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The Line of Succession in the UK and how it is about to change
There has been a lot of talk in the media over the last few years about the law of succession to the throne of the UK being altered so as to not discriminate against women, but there are a lot of different interpretations floating about the net, many wrong, so I thought I would write my own page to explain how succession currently works and how it could change.
The succession to the throne of the UK is governed (mostly) by the Act of Succession 1701, in which parliament set out that the only people in line to the throne were Sophia, Electress of Hanover, (a granddaughter of James VI & I) and her lineal descendants. Sophia was chosen as Anne’s heir and the progenitor for the purposes of this law, because unlike the many other descendants of James VI & I who had better claims to the throne at that point, she and her immediate family were protestant, as was the UK and Queen Anne. The intention of the law was to prevent a future heir being a Roman Catholic, since a change of Christian denomination for the monarch, and by extension possibly the country, would have been in that day and age a very terbulant change resulting in much upheaval and probably loss of life amongst the higher ranking protestants who would not have supported the country’s probable change of faith. Because of the law’s aim to prevent a future catholic monarch it also said that no catholic descendant of Sophia could inherit the throne, neither could any descendant of her who married a catholic (whether or not this debars say HRH The Duke of Kent, whose wife converted to catholicism many years after he married her, is open to interpretation). An interesting point to note is descendants of Sophia who profess any other non-christian religion (or indeed for that matter are agnostics or atheists) are not in any way barred from becoming monarch, not because the parliament who wrote the act would have supported say a hindu or jewish monarch, but because it was totally inconceivable in those day that it could ever happen. One of the changes that was recently suggested to be made to the Act of Sucession was the removal of any mention of catholics not being allowed to succeed to the throne and allowing descendants of Sophia to marry a catholic without losing their place in the succession, which makes sense, except that the monarch has for many centuries also been the head of the Church of England (a protestant denomination of Christianity) and therefore a catholic or someone of other or no faith would, if they inherited the throne, find themselves head of a church and faith they did not themselves profess.
Aside from ensuring no future monarch could be a catholic, the Act of Settlement also laid down the way the next heir to the throne would be chosen each time the monarch died (or abdicated), it specified a method of succession called agnatic primogeniture that, loosely at least, had already been followed by the royal families of the UK since the time of William the conqueror, but had previously not been laid down in law. Agnatic primogeniture means that when a monarch dies they are succeeded by their sons in preference to (but not to the complete exclusion of) their daughters. The monarch would be succeeded first by their eldest son (and if he is already dead his eldest son etc), followed by the second son and his heirs, then the third, all the way down to the youngest son. Only if all the monarch’s sons (and their descendants) are dead, or never existed in the first place (for example our current queen had no brothers) are the original monarch's daughters then considered, again in birth order. This means that although our Princess Royal was the second child born to the current queen, she has no claim to the throne until both her two younger brothers (and all their descendants) have already died. What those who want a change to the Act of Succession are striving for is to change the law to make the succession become equal primogeniture so that only the order of birth dictates who is next in line, not what the people in line to the throne happen to keep in their underwear. It is strange how this change to who, in a recession hit country, gets to become a multimillionaire by accident of birth, is done (for perfectly good and necessary reasons) in the name of equality (before anyone accuses me of republicanism I happen to be something of a monarchist, it’s just the irony of the intentions of this change can’t really be avoided).
Let’s have a look at the current (as of 21/04/2013) order of succession, or at least the bit covering all the descendants of our current queen, since the whole list runs to several thousand descendants, ending I believe with the Vogels, descendants in the genealogically youngest line, from George I’s sister Sophia.
** HM Queen Elizabeth (George VI’s elder daughter and obviously the current monarch)
If the proposed equal primogeniture is theoretically (I stress that word) applied to The Queen’s descendants, it would reorder the descendants of the Queen below Prince Harry. His aunt the Princess Royal and her children and grandchildren would move up to places 4 to 8, in the same order as they were before, then the Duke of York and his daughters would drop to places 9, 10 and 11, followed by the Earl of Wessex, now at 12, and his children now at 13 and 14, but with Louise now ahead of James as she is the elder of the two. I need to stress again that so far this is merely a thought exercise applying the rule of equal primogeniture to a fixed (and very small) set of descendants of a specified start person, in this case the Queen. In reality the current Act of Succession says the fixed start point is actually the Electress Sophia, and that number of people being reshuffled is in the thousands (though beyond the descendants of QEII there is only a very very slim chance of any of them ever succeeding, or having future descendants who one day succeed as a result of all prior lines dying out).
In terms purely of the order of succession (i.e. ignoring for now the possibility of the simultaneous removal of the bias against catholicism as discussed above),there are three main ways the law could change: 1) change nothing but the method of succession from agnatic to equal primogeniture, 2) leave the act as it is but add a clause that says for the descendants of a specific individual use agnatic rather than equal primogeniture, 3) set a new start person, in place of Electress Sophia, either through an amended version of the same law or by an entirely new law (and thus reduce the line of succession considerably in number). Let’s examine each option more closely.
