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Succession to the British Throne

Succession to the British Throne has generally been according to the rules of male-preference primogeniture. In other words, an individual's male children are preferred over his or her female children, and an older child is preferred over a younger child of the same gender, with children representing their deceased ancestors. Succession in the United Kingdom is governed now by the Act of Union 1800, which restates the provisions of the Act of Settlement 1701 and the Bill of Rights (1689). The rules of primogeniture apply, but those who are not legitimate descendants of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, those who have ever been Roman Catholics, or who have married Roman Catholics are disbarred from succeeding to the Crown. Those who are otherwise eligible, and are not already in communion with the Church of England, must enter into communion with that body before succeeding.

The first four individuals (twenty-one years or older) in the line of succession, along with the Sovereign's consort, may be appointed Counsellors of State. Counsellors of State are individuals who perform some of the Sovereign's duties whilst he or she is outside the nation or temporarily incapacitated. Otherwise, individuals in the line of succession need not specifically have specific legal or official duties (though members of the Royal Family often do).

The heir apparent to Elizabeth II, the present Sovereign, is her eldest son, HRH The Prince of Wales. Next in line is HRH Prince William of Wales, the Prince of Wales' eldest son. (For further individuals in the line of succession, see Line of Succession to the British throne.)



The current succession law in the United Kingdom evolved from succession law in England. Originally in England, there were no fixed rules governing succession to the Throne. An individual could have relied on inheritance, statute, election (by Parliament or by another body), nomination (by a reigning Sovereign in his or her will), conquest or prescription (de facto possession of the Crown). It was often unclear which of these bases should take precedence; often, the outcome depended not on the legal strength of the claims, but on the political power of the claimants.

Normans and Plantagenets

William I, the first Norman monarch of England, willed that his second son William—not his eldest son Robert—receive the Crown. (Robert instead inherited the Dukedom of Normandy.) William II and Robert agreed that in the event of one dying without children the other would inherit their possesions, but instead their younger brother Henry claimed the throne on William's death. Women were not originally accepted as monarchs; William II's successor, Henry I, named his daughter Matilda as his heir, but his nephew Stephen took the Throne, eventually resulting in a period of civil war known as The Anarchy.

As part of the settlement Stephen named as his successor Matilda's son Henry II, which was challenged by his own children. Henry's son Henry was crowned king during his own father's lifetime, but he never actually ruled, and is not known by any ordinal. Henry "the Young King" predeceased his father, who was succeeded by Richard I. Richard designated his nephew Arthur as his heir, but his brother John assumed the Crown instead.

Lancastrians and Yorkists

After John's accession in 1199, the rules of male primogeniture were generally adhered to for about two centuries. In 1399, however, Henry Bolingbroke deposed his cousin, Richard II, to become Henry IV. Henry IV's House of Lancaster was opposed by another branch of the royal family, the House of York, which had a better claim by strict primogeniture. In 1461, the Lancastrian Henry VI was deposed by the Yorkist Edward IV. Henry VI returned to the Throne briefly in 1470, but Edward IV deposed him again in 1471. Edward IV's son, Edward V, was also overthrown; his uncle usurped the Throne to become Richard III, only to be deposed by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.


Richmond, who became Henry VII, though a Lancastrian by descent, had no hereditary claim on the throne, and relied neither on one nor on statute. Rather, he relied on mere possession. The Act of Parliament passed in 1485 which recognised Henry VII as the Sovereign did not assert that he was entitled to the Crown by inheritance; rather, it merely acknowledged the fact that Henry ruled over England.

Henry VII was followed by his son, Henry VIII. Though his father was a Lancastrian, Henry VIII could also claim the Throne through the Yorkist line, as his mother Elizabeth was the sister and heiress of Edward V.

