Earlier this week the British government presented its bill to change the succession to the throne, formally called the Succession to the Crown Bill. As earlier mentioned the introduction of this bill follows agreement having been reached between the sixteen realms of which Elizabeth II is queen to introduce gender neutral succession.
This mean that the as yet unborn first child of Prince William will be heir to the throne regardless of whether it is a boy or a girl, whereas a girl would, under previous legislation, have been bypassed by a younger brother.
The bill makes this change retroactive, but only back to 28 October 2011, the date the prime ministers of the sixteen realms reached their agreement. Thus it will only affect those born after that date, which means that for instance Princess Anne and her descendants will still come after her younger brothers Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and their descendants. Lady Louise Windsor, the daughter of Prince Edward, will also still follow behind her younger brother James, Viscount Severn. I think the person closest to the throne who will actually be affected by this is the newborn grandchild of the Duke of Gloucester, Tane Lewis, who is currently ahead of his elder sister Senna in the succession, but who will cease being so when the bill is enacted.
The bill further removes the ban on people married to Catholics from succeeding to the throne. However, those who are themselves Catholic will still be barred from succeeding (as the monarch is head of the Church of England). Interestingly, this provision is made retroactive for those who have married Catholics and are still alive. The persons closest to the throne affected by this are the Earl of St Andrews (son of the Duke of Kent) and Prince Michael, who lost their succession rights when they married Catholics, but who will now regain a place in the order of succession. Several other people will also be affected by this, including for instance the three children of the late Princess Ragnhild of Norway.
Thirdly, the bill radically limits the scope of people who need the British monarch’s permission to marry. Under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 (which will now be repealed in its entirety), all descendants of George II, except those descending from princesses who married into foreign royal houses, needed the monarch’s permission to marry in order for their marriages to be valid under British law. From the time this bill comes into force the need to obtain permission will only apply to the first six in line for the throne – i.e. currently the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles), the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William), Prince Henry, the Duke of York (Prince Andrew), Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie. Once the first child of Prince William is born next year, Princess Eugenie will be free of this obligation. Failure to comply with this rule means the loss of succession rights for the person in question and his or her descendants. Most marriages deemed void by the Royal Marriages Act will now be “legalised”.
The bill also involves amendments to several other pieces of legislation, namely the Treason Act of 1351, the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the Regency Act of 1937. Interestingly, the bill does not make any changes to the practice whereby the Duchy of Cornwall devolves on the heir to the throne when the eldest son of the monarch. I believe this will require separate legal amendments, as does the issue of whether the title Princess of Wales may in the future be given to the heir apparent when being the monarch’s daughter.
Under current legislation the title Prince(ss) of the United Kingdom and the style Royal Highness are(by Letters Patent of 1917) limited to the children and the male-line grandchildren of the monarch. At some stage one would expect new letters patent to be issued to alter this, which will no longer make sense when the eldest child is heir regardless of its sex.
It is also interesting to observe that the bill does not limit the succession to the throne. Thus all descendants of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, except Catholics, will continue to be in the order of succession and the retroactive inclusion of those who have married Catholics will mean that the number of potential heirs (which already run to hundreds and hundreds of people) will actually increase.
When this bill is passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords and come into effect Spain and Monaco will be the only European monarchies where males still take precedence over females in the succession (while Liechtenstein bars women altogether).