Jan 232010
 

Cranmer highlights another step in Evan Harris MP’s campaign to amend the ban on members of the royal family marrying (or being) Catholics. He points out some interesting features of this campaign, not least that it is centred around the wrong Act of Parliament.

It turns out that the Act of Settlement of 1701 is, apparently, in breach of some articles of the ECHR, namely the right to marry and the prohibition of religious discrimination.

Let’s put this into perspective, y’all. The rules of succession of this country are a nonsense, and always have been, and the idea that there is any fixed procedure besides expediency – let alone one that takes into account anyone’s rights – is ludicrous.

First, members of the royal family are allowed to marry Roman Catholics. There is nothing to prevent them. But if they do, they cease to be considered in the line of succession to the throne.

As far as I’m aware, being in line to the throne is not a right enshrined in the ECHR. So if you marry a Roman Catholic, you lose your place in that line. But your human rights have not been breached.

This attempt to make the line of succession some kind of equal-rights procedure seems very silly to me. By its very definition, the royal family is not an equal-rights institution. It is a family. Everyone who is not a member of that family is debarred from taking part in what it does. If there are then further conventions about who in the family is permitted to do what and when, fine. If the rules of the family say you can’t be the head honcho if you marry (or are) a Roman Catholic, meh. Those are choices you, as an individual, have to make. Peter Phillips and his bride made just such a choice – she converted to Anglicanism before their wedding. She didn’t have to do that. And he didn’t have to marry her. These were voluntary decisions made in full knowledge of all the consequences.

Second, Evan Harris MP seems bothered by the fact that succession in this country is by male primogeniture. Nominally it may be, but in reality this is piffle.

The ‘male’ part, of course, a holdover from the warlike-chieftain days of yore, when the leader of the tribe was also the leader of the war-band, so he kind of had to be a man. But, as Tacitus relates in the Germania, the line of succession in the Germanic tribes from whom the English were descended was always through the female. The chieftain’s brothers, and the children of his sisters, were his successors. A man’s sister’s children were closer to him than his own, always.

Why? Because they were the children he could be sure were related to him by blood. His wife’s children may or may not be of his blood, but his sister’s children surely were. And so the chieftain’s nephews would be his successors in the next generation, and the chieftain’s nieces would carry on the bloodline in their own offspring.

This tradition continued, generally speaking, during the Anglo-Saxon period in England for a good long while (with a few alterations). Brother succeeded brother; nephew succeeded uncle. The significant alterations came in when this was not possible, or when the natural successor was considered unfit by the witan or the war-band. Then an alternate might be chosen by election (roughly) or acclamation.

It wasn’t until William the Conqueror came over with his feudalism and his Norman barons and his hey-that-hurts that this all changed. The Norman nobility had a different system, and when they became the nobility of England, that system took root. It was not the sons of the sisters who took precedence, but the sons of the chieftain himself. Though the Normans had been Germanic, too, they were also the vassals of the king of France – and French succession operated according to a version of the Salic tradition of direct male descendants.

In this tradition, the remote chance that the chieftain’s wife had cuckolded him was apparently considered a negligible problem when laid against all of the advantages and skills a child would have who had been trained and brought up by the chieftain himself. And rules of succession, wherever one may have been, could be (and sometimes were) bent to the point of breaking if the legal heir was considered unfit.

And so England’s throne became one of direct male primogeniture, in general. But then this got screwed up in 1399, and direct male primogeniture has been a happy fantasy ever since.

The first hiccough: Richard II, grandson of Edward III through his first-born son the Black Prince, was deposed for being ‘unfit’ by Henry IV, also a grandson of Edward III but through his third son, John of Gaunt. Eventually this led to the Wars of the Roses, out of the wreckage of which came Henry VII – whose only blood claim to the throne was as the son of the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III (by his third son, John of Gaunt). Sound torturous? Yeah. Male primogeniture took sort of a back seat there. Restoring it was still a happy hope until Henry VIII came along, who fucked it all up.

When he died, Edward VI (son of Henry VIII) had no sons or brothers, and Henry VIII had no brothers with issue, and Henry VII had had no brothers, and before that there had been a massive tangle. Finding direct male descendants of the last absolutely solid English king, Edward III, would have been pretty fucking difficult by 1553 even had Henry VIII not had most of them judicially murdered to preserve his own claim to the throne. There was no question that succession would have to go through a female line somewhere.