Henry VIII's numerous marriages led to several complications over succession. Henry VIII was first married to Catherine of Aragon, by whom he had a daughter named Mary. His second marriage, to Anne Boleyn, resulted in a daughter named Elizabeth. Henry VIII had a son Edward by his third wife, Jane Seymour. An Act of Parliament passed in 1533 declared Mary illegitimate; another passed in 1536 did the same for Elizabeth. Though the two remained illegitimate, an Act of Parliament passed in 1544 allowed reinserting them, providing further "that the King should and might give, will, limit, assign, appoint or dispose the said imperial Crown and the other premises … by letters patent or last will in writing." Mary and Elizabeth, under Henry VIII's will, to be followed by the descendants of the King's deceased sister Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk. This will also excluded from the succession the descendants of Henry's eldest sister Margaret Tudor, who were the rulers of Scotland.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, the young Edward succeeded him, becoming Edward VI. Edward VI was the first Protestant Sovereign to succeed to the rule of England; he strongly opposed having the Catholic Mary be his heir. Therefore, he attempted to divert the course of succession in his will. He excluded Mary, Elizabeth and Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk (daughter of Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk), the three individuals next in line under Henry's will, settling on the Duchess of Suffolk's daughter, the Lady Jane Grey. The Lady Jane was also originally excluded on the premise that no woman could reign over England. Nonetheless, the will, which originally referred to the Lady Jane's heirs-male, was amended to refer to the Lady Jane and her heirs-male. The Lady Jane was duly proclaimed the first reigning Queen of England upon Edward VI's death in 1553. She reigned for but nine days, as the popular Mary overthrew her and took the Throne; the Lady Jane's proclamation as Sovereign was revoked. Under the Act of Parliament passed in 1544, it was Henry VIII—not Edward VI—who had been granted authority to dispose of the Crown in his will. Edward's will, being unlawful, was ignored, and the provisions of Henry's will adhered to.

Mary I was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth I broke with the precedents of many of her predecessors, and refused to name an heir. Whilst previous monarchs (including Henry VIII) had specifically been granted authority to settle uncertain successions in their wills, the Treasons Act 1571 asserted that Parliament had the right to settle disputes, and made it treason to deny Parliamentary authority. Wary of threats from other possible heirs, Parliament further passed the Act of Association 1584 , which provided that any individual involved in attempts to murder the Sovereign would be disqualified from succeeding. (The Act was repealed in 1863.)


Elizabeth I was succeeded by King James VI of Scotland, her first cousin twice removed, who reigned in England as James I and in Scotland as James VI. This succession—like the Lady Jane Grey's—violated Henry VIII's will, which had been specifically authorised by statute. Under the will, the Lady Anne Stanley , heiress of Mary Tudor, Duchess of Suffolk, was supposed to succeed Elizabeth. Like the Lady Jane, James asserted that hereditary right was superior to statutory provision. The only difference was in the outcome: the Lady Jane had been overthrown and executed, while James had no serious opposition. Already a King in Scotland, he was powerful enough to deter any.

James I's eldest surviving son and successor, Charles I was overthrown and beheaded in 1649. The monarchy itself was abolished, and replaced with a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell's death, however, Charles II—Charles I's son and heir—was restored to the Throne.

After the death of her last child in , the became the last individual left in the line of succession determined by the Bill of Rights.
After the death of her last child in 1700, the Princess Anne became the last individual left in the line of succession determined by the Bill of Rights.

James VII & II, a Catholic, followed his brother Charles II, despite efforts in the late 1670s to exclude him and pass the throne to his protestant daughter Mary. James VII & II was the last British monarch to be deposed; his Protestant opponents forced him to flee from the country in 1688. Parliament then deemed that James VII & II had, by fleeing the realm, abdicated the Throne. Parliament offered the Crown not to James VII & II's infant son by his second, Catholic, wife, also named James, but to his Protestant daughter Mary and to her husband William, who as James's nephew was the first person in the succssion not descended from him. The two became joint Sovereigns (a unique circumstance in British history) as William III and Mary II. William had insisted on this unique provision as a condition of his military leadership against James.

The Bill of Rights passed in 1689 determined succession to the Throne. First in the line were the descendants of Mary II. Next came Mary's sister the Princess Anne of Denmark and her descendants. Finally, the descendants of William III by any future marriage were added to the line of succession. Only Protestants were allowed to succeed to the Throne, and those who married Roman Catholics were excluded.

