Royal rights for women escape the aristocracy
LONDON LETTER: Female British aristocrats are feeling unloved this Christmas.
Once a commoner, if far from a simple one, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, brought the house down when she turned up to present the top award at last week’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
This month Middleton, now pregnant, learned for sure that if she gives birth to a daughter she will likely be queen one day, rather than simply having to stand in the sidelines if a younger brother comes along.
Some aristocratic mothers, however, are not quite so fortunate. Lady Clare Kerr, daughter of the Marquess of Lothian, former Conservative MP Michael Ancram, will see the family title pass to her uncle on her father’s death because he has no male heir.
Under the changes proposed, royal succession law in all 16 states where Queen Elizabeth is head of state will be changed to ensure that a first daughter of Prince William and his wife would remain third in line, even if younger brothers come later.
The existing principle of male preference primogeniture has developed gradually over many centuries.
During Anglo-Saxon times a new monarch could be the first son but he could lose out if his dying father nominated another.
“In practice, the king tended to be the person who could secure the crown, not a person who was emplaced according to an abstract principle,” says the House of Commons Library, a font of knowledge on such esoteric subjects.
Matters changed when lawyers got involved with the Act of Settlement of 1701, needing to ensure that the crowns of England and Ireland stayed in Protestant hands. Sophia, Electress of Hanover, grand-daughter of James 1, was chosen as the vessel.
Afterwards, the crown shall “be remain and continue to the said most excellent Princess Sophia and the heirs of her body being Protestant”, with succession rights dictated by common law – which gave preference to men over women.
Now the law change, which has effect retrospectively – just in case politicians in the 16 states, including Australia and Canada, do not get around to dotting i’s or crossing t’s by the time Clarence House is, hopefully, in celebratory mood.
Time may be needed. In Papua New Guinea, a member of the commonwealth even though it won its independence from Australia in 1975, the change must be approved by an absolute majority of its parliament in two votes, held two months apart.
Saying that aristocrats are “two steps behind” the royals, Lady Kerr, however, does not necessarily call for the two paces to be made up: just one would be sufficient for now, since she sees merit in a younger brother overtaking a sister to preserve family name.