was vital to the stability of the nation as a whole. In absolute monarchies and other systems dependent on the rule of one person, too frequent changes of leadership can have a deleterious effect, as can be seen, for example, in the later centuries of the Roman Empire.

This wise and self-sacrificing policy, which meant delaying marriage and parenthood until well after reaching adulthood at about age 50 (Lost Road 71), was abandoned after the Shadow fell on Númenor. Tar-Atanamir the Great refused to lay down the scepter or his life and reigned until his death in 2221. Although Atanamir lived 421 years, he was the last King to survive beyond his 400th year. Succeeding monarchs followed his example, and his grandson Tar-Telemmaitë (reigned 2386-2526), became the first King since Elros to see the birth of a great-grandchild in the direct line of succession. The next five monarchs also saw great-grandchildren even as their life spans diminished, indicating that their marriages and childbearing years were now beginning far earlier than had been the custom.

Thus as the Shadow deepened over Númenor the number of young men and women in the House of Elros began to increase. Probably the nobility and the common people of Númenor followed the example of their royal family, so that the population grew faster than before and the average age dropped. These younger Númenóreans, anxious over their declining life expectancies, were impatient and ambitious with aspirations for which their parents would have had little sympathy and much suspicion. Therefore it is not surprising that this period was one of great raids and expeditions against Middle-earth, ostensibly to fight Sauron but also a safety valve to accommodate the aggressions of an increasingly youthful people and provide a haven for the excess population. It is even less remarkable that these young people would reject the Elven tongues as languages of the past irrelevant to their own concerns.

The first Númenórean King to live less than 300 years was Tar-Ardamin, who died in 2899. He was also the first King to sire an heir before reaching the age of 100. It should come as no surprise that Ardamin's son was the infamous Ar-Adûnakhôr, the first King to take his title in Adûnaic, who outlawed the use of the Elven tongues (Unfinished Tales 222). Adûnakhôr was the last King to see the birth of great-grandchildren, a result of the continuing decline in royal life spans. The age at which monarchs saw the birth of their heirs declined as well, and Ar-Gimilzôr, great-grandson of Ar-Adûnakhôr, was only 75 when his eldest son was born. Ironically this child became Tar-Palantir, himself a rebel against what had become the Númenórean social norm. His short lived attempt to restore the Elven tongues and the old Númenórean religion was opposed by his brother Gimilkhâd, who fathered a son at age 74 and died at age 199. Tar-Palantir was said to have "married late" and fathered a daughter at age 82, yet another indication of lowered life expectancy (Unfinished Tales 224). Tar-Palantir died aged 220, a slightly longer life than his father's, but his daughter Míriel was forced into marriage by her cousin Pharazôn at the age of 118. Recognizing that Ar-Pharazôn had already outlived his father by two years at the time of his invasion of the Undying Lands in 3319 allows us to grasp the desperation felt by the last King of Númenor and his people. Even as their land grew wealthier and more powerful they felt their lives foreshortened and their youth limited to ever smaller fractions. The extant chronicles do not reveal whether Ar-Pharazôn and Miriel had children, but it seems likely that there was an Heir around whom factions of young Númenóreans, undoubtedly encouraged by Sauron, had formed. Fortunately for the Dúnedain, not all the Númenóreans had surrendered to the fear of death and the culture of youth at the time of the Downfall of 3319.

