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Explainer: How royal children fit into the line to the British throne

Contrary to misconception, women CAN be heirs to the throne – it’s just that the boys go first. Until now, that is.

THE NEWS of an impending Royal arrival in the United Kingdom has thrown the country’s somewhat complicated succession laws back into the spotlight.

The laws governing who gets to be the monarch, and when, go back to the 17th century – while the throne itself, barring the 11-year interruption of Oliver and Richard Cromwell, has existed since the year 927.

The forthcoming royal birth has, however, caused some confusion among some – which is understandable, given the complexity of the line of succession as it currently stands, and plans to change it.

So – how does it all work?

Male-preference cognatic primogeniture – catchy, right?

What it all boils down to is the principle of ‘male-preference cognatic primogeniture’.

So what’s that? Promogeniture, in layman’s terms, means that the first-born child is the one which inherits a particular position – whether that’s as the owner of land, or the holder of a title, or in this case the position of being a head of state.

Cognatic refers to a mode of family descent including both male and female links. In this case, it is used to mean someone who descends from both a mother and a father. Of course, everyone has both a mother and father, but the theory is simple: the intent is to imply that the child cannot be illegitimate.

In order to be included, therefore, the child must be born to married parents.

The idea behind this is to ensure that a young prince’s infidelities, leading to the potential conception of a son or daughter outside of a marriage, cannot interrupt the line of succession. Imagine the ruckus that might ensue if a king was to learn that he had an older half-brother, whose entitlement to the throne meant that everything that king had done – like signing Bills into law – was legally void…

Male-preference is pretty straightforward: it means men take precedence over women.

That’s the long and the short of it. There are other criteria for being included – for example, the heir must be a Protestant, in communion with the Church of England, and cannot be married to a Roman Catholic – but largely it’s down to the family bloodlines.

A regular error

It’s often claimed that, despite the current monarch being female, a woman cannot be heir to the throne.

This, to put it simply, is not true: women are perfectly entitled to be an heir to the throne – they just get bumped down the list if they have any brothers, irrespective of whether those brothers are older or younger than them.

This means that under the current law, it doesn’t matter whether William and Kate’s child is male or female: it will be the third in line to the throne, jumping ahead of William’s brother Prince Harry.

This was the case when the youngest of the Queen’s four children, Prince Edward (the Earl of Wessex) had his first child. His daughter Louise was born in 2003, and was the 8th in line to the throne when she was born.

When her younger brother James arrived in 2007, she got bumped down a notch: James precedes Louise in the order of succession, simply because he is male. If the crown were to fall to James and he was to die without children, only then would Louise become queen. (And that’s assuming Edward and his wife Sophie don’t have any more children in the meantime.)

A working example

What all of this means is that if a King dies, the throne goes to their oldest son. If they don’t a son, it goes to their oldest daughter.

If they don’t have any children at all, it goes to their next eldest male sibling (who, presumably, was the second-eldest son of the previous monarch) – or, if they did not have any brothers, to their eldest sister, and so on.

If a deceased monarch doesn’t have any siblings or children, the crown goes back up a generation – to their uncles and aunts (again, with those uncles having been the children of another previous monarch).

This all means that nobody can ever be knocked off the list (unless they renounce their Protestant faith or marry a Catholic, of course). They can only be pushed down the list.

Queen Elizabeth II, for example, only had one sister – Margaret – and no brothers. (This is why she inherited the throne when her father, George VI, died. George’s two daughters were entitled to the throne before his two younger brothers could get there.)

Margaret died in 2002, but her two children and four grandchildren are the closest in line to the sitting Queen – so if the current Queen had never had any children of their own, the throne would fall to them.

If the Queen was an only child and had never married, the next in line would be her cousin Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. Richard’s father Henry, and the Queen’s father King George VI, were brothers.

A change is going to come

The current system has antique origins – the idea of male children being preferred to female ones stems, in part, from the ages where a king had a significant role as a military leader, and needed to be prepared to lead troops into battle against a rival kingdom or realm.

Last year, the heads of the 16 countries over which Queen Elizabeth is head of state (the Commonwealth) met in Perth, Australia, and agreed to change their respective laws so that male primogeniture had ended.

This means that (assuming the laws have been changed by the time William and Kate’s child arrives) even if the first-born is a girl, and later has a younger brother, she will remain ahead of him in the line of succession.

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