A pathway leads up to Belcourt castle, grass and trees surrounding it.

Love ‘Succession'? These 5 places tell stories of historic family feuds

TV’s fictional Roys have nothing on these real-life clashing clans and their fabulous palaces, mansions, and temples.

Belcourt, an 1894 mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, was modeled after a French chateau. In the 1990s, members of the family that owned it battled for control of the estate; now the property has been restored and is open for tours. It’s one of many storied properties travelers can visit to dive into famous feuding clans.
Photograph By Michael Neelon/ Alamy

Long before the Roy family’s scorched-earth battle for TV supremacy played out in Succession, infighting ripped apart real-life dynasties. From Irish clans to Egyptian rulers, Indian royalty to American elites, the intoxicating allure of power and wealth pitted relatives against each other.

Some of these family feuds unfurled in court. Others were far less civilized, escalating to imprisonment, torture, drowning, even decapitation. To delve into these stories, tourists can visit temples, castles, tombs, and palaces where the mighty once prioritized assets and influence over familial harmony. 

Belcourt, Newport, Rhode Island

In the late 1800s, America’s richest families would flock to the quaint seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, for the summer. Dynasties like the Vanderbilts and Astors built palatial holiday homes, many of which are now managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County, a nonprofit group that protects and maintains the homes’ Gilded Age interiors, architecture, and landscapes.

Visitors can take guided tours of Belcourt of Newport, a magnificent 60-room villa modeled on a Louis XIII summer mansion. It was built in the 1890s for banker Oliver Belmont, who later lived there with his new wife, Alva, a New York socialite who’d previously married into the Vanderbilt family.

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It is this early history which most fascinates visitors to Belcourt, says the site’s historian and house manager, David Bettencourt. “People are more into the original owners and how the house turned from a divorced bachelor’s hunting lodge into Alva Belmont’s summer party house, as well as the restorative efforts,” Bettencourt says.

But recent history may be more scandalous. Before the mansion’s then owner Ruth Tinney died in 1995, she had adopted Belcourt handyman Kevin Koellisch. Her death led to a high-profile legal battle when Koellisch sued Ruth’s son, Donald Tinney, and Donald’s wife, Harle, for his claimed share of the home.

Years of litigation ended with ownership of Belcourt being granted to Harle Tinney, whose husband had since died. Belcourt was then sold to its current owner, American businesswoman Carolyn Rafaelian, who did a meticulous restoration and opened it to the public for tours.

Chowmahalla Palace, Hyderabad, India

Osman Ali Khan’s wealth was cartoonishly vast. In 1937 he graced the cover of TIME magazine, which declared him the “richest man in the world.” Khan possessed mounds of gold, diamonds as big as walnuts, and enough pearls to fill a school bus. He was the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, leader of a Muslim dynasty that ruled this Indian state the size of Italy.

Tourists who wander his former palaces, Chowmahalla and Falaknuma—now a museum and luxury hotel, respectively—may not know these Hyderabad properties are linked to a still simmering family feud. When Khan died in 1967, an eighth Nizam of Hyderabad was to take his place and inherit a giant estate.

But this succession prompted chaos, says John Zubrzycki, an Australian author of multiple books on Indian history, including The Last Nizam. Khan controversially rejected his eldest son, Azam Jah, and instead chose grandson Mukarram Jah as his heir.

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“This set the stage for one of the longest and most litigious inheritance battles in modern times,” Zubrzycki says of this ongoing legal war, which has involved 2,500 relatives. “A long line of litigants, headed by [Mukarram Jah’s] father and relatives, spawned from his grandfather’s vast harem, took to India’s courts demanding a share of a fortune valued at several billion dollars.”

Visitors can see artifacts, photos, and paintings linked to this dynasty while wandering the armory, halls, and reception areas of the lavish Chowmahalla Palace.

Donegal Castle, Ireland

Tourists to Donegal, an attractive town in northwest Ireland, can tour the cellar, chambers, and banquet hall of 549-year-old Donegal Castle, built by the ruling O’Donnell family. But overshadowing these manicured grounds is the tale of a potent dynasty sabotaged from within.

Sixteenth-century Ireland was divided between about 40 such Gaelic clans, which clashed over territory and riches. Led by Lord Manus, the O’Donnells warred with another family, the O’Neills. Manus survived their murderous attempts to seize his lands, known as Tírconaill. Ultimately, however, this chieftain was felled by his own blood.

His son, Calvagh O’Donnell, coveted control of Tírconaill. To possess this prize, he had to betray his father, says Donegal historian Seán Beattie. “Backed by a fighting force which he assembled from Scotland, it was the ambitious Calvagh who succeeded in deposing his father and finally imprisoning him [in 1555],” Beattie says. Karma came for Calvagh, who was later jailed and tortured by the O’Neills.

Edinburgh Castle and Lochleven Castle, Scotland

It began with a snub and ended with a decapitation. When Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle in England, it was the climax of a complex family feud. The beheading was ordered by her cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth I, following a three-decade rivalry.

Disharmony blossomed in 1558 when King Henry VIII died and his daughter Elizabeth I succeeded him as monarch of England. The Queen of Scotland was incensed. She believed she had the stronger claim to this throne, through her grandmother, Margaret, Henry VIII’s older sister.

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Over the following years Mary repeatedly defied her cousin, including marrying a Catholic rather than a Protestant, against Elizabeth I’s wishes. But the English queen dealt the final blow. When Mary fled unrest in Scotland in 1568, she was imprisoned by Elizabeth, who feared her Catholic foes could be inspired by Mary. The former Queen of Scotland spent most of the next 19 years in captivity, until her eventual beheading.

This extraordinary tale is linked to tourist attractions across the United Kingdom, from Edinburgh Castle where Mary gave birth, to the site of her imprisonment at Scotland’s Lochleven Castle.

Temple of Dendera, Egypt

At the ancient Temple of Dendera, 30 miles north of Luxor near the Nile River, tourists can spot a huge stone wall carving of Cleopatra VII and her son, Ptolemy XV Caesar. This famous Egyptian queen’s life was disrupted by family infighting.

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The death of her father, Ptolemy XII, created a kingdom-sized power vacuum in the second century B.C., says Prudence Jones, associate professor of classics at New Jersey’s Montclair State University. He bequeathed joint control of Egypt to Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII. This decision pleased no one.

Cleopatra’s brother drove her out of Egypt until Roman leader Julius Caesar calmed this conflict. This resulted in the siblings living alongside him in a palace at Alexandria, on Egypt’s north coast. Then Cleopatra was blindsided by her sister Arsinoe IV.

“Arsinoe IV took this opportunity to take command of Ptolemy XIII’s troops, who proclaimed her queen of Egypt,” says Jones, author of Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Ptolemy XIII then returned to his troops, but drowned in the Nile while fighting the army of Caesar, who placed Cleopatra back on the throne and took Arsinoe IV captive.

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer who shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.

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