Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant, succession laws to change soon
Speculation in the press about the Duchess of Cambridge being pregnant has increased in recent weeks, and on 3 December that speculation was finally laid to rest by an announcement from Clarence House that she was pregnant but suffering from severe morning sickness and was being hospitalised for a few days. According to the announcement, Kate is in the very early stages of pregnancy, meaning that the baby is probably due to be born next summer. Although many people were hoping for a Jubilee Year baby, we did at least get a Jubilee Year announcement!
When the baby is born, he or she will be the great-grandchild of the reigning sovereign. Although the Queen already has two great-grandchildren (Savannah and Isla Phillips, the two daughters of Princess Anne’s son, Peter Phillips), the Cambridge baby will be in the direct line of succession as the eldest child of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales. It’s very unusual for four generations of monarchs and future monarchs to be alive at the same time; the only other time this happened was with the birth in 1894 of Prince Edward of York (the future Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor), the first child of Queen Victoria’s grandson George, Duke of York (later George V). It nearly happened in 1817 when Princess Charlotte of Wales, granddaughter of George III, gave birth, but unfortunately the child was stillborn. Other long-lived monarchs (Henry I, Edward III, Elizabeth I) either had no children or did not live to see their heirs have grandchildren.
As a great-grandchild of Queen Victoria, the future Edward VIII had a royal title at birth; however, in Queen Victoria’s day, as her grandchildren married and had children of their own, there was a proliferation of Royal Highnesses, Serene Highnesses, and Highnesses. George V tried to do something about rationalising all this by issuing the Letters Patent of 1917, limiting the use of Royal Highness to children and male-line grandchildren of monarchs and the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales (but not any other great-grandchildren). So if the new Cambridge baby is a boy, he’ll be a Royal Highness, but a girl would be out of luck in the Royal Highness stakes, as will all younger siblings. A similarly anomalous situation occurred in 1948 when Princess Elizabeth was pregnant, since the 1917 Letters Patent granted the style of Royal Highness to children of sons (not daughters) of the sovereign, meaning that Princess Elizabeth’s children would not be Royal Highnesses but would be styled as the children of the Duke of Edinburgh; the eldest son would take the courtesy title Earl of Merioneth, and other children would become Lord or Lady. To rectify this anomaly, George VI issued Letters Patent in 1948 to extend the use of Royal Highness and the prefix Prince and Princess to the children of Princess Elizabeth (although not to the children of his younger daughter, Princess Margaret). Presumably the Queen will do likewise at some point before the baby is born, so that all William and Kate’s children born during the present reign will be Royal Highnesses.
At the time of William and Kate’s wedding, discussions were raging in the press about whether this would finally be a good time to change the succession laws to allow their first-born child to inherit the throne regardless of gender. At present the British succession favours boys over their sisters, a system that was in use in many European monarchies but has gradually given way to gender-neutral succession. These changes started in Sweden in 1980, when baby Crown Prince Carl Philip was demoted in favour of his older sister Victoria, who is now Crown Princess; so far Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Luxembourg have followed suit, leaving only the United Kingdom, Monaco, and Spain with male-preference primogeniture and Liechtenstein with male-only primogeniture. The British government has ducked this issue time and again, claiming that it’s too complicated to deal with and that there are more important things for the government to be doing. However, the royal wedding last year seems to have provided the motivation for the new coalition government to address the royal succession laws.
At last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the royal succession laws would be changed to allow girls to succeed to the throne on the same basis as boys, and also that the anti-Catholic provisions of the 1701 Act of Settlement regarding royal spouses would be discarded. The Queen was also present at the meeting, presumably to lend support to this proposal. Under the terms of the Statute of Westminster of 1931, changes to the royal succession have to be agreed by all Commonwealth countries where the British monarch is Head of State (currently 15 countries apart from the United Kingdom). All these countries indicated that they were in favour of the changes, and over the past year they have been working toward a mutually acceptable law. The day after the announcement of the Duchess’s pregnancy, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that this process had been concluded successfully and that legislation to change the succession laws would be introduced in Parliament very soon. The scope of the changes was stated as follows: “The legislation will end the principle of male primogeniture, so that men will no longer take precedence over women in line to the throne, and end the bar on anyone in the line of succession marrying a Roman Catholic.”
The law is expected to apply only to the descendants of the Prince of Wales, so that no retrospective changes in the line of succession will occur; Princess Anne and her children will still follow the Earl of Wessex and his children, she won’t leapfrog over her younger brothers. If this also applies to the Catholic question, it means that the members of the royal family currently excluded for marrying Catholics (the Earl of St Andrews, Lord Nicholas Windsor, and Prince Michael of Kent) will remain excluded; however, considering how far down the line of succession they are, it won’t make any difference in practice. Obviously the government isn’t prepared to go as far as removing the provision in the Act of Settlement banning Catholics from succeeding to the throne (perfectly understandable in a country with an Established Church) since Mr Clegg referred only to ending the ban on people in the line of succession marrying Catholics. However, if the Act of Settlement is repealed and replaced by the new act, it’ll be interesting to see if the line of succession continues to include all eligible descendants of Electress Sophia of Hanover or whether it’ll be trimmed to a manageable size like those of many other European monarchies. At present, under the terms of the 1917 Letters Patent, the style of Royal Highness only extends (with a few exceptions mentioned above) to grandchildren of reigning sovereigns, and it would make sense to limit the line of succession similarly (as well as the number of people affected by the Royal Marriages Act, but that’s for another blog).
The prospect of gender-neutral primogeniture has highlighted some complications in the current system of royal titles and finances. At present a male heir to the throne, whether a son of the sovereign or other relation (such as nephew or grandson), is entitled to be created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, but these titles are reserved for males. Also, the eldest son of the sovereign automatically becomes Duke of Cornwall and is financed by the proceeds of the Duchy of Cornwall, not from the Civil List. The situation is complicated enough when the sovereign has no sons since there’s no provision for the eldest girl to become Duchess of Cornwall in her own right. Hence, the Queen was known as Princess Elizabeth during George VI’s lifetime, not Duchess of Cornwall (or Princess of Wales), and she had no access to Duchy of Cornwall funds, which reverted to the Crown. In the future, without changes to the 1337 charter establishing the Duchy of Cornwall, we could see an absurd situation where a firstborn daughter would be heir to the throne but her younger brother would be Duke of Cornwall and have access to the funds meant for the heir. So, as well as introducing a new law establishing equal primogeniture and replacing some of the provisions of the Act of Settlement, the government will have to update the scope of the charters establishing the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall titles. This raises the question of the title of the husband of a Duchess of Cornwall and Princess of Wales, since men marrying into the royal family don’t take their wives’ rank but will need a title of some sort. It’ll be interesting to see how the new law addresses these issues.
In the meantime, we’re in for several months of royal baby saturation coverage in the tabloid press, if the period between the engagement and wedding last year is any guide. Hopefully things won’t get too intrusive or inane, but after the debacle of the topless photos a few weeks ago, that might be too much to ask.
Four generations of monarchs and Princess Elizabeth with her grandmother and sister, public domain.
Photo of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, by Flickr member Defence Images, used under Creative Commons licence.
The Queen at the CHOGM opening ceremony in October 2011, by Flickr member ComSec and used under Creative Commons licence.
There are no comments yet.
Leave a Reply