Royal rights for women escape the aristocracy

Fri, Dec 21, 2012, 00:00

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.

However, in cases where there is not a son, then it should change, says Kerr, who is recently married to a Conservative minister and has an eight-month-old daughter – although it would be difficult to deny girls full rights if a first step was taken, she acknowledges.

Creator of Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes focused much of the attention of viewers on the succession difficulties that faced Robert Crawley, the fictional 7th Earl of Grantham, because of his lack of a son.

Fellowes was not writing without direct knowledge.

The family title of his wife, Emma – first bestowed on the Kerry-born field marshal Horatio Kitchener – will die off once the childless current earl, Henry Herbert Kitchener, now 92, passes on.

“If you’re asking me if I find it ridiculous that, in 2011, a perfectly sentient adult woman has no rights of inheritance whatsoever when it comes to a hereditary title – I think it’s outrageous, actually,” fumes Fellowes.

“The point is not whether or not you approve of hereditary titles, but given the fact that they do exist, the exclusion of women from them under English law is absolutely bizarre. This is the most famous imperial title of that particular period of our history.”

Since the rules for the royals have changed then they should do so for aristocrats as well, he says. “Either you’ve got to get rid of the system or you’ve got to let women into it. I don’t think you can keep it as men-only.”

Social commentator Peter York, who captured the doings of the young upper-class in the 1980s with his Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, believes male primogeniture had its place once, but no longer.

“What mattered was that the estate goes to one person who will take care of it for the next generation,” he says. “In this sense primogeniture is more important than gender, it goes to one person rather than being divided up.”

In Ireland, the rules had a quirk, having two peerages that can pass through the female line: the viscountcy of Massereene and the barony of Loughneagh, both of which are today held by Viscount Massereene and Ferrard.