We Three Kings

By | 10 December 2013

We three kings of Orient are.

Bearing gifts, we traverse afar.

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,

Following yonder star…

By Madeleine Lawson

‘We Three Kings of Orient Are,’ also known as ‘The Quest of the Magi,’ is a nineteenth-century carol by Reverend John Henry Hopkins Junior.  (Click here for a rendition of the song by Kings College Cambridge.)

Image by Mike, via subversify.com

Image by Mike, via subversify.com

Apart from the classic image of the three wise men travelling from afar bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to me the idea of ‘three kings’ also brings to mind the three heirs-in-waiting for the British throne: Princes Charles, William and George. So now for the slightly tenuous legal connection…

Up until recently, both common and statutory law dictated that accession to the throne within the British monarchy should be governed by male preference primogeniture, which decrees that sons should always be placed above daughters in the royal line of succession.

In 2011, however, this 300-year old tradition changed when David Cameron’s government proposed the introduction of absolute primogeniture, a rule under which the crown is simply passed to the eldest child of the monarch – regardless of gender. With the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton having taken place only six months previously, in April 2011, it seems likely that this decision would have been made in anticipation of the arrival of the couple’s eagerly-awaited first child – who, in light of these changes, would be entitled to the throne whether a boy or a girl.

Alongside this major change to royal succession law, Cameron also recommended several other amendments, including the removal of the clause that prevents the King of Queen from being married to a Roman Catholic. However, the condition that the sovereign his or herself must be a Protestant in communion with the Church of England (of which the British monarch is ‘Supreme Govenor’) was to remain in place.

Although the premise might seem fairly straightforward, in practical terms the legalities of bringing about this reform were actually rather complex as they involved making changes to various elements of legislation, including the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1701 Act of Settlement:

The Bill of Rights (1689)

After James II fled to France following the Glorious Revolution and was consequently viewed as having abdicated, the Bill of Rights (1689) was put in place to name William and Mary of Orange as the rightful joint rulers of England and Scotland. The Bill instructed that the next heirs should be William and Maery’s direct descendants (ie: children), followed by Mary’s sister, Anne, and her descendants, and finally any later descendants of William if Mary were to die and he were to marry again.

The Act of Settlement (1701)

In 1700, after Mary had died childless and William had chosen not to remarry, Anne was left the sole remaining heir to the throne when her only surviving child died of a fever. With no further successors having been nominated, parliament ruled that – after Anne’s death – the crown should pass to William’s cousin, Sophia of Hanover, and her Protestant descendants. Roman Catholics, or those married to a Roman Catholic, were forbidden from ever ascending to the throne.

Sophia of Hanover Image by lisby1, via flickr.com

Sophia of Hanover
Image by lisby1, via flickr.com

Returning to the present day, David Cameron’s proposal was put to the other fifteen countries of which our Queen, Elizabeth II, is head of state at the 22nd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, Australia, in October 2011. In a collective accord now known as the Perth Agreement, the changes were unanimously accepted by all of the Commonwealth realms – a requirement that had to be met in order for a reform to be made as, under the Statute of Westminster (1931), all sixteen countries must consent to any changes to the laws of succession.

On December 3rd 2012 it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were expecting their first child and on December 13th, just ten days later, the UK’s proposed legislation was introduced to parliament as the Succession to the Crown Bill. It was passed by the House of Commons on 28th January 2013 and the Act received royal assent on 25th April, but a date of commencement has not yet been set.

There is no particular rush, however, as – somewhat ironically – the royal baby turned out to be a boy. Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambride was born on July 22nd of this year, meaning that it will be a long time before these new laws will have any bearing on our monarchy. Quite an anti-climax after all that!

Prince George with his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Image courtesy of Vanity Fair

Prince George with his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
Image courtesy of Vanity Fair

The Succession to the Crown Act (2013) and its related Bills can be viewed in various ways:

In the Law Bod itself, printed copies can be found in The General Public Acts and Measures (Cw UK 10), which is the official series of statues produced by the Stationary Office, and in Volume 10 of Halsbury’s Statutes (Cw UK 030 H196a4).

A digital version can also be consulted via legal databases such as Westlaw and Lexis®Library, which can be accessed either by searching directly in Solo or by going through the Law Bod website using the following route: homepage > popular links > legal databases. The process for locating legislative material is the same in both Westlaw and Lexis®Library: simply select the ‘legislation’ tab, then search by the name of the Act required.

Finally, all UK legislation can be viewed on the Parliament website. The Succession to he Crown Act (2013), for example, can be found here.

If you’re interested in this area, you might also want to take a look at the corresponding LibGuide (main law LibGuide > ‘Resources for Jurisdictions’ tab > United Kingdom Law > ‘Legislation’ tab). This includes a general introduction to UK legislation, a list of useful printed sources held in the library and information to help you find them, a guide to understanding a UK Act, and direct links to online sources such as key legal databases and government websites.

That’s it for my attempt at writing a legal post about the carol of the Three Kings! Donkeys tomorrow, I believe…

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