A New Twist On Male Succession


Has the abandonment of the male-first right to the throne come 500 years too late? Martin Hickes reports.

WHILE the recent announcement of the impending abandonment of male primogeniture might look to some to be the ultimate slap in the face to male pride, how different would England have been if it had been consigned to the historical scrapheap centuries ago?

Its perhaps futile to play the what if game with history, but certainly, if the move eventually produces more female monarchs down the line, certain historians would not complain.

Royal watchers have long noted, in compiling the whos whos of best monarchs, that our queens - notably both Elizabeths, certainly Victoria, and perhaps less so Anne, would be close to the top of any monarchical hit parade.

The often-forgotten Queen Matilda and Lady Jane Gray are also notable as the overlooked monarchs of England, among historians.

As for those near the foot of any prospective list, its likely that King John (Lackland), Richard II, the largely ineffective Edward II and Henry VI, and to many Henry VIII - for many the very embodiment /victim of the male primogeniture statute - would be bringing up the rear.

But how different would Englands history and royal saga have been if the males-first ruling had been abandoned in Henry VIIIs time - and why and from where did it spring?

Author and historian Peter Algar, from Leeds, says:

It might sound a controversial assertion, but its not beyond the imagination to suggest that England could still be a Catholic country if male primogeniture had been abandoned in medieval times.

Of course it is very much playing the what-if game but its not unreasonable to suppose that if Henry had been able to accept his first born daughter (Mary) as the accepted future monarch, it could have saved a whole lot of trouble to put it mildly. Indeed he might not have had future children.

The male primogeniture rule came to us via the Normans, this is where we get the expression taile male, (the Anglo-Saxons were more democratic in the way that they chose kings via the Witan).

Ironically, the Hundred Year’s War was started by Edward III of England after the death of his uncle, Charles IV of France. He laid a claim to the French throne on the basis of being his nearest male relative through the female association of his mother, Isabella of France, who was Charles’s sister. The French crown had always been granted on male-line relations and there was, in fact, no precedent for claims through the maternal line.

Later, the Tudors "partial" claim to the throne was from the female line, the Beauforts (of the House of Lancaster). Their male line was not enough to secure them the throne. That is why Henry VII was keen to marry Elizabeth of York to cover all bets.

His son, Henry VIII, was driven to have a male heir - as indeed many kings were in the period (and indeed) to this date; in fact, the familiar, if somewhat derogatory, phrase ‘an heir and a spare’ is still in use to this day in some Royal circles.

Henry was famous for his drive to produce a son, to maintain his dynasty and of course he eventually did so in Edward VI, only for the boy to die at a young age.

If he had accepted - or was allowed - to accept Mary, his first born daughter, under an equality rule, it is fun to argue that he would not have divorced Catherine of Aragon.

Even if you discount this, and accept his relationship with Anne Boleyn was triggered by lust, using the same train of thought, he might have been more accepting of their issue - i.e. Princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I, and furthermore, might not fallen out with Rome over his desire or ‘need’ to marry Anne.

Would England thus have remained a Catholic country as a result - and perhaps even to this day, if Henry has felt less ‘constrained‘ by the statute of male primogeniture?

It is perhaps a futile argument but if nothing else, it certainly serves to illustrate what could transpire as a result of the new moves. Seemingly innocuous changes in history have often had monumental effects, or at least the potential for such.

In Henry’s case, changes were afoot on the Continent in any case and Lutheranism/Protestantism would probably have held great sway eventually regardless, even if Henry chose not to establish himself as the supreme head of the church…but it’s certainly a thought provoking argument.

Mary of course did eventually become queen - but not until her brother Edward had been crowned under male primogeniture laws. When Mary did eventually take the throne, England briefly, though notoriously, returned to Catholicism.

Henry’s drive for a son - or indeed a child - is all the more poignant when you consider he married his late brother’s wife (Catherine of Aragon) and traditional religious doctrine at the time suggested such marriages would remain childless. Henry never expected the throne, anticipating his elder brother Arthur would inherit such, and thus his drive for a male heir under the extant rules is all the more understandable perhaps? But how different it might have been in a more liberal climate with regards to future heirs.

History enthusiast and self-styled Republican Martin Gamble, from Bolsover, says

The question over the effect of the proposed change is academic other than perhaps to give some traditionalists concern over the amendments to a raft of legislation that are required to several key pieces, including the 1701 Act of Settlement, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1772 Royal Marrriages Act.

To bring the argument up to date, had the proposed changes been passed less than sixty years ago, Princess Anne would have remained as second in line to the throne before her younger siblings were born.

Her son, Peter, would have been promoted to third in line at the time and Anne's daughter Zara, the eldest granddaughter of the Queen, would have been fourth in line to the throne.

“Since Anne and Anne's husband, Mark Phillips, refused to take Royal titles on behalf of their children, Peter and Zara, we could have had an interesting constitutional situation whereby an untitled person could have possibly become head of state!

“While not unique, a legitimate grandchild of a reigning monarch remaining untitled in terms of peerage is rare and has not happened for five centuries since the time of the Tudors.

Peter Phillips married a Canadian Catholic, Autumn Kelly, who converted to the Anglican faith to ensure that her future husband would not lose his place in the line of succession.

That act of selfless courage will no longer be required since the other proposals outlined recently will now permit a Catholic consort; although the interesting oxymoron of a Catholic head of state also being head of the Church of England remains an interesting possibility.

“Zara is now way back as thirteenth in line, behind her older brother and his daughter, the likewise untitled Savanna.”