No Overtaking sign

Different Lines

If you’ve watched the video where I talk about this site, you’ll know that one of the main reasons why I started getting interested in the royal family was that there were so many people asking such bad questions about it over on Quora. Here are some of the examples I use in the talk:

  • Who will succeed the Queen of England? (England hasn’t had a Queen since 1707)
  • Why does Britain always have a queen, not a king? (Genetics, mostly)
  • Who would be king if Prince Charles dies before Queen Elizabeth II? (That’s a trick question, isn’t it? If Prince Charles dies, we would still have the same queen)
  • What must Prince Charles actually feel about his mother pulling him from the line of succession and designating his son as heir to the throne? (Umm… what? Perhaps get your news from a more trustworthy source)
  • Did the Queen assassinate Diana, Princess of Wales? (No)

These all, obviously, stem from people getting their news from increasingly uninformed sources. And would it be discourteous of me to suggest that the width of the Atlantic Ocean seems to be a factor in the amount of fact-checking that some journalists carry out?

But there are also the questions that simply don’t understand how the line of succession. Sometimes, people seem to see the British royal family as something out of Game of Thrones and they forget that a constitutional monarchy is rather different from what you would find in Westeros. The word “constitutional” is there for a very good reason. Questions in this category look like this:

  • Can the Queen skip a generation and hand the crown to Prince William?
  • If Prince Charles and Prince William died, would Prince Harry be next in line?
  • If Prince Charles dies before the Queen, why wouldn’t Prince Andrew be King?

People who ask questions like this don’t understand the most fundamental aspect of the line of succession. The order of the names on the list is fixed. That’s important, so let me repeat it in bold – The order of the names on the list is fixed.

To explain what I mean by that, let’s look at an example. Here is the current top of the list:

  1. Prince Charles
  2. Prince William
  3. Prince George
  4. Princess Charlotte
  5. Prince Louis
  6. Prince Harry
  7. Archie Mountbatten-Windsor
  8. Prince Andrew
  9. Princess Beatrice
  10. Princess Eugenie

The list can be changed in various ways. People are added to the list as they are born. A new baby is inserted after its parent (and after any older siblings) and everyone below that insertion moves down a place. People are removed from the list when they die and everyone below that removal moves up a place. When the sovereign dies, whoever is at the top of the list pops off and becomes the new sovereign (and everyone in the list moves up a place).

There are a few more obscure things that could happen. Someone could convert to Catholicism and be removed from the list. In that case, they are treated (as far as the line of succession is concerned, at least) as though they have died. They are removed from the list and everyone below them moves up a place.

It’s important to note that when someone dies and is removed from the list, it is only that one person who is removed. Any descendants of the deceased remain on the list just moved up a place because of the death above them in the list.

All of this leads to the inviolable rule that I mentioned above. The order of the names on the list is fixed. Once you are on the list, you can never move above or below anyone else on the list. The line of succession is strictly a “no overtaking” lane. With that in mind, we can now answer the three questions above.

  • Can the Queen skip a generation and hand the crown to Prince William? (No, the Queen can’t change the line of succession at all. It is written in law. I suppose she could ask the governments of all sixteen Commonwealth realms to remove Charles from the list – but that seems very unlikely.)
  • If Prince Charles and Prince William died, would Prince Harry be next in line? (No, after Prince William, the next person in line is Prince George. He would become king and a regent would be appointed until he became an adult.)
  • If Prince Charles dies before the Queen, why wouldn’t Prince Andrew be King? (Because Prince Charles currently has two sons and four grandchildren – and all of those people do not get removed from the list if Prince Charles dies.)

I need to make a small confession. The order of the list isn’t quite as fixed as I said. I can think of one instance where two people have swapped places on the list. It’s because of the Succession to the Crown Act (2013). This was the Act of Parliament that did away with male-preference primogeniture for the line of succession. It means that men no longer take precedence over their older sisters. But things were in flux for a while. Let me explain.

Lady Davina Windsor is the eldest daughter of the Duke of Gloucester. In 2004, she married Gary Lewis and they had two children. Their daughter, Senna, was born in 2010 and their son, Tāne, followed in 2012. When Senna was born, she was number 24 on the list but by the time Tāne was born, she had dropped to number 26 and (because the Succession to the Crown Act hadn’t been passed at the time) Tāne went in at number 26 when he was born, pushing Senna down to number 27. The Act was passed in 2013, came into effect on 26 March 2015 but (crucially) affected boys born after 28 October 2011.

So on 25 March 2015, Tāne was at position 28 and Senna was at 29. But on the following day, when the Act came into force, they swapped places and Senna overtook her brother and moved to position 28. Please don’t try to check these facts on the site. I have to confess that, currently, our site isn’t clever enough to accurately represent the pre-Act state of affairs.

