On January 22, 2013, Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Lord President of the Council introduced the debate on the Second Reading of the Succession to the Crown Bill in the House of Commons at Westminster. If the bill is passed, it will change the rules governing the succession, legislating that the the first born child of the monarch, male or female, will ultimately succeed to the throne.
The current practice favours the succession rights of younger brothers over their elder sisters. As Queen Elizabeth II’s eldest child, Prince Charles, and his eldest child, Prince William are male, the first generation of the royal family to be affected by the Bill will be the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The Bill dictates that their firstborn child, due in July of 2013, will suceed to the throne regardless of the gender of any younger siblings born. The Succession to the Crown Bill would also lift the provision in the 1701 Act of Settlement preventing anyone in the line of succession who is married to a Roman Catholic from becoming the sovereign.
Clegg argues that the Bill reflects twenty-first century attitudes toward gender and religious equality, stating, “Today we don’t support laws which discriminate on either religious or gender grounds. They have no place in modern Britain and certainly not in our monarchy, an an institution central to our constitution, to the Commonwealth and to our national identity too.”
Although the provisions in the Bill favouring absolute primogeniture and relaxing the religious restrictions on the succession have the support of most members of parliament and all of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, a number of influential people have expressed concerns that the Bill does not address all the implications of succession change. For example, the Succession to the Crown Bill does not address the inheritance of the Duchy of Lancaster, which provides the monarch with his or her personal income.
The Prince of Wales has reportedly expressed private concerns that the religious provisions of the Bill would place his grandchild in a difficult position if he or she were to marry a Roman Catholic. Any children of the union would not be permitted to be both Catholic and in the line of succession because the monarch must still be a member of the Church of England. The House of Lords Constitution Committee has warned that more time is needed to identify constitutional issues that may have been previously overlooked, an implicit critique of any attempt to rush succession reform to precede the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child.
The current debate in the United Kingdom concerning succession reform follows a long tradition of changes to the royal succession having unexpected consequences. The first debate in English history regarding female succession occurred during the reign of King Henry I (1100-1135). After his only legitimate son, William, died in a shipwreck in 1120, Henry ordered his barons to swear allegiance to his daughter Matilda, widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, in 1127.
The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a period when the English royal succession was in a state of transition. Henry I’s father, William I gained the English crown through conquest and ruled both England and Normandy despite being born out of wedlock. William the Conqueror’s three surviving sons fought for control of their father’s lands with the youngest, Henry I, emerging as the ultimate victor.
Despite the flexibility of the Norman succession, the potential of a female ruler raised serious concerns for Henry I’s courtiers. Henry’s barons wondered what the status of Matilda’s unpopular second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, would be during her reign and who would serve as a military leader on behalf of a female sovereign. Henry I never addressed these issues during his lifetime, leading some historians to speculate that he hoped to live long enough to proclaim an adult grandson his eventual heir. When Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen seized power, leading to a Civil War that would not be settled until Stephen proclaimed Matilda’s son, the future Henry II, heir to the throne in 1153.
The question of female succession became an issue again during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547). The King married six times hoping to secure the succession in the male line. When he died in 1547, his nine year old son Edward was one of few living male descendants of King Henry VII. The King therefore allowed for the possibility of female succession in his will, declaring that his daughters Mary and Elizabeth would succeed if Edward was childless, followed by the descendants of his sister Mary.
As in the twelfth century, the King’s introduction of female succession raised unexpected questions. Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were officially illegitimate at the time of their father’s death. Their inclusion in the King’s will therefore appeared to grant inheritence rights to royal children born out of wedlock. Henry VIII’s will also suggested that the sovereign had the power to unilaterally change the succession.
King Edward VI would attempt to follow his father’s example on his own deathbed in 1553 by altering the succession once more to make his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey heir to the throne. Decisive action by Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Mary I, stabilized the Tudor succession and set a precedent for future royal women to rule in their own right including the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.
By the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), female succession in the absence of direct male heirs had become an established aspect of English political culture. The introduction of the 1701 Act of Settlement ensuring that the childless Queen’s death would be followed by a Protestant succession, however, created additional political turmoil. In common with the current Succession to the Crown Bill, the Act of Settlement was discussed in parliament, presided over by a constitutional monarch.
While the Whig government argued for parliament’s right to exclude dozens of Roman Catholic dynasts to bestow the crown on the Queen’s Protestant cousin, Sophia of Hanover, a granddaughter of King James I, a number of Tory members of Parliament favoured traditional hereditary succession. Queen Anne herself appeared unenthusiastic about the Act of Settlement and did not invite Sophia or her son, the future George I, to England during her reign.
Once the controversial Act was passed and received royal assent, the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland affirmed that all of Great Britain would acclaim the same monarch when Queen Anne died. England and Scotland had shared a monarch since 1603 but there were concerns that Scotland might follow the Stuart hereditary succession instead of the terms of the Act of Settlement unless a formal union was in place Even with these provisions in place, Sophia questioned whether or not her family would ultimately succeed to the throne, stating “What Parliament does one day, it undoes the next.” George I became King in 1714 but both he and his son George II would face challenges from alternate Stuart heirs until 1745.
During the reigns of King Henry I, King Henry VIII and Queen Anne, attempts to introduce female rule or an exclusively Protestant succession introduced additional political questions that had to be resolved before the crown could pass uncontested to a new monarch. The 2012-2013 Succession to the Crown Bill is following in this long tradition, revealing the complex implications of absolute primogeniture and Roman Catholic royal consorts. Although the third reading and passage of the Bill is currently set for January 28, 2013, these initial changes will undoubtedly precipitate future legislation that addresses the full implications of a new law of succession.