After Mary II died in 1694, her husband continued to reign alone until his own death in 1702. The line of succession provided for by the Bill of Rights was almost at an end; William and Mary never had any children, and the Princess Anne's children had all died. Therefore, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701. The Act maintained the provision of the Bill of Rights whereby William III would be succeeded by the Princess Anne and her descendants, and thereafter by his own descendants from future marriages. The Act, however, declared that they would be followed by James I's great-granddaughter Sophia, Electress and Dowager Duchess of Hanover and her heirs. As under the Bill of Rights, non-Protestants and those who married Roman Catholics were excluded.

Upon William III's death, Anne became Queen of England. Because Parliament of England settled on Sophia, Electress of Hanover as Anne's heir without consulting Scottish leaders, the Estates of Scotland retaliated by passing the Act of Security. The Act provided that, upon the death of Anne, the Estates would meet to select an heir, who could not be the same person as the English Sovereign unless numerous political and economic conditions were met. Anne originally withheld the Royal Assent, but was forced to grant it when the Estates refused to raise taxes and sought to withdraw troops from the Queen's army. England's Parliament responded by passing the Alien Act, which threatened to cripple Scotland's economy by cutting off trade with them. Thus, Scotland had no choice but to unite with England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707; the Crown of the new nation was subject to the rules laid down by the Act of Settlement.

Hanoverians and Windsors

Anne was predeceased by Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and was therefore succeeded by the latter's son, who became George I in 1714. The Crown descended thereafter without incident until 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated. Edward VIII had desired to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorcée, but the Church of England, of which the British Sovereign is Supreme Governor, prohibited divorcés and divorcées from remarrying. Therefore, Parliament passed His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936, by which Edward VIII ceased to be Sovereign. The Act provided that he and his descendants, if any, were not to have any "right, title or interest in or to the succession to the Throne." Edward VIII was succeeded by his brother George VI.

Current rules

The Act of Settlement 1701 (restated by the Acts of Union) still governs succession to the Throne. (The Act does not abrogate several provisions of the Bill of Rights, which, therefore, still remain in effect.) His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936, which provided that Edward VIII and his descendants would have no claim to the Throne, is no longer applicable, as Edward died in 1972 without issue.

Anyone ineligible to succeed is deemed "naturally dead". That individual's descendants are not also disqualified, unless they are personally ineligible.


The Protestant "heir of the body" of Sophia, Electress of Hanover succeeds to the Throne. The term, under English law, applies the rules of male primogeniture to succession. Children born out of wedlock and adopted children, however, are not eligible to succeed. Illegitimate children whose parents marry are legitimated, but still remain incapable of inheriting the Crown.

In addition to the normal rules relating to marriage, the Royal Marriages Act 1772 applies to the descendants of George II. (The descendants of princesses who married into foreign royal families were excepted, as were, in 1936, any descendants of Edward VIII.) The Act provides that each individual bound by its provisions may not marry without the Sovereign's consent being signified under the Great Seal and being announced before the Privy Council. The Act provides, however, that if an individual older than twenty-five years notifies the Privy Council of his or her intention to marry without the consent of the Sovereign, then he or she may lawfully do so after one year, unless both houses of Parliament expressly disapprove of the marriage. Any marriage that contravenes the Royal Marriages Act is illegal, and the offspring thereof are illegitimate and ineligible to succeed to the Crown.

The highest individuals to be disqualified from succeeding to due to being born out of wedlock are The Hon. Benjamin Lascelles and The Hon. Emily Lascelles , who would have otherwise ranked fortieth and forty-first in the line of succession respectively, after their father, Viscount Lascelles. Lord Lascelles subsequently legitimated them by marrying their mother, but they still remain ineligible to succeed to the Crown.


Rules relating to eligibility established by the Bill of Rights are retained under the Act of Settlement. The preamble to the Act of Settlement notes that the Bill of Rights provides "that all and every person and persons that then [at the time of the Bill of Right's passage] were, or afterwards should be reconciled to, or shall hold communion with the see or Church of Rome, or should profess the popish religion, or marry a papist, should be excluded." The Act of Settlement continues, providing "that all and every Person and Persons who shall … is, are or shall be reconciled to or shall hold Communion with the See or Church of Rome or shall profess the Popish religion or shall marry a papist shall be subject to such Incapacities" as the Bill of Rights established.