But with that one relatively obscure exception, the order of the line of succession is fixed. This means that it becomes easy to play “what if?” and see what would happen if various people on the list met unfortunate and premature ends. Simply write down the existing line of succession in order and cross off the names of any people you want to kill off in your scenario. Any people left over will already be in the correct order for your imaginary line of succession.

Have fun with it. Try removing various people from the list and see what interesting alternatives you come up with. Let us know if you find anything particularly fascinating or tragic.

p.s. I mentioned in passing that if Prince George became king before becoming an adult, then a regent would be appointed. Current rules say that would be the first adult on the line of succession who is resident in the UK. Until very recently, that would have been Prince Harry. I’m not sure how recent events might affect that.

End of the line

End of the Line (Part 2)

We left the line of succession at the start of 1901. Victoria was still on the throne and Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg was at the other end at number 806. Later that year, Victoria dies and her son, Edward VII, takes the throne. But by the time we take up the story again in 1921, Edward has died and his son, George V, is on the throne. George’s son, Edward, is Prince of Wales and his brother, Albert is second in line. Of course, both of the brothers will have a turn on the throne over the coming decades. Edward will briefly reign as Edward VIII before abdicating and handing the throne to Albert, who will reign as George VI.

At the other end of the list, in position 1001, we find that Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg died in 1907 and his place at the end of the list has been taken by another obscure Württemberg cousin – Wilhelm von der Trenck.

By 1941, things have moved on at the top of the lists. George V died in 1936 and the throne passed to his son, Edward VIII, who held it briefly before abdicating and handing it over to his brother, George VI.  At number two on the list, we see the thirteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who will later become Elizabeth II. Following her is her sister, Princess Margaret – and then we have the king’s brothers and sister – the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent and Princess Mary, Princess Royal, along with their children.

At the end of the list, Wilhelm now has brother and sisters who follow him in the succession. Bottom of the list, at number 1466, we see his younger sister, Ilsa. It’s worth pointing out that the list has increased in size by almost 50% in only 20 years.

In 1961, Elizabeth II has been on the throne for nine years. She now has three children who are taking up the places at the top of the list and they are followed by her uncles, aunts and cousins. But things haven’t changed at the bottom of the list, where we still find Isla von der Trenck. The list now has 2169 names on it.

By 1981, a new generation is starting to appear at the top of the list – represented by Princess Anne‘s son, Peter Phillips, at number 5. And Princess Margaret now has two children at numbers 7 and 8 so the Queen’s uncles and aunt have all been shunted down a few places.

At the bottom, Isla von der Trenck has married Wolfram Vogel and has started to have children. Her first child was a girl, called Karin, but as her siblings are both boys, and the line of succession still gives preference to the male line, Karin Vogel is last in the list at position 3326.

The 2001 list was the last one to be published by William Addams Reitwiesner. The Queen now has six grandchildren on the list and descendants of George VI now take up the first 16 places. At the other end, Karin Vogel still has no younger sisters (and seems unlikely to gain any as her mother is now seventy) and hasn’t had any children of her own, so she is still last in line – at number 4973.

The Reitwiesner site has one further list which was compiled by David Lewis and claims to be up to date to 1st January 2011 (but I’ve just noticed it omits Princess Margaret who died in 2002 – so I don’t know how much I trust it). The top of the list shows that the Queen has two more grandchildren (the children of the Earl and Countess of Wessex) and her first great-grandchild (Savannah Phillips – daughter of Peter Phillips).

The end of the list seems completely unchanged since the 2001 version, so I’m not sure that it’s at all accurate. It still shows Karin Vogel as the last person on the list (at number 5753). Any children she had would go after her, but David Lewis seems to believe that she hasn’t had any. I have found a Wall Street Journal article about Vogel that was published in April 2011. The piece includes a video which has a brief interview with her. I guess that if she did have children, the WSJ journalist would have mentioned it.

To close, I thought it would be interesting to plot a graph of how the number of people in the line of succession increases over time – from 10 in 1701 to almost 5,000 in 2001.

End of the line

End of the Line

When the Act of Settlement came into force in 1701, the line of succession was very short. William III was on the throne (ruling alone following the death of Mary II in 1694) and his successor was Mary’s sister Anne. Following Anne, the Act of Settlement named Sophia of Hanover as next in line, with her descendants following her. The complete line of succession looked like this:

  1. Princess Anne
  2. Sophia of Hanover
  3. Prince George (son of Sophia – later to become George I)
  4. Prince George (son George I – later to become George II)
  5. Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (daughter of George I)
  6. Maximillian (son of Sophia)
  7. Christian (son of Sophia)
  8. Ernest August (son of Sophia)
  9. Sophia, Duchess of Prussia (daughter of Sophia of Hanover)
  10. Frederick (son of Sophia, Duchess of Prussia)

I hope that’s clear, despite the family’s habit of reusing names.

So, at that time, the 13-year-old Prince Frederick was the last person in the line of succession.