The Lords of Andúnië, a cadet branch of the House of Elros, had remained Faithful to the ancient traditions of Númenor and to the Elven tongues. Until the publication of Volume XII of The History of Middle-earth, The Peoples of Middle-earth, little information was available on which to base theories on the lifespan of the Lords of Andúnië and their descendants, the Kings of Gondor and Arnor. Chapter VII of The Peoples of Middle-earth , entitled "The Heirs of Elendil", has some vital material. While any information from The History of Middle-earth should be used with care, being incomplete and often contradictory, the material from Chapter VII agrees with and expands upon Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, only differing in some names and spellings. In Chapter VII Elendil's birth date is 3119, so that he was 200 years old at the time of the Downfall. A note in Chapter VI of The Peoples of Middle-earth (page 170) states that Elendil was "very long lived" and that the average life of a Númenórean was about 210 years, while the life of a member of the royal house was about 350 years. These figures cannot apply to Númenor's last centuries, however. No monarch had reached the age of 350 since the death of the third ruling Queen Tar-Vanimeldë in 2637, and Ar-Pharazôn could not have expected to live much beyond his two-hundredth year. Ordinary Númenóreans would have had even briefer lives in 3319. It is unclear whether Elendil alone was unusually long lived or if longevity was a trait of the Faithful in general.

Elendil's sons Isildur and Anárion were born in 3209 and 3219. They evidently married in their eighties, for Isildur's eldest son, called Elendur in "The Disaster of the Gladden Fields" in Unfinished Tales 271-287 but Kiryandil in Chapter VII, was born in 3299 in Númenor.

Isildur's next two sons Aratan and Ciryon (Eärnur and Veändur in Chapter VII) were born in Gondor in 3339 and 3379, while his youngest son Valandil was born in Imladris in 3430. Anárion had at least four children, but only the name of the fourth child Meneldil, born 3318, the last man born in Númenor, is known today (Unfinished Tales 279). Therefore Anárion took approximately twenty to to thirty years to produce four children, while Isildur required 131 years to do the same. There appear to be three possible explanations for this: that either Tolkien overlooked the implications of these dates; or that Isildur was so active in opposing the machinations of Sauron in Númenor and then in establishing the Kingdoms in Exile in Middle-earth that he had little time for domestic affairs; or that Elendil's eldest son was more mindful of the ancient customs of the House of Elros than was the younger son. There is some evidence for the third hypothesis in an analysis of Isildur and Anárion's descendants in Arnor and Gondor.

The War of the Last Alliance was a multi-generational affair, with Elendil, Isildur and Anárion, and their sons taking part. With the end of the Battle of the Gladden Fields in Third Age 2, only two of Elendil's grandsons were left alive, Meneldil of Gondor and Valandil of Arnor. Meneldil was over 120 years old and apparently in the prime of life since he lived another 160 years. Valandil was a child by any reckoning, having been born in Imladris in 3430. Perhaps Isildur, recognizing that a terrible war was about to begin, had fathered his last child after fleeing Gondor in order to ensure that an Heir of Elendil would survive. Valandil inherited the rule of Arnor in Third Age 2 but did not actually become King until 10 (III 366), when he would have been about 21. Apparently the Númenórean trait of not fully maturing until about age 50 was not transferred to the Dúnedain in Middle-earth. If that theory is correct, it is interesting to observe that, despite their earlier maturing, the Kings of Arnor and later Arthedain maintained the old Númenórean custom of waiting many years before producing an heir. As a result of this custom the 22 Northern Kings after Valandil's 239 year rule had an average reign of 78.5 years, an average lifespan of 188 years (including four Kings who were killed), and fathered an heir at the average age of 85. It may be significant that every one of the Kings of Arnor and Arthedain from Valandil to Malvegil (died 1349), reached 200 years, but none did so afterwards. This may indicate nothing more than the increasing perilousness of being a King fighting Angmar, but it is nonetheless remarkable that the drop in life expectancy began when the Kings began using the prefix aran , ar(a), in their names. Signifying High King, the same prefix was used by the later Kings of Númenor. The fifteen Chieftains of the Dúnedain from Aranarth to Arathorn II, despite rougher and more dangerous lives, had an average life span of 145.5 years and produced heirs in their sixties and seventies except for the last two, whose fathers were in their fifties. As a result of this delay in producing children only one Northern King or Chieftain saw a great-grandson in direct line, King Arantar, grandson of Valandil. Even though their kingdom was lost and they were reduced to poverty, the House of Isildur could nevertheless take pride in their preservation of so much of ancient custom. In Gondor the Heirs of Anárion had very different experiences.

