British Monarchy Scraps Rule of Male Succession in New Step to Modernization
LONDON — The 16 countries that recognize the British monarch as head of state struck a historic blow for women’s rights on Friday, abolishing male precedence in the order of succession to the throne. But the possibility of a Catholic monarch will have to wait, nearly 500 years after Henry VIII broke with Rome.
The decision to overturn the centuries-old tradition known as primogeniture was accompanied by the scrapping of a constitutional prohibition on the monarch’s marrying a Roman Catholic. But the rule that reserves the throne to Protestants will remain.
The changes will have no immediate impact on the existing line of succession. The current heir to the throne, Prince Charles, will retain that position, and is in any case the oldest child of his parents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The second in line to the throne is his firstborn child, Prince William. The new succession rule will come into play with William’s children.
Indeed, it was the marriage last spring of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, that accelerated the change. Their wedding spurred a widespread sense that the young couple, by bringing a more contemporary influence to the royal court, are likely to have a far-reaching, if not determinate, impact on the monarchy’s future.
With the change in the succession rules, their first child, if a girl, would automatically enter the line of succession as a future queen, instead of being relegated behind a younger brother as would have occurred under the rules that will now be abandoned.
“Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen,” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said in Perth, the city in western Australia where Commonwealth heads of government are holding a summit meeting.
The bar on the monarch’s marrying a Catholic, like the rule on primogeniture, was enshrined in an array of statutes, most significantly in the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Act of Settlement of 1701, which followed the turmoil of the monarchy of King James II, the last Catholic monarch.
The rules governing the monarchy were set after the violent upheavals that Britain endured in the 16th and 17th centuries after Henry VIII broke with Rome over control of the church in England, an event that led to centuries of marginalization, and often persecution, for Roman Catholics in Britain.
Over the centuries, legal discrimination against Catholics has been dismantled one brick at a time. Laws that forbade Catholics to serve in the army, own or inherit land, vote, hold public office or join one of the “learned professions” have been scrapped, leaving the provision forbidding the monarch to marry a Catholic exposed, as most Catholics have seen it, as a relic of the past.
The prohibition has seemed all the more incongruous for the fact that there is no similar bar on the monarch’s marrying somebody from others faiths, including a Hindu, a Jew or a Muslim.
What remains unchanged in the succession rules is the requirement that the monarch be a Protestant, not a “Papist” as the Act of Settlement provided, and “in communion” with the Church of England.
That, in turn, is linked to the constitutional position of the Church of England as the country’s established church, headed by the monarch. The Anglican primacy has come under a growing challenge by Britain’s rapidly increasing ethnic and religious diversity in recent decades, particularly among Muslim leaders.
In his remarks in Perth, Mr. Cameron reaffirmed the rule that reserves the throne to a Protestant.
“Let me be clear,” he said, “the monarch must be in communion with the Church of England, because he or she is the head of the church.” He added, “But it is simply wrong to say they should be denied the right to marry a Catholic should they wish to do so.”
Some experts said the change could lead to constitutional problems if a future monarch married a Catholic and the couple decided to bring up their children as Catholics, something the Vatican encourages.
But Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, told the BBC that the Catholic hierarchy would not precipitate a crisis over the issue.
“It’s not unreasonable for the head of the Church of England to be an Anglican,” he said.