Queen Elizabeth II opened parliament at Westminster on Wednesday May 9, delivering a throne speech that promises to improve the lives of ordinary families. The Queen outlined the proposed Children and Families Bill, which will allow mothers and fathers to share parental leave, overhaul support for children with special educational needs and speed the adoption process.
The Queen also discussed reforms that will have a profound effect on her own family, stating, “My government will continue to work with the fifteen other Commonwealth realms, to take forward reform of the rules governing succession to the Crown.”
The royal succession is currently governed by a number of pieces of legislation including English common law pertaining to inheritance and the 1689 Bill of Rights. The most influential piece of succession legislation is the 1701 Act of Settlement, which restricts eligibility to succeed to the throne to the descendants of Sophia of Hanover, the mother of King George I. Roman Catholics and dynasts married to Roman Catholics are excluded from the line of succession, reflecting the political and religious attitudes of the early eighteenth century. As recently as 2008, Autumn Kelly converted from Roman Catholicism to the Church of England so that her fiance, the Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips, would retain his place in the line of succession.
The Act of Settlement also followed English common law of the period, enshrining succession by male preference primogeniture. Under the current version of the Act, a woman may only succeed to the throne if she does not have any brothers. The current Queen succeeded King George VI in 1952 because she was the elder of two daughters. If a monarch has a daughter and then son, however, the prince takes precedence over his elder sister. Queen Victoria was succeeded by her eldest son, King Edward VII, in 1901, instead of her eldest child, the Dowager Empress Victoria of Germany.
The current proposed reform of the royal succession will change the terms of the Act of Settlement, allowing members of the royal family to marry Roman Catholics and retain their eligibility to succeed to the throne. Roman Catholic members of the royal family will still be ineligible become King or Queen because this position also entails becoming Defender of the Church of England. The reforms will also establish absolute primogeniture for the future children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, ensuring that their eldest child will succeed to the throne, regardless of gender. The same changes will apply to the status of any future children of Prince Harry.
These changes to the royal succession will continue the process begun in October, 2011, when the Queen presided over the Commonwealth leaders meeting in Perth, Australia. The reference to the United Kingdom and the fifteen other Commonwealth nations in the throne speech is significant as the Queen takes her role as Head of the Commonwealth seriously and is committed to its unity. The agreement of all the nations that have the Queen as their Head of State is essential to ensure that the same child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is eventually acclaimed as sovereign by all these monarchies. In Perth, the Commonwealth Heads of Government all agreed to the reforms, which should assist with the ratification of the reforms in both the parliament at Westminster and the individual commonwealth legislatures.
The reform of the British and Commonwealth royal succession follows the larger trend toward absolute primogeniture among Europe’s constitutional monarchies. The Swedish Parliament made the change in 1980 after the births of King Carl XVI Gustav’s two eldest children.
Despite the King of Sweden’s objections to his son losing the title of Crown Prince that he had already received, his eldest child Victoria became Crown Princess. The Netherlands adopted absolute primogeniture in 1983, followed by Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991 and Denmark in 2009. The current impetus to reform the Act of Settlement may have been the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The Queen and her government appear eager to complete the process of succession reform before the Duke and Duchess start a family, avoiding the complications that occurred in Sweden.
The reform of the Act of Settlement will have a profound impact on the British and commonwealth monarchies. There is the potential for the spouse of a sovereign to be Roman Catholic, a situation that has not existed since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. There have only been six uncontested Queens Regnant in English history and the introduction of absolute primogeniture will bring gender equality to the monarchies of sixteen nations.
Tomorrow: Abolishing the Royal Marriages Act