1) If we simply change the Act from agnatic to equal primogeniture then it would cause something of a problem, to say the least. Although George I, George II and Prince Frederick, Prince of Wales were all the eldest child of their father, and not just the eldest son, this was not so with George III who was Prince Frederick’s second child, after his daughter Augusta, so changing the law in this way would either a)instantaneously hand the throne over to her living heir by equal primogeniture [actually the Prince of Wied, or possibly his older brother who renounced his succession right’s to the Wied title, but rather foolishly forgot to mention whether or not he was renouncing his rights to the thone of the UK at the same time] or b)make the Wied family Her Majesty’s heirs if the Act of Succession only applies when the throne has just been vacated by it’s current holder). So clearly we need to define when the new rules come in to force in order not to rewrite the succession up to our current monarch. This leads to option 2.
2) If we choose a person whose descendants will be covered by the new rules instead of the old who do we choose? It can’t be anyone above George III, unless we wish to hand the throne to the Prince von Wied (or his brother), as I explained above. So George III then? Or, since she and her descendants would be George III’s (initial) heirs under either system anyway, perhaps Queen Victoria? Would that be ok? Well no not really, as the eldest child of Queen Victoria was her daughter Victoria who married the heir to the Prussian throne and German Empire, and her eldest child was Kaiser Wilhelm II, so if this change had happened in the reign of Queen Victoria, it would presumably have prevented World War II, but led to us becoming a part of Germany, or a nation in its version of a commonwealth perhaps? There is no german monarchy or empire anymore and therefore those sort of political problems are not going to arise now, but applying new rules to the descendants of George III or Queen Victoria does still mean moving the throne, instantly or on the death of HM The Queen to the heir of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who is either Mrs Friederike von der Osten or Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia, depending on whether Friederike’s father’s renouncement of his and his descendants right to the german throne would be taken to also apply to the British throne. Ok so how about we avoid that by saying Edward VII? Well his first two children were The Duke Of Clarence and Avondale who predeceased him, and George V, and in turn George V’s first two children were Edward VIII (later The Duke Of Windsor) and George VI, and of course his eldest child was our current Queen. So that’s settled then yeah? We choose either Edward VII, George V or George VI as the point in the family tree where new rules apply instead of old. Well no that’s still no good really, and here’s why... The country doesn’t just have a monarch alone, in her absence (if for example she is temporarily in poor health or happens to be visiting another country) there are also the four privy councillors who carry out the duties of state in her place. These privy councillors are the first four persons over the age of 21 in line to the throne, with the exception of the eldest son of the eldest son of a monarch, who may serve as a privy councillor if he is over 18. When the queen first inherited the throne she had been a privy councillor for 4 or 5 years, since her 21st birthday, and had already been taking the place of her father when he was ill. By 1987 the four privy councillors were the Queen’s four children. The first grandchild to turn 21 was Princess Anne’s son Peter, but since Princess Anne was always number 4 in line during his childhood, and since her son was neither a royal (just plain Mr) nor stood any long term chance of making the top 4 when he turned 21 (in 1998) he wasn’t trained as a privy councillor, and more importantly was able to live the life of a (relatively) ordinary citizen and have a (relatively) normal job, and likewise his sister Zara. His cousins William and Harry on the other hand eventually became PC’s 2 and 3 after their father (William in 2000 and Harry in 2005) so that the current four are Charles, William, Harry and Andrew. Notice the PC number 4 is whichever sibling of Prince Charles is next in line to the throne, under the current system Andrew, but if we apply the new rules to all descendants of anyone from Edward VII down to HM The Queen, then it would then be Princess Anne. The fundamental problem is that if The Queen and Prince of Wales both pass away and William is now King, then the four PCs would now be Harry, Anne, Peter and Zara! Peter and Zara have spent 30+ years believing they would live the lives of relatively ordinary people and would be unlikely to ever become major royals or PCs, so suddenly overturn their lives in this way would be unfair and possibly illegal on the grounds of their human rights. Equally Prince Andrew’s daughters have been trained as PCs and coached in making public appearances etc, and have spent their whole lives being told they would be major royals, at least until they are much older and Willliam and Harry’s family’s grows enough to perhaps allow them a quieter later life. To suddenly push them further down the line, would be to unplan most of their lives too, force them to have to find (relatively) normal jobs and would probably also be unfair. Any legislation that reshuffled currently living people (or at least those old enough to comprehend the change) is therefore likely to cause very bad feeling amongst those affected and even court cases (perhaps filed by a rather alarmed Mr Peter Phillips when he suddenly gets to close to the top of the queue for his liking, or by the newly redundant York girls (or perhaps more likely their publicity hungry mother trying to preserve her own fame by protecting the high status' of her daughters)), so for this reason the law will not apply the change from a point that would cause currently living people’s future lives to be radically altered arbritrarily.
So what to do? With either 2) or 3) There doesn’t seem to be any one individual whose descendants can have the new rules applied unilaterally to them, without either A) immediately disthroning The Queen (or at least side stepping all the current royal family when she dies), B) keeping the succession in the same family but fundmentally and unfairly upturning the lives of several existing members of the family (chiefly the rapidly promoted Phillips’ and the spectularly demoted Yorks) or C) applying the change to so few currently living people that it could, as a result of premature deaths of the first few in line, conceivably end up applying to noone and cause the old rule to return at some future stage or else cause there to be no one on the throne at all.
So what is the solution?
Page Last Updated - 15/07/2013