05 February 2011

Succession Series: Background

Imagine being born first in line to the throne, living into your sixties and never becoming queen. This was the fate of Queen Victoria’s first child, Victoria Princess Royal, who slid lower and lower in the line of succession as her brothers, their children and their grandchildren were born.

Each monarchy has different rules regarding the succession. Some have been updated within the last generation to allow gender-blind accession or to limit the people who are qualified. For instance, in Sweden, the succession is limited to the descendants of King Carl XVI Gustaf and just one of his uncles AND it stipulates that the order is determined by birth order rather than male preference. When these guidelines were enacted in the 1970s, infant Prince Carl Philipp lost his place at #1 to be supplanted by his older sister, Crown Princess Victoria. The restrictions mean that there are currently only four people in the Swedish line of succession; the shortest line in Europe.

The line of succession in Great Britain is determined by legislation and by traditions, some of which seem archaic today. The primary guidelines are determined by:

 male preference primogeniture which grants precedence by birth order but places all sons and their descendants ahead of the their sisters;
 legitimacy which requires that only individuals born to lawfully wedded couples can be legal heirs;
 the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 which bars individuals who do not have the monarch’s permission to marry (or, if over age 25, assent from the Privy Council) as well as the descendants of an unauthorized marriage; and

 the Act of Settlement of 1701 which bars all Catholics and any descendants who marry a Catholic and which limits the succession to the descendants of Sophia Electress of Hanover, a granddaughter of King James I.

Under these guidelines, there are currently more than 1,800 people eligible to ascend the throne; if Catholics were included, the list would exceed 5,000!

The upcoming marriage of Prince William of Wales has sparked debate about whether these guidelines should be amended to eliminate male-preference primogeniture and remove the ban on Catholics. All this succession talk got me thinking about the fate of princesses under the current guidelines. If a princess was born high in the order of succession, how low might she fall before her death? In my analysis, I focused primarily on people born in the first top 10 spots to see how they moved up and down the line throughout their lives. (For convenience, I considered only the line of succession as it stood on the last day of each year, thereby avoiding the bouncing around caused by individual deaths and births and also overlooking any infants who died quickly after birth. It also means an individual’s rank at death is numbered according to where he or she stood on the last day of the previous year. I have tried to be as accurate and thorough as possible; I welcome any corrections.)

Here are some of my observations:
 Four of the nine monarchs (not including George I and George II who were already alive in 1701) were born at #3. (Click for more.)
 Only three people were born at #1; Vicky is the only one of these who did not ascend the throne.
 Four of the eight consorts were also in the line of succession.
 There have been several periods where the top ten did not change for more than a decade; the most recent being from the birth of Princess Eugenie in 1990 to the birth of Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor in 2002. The longest period of no change followed the birth of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales in 1796 and lasted until her death in 1817.
 Only three monarch’s children were not born into the top ten. These were the three youngest daughters of King George III – Mary, Sophia and Amelia. Because George’s children had very few legitimate children, Mary and Sophia eventually moved up to #9 and #10 respectively but dropped many spots before their deaths. Amelia died fairly young at #14 having dropped only one spot since her birth.
 Today’s top two, Charles Prince of Wales and his son William, were both born at #2.
 Two top ten people were extremely affected: Princess Victoria of Hesse (later Marchioness of Milford Haven) started at #10 and ended at #149 and Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice started at #9 and fell to #149. Princess Beatrice’s most “senior” descendent, Mr. Robin Bryan, is currently #520.

Three factors seem to have the greatest impact on how far one can fall during a lifetime. These are:

1. Gender: Being born female or in the female line means that more people can step ahead of you.
2. Lifespan: The longer you live, the more likely others will be born ahead of you.
3. Large families: If you are born a younger child (or a female) in a large family with siblings who have large families, you will experience a steady decline.

Only a couple of things can help you move up the line;
1. Catholicism: if those above you become Catholic or marry a Catholic, you will move up. Also, their Catholic children cannot push you down the line.
2. Death: Each person who dies above you, moves you up. There have been two years in the last three centuries when tragic deaths caused dramatic jumps for those lower in the line: 1918 and 1937. In 1918, the Russian Revolution led to the murders (assassinations and/or martyrdoms, depending on your viewpoint) of eight people in the succession: Empress Alexandra (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and all five of her children, who had been #101 through #106 as well as Alexandra’s older sister Elizabeth who had married a Russian Grand Duke and who had been #99. The Tsar also was in the line of succession, but he was very, very far down the line.
In 1937, the tragedy was a plane crash that killed Prince Philip’s sister Princess Cecilia of Greece (#134), her husband the Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse (#117) and their two sons (#118 and #119). Adding to the tragedy, Cecilia’s father-in-law (#116) had died just weeks before; Cecilia had been heavily pregnant and her youngest son was stillborn as a result of the accident; and her only surviving child, who had been left at home, died of meningitis two years later.

All of this research has suggested several blog topics to me, so I am launching an irregular Succession Series of posts. I hope you will enjoy them.

Go to Succession Series index

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