The British Monarchy

[This is a guest post by Margaret Brill, Librarian for Britain/Ireland, Canada, Australasia, World History and Medieval/Renaissance Studies]

The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29th has provoked widespread interest in the British Monarchy here in the USA, and even in the Duke community.    A frequent question is “Why doesn’t The Queen step down so Prince Charles can be King?” Some people even wonder why they don’t pass over Prince Charles altogether in favor of Prince William, presumably because Prince William is younger and hunkier.  Then there is the question of Prince Charles’ wife Camilla.  Can she be Queen?  Will he be King if she can’t?   In this blog entry I will attempt to answer these questions and suggest some resources for people who would like to learn more about the monarchy.

The British monarchy is known as a constitutional monarchy. This means that, while The Sovereign is Head of State, the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected Parliament.  So Britain (or The United Kingdom as it is officially called) is also a democracy.   The constitutional foundation for the monarchy today is based on the Act of Settlement of 1701, which was designed to secure the Protestant succession to the throne, and to strengthen the guarantees for ensuring a parliamentary system of government.  The Act addressed the dynastic and religious aspects of succession, and it also further restricted the powers and prerogatives of the Crown.  It reinforced the Bill of Rights of 1689 which made monarchy clearly conditional on the will of Parliament and provided a freedom from arbitrary government.   The Act also provided that judges were to hold office on good conduct and not at Royal pleasure – thus establishing judicial independence.

Therefore the succession is not a question of choice on the part of the Monarch but is laid down in the British Constitution and as the oldest son of the reigning Monarch Prince Charles will succeed his mother and become King on her death.  There is no precedent or reason why she would abdicate unless she was unable to perform the duties of Head of State.    One of these duties is to be the titular Head of the Church of England, which is an established church.   Since the Church of England still doesn’t recognize the remarriage of divorced persons Camilla cannot be Queen unless Parliament changes the canon law of the Church of England but she could still be the King’s wife with a suitable title.  After all, Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, is not King.  I  do not believe Prince Charles would step down if Camilla were not given the title of Queen.  Whether he is popular or not does not affect the succession. Unless he does something unconstitutional (such as interfere in politics) there would be no reason for Parliament to remove him.  Anyone in line of succession to the throne has to get permission to marry or lose their place in line.   Prince Charles was given permission by the government to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles, whereas King Edward VIII was not allowed to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936, which led to his abdication.  In some ways the Royals have less personal freedom than their subjects.

How relevant is the monarchy today?   As you can see from the above the British constitution depends on the Monarch to be Head of State, as do the countries in the Commonwealth Realm, including Canada and Australia, so it would be very complicated to abolish the monarchy.  Moreover, much of the tradition and ceremonial tourists enjoy so much in Britain is associated with the Monarchy so many feel that the cost is justified.

For more information about the British Monarchy see the official website.
For Duke University Library resources on Britain see the British and Irish Studies Library Guide.

Or take a look at this Reference book: The Kings and Queens of England, by John Ashton Cannon, Oxford University Press, 2009.

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