About the Line of Succession

The rules controlling the British Line of Succession are pretty simple. They are set out in the Act of Settlement (1701). I recently summarised them as follows:

  • Be royal
  • Be alive
  • Be legitimate
  • Don’t be Catholic

Let’s look at those items in turn.

Be Royal

Obviously, you need to be related to the current monarch. And the closer your relationship, the better your chances of becoming the next monarch. Being the eldest child of the monarch gives you the best chance, but if the monarch has no children then being a sibling or a niece or nephew will probably be good enough. In rare cases, you could still be in with a chance if you’re an aunt, uncle or cousin of the monarch.

Having an older brother or sister is a bad idea as they will always have a better claim than you. And one of your parents will be before you in the list (assuming he or she is still alive).

Until a few years ago, brothers would be higher than their sisters in the list (which is why Princes Andrew and Edward come before Princess Anne). The Succession to the Crown Act (2013) fixed that for any children born after 28 October 2011. The Act came into force on 26 March 2013 – so there’s a period of about eighteen months where sons took precedence over daughters and then later lost that precedence. Ask Tāne Lewis how he feels about that.

Be Alive

So many people far at this hurdle. Obviously, if you’re dead then you can’t become the monarch. People seem to understand that just fine. But what sometimes confuses some people is that if someone dies while they are in the line of succession then any of their children remain in the line – they just move up a place.

A good example of this is George III. He was the grandson of the previous king, George II. George II’s eldest son (and, therefore heir) was called Frederick. Frederick’s eldest son (and, therefore second in line to the throne) was called George. Unfortunately, Frederick died in 1751 at the age of only 44. But his son George moved up a place in the line of succession and in 1760, on the death of his grandfather, took the throne as George III.

When the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701, the line of succession was declared to be i) any children of William III (who was the current monarch), ii) William’s sister-in-law Anne, iii) any of Anne’s children and iv) Electress Sophia of Hanover and her descendants. William’s wife (Mary II) was already dead and he never remarried. Anne became queen after him, but none of her children outlived her, so Sophia looked certain to take the throne. But she fell at the last hurdle and died a few weeks before Anne. It was, therefore, her son who took the crown as George I and founded the House of Hanover.

Be Legitimate

We don’t want bastards on the British throne, thank you very much. And this is all taken very seriously. It doesn’t affect anyone near the top of the line these days but in the past, illegitimacy (either real or imagined) has been used to justify a change of monarch.

For example, when Richard III took the throne, he really didn’t have a very good claim to the throne. But he issued a declaration called Titulus Regius which claimed that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid (as he was allegedly previously married to Lady Eleanor Butler). This made Edward’s children illegitimate and bolstered Richard’s claim to the throne.

Don’t Be Catholic

The Church of England was established by Henry VIII in 1534 when the Catholic Church wouldn’t give him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. During the subsequent Tudor monarchies, the official religion constantly flipped between the two churches with usually dire consequences for people supporting the wrong one. Things got worse under the Stuarts and eventually, we had the Glorious Revolution in 1689 which threw out the Roman Catholic James II and made William III and Mary II Protestant co-monarchs. The Bill of Rights which established their right to the monarchy had this to say about Catholicism:

And whereas it hath beene found by Experience that it is inconsistent with the Safety and Welfaire of this Protestant Kingdome to be governed by a Popish Prince… the said Lords Spirituall and Temporall and Commons doe further pray that it may be enacted That all and every person and persons that is are or shall be reconciled to or shall hold Communion with the See or Church of Rome or shall professe the Popish Religion… shall be excluded and be for ever uncapeable to inherit possesse or enjoy the Crowne and Government of this Realme and Ireland and the Dominions thereunto belonging or any part of the same or to have use or exercise any Regall Power Authoritie or Jurisdiction within the same

And while we might not use quite such language today, similar rules are still in place. The second you become a Catholic (which is determined by your service of Confirmation) you become effectively dead as far as the line of succession is concerned. The laws don’t say anything about any other religion (although the monarch is also the head of the Church of England and it’s hard to see a Hindu in that position) – it’s just the Catholics who are specifically targetted.

It’s getting better though. Previously just being married to a Catholic was enough to have you removed from the succession. That provision was removed in the Succession to the Crown Act (2013), at which point a few people popped back into the line of succession.