From Meneldil to Eärnur the thirty Kings of Gondor (excluding Castamir the Usurper) lived to an average age of 225, well outliving their northern cousins even when the eight Southern Kings who died in battle and Telemnar, who died of Plague after a two year reign, are factored in.

Perhaps a healthier climate made a longer lifespan attainable. However, Gondor's Kings had shorter reigns than did the North Kingdom's, averaging 68 years, and were younger when fathering heirs, doing so at an average age of 70. Also, the House of Anárion was less fortunate in preserving the line of succession, the direct descent being broken by two childless Kings, the deaths of King Telemnar and his family from Plague, and the deaths of King Ondoher and his sons in battle. Since royal children were produced at an earlier age than in Arnor or Númenor, all but eight of the Kings of Gondor saw great-grandsons born and Tarondor, the King with the longest reign (162 years) had a great-great-grandson at his death in 1798.

With several heirs as well as younger brothers and cousins, internecine strife in Gondor's palaces was inevitable. Gondor suffered the ruinous Kin-Strife from 1432 to 1448, a civil war between rival branches of the royal family which spawned several otherconflicts over the next two centuries. It may be that other family conflicts caused the childlessness of Falastur and Narmacil I, and that youthful great-grandchildren often chafed under the authority of aged monarchs, creating a perpetual tension which would have interfered with national governance and defense.

Undoubtedly some of these young Gondorian princelings wished that the custom of Númenórean kings voluntarily departing life had been transferred to Middle-earth. Thus the House of Anárion was more prosperous and indeed longer-lived than the House of Isildur, but it maintained itself while sacrificing some of the ancient customs of Elros' line. To their northern cousins the family rivalries of Anárion's line would have seemed due punishment for an abandonment of principle.

After the capture of King Eärnur by the Ringwraiths at the age of 72 in 2002 the House of Anárion became extinct and Gondor was ruled by the House of Húrin or the Stewards for the next thousand years. A family of Númenórean descent but without the special longevity granted the Line of Elros, the Stewards' average lifespan was only 111 years and, though they had children at far younger ages than had the Kings, their families were usually small. When Turin I had several children it was considered "a thing already rare and remarkable among the nobles of Gondor" (Peoples of Middle-earth 204). Small families and declining lifespans also seem to have become commonplace among Gondor's general population. Thus by the War of the Ring Minas Tirith was half empty (III 24).

The end of the Third Age and the return of King Elessar revived not only the monarchy but the nations of Gondor and Arnor as well. Acknowledged as mature at 20 by Elrond, Elessar had not reached "full stature of body and mind" until about age 49, an indication of his revived Númenórean heritage. Nearly ninety when he became King, Elessar then married Queen Arwen Undómiel and produced a son Eldarion and at least two daughters during his 120 year reign. After reaching the age of 210 Elessar exercised the privilege of his ancestors and freely laid down his life (III 337-344). His people's life spans were enhanced as well. Steward Faramir lived 120 years, longer than any Steward since Belecthor II in 2872, and it can be assumed that other Gondorians and Arnorians enjoyed the same longevity. Whether this gift extended far beyond the days of Elessar is doubtful. Tolkien once wrote that he envisioned that Eldarion and his successors would become "just kings and governors," (Letters 344) with little of their forefather's great gifts. Regardless of whether the actual gift of long life was temporary or not, the Dúnedain certainly benefited as much from Elessar's revival of the ancient traditions as they did from the rebirth of the monarchy.


[Nancy Martsch suggested this article and I am grateful for the inspiration. Of course any mistakes are mine! References to The Lost Road, The Peoples of Middle-earth, Unfinished Tales , and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien are to the Houghton Mifflin first hardbound editions. References to The Lord of the Rings are to the Allen and Unwin Revised Second Edition.]


This article was published in "Beyond Bree" and it is reprinted with the kind permission of David Cofield and Nancy Martsch


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