Of course, over the next three hundred years, the number of people in the line of succession has grown massively. Currently, it seems that there are something around 6,000 people on the list (that’s all legitimate, non-Catholic descendants of Sophia of Hanover). Thanks to the work of American genealogist, William Addams Reitwiesner we have complete snapshots of the line of succession every twenty years from 1701 until 2001 (and following Reitwiesner’s death another list was added in 2011 by David Lewis). It might be interesting to look at those lists and see how large the line becomes over time.

By 1721, the list has expanded to fifteen people, but Frederick is still last on the list. He has married his cousin, Sophia Dorethea and (because she is higher up the list than him) their six children all follow her on the list rather than him. At the top of the list, Both Princess Anne and Sophia of Hanover have both died (Sophia died first by a matter of weeks, which is why Britain never had a Queen Sophia) and Sophia’s eldest son is now George I.

The list has more than doubled in size to 31 people by 1741. George I has died, George II is king and his eldest son, Frederick, is top of the list and Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, Frederick will die before his father and it’s his eldest son who will later be the next monarch as George III. At the bottom of the list, we still have the descendants of Sophia Dorethea and Frederick. They have ten children and nine grandchildren – and the last person on the list is their seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Anna Amalia.

In 1761, George III has become king and his heir is his eldest brother, Edward. His eventual successor, his son George IV, won’t be born until the following year. Anna Amalia is still the last person on the list. As the youngest female descendant of Sophia Dorethea and Frederick, she can only be displaced from that position by her children – and, as she has become an abbess, that seems unlikely.

In 1781, George III is still on the throne and his eldest son, who will become George IV, is first in the line of succession. Third in line, you can see Prince William who will become William IV and fourth in line is Prince Edward who will become the father of Queen Victoria.  The line now contains 105 people and Anna Amalia is still hanging on in last place.

By 1801, not much has changed at the top of the list. George III is still king and the only real change is that Prince George (the future George IV) has a daughter called Charlotte who has pushed everyone else down a place. She will die in 1817, long before her father – which is why we’ve never had a Queen Charlotte. At the bottom of the list, we see that Anna Amalia died in 1787 and her place has been taken by Sophia Albertina, the youngest daughter of Anna Amalia’s older sister, Louisa Ulrika. Sophia Albertina is also an abbess. At this point, there are 141 names on the list.

In 1821, we see a few changes at the top of the list. George IV is now king but as his only daughter, Charlotte has died, his heirs are his younger brothers Frederick (who will die before George) and William (who will become William IV) and William’s daughter, Elizabeth. The next brother, Edward, has died, but his daughter, Victoria, is at number four on the list. At the end of the list, Sophia Albertina has no children, so she’s still at the end – at number 192.

By 1841, Victoria is on the throne. As she has only just married and has no children, her heir is her uncle, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover. The last few kings of Britain had also been kings of Hanover but, as a woman, Victoria had not been allowed to inherit that throne. At the bottom of the list, Sophia Albertina has died, and her place at the end of the line has been taken by Augustus who is now the least significant descendant of Sophia Dorethea and Frederick. He is 270th in the list.

Over the next twenty years, to 1861, Victoria has nine children and the eldest of them, also called Victoria, has given her two grandchildren. So the first eleven places on the list are taken up by the queen’s descendants. The first person on the list is Prince Albert who will later reign as Edward VII. Augustus died in 1853, so his place at the end of the list (at number 391) has been taken by his cousin, Anna Pavlovna, who was Dowager Queen of the Netherlands. Anna did have children, but they were all entitled to a higher place in the line of succession through their father, William II of the Netherlands.

Victoria is still queen in 1881. Most of her children have given her grandchildren and her descendants now take up the first 33 places on the list. First on the list is still Prince Albert (Edward VII), second is Albert’s son, Prince Albert Victor (who will predecease his father) and third is Albert’s second son, Prince George, who will become George V. Anna Pavlovna died in 1865 and her place at the end of the list has been taken by her cousin, Peter of Oldenburg. There are 571 people on the list.

Victoria will die in 1901, but at the start of the year (when the lists are compiled) she is still queen. There are now 74 of her descendants taking up the first places on the list. In fact, the first four places are taken up by future kings – Prince Albert (Edward VII), his son Prince George (George V) and George’s two eldest sons, Prince Edward (Edward VIII) and Prince Albert (George VI). Peter of Oldenburg died in 1881 (just months after the previous list was compiled) and his place has been taken by his cousin, Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg. As we’ve seen a couple of times before, Moritz had children but as he was married to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Meiningen who was also on the list, but higher up (at 490 at this point in time), the children followed her in the list rather than him.

As the nineteenth century gives way to the twentieth, and Victoria’s reign draws to a close, this seems like a good time to end this article. Next time we’ll bring the story up to date by discussing the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

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
    • Prince Christian
    • Prince Ernest
    • Princess Sophia
      • Prince Frederick

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.