Rules of Royal Succession - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents



1. On 28 October 2011, the Prime Ministers of the sixteen Commonwealth Realms[1] announced that they had agreed to work together towards a common approach to amending the rules on the succession to the throne, with the aim of giving effect to the changes simultaneously in all sixteen countries.

2. The announcement, which was extensively trailed in the media earlier in the month,[2] described two areas in which all sixteen countries wished to see change:

i.  to end the system of male preference primogeniture under which a younger son can displace an elder daughter in the line of succession, and

ii.  to remove the legal provision that anyone who marries a Roman Catholic becomes ineligible to succeed to the Crown.

3. We understand—although this was not included in the announcement—that agreement has also been reached to reduce substantially the number of members of the extended royal family who currently require the Monarch's permission, or parliamentary acquiescence, to marry under the Royal Marriages Act 1772.

4. On 10 November we took evidence from Robert Blackburn, Professor of Constitutional Law, King's College London, and Dr Robert Morris, Constitution Unit, University College London, on the constitutional and practical implications of these changes. This short Report is intended to inform the House of the issues that emerged during our evidence, before legislation implementing the changes is introduced in the next Session. We are grateful to both of our witnesses, and to Professor Blackburn for his detailed written evidence.

Complexity and international impact

5. Changing the rules of succession is technically and logistically complicated, and will require close co-ordination between the Realms. Our witnesses did not think, however, that this complexity would obstruct the proposals. Dr Blackburn told us that the change was likely to be "straightforward".[3] Dr Morris agreed, saying that "with good will", he was "sure" that "local complexities" could be "overcome".[4]

6. Some of the Commonwealth Realms have republican movements. The process of implementing these changes is likely to lead to further questions in those countries about the Monarch's position as Head of State. Professor Blackburn told us that he was surprised at the lack of media coverage of the announcement in the Commonwealth Realms, but that "whether they [republicans] want to make something of this occasion remains to be seen".[5]

Religion and establishment

7. The Government intends to remove the legal provision that prevents anyone who marries a Roman Catholic from succeeding to the Crown. There are no current proposals to alter the other religious requirements that apply to anyone succeeding to the Crown. These have been summarised for us by Professor Blackburn as follows: the monarch "cannot be a Roman Catholic ... must make a public declaration that he or she is a Protestant, must join in communion with the Church of England, must swear to maintain the established Churches of England and Scotland".[6]

8. The provision relating to marriage to a Catholic dates back more than three hundred years to the Glorious Revolution and Bill of Rights of 1688-89. It serves little if any contemporary purpose, and is seen as an injustice, especially as there are no other restrictions on the religion of the spouse of a person in the line of succession. This lack of other restrictions is almost certainly because the provision is so antiquated that the marriage of a monarch to anyone of another religion was inconceivable when it was drafted.

9. There is one possible consequence of allowing a monarch to be married to a Catholic that might be considered of contemporary relevance. Catholics are normally obliged under canon law to bring up as Catholics any children from an inter-faith marriage.[7] The proposal thus raises the prospect of the children of a monarch being brought up in a faith which would not allow them to be in communion with the Church of England. This would prevent them from acceding to the throne.

10. It is worth noting, however, that this requirement of canon law is occasionally waived through papal dispensation, and indeed has been waived for members of the royal family.[8] An heir to the throne who was considering marrying a Catholic could seek this dispensation before proceeding with the marriage. The Monarch and Parliament could also prevent the marriage from going ahead if they so wished, as for any royal marriage.[9] It is also perhaps worth noting that Catholicism is not the only religion to impose such a requirement.[10]

11. The scenario does, however, beg the question of whether it remains appropriate for the monarch to be required to be in communion with the Church of England. Dr Morris told us that "one of the problems about, for example, removing the ban on marriage to a Catholic is that you draw more attention to the existing bans",[11] and there has already been comment on these bans from the Scottish First Minister and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, with the former referring to "the unjustifiable barrier on a Catholic becoming Monarch".[12] The most obvious difficulty in having a Catholic monarch—beyond the purely statutory obstacles—is the Crown's role as supreme governor of the Church of England.