Henry VIII had had two sisters: Margaret, who married the king of Scotland, and Mary, who had married lesser nobleman Charles Brandon. At that point, primogeniture should have demanded that Margaret’s male descendants inherit the throne of England; unfortunately, she had none, and the monarch of Scotland at the time was an 11-year-old Catholic girl engaged to the Dauphin of France. The prospect of one day becoming part of the kingdom of France was intolerable to the English, never mind the abhorrent Catholicism. So they turned to Mary’s line. And, alas, she had no male descendants either!

There was a female, though, a nice Protestant girl called Lady Jane Grey. She was proclaimed queen in short order, with the prior approval of the dying Edward VI.

But this was stupid, no? If there were going to be a female monarch, as there had never been before, why someone with such a tenuous blood tie to the previous king? Why not Edward VI’s older sister Mary, the legitimate (de facto if not de jure) daughter of Henry VIII? Mary thought so too, and rocked up in London immediately. Parliament heaved a massive sigh of relief, declared her the rightful queen, and started praying that, even in her late age, Mary could somehow produce a son.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, but you can see the tangled crap that has always been the rules of succession in England. They were so flexible, in fact, that Henry VIII and Edward VI both tried legal means to straighten them out. Henry VIII used Acts of Parliament; Edward VI tried to circumvent them in his will. Neither was successful.

There was another hitch when Mary died without children; the Catholic queen of Scotland was by then no longer attached to France, but the English had had enough of Catholics, so they chose Elizabeth – who also died without children. And, at long last, they found a man: James, the good Protestant son of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose relationship to Elizabeth was remote but who was at least a direct descendant of Henry VII, if though a bunch of women.

By then, of course, the English had decided it was okay to have queens if you couldn’t find a suitable king, which was how the country ended up with Mary II and Anne: there were available men by that time, but they were ‘unsuitable.’ But when Anne died without surviving children in 1714, the English (well, British by this point) had to go on the hunt again – this time even more circumscribed by the ‘no Catholics’ rule – and finally lit upon some random Hanoverian who was descended from James I (through his daughter) and bore absolutely no resemblance to anything that could be called a ‘direct male descendant’ of anyone who had ever been king of England.

And of course the present monarch is not even his ‘direct male descendant,’ since she is not only not a man, but she’s descended from him through a woman (Victoria).

So. Given that male primogeniture was a rule only when it could be applied, and has only rarely been applicable since 1399, why mess around with it now? It’s not like the English have ever given a shit, and who the monarch is hardly even matters these days anyway. Let the royal family sort it out for themselves. Surely there are better uses for Evan Harris MP’s time.

  9 Responses to “Kings and Queens and Catholics”

  1. Perhaps a little pedantic of me but your tenses in ‘ had had no brother’ imply that you are unaware that Henry VIII had an elder brother, albeit one who pre-deceased their father Henry VII.

  2. I look thru’ about ten poliblogs every morning. This is the only interesting one this week!

  3. I like these historical blawg-entries. However, I feel I should point out that there is no better use of the MP’s time. If he weren’t dicking around with the royal family, he’d be free to fuck up something that actually matters. Count your blessings.

  4. Hrothgar has a good point. Likely he would advocate, short of clearing out Congress altogether, finding some useless and harmless diversion upon which they could fixate, and thus spare America any more distress.

  5. Why are people always complaining on behalf of someone else, particularly, when they haven’t asked. As far as I know, nobody in the Royal Family has complained, and I’m sure that they would be capable of raising the issue themselves if they felt aggrieved. Why doesn’t this twit try to do something useful on behalf of his constituents and leave it to the MP for Maidenhead & Windsor if necessary!

    • Word. I guess the MP for Windsor & Maidenhead (the fabulous and helpful Adam Afriyie) has more constructive things to do with himself than worrying about discrimination against the two women and as-yet-unknown number of Catholics the Act of Settlement might one day conceivably affect.

  6. well said that woman.

    I vaguely remember some other historian boozily expounding on the fact that about 53 people were skipped over at one point in order to avoid Catholics :)

    Irritating as Harris’s smuggery is, I am with Hrothgar on this one. At least Harris not planning something actually evil and warped this time.

    signed

    a female papist

  7. “Surely there are better uses for Evan Harris MP’s time.”

    Sadly, no.

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