Electress Sophia of Hanover

The Act of Settlement

As I write, this site contains data going back to the start of the nineteenth century but our aim is to get back another hundred years – to 1701 when the Act of Settlement was passed.

Why choose that year? Well, it’s the last time in British history that there was a major change in the way the line of succession worked. In this article I’ll explain what happened (and why). But before we need to set the scene by going back in time another 170 years to 1534 when Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England.

Protestants vs Catholics

Everyone, surely, knows the story of how the Pope refused to give Henry VIII a divorce (strictly speaking, an annulment) from Catherine of Aragon, so he split from Rome, divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. This didn’t really work out all that well for Henry but it was worse for the country. Over the following 150 years we pretty much alternated between Protestant and Catholic monarchs and when one faith controlled the throne it usually went pretty badly for followers of the other faith.

This all came to a head in 1688 when parliament decided that they really weren’t happy with the current king – James II (James VII in Scotland) who was a Catholic. James was removed from power and ran away to the continent. He was replaced on the throne by his daughter, Mary, and her husband (who was also her cousin) William of Orange.

The Bill of Rights

In 1689, parliament passed the Bill of Rights. The main reason for the bill was to establish parliament’s right to determine who was Britain’s monarch, but it also contained a few bits of housekeeping about how the line of succession would work in the future. For our story, the most important provisions of the bill were:

  • Catholics were barred from the throne.
  • The line of succession was limited to a) descendants of William and Mary, b) descendants of William and any future wife, c) Mary’s sister Anne and d) Anne’s descendants.

And, yes, that sister is the Queen Anne who current Oscar favourite, The Favourite, is about.

A Lack of Heirs

Only a few years later, it became apparent that the line of succession didn’t have enough heirs. Mary had died, childless, in 1694 and William had shown no interest in marrying again. Anne had given birth to many children, but none of them had lived past childhood. In July 1700 her son, Prince William, died just after his eleventh birthday. Anne was now 35 and seemed unlikely to have more children.

It was clear that something needed to be done. Parliament set out to find more heirs. They started by looking at other descendants of James II/VII. He had plenty of descendants, but the problem was that most of them were Catholic. Eventually, they had to go back three more generations and look for descendants of James I/VI. Again, a lot of the options were Catholic and it’s estimated that over fifty Catholics were skipped over before they found a Protestant heir in Sophia of Hanover.

Sophia was the twelfth child of Elizabeth Stuart, the oldest daughter of James I/VI. But she was his senior surviving Protestant heir (her mother had died in 1662). She had been born in The Hague in 1630 and in 1658 she married Ernest Augustus of Brunswick-Lüneburg and in 1692 he had become Elector of Hanover. Her first son, George, was born in 1660.

The Act of Settlement

Having found their heir, parliament passed the Act of Settlement which “settled” the crown on Sophia and her descendants. At the time the Act was passed, William III was still on the throne and the line of succession looked like this:

  • Princess Anne
  • Electress Sophia
    • Prince George
    • Prince Maximilian
    • Princess Sophia
      • Prince Frederick
    • Prince Christian
    • Prince Ernest

The Act also reiterated the removal of all Catholics from the line of succession. Over 200 years later, this is still the most important law controlling the British line of succession.

The House of Hanover

It took a few years for the Act of Succession to have any real effect. William died in 1702 and was succeeded by Anne (as he would have been under the Bill of Rights). In 1707, the Acts of Union were passed making England and Scotland a single country called Great Britain, so Queen Anne was the last monarch of England and the first monarch of Great Britain.

Anne died in August 1714. Sophia had died seven weeks earlier, so it was her son, George, who became the first monarch of the House of Hanover, as George I. In 1727, he died and was succeeded by his eldest son as George II. And over the following three hundred years the British crown has passed peacefully from parent to child (or, occasionally, parent to grandchild or sibling to sibling).

In 1701, the line of succession contained ten names. It’s estimated that currently there are around 7,000 names on the list.

3 thoughts on “The Act of Settlement”

  • Wilfred Darlington says:

    This article, although very informative, confuses the terms ‘Protestant’ meaning a follower of Martin Luther, and ‘Anglican’ meaning a Catholic who does not accept that the Pope is the head of the church. The Queen is not technically a Protestant. King Henry VIII was a very devout Catholic. From 1530 when King Henry assumes the role of Head of the church, the country was isolated from Catholic Europe and Protestant Europe and some Protestant elements were imported into the C of E for political reasons.

  • Now, if the religious exclusion did NOT apply, and the recently enacted preference for older sisters over younger brothers had applied, Elizabeth Stuart would have succeeded instead of her younger brother Charles I and Sophia’s eldest surviving brother the Elector Charles would have followed her, followed by his son, his eldest daughter,and then a line back and forth between French and Italians until it reaches Margherita of Savoy-Aosta, Archduchess of Austria-Este,whose son Archduke Lorenz is married to the King of Belgium’s sister.Lorenz’s older sister would be heiress apparent.

    Margherita’s grandmother Helene of Orleans reportedly was in love with Queen Victoria’s
    senior grandson the Duke of Clarence but they were forbidden to marry despite her offer to become an Anglican.

    Tracing backward,Margherita is the “heiress-Numenorean” (Tolkien ascribed the “eldest child whether man or woman” rule to his throne of Numenor before any Earthly kingdom adopted it) of Edward IV of England and of James II of Scotland (both of whom had elder sisters whose descendants continue but I don’t think the eldest-child line can be certainly determined).

    On the English side before that, Edward III had a daughter older than the Dukes of Clarence, Lancaster,or York (her elder daughter Marie would have been next in line to Richard II, so no Wars of the Roses…and Marie married the heir of the eldest of the four elder sisters of Edward II to leave heirs). But before that there was an elder sister of Richard the Lionheart who has left heirs and before that Adela of Blois was an elder sister of Henry I… and her son King Stephen actually had elder brothers who have many descendants… including the Queen.

  • I have done a little more digging on the “heirs-Numenorean” descending from Edward I and Edward III (intermarriage between those lines noted above)… and the most senior line I’ve verified (there could possibly be overlooked elder sisters early on) passes through the Princes of Windisch-Graetz and comes very close to of all people Princess Michael of Kent (her mother’s elder brother would have been the heir of that line from 1927 to 1998 but he left children).

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