If you meddle with succession to the throne, says Anne Somerset,
you had better first look at what history has to teach us about those who sit on it.

The Queen is said to be contemplating a reform of the constitution whereby, regardless of sex, the eldest child of the monarch will succeed to the throne. Some people will welcome a modification of what they see as outdated laws of succession, devised when England was a fiercely patriarchal society. It can also be argued that such a change would be little more than a natural evolutionary process, easily absorbed by an institution that owes its survival to its ability to adapt to the times.

After all, female inheritance is scarcely an alien concept to a monarchy which, since the 16th century, has boasted six queens regnant. Would it make such a difference if the sovereign’s eldest daughter was allowed to take precedence over younger male siblings? Unlike many monarchies, England has never been bound by Salic law, which debars females from the throne. For centuries, however, a powerful prejudice existed against women inheriting the crown.

In the 12th century, the troubled reign of Henry I’s daughter Matilda, plagued by civil war and baronial upheavals, formed a singularly unsuccessful precedent. For the next 400 years English kings felt compelled to provide a male heir.

Henry VIII considered it unthinkable that Princess Mary, his only child by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, should succeed to the throne. Had it been otherwise, there would have been no necessity for him to divorce Catherine in the hope of begetting a legitimate male heir, and break with Rome.

Only the death of Henry’s son, Edward VI, forced the nation to accept the unpalatable necessity of a woman succeeding to the throne. Even then, it took the long and successful reign of his second daughter, Elizabeth, to reconcile the country to the concept.

Henry VIII’s determination that a boy should succeed him is the more understandable as the system of male primogeniture had served him well. If a woman ruler had been acceptable, Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, could have inherited the throne, superseding Henry Tudor.

Perhaps Elizabeth would still have married Henry Tudor in order to end the feud between the houses of Lancaster and York. However, if the system currently proposed had been in force, their son Henry would not have become Henry VIII, for the couple had an older daughter, Margaret. Since Margaret went on to have almost as colourful a matrimonial history as her brother, England’s history might not have been much different if she had been queen.

If royal daughters had taken precedence over their younger brothers, England would have been spared the rule of Charles I, who had an elder sister, Elizabeth. Beautiful and popular, she was hailed as the ‘Queen of Hearts’ by an adoring nation. It is tempting to speculate that she might have averted the Civil War. But, since she encouraged her German husband to accept the Bohemian crown, thereby precipitating the Thirty Years’ War, her reign might have been as ill-fated as her brother’s.

Margaret Tudor and Elizabeth Stuart were arguably unlucky in being denied the throne. Yet if they suffered injustice, it was eventually rectified. Margaret’s great-grandson became King James I of England in 1603. Elizabeth Stuart’s Hanoverian descendant ascended the throne in 1714.

Queen Victoria’s firstborn was Vicky, the Princess Royal. She was an infinitely more promising child than her brother ‘Bertie’, Prince of Wales, and Prince Albert frequently lamented that Vicky would not succeed. However, it is perhaps just as well that she did not. Assuming that she had still married the German Crown Prince Frederick, the British crown would have passed to her son, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

It seems unlikely that constitutional monarchy could have survived in Britain if this erratic and autocratic individual had occupied the throne. Like Germany today, England would probably be a republic. Thus caution should be exercised before introducing changes in the law of succession. After all, reforms designed to modernise the monarchy and to demonstrate the Royal Family’s commitment to equal opportunities will scarcely satisfy those who hanker after an elective president.