Sophie von der Pfalz, later Electress of Hanover, painted by her sister c. 1644
Few people know or even care that no Roman Catholic can become the King or Queen of England, and by extension, the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and by further extension, since the British monarch still remains the Head of State, the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There might even be a few smaller dependencies, colonies and territories thrown in there:
Isle of Man
Channel Islands: Baliwick of Jersey, Baliwick of Guernsey (includes Guernsey and its dependencies)
British Antarctic Territory
British Indian Ocean Territory
British Virgin Islands
Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands
St Helena and St Helena Dependencies (Ascension and Tristan da Cunha)
South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands
Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia
The Turks & Caicos Islands
These are the last little pink bits scattered over the globe from the once farflung British Empire, mainly in the Caribbean and the South Atlantic, although Gibraltar and Bermuda stand out as historically significant.
So what, and who cares?
Well, Catholics. All those who might happen to live in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, not to mention all these other areas listed above. It's a bit of a smack in the gob to be told the religion of your birth if not your out-and-out allegiance is such anathema to the home country that your King or Queen has to avoid it like poison. If any member of the royal family even marries a Catholic, they get bumped from the Line of Succession:
Since the passage of the Act of Settlement, the most senior royal to have married a Roman Catholic, and thereby been removed from the line of succession, is Prince Michael of Kent, who married Baroness Marie-Christine von Reibnitz in 1978; he was fifteenth in the line of succession at the time of his marriage. The current most senior living descendant of the Electress Sophia who is ineligible to succeed due to the act is George Windsor, Earl of St Andrews, the eldest son of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, who married the Roman Catholic Sylvana Palma Tomaselli in 1988; he would have been 25th in the line of succession if he had not lost his place. His son, Lord Downpatrick, converted to Roman Catholicism in 2003, and is the most senior descendant to be barred as a Catholic himself. More recently, Peter Mark Andrew Phillips, son of Princess Anne, Princess Royal, and eleventh in line to the throne, married Autumn Kelly; Kelly was a Roman Catholic, but converted to the Anglican faith prior to the wedding. Had she retained her Catholicism, Phillips would have forfeited his place in the succession upon their marriage.How did it all get started?
Excluding those princesses who have married into Catholic royal families abroad, only one member of the Royal Family (i.e., with the style Royal Highness) has converted to Roman Catholicism since the passage of the act: the Duchess of Kent, wife of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. The Duchess converted to Roman Catholicism on 14 January 1994, however, her husband did not lose his place in the succession, as the Duchess was an Anglican at the time of their marriage. (source:Wikipedia)
It goes back to the Reformation in Europe and the split between the Old Church (unquestionably corrupt, but later to reform) and the protesters, i.e. Protestants, the most famous of whom was Martin Luther in the early 1500s. There had been earlier protest movements before him particularly that of Jan Huss in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, in the 1400s. In England the monarch Henry VIII was initially supportive of the papacy. If you look on your British coins today you'll see the notation "D.F" after the monarch's name which was a papal title accorded to Henry as Defender of the Faith (Defensor Fidelio, or some such in Latin, same initials). Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon (Spain) but she couldn't give him a male heir. After years of trying they had only one daughter, Mary. Henry met a fine young piece called Anne Boleyn, probably had his way with her, and then decided to replace his aging wife with this young and "fruchtbar" (fruitful) little pillow pal so that their subsequent children (preferably male) would be "legitimate" and thus in line for the throne. This is the business of kings: fuck like rabbits and fight like lions, ensure the succession and wage winning wars, or in the case of the Habsburgs, fuck and flee, run away to live and fuck again. Unfortunately for Henry, Catherine had major connections since her nephew was Carlos V, the Emperor of Spain, and no way was the Pope going to offend such a major player. He turned down Henry's application for a marriage annulment. Henry in a rage broke with Rome and started his own national church, the Church of England, and married his sweetheart anyway. Thus did the Reformation come to isolated England:
Henry VIII in better times and the young Anne Boleyn
O the regal Church of England
in all its pomp and state,
celebrates a firm foundation
on the balls of Henry Eight.
In the event, Anne only gave him another daughter (the redoubtable Elizabeth, probably the finest queen England or any other land has ever seen) and after a while he got rid of her in favour of another woman. I think a form of madness came over him because he executed Anne and two more of his subsequent petrified young wives. By now he was a violent obese gouty stinker raddled with disease. His last wife outlived him. Mary, his daughter by Catherine, succeeded him as Queen and tried to turn the clock back to Catholicism. She went in for burning "heretics". She died and the young Elizabeth whose life had been in great danger during Mary's reign became Queen of England in 1558.
Elizabeth and the Stuarts
Elizabeth I, reigned 1558-1603
Elizabeth was a Great King ("with the body of a woman") who saw off threats from France and especially from Spain -- the Armada of 1588 -- and who oversaw a burgeoning political and cultural renaissance in England. This was the era of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, and also of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Trade increased and new colonies sprang up in the New World. Elizabeth oppressed the hell out of Ireland, the bitch, in order to close the Catholic backdoor to the French and Spanish (an early example of geopolitics) but she was fascinated by court visits to London by the pirate queen of Munster, Grannuaile, and by the dramatically handsome, and seen from Irish eyes, reptilian Shane O'Neill. Her last years in power were spent in a lengthy war in Ireland against Shane's nephew Hugh which after nine years her forces eventually won thanks to the incompetence of his Spanish allies. Click HERE for link.
Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who led an Irish war against England from 1594-1603
Elizabeth never married -- The Virgin Queen -- so the succession went to James VI of Scotland upon her death in 1603, a connection through her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she had signed off for execution along the way albeit not without reason. This brought the Stuarts into power. James VI of Scotland became James I of England and is best remembered for the King James Bible. By all accounts he was a crotchety bad-tempered bisexual who persecuted Hugh O'Neill (see above) after he fled to Europe, but to little effect. His son Charles succeeded him in 1625.
James VI of Scotland and later James I of England, son of Mary, Queen of Scots
Charles got his head chopped off, the only English king to have managed that feat so far. He antagonized the Parliament to such an extent that a civil war broke out. He lost and was tried and executed in 1649. His sons Charles and James fled to France where they were succoured by the young Louis XIV, then dependent on his advisor Mazarin. England underwent an Inter-regnum under Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentary army. Theatres were closed and the Jews were allowed back into England. Cromwell pacified Scotland and massacred about one-third of the population of Ireland. His reign comes under mixed reviews. He died in 1658. By 1660 Parliament was prepared to restore the monarchy under strict guidelines.
Charles II, son of the beheaded Charles I, who was restored as king in 1660
Charles II was restored as the King of England in 1660. Parliament now held the upper hand but the intent was to create a form of post-civil war reconciliation. Partisans of both former sides found their way into government. The theatres were re-opened and upper class society went a bit mad. Charles himself was a gay blade fathering something like 11 children and not a single one of them with his wife, a sad little Portuguese princess. He gave all his royal bastards titles of one kind or another and the late Princess Diana is a direct descendant from Charles and one of his mistresses. The Royal Society was formed under his patronage in 1662 and attracted some of the finer scientific minds of the period including Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Sir Isaac Newton and the astronomer Flamsteed. There was a great plague and a great fire in London in the mid 1660s and Sir Christopher Wren went about rebuilding much of it, including the present day St. Paul's Cathedral.
Charles died without legitimate offspring in 1685 and his brother James (James II) took over. James was a Catholic. The civil war puritans were horrified by this and so were many of the new commercial classes, now formed into a political faction called the "Whigs". The landed classes and old aristocracy who had supported the monarchy in the civil war were now known as "Tories". James could reckon on Tory support but was hated by the Whigs. When in 1688 his wife gave birth to a male heir the Whigs decided to act against him. They called in the Protestant Stadtholder or Leader of the Dutch Republic, William of Orange (who was married to Mary, James' daughter, thus his son-in-law) to replace James as King. William accepted. One wonders what Mary had to say. James fled to Ireland where he hoped to drum up support among the majority Catholic population -- for which he had done very little since coming to the throne. William chased after him and at the Battle of the Boyne (July 11, 1690) King Billy's Dutch and English troops delivered a crushing defeat that sent James (Seamus the Shit, as he is still known in Ireland) hightailing it off to France, leaving the Catholics of Ireland to endure punitive and irrational Penal Laws that lasted until the Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832. These laws were the model for Hitler's Nuremberg Edict against the Jews in 1935. (Click HERE for a quick runthrough of Irish history from the Normans to Michael Collins.)
James II, younger brother of Charles II, a Catholic, deposed as king in 1688
William of Orange became William III of England. His wife Mary died in 1694 and he died himself in 1702. No children. Stories abound he had an eye for the young lads. Mary's younger sister Anne became queen. Her only son had died and she was old and ill. She died without issue in 1714. What to do next?
What happened next and why
James II sitting over in France was definitely out and so was his son, also Catholic. His grandson later attempted a romantic comeback through Scotland in 1745 ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") but the poor Highlanders who supported him get knocked to bits by the Duke of Cumberland's cannon at Culloden. In the meantime, Parliament looked for good Protestant successors to the Stuart line and came up with Sophie, the granddaughter of James I, who was married at the time to the Elector of Hanover in Germany. Sophie died but her daughter's husband, a chap called Georg Ludwig, got the nod and was invited to become the new King of England. The Whigs were all for it and the Tories basically knuckled under in spite of some lingering ("Jacobite") support for James. The New Regime took over and their descendants became the British Royal Family of the present day. During World War One, owing to rabid anti-German sentiment, they changed the family name to Windsor. Big deal. The terms of the Act of Succession are still in effect. No Catholic can become the King or Queen of England to this day.
From time to time there has been debate over repealing the clause that keeps Roman Catholics or those who marry Roman Catholics from ascending to the throne. Proponents of repeal argue that the clause is a bigoted anachronism; Cardinal Winning, who was leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, called the act an 'insult' to Catholics. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England, pointed out that Prince William, "can marry by law a Hindu, a Buddhist, anyone, but not a Roman Catholic". Opponents of repeal, such as Enoch Powell and Adrian Hilton, feel that it would lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England as the state religion if a Roman Catholic were to assume the throne. They also point to the fact that the monarch must swear to defend the faith and be a member of the Anglican Communion, but that a Roman Catholic monarch would, like all Roman Catholics, owe allegiance to the Pope. This would, according to opponents of repeal, amount to a loss of sovereignty.
In the 2005 British general election campaign Michael Howard promised to work towards having the prohibition removed if the Conservative Party gained a majority of seats in the House of Commons. In any event, the election was won by the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, who made no moves to change this law, despite his own conversion to Catholicism after leaving office.
In 2008 plans drawn up by Chris Bryant were revealed which would end the exclusion of Catholics from the throne, and end the doctrine of cognatic (male-preference) primogeniture, in favour of absolute primogeniture, which governs succession solely on birth order and not on sex. (source:Wikipedia)