On the death of a British sovereign (= monarch) they are succeeded instantly by the next in line to the throne. This is despite the fact that it is at the coronation, which may be more than a year later, that they take the coronation oath and the lords choose to accept them and swear fealty to them.

The order of succession is automatic, based on birth and sex, with adjustments for religion and marriage. The monarch is succeeded by her/his eldest son, if any. The order of succession goes downward before it goes sideways, so if the eldest son is dead (or otherwise ineligible, see below), that eldest son's children come next, before the monarch's second son. Then the second son's children. After all the sons have been gone through in order of age, the monarch's daughters in order of age.

After all the downward branches have been exhausted (a trivial example is if the monarch had no children), the order goes to the monarch's brothers and their descendants, then sisters, and so on.

In Anglo-Saxon times succession was more elective, and the throne tended to go to adult brothers rather than possibly unprepared sons, and after going through several brothers would return to the son of the first brother. With the Norman Conquest we get pretty much the modern common law system -- barring the odd usurper (such as Henry IV and Henry VII), beheading, forced abdication (James II), and exclusion on the grounds of religion (The Old Pretender). Also, in the early Norman days, there was civil war on the death of Henry I in 1135 because he had only a daughter, Matilda, and some wanted his nephew Stephen to become king to avoid having a Queen. (They succeeded.)

The current system is officially laid down in the Act of Succession of 1701.

The current royal family

The Royal Family today is basically the descendants of King George V, the present Queen's grandfather. More distant descendants of earlier monarchs no longer count. "Royalty" extends two generations down from a sovereign in the male line, and one generation down in the female line. Yes, a second way females are discriminated against. But even if grandchildren aren't "royal", they're still in the line of succession.

Let's illustrate this using only Queen Elizabeth II's children:

                     Elizabeth II
     |                |                 |              |
   Charles           Anne            Andrew         Edward
   1948-             1950-           1960-          1964-
     |                |                 |              |
  ---------       ---------         ----------         |
  |        |      |       |         |        |         |
William  Harry   Peter   Zara    Beatrice  Eugenie  Louise
1982-    1984-   1977-   1981-   1988-     1990-    2003-
Elizabeth II succeeded in 1952, heir presumptive to her father King George VI. When Princess Anne was born she was therefore third in line, after Prince Charles, and became second when her mother became Queen. But when Prince Andrew was born, he became second and relegated Anne to third. When Prince William was born, he became second after Charles, and relegated Andrew to third place, Edward to fourth, Anne to fifth, and Peter and Zara to 6 and 7.

Charles's children are princes, and Andrew's two daughters are princesses. Now that Prince Edward has somehow managed to sire children with the lovely Sophie, they too should be royal, and be styled Prince or Princess, though it seems they're choosing to refer to her by the lesser title Lady Louise Windsor. But Princess Anne doesn't pass royalness to her children. They're simply Master Peter and Miss Zara Phillips (their now divorced father being Captain Mark Phillips).

Being a prince(ss) is a birth thing. They also acquire titles, conferred on them typically when they become adults or get married. The monarch's eldest son becomes Prince of Wales: Prince Charles was invested with this title in 1969. The eldest daughter is often given the title Princess Royal, which is now Princess Anne's official style. And the other sons are given various royal dukedoms: this title of Duke has a higher precedence than Dukes who aren't royal. Prince Andrew was created Duke of York just before his marriage. Prince Edward refused a dukedom, and was given a lower rank, Earl of Wessex just before his marriage. Captain Phillips refused any kind of title, which is why his children are only commoners, Mister and Miss, despite being grandchildren of The Queen.

Note also that marriage doesn't convey any position in the succession. The Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Diana, Princess of Wales have never been in line for the throne. (Well, lots and lots of people are eventually, unless blocked by an illegitimacy along the line: the Duke is about 500th in line. Succession is limited to Protestant descendants of Sophia, which these days is around about 1200 living people.)

