2024-06-13

How does the British monarchy’s line of succession work?

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Prince Charles’s accession to the throne will seem very different from his mother’s
2DGKA30 Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles, Prince George, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, HM The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attending Trooping the Colour to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, The Mall, London
Oct 22nd 2021

“THE ONLY thing known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy,” mused Ly Tin Wheedle, the Confucius-esque philosopher in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels.

Because tradition demands that when a monarch dies, succession passes to the heir instantly, “there must be some elementary particles—kingons, or possibly queeons—that do the job”.

As soon as Queen Elizabeth II died, her oldest son, Charles, became the head of state of the four countries of the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth countries, including Australia, Canada, Jamaica and Tuvalu. Everyone below him in the pecking order moves up a spot.

An accession council made up of politicians, members of the privy council and other bigwigs will merely affirm his succession. How does Britain’s royal line of succession work, and why might Charles’s ascension to the throne seem different to his mother’s?

The legal basis for succession stretches back to the 17th century and James II, the last Roman Catholic king of England. When Protestant bishops recoiled and invited William of Orange to invade, James fled to France.

The throne went to his daughter Mary, a Protestant who had married William, and Parliament passed two acts: the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Act of Settlement of 1701.

These established that the monarch rules with the consent of Parliament, and set out numerous conditions that a successor must meet.

A British monarch needs to be a descendant of Princess Sophia (the nearest Protestant heir to William of Orange, who became William III), and in communion with the Church of England. Until 2013, when Parliament passed a new Succession to the Crown Act, younger male heirs would jump ahead of their older sisters in line to the throne (Spain and Monaco’s royal families still use this male primogeniture), and anyone married to a Catholic was banned, even a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican.

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