12. Dr Morris' point of view is that establishment of the church "is not an inseparable package", and that the monarch's role in it as supreme governor is essentially ceremonial:

One could argue that one must not touch that, otherwise the establishment will break down around our ears, or one could take the view that we can respond to the sort of society we have become and that we can re-interpret that as well, as we have re-interpreted so many other parts of the constitution, and make it possible, as one bishop at least thought some years ago, for even a Roman Catholic to be the supreme governor of the Church of England.[13]

13. The value of the oaths that a new monarch must swear is questionable if, as Dr Morris puts it, they "require the monarch to swear to do things that they are not in a position to fulfil".[14] The Queen at her Coronation promised, for example, to "maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law" and to "maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England".[15] Such promises do not sit comfortably with the notion of a purely constitutional monarchy.

14. We welcome the proposal that would allow a member of the royal family to marry a Roman Catholic without losing their place in the line of succession. The existing provision is anomalous in discriminating solely against Roman Catholics and those who wish to marry them. The proposal does, however, raise questions about the future role of the Crown in the Church of England, which the House may wish to consider in due course.

Primogeniture and the aristocracy

15. The proposal to end the preferential treatment of men in the line of succession has been widely welcomed, and with good reason. It does, however, cast the spotlight on the hereditary aristocracy, to which women are for the most part ineligible to succeed, and, where they are eligible, male heirs take preference.

16. The Crowns of many other European monarchies, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden, succeed without any male preference, while aristocratic titles in these countries continue to be inherited through the male line. In Spain, in contrast, the Crown for the moment continues to be inherited through male-preference primogeniture, while since 2006, succession within the Spanish nobility has become gender-blind.

17. In countries in which aristocratic titles no longer confer any particular rights, duties or privileges, there may be no compelling reason to alter an historic system of inheritance.[16] In the United Kingdom, however, 92 seats in the House of Lords continue for now to be reserved to holders of hereditary aristocratic titles. Only two of these 92 seats are currently occupied by women. While the holders of hereditary peerages continue to be eligible for membership of the House of Lords, the way in which their titles are inherited, and its effect on the gender balance in Parliament, remain matters of public interest.

Royal Marriages Act

18. It has been written of the Royal Marriages Act that "there are, perhaps, few more absurd pieces of legislation on the statute book".[17] Under this statute, the marriage is void of any descendant of George II (other than the children of princesses married into 'foreign families') who fails to seek the monarch's permission to marry. The Act is likely now to apply to thousands of people, many of whom have at most a tenuous connection to the extended royal family, let alone to the throne. The Royal Marriages Act is overdue for reform. We look forward to seeing the detail of the Government's proposals in this area.


19. We welcome the changes agreed between the sixteen Commonwealth Realms. It would be wrong to present the changes as a major step towards modernisation. It is true, as Dr Morris told us, that it is hard "to infuse logic into a system that isn't logical".[18] But people value having a hereditary head of state for the sake of history and tradition and because it is a system that has generally worked well, rather than because it is modern or fair. The changes being proposed are modest, but they will remove two elements of discrimination in determining the succession to the throne, while maintaining its traditional hereditary character.

1   The Realms are the 16 members of the Commonwealth that recognise the British Sovereign as Head of State: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and the United Kingdom. Back

2   Eg 22 October 2011:The Times, 'Equality agreed for royal succession', Daily Telegraph, 'First-born daughter of Duke will take throne' Back

3   Q 4 Back

4   Q 16 Back

5   Q 16 Back

6   Q 20 Back

7   See, for example, Dr William Oddie, Catholic Herald, 2 November, "Why shouldn't there be a Catholic 'Supreme Governor' of the Church of England?" Back

8   for the children of HRH Prince Michael of Kent Back

9   Royal Marriages Act 1772 Back

10   Islam, for example, requires that any children of a Muslim parent be raised Muslim. Back

11   Q 13 Back

12 Back

13   Q 3 Back

14   Q 2 Back

15   Coronation Oath, 2 June 1953 Back

16   Q 28 [Professor Blackburn] Back

17   Vernon Bogdanor, The Monarchy and the Constitution (1995), p 59 Back

18   Q 12 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 7 December 2011