After Charles, William, Harry, Andrew, Beatrice, Eugenie, Edward, Anne, Peter, and Zara, we move back up a generation and go to the Queen's sister, the late Princess Margaret. She was next in line after Zara until her death; now the order goes to her children: Viscount Linley (b. 1961) then his children, then Lady Sarah Chatto (b. 1964) and her children.

Elizabeth II and Margaret exhausting the children of King George VI, the line of succession goes up a generation again to the children of George V, that is George VI's brothers and sisters: they were the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent, and the old Princess Royal, now all deceased. But their descendants are in line (except as noted below): the present Duke of Gloucester and his children, then the present Duke of Kent's family, then the family of his brother Prince Michael, then that of their sister Princess Alexandra, Mrs Angus Ogilvy. Finally, the old Princess Royal (Princess Mary) married the Earl of Harewood, and their family comes next.

You can go up and back as far as you like, with no cut-off, as far as the genealogy can be known for sure. One minor point of interest is that the foreign royal family closest in line to the throne is that of Norway (George V's sister Maud having married the future King Haakon VII).


The great civil wars of religion climaxed in 1688 with the English Parliament declaring that King James II, a Roman Catholic who had acceded in 1685, had abandoned the throne. This legal fiction brought in his Protestant daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband William III as joint monarchs.

This, by the way, is only one of two occasions when a queen who inherits by descent has brought the title of king to her husband: the other was Mary I, whose husband was styled King Philip.

The parliamentary choice of the Protestant daughter bypassed James II's son James, also a Roman Catholic, and when first Mary died without surviving issue, then her sister Queen Anne also looked to be about to die with no children left, they brought in the 1701 Act of Succession and the 1707 Succession to the Crown Act to ensure that Protestants would succeed. Anne's distant cousin Sophia of Hanover was the next Protestant in line, and so the throne passed in 1714 to the Hanoverian, Sophia's son George I. (Sophia died just before Anne.)

The laws also fixed that no Roman Catholic, nor anyone who married a Roman Catholic, could succeed to the British throne. This is outrageous now, but there were armed uprisings close to civil war in 1715 and 1745, allied to religion, and violent anti-Popery riots in London later in the century, so it was a living issue then.

It still affects the order of succession. The present Duke of Kent's son, Earl of St Andrews, married a Roman Catholic, so he is excluded from the succession. His son Lord Downpatrick was being brought up as a Protestant, so was next in line after his grandfather, but recently converted, so he's out and his sister Lady Marina Windsor is next in line. Also, Prince Michael is excluded, having married a Roman Catholic. Again, their children were not affected, not being brought up RC. Really! Of course there are strong moves afoot to abolish this ridiculously anachronistic discrimination, but it's still there and could cause a crisis in case Prince William suddenly falls for some Italian contessa.

One new law has amended the 1707 Act: the Abdication Act of 1936. George V was succeeded by Edward VIII, who wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorcee. This being incompatible in those days with being head of the Church of England (and even today, amazingly, some object on this ground to Charles's marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles!), King Edward gave up the throne, and it passed to his brother George VI. But in this case he also renounced the throne for all his descendants too: though in fact it made no difference since he and Mrs Simpson had no children.

There's another twist to the marriage aspect. In 1772 a Royal Marriage Act declared that the approval of the British parliament was required for all marriages of all descendants of King George II. Obviously this can only apply to British subjects, but in 1956 it was noticed that a 1705 Act (tee hee, I love all this) made all descendants of royalty British subjects even through the female line, and wherever they lived. So technically, possibly hundreds of obscure aristocrats who married into obscure German princely families are not, in Britain, legally married. In which case their issue are not "legitimate" and so aren't in the line of succession.

As of 1 January 2001 there were 4583 legitimate living descendants of Sophia, not taking into account the quirk of law just mentioned, nor religion: read them all at http://members.aol.com/eurostamm/succession_2001.html

This is much longer than I thought it would be (biting off more than I can chew), and I have to stop here. Please /msg me if you spot any gross omissions or errors.

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