The precise meaning of the aforementioned clauses is subject to contention. Under one interpretation, the religion of an individual at the precise moment of succession is relevant. Under another interpretation, anyone who has been a Roman Catholic at any time since 1689 ("then … or afterwards") is forever ineligible to succeed. The former interpretation allows a Roman Catholic to convert to Protestantism and succeed to the Throne just before his predecessor dies; the latter does not. In either case, however, other religions are not affected; it is clear that any non-Catholic may convert to Protestantism and succeed to the Throne.

The Act of Settlement further provides that anyone who marries a Roman Catholic at any time would be forever ineligible to succeed to the Throne. (Some suggest that the religion of one's spouse at the precise time of succession is all that matters. This interpretation, however, is not borne out by a literal reading of the Act, which uses the phrase "shall marry," not "shall be married.") The Act does not require that the spouse be Protestant; it only bars those who marry Roman Catholics. Furthermore, an individual is not barred because his or her spouse converts to Roman Catholicism after marriage.

The highest individual ineligible to succeed because he or she married a Roman Catholic is Earl of St Andrews, who would have otherwise ranked twenty-third in the line of succession. The highest individual ineligible to succeed because he or she is not a Protestant is Lord Downpatrick (Lord St Andrews' son), who would have otherwise ranked twenty-fourth.


Several calls have been made to change the law of succession. Most commonly, individuals have asserted that granting precedence to male children or excluding non-Protestants is discriminatory. In 1998, The Guardian challenged the succession law in court, purporting that it violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides, "The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status." The Convention, however, nowhere lists the right to succeed to the Crown as a human right; therefore, the challenge was rejected. Most recently, in December 2004, a Private Member's Bill, the Succession to the Crown Bill, was introduced in the Lords.

Any changes made to the succession law in the United Kingdom would not have effect in the Commonwealth Realms, unless specifically enacted by the Parliaments thereof. The Commonwealth Realms, of which the United Kingdom is one, are independent nations, all under a single monarch. The rules of succession are now the same in all of these Realms, but it is possible for a Realm to adopt rules of succession independently of other Realms. The Statute of Westminster 1931 provides, "it would be in accord with the established constitutional position of all the members of the Commonwealth in relation to one another that any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions (now Realms) as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom." This provision, however, is a part of the Preamble of the Act. Since it does not follow an enacting clause, it has no legal force. It only applies as a guideline; each Realm's Parliament is permitted to amend succession law, but only insofar as it applies to that Realm.

Changing succession to absolute primogeniture would result in HRH The Princess Royal (Anne) being fourth in line, taking the place of HRH The Duke of York (Andrew).


Accession Councils normally meet in .
Accession Councils normally meet in St James's Palace.

Upon the death of a Sovereign, his or her heir immediately and automatically succeeds, without any need for confirmation or further ceremony. Nevertheless, it is customary for the accession of the Sovereign to be publicly proclaimed.

Formerly, the new Sovereign proclaimed his or her own succession. After Elizabeth I died, however, an Accession Council proclaimed the succession of James I, who was in Scotland at the time. The precedent has been followed in each case since; now, the Accession Council normally meets in St James's Palace. Proclamations since James I's have usually been made in the name of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, the Privy Council, the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and citizens of the City of London and "other principal Gentlemen of quality," though there have been variations in some proclamations. Elizabeth II's proclamation was the first to also make mention of representatives of members of the Commonwealth.

After an appropriate period of mourning has passed, the Sovereign is also crowned. Coronations are held in Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop of Canterbury normally officiates, though the Sovereign may designate any other bishop of the Church of England. A coronation is not necessary for a Sovereign to rule; for example, Edward VIII was never crowned, yet was the undoubted king during his short reign.

See also


  • Blackstone, W. (1765). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Bogdanor, V. (1995). The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Bryant, A. (1975). A Thousand Years of British Monarchy. London: Collins.
  • Cox, N. (1999). "The Law of Succession to the Crown in New Zealand." Waikato Law Review. (Vol. 7, pp. 49-72).
  • Demoskoff, Y. (2004). "Frequently Asked Questions for British Royal and Noble Families."
Last updated: 05-05-2005 16:36:11