How Royal Succession Works in the United Kingdom

The content of this article is aimed mainly at readers not living in the United Kingdom, but also to some living here. Succession rights seem to be something very puzzling if you haven't grown up with them. I have compiled some information here as to succession rights and some other puzzling facts pertaining to the Queen and her heirs.




Queen Elizabeth II is head of state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis (collectively known as the Commonwealth realms). Added to these independent states are the Crown Dependencies which include the Isle of Man (where the Queen traditionally holds the title of Lord of Mann) and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey and the Royal Fiefs of Alderney and Sark which collectively are commonly referred to as the Channel Islands (where the Queen traditionally holds the title of Duke of Normandy). 


I have listed all these states and territories to illustrate how complicated it will be to change the current laws governing the succession. Under the current law, the oldest son inherits ahead of any younger brothers or any older or younger sisters. Only if there is no son does the oldest daughter inherit. Prince Philip as the husband of Queen Elizabeth is the Prince Consort and not in the immediate line for the throne. He is in line for the throne somewhere far down, I haven't done the math on that, though. 


Succession is usually the story of the heir and the spare. While the role of the heir is clearly cut out, the spare is more or less just there in case something untoward happens to the heir. While the spare enjoys all the privileges of a major Royal, he has to be able to accept that his descendants are relegated to minor Royals with no future in the Firm. Prince Andrew as Charles‘ spare has just been told in no uncertain terms that his daughters Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie are not worth 24 hour protection and that they should start looking for a career outside the Royal Family. 


The current heir to the throne is Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, and Great Steward of Scotland. In the order of precedence he comes third after his parents in the United Kingdom; in other countries he comes fourth or fifth after the Queen, the vice-regal representative(s), and his father. He is married to Camilla Parker-Bowles who chose to be known as Duchess of Cornwall rather than as Princess of Wales like her predecessor (but she effectively still holds rank and title). 


Second in line is Charles’ older son Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus. In the order of precedence, he comes after his father but before his stepmother. He is married to Catherine (Kate) Middleton. The complicated order of precedence for the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are explained further down. 




Third in line to the throne is William’s younger brother and spare Prince Harry. After him come Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Earl of Inverness, Baron Killyleagh, and his daughters Beatrice and Eugenie. After them come Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, Viscount Severn, and his children James Viscount Severn and Lady Louise Windsor. Finally from the Queen’s children comes Princess Anne, The Princess Royal, and her children Peter and Zara Phillips (Anne, ever the realist, refused any hereditary titles to allow her children to fade out of the Royal Family). 


The compilation above shows several things and should answer several questions. A single person may be graced by several titles. While it is usual to use the title that is highest in precedence (like Prince of Wales) a person may chose to use a lesser title (like Duchess of Cornwall). It is also possible to use a local title (like Baron Carrickfergus) when travelling in Northern Ireland to emphasize the national aspect. 


As to the requirement of a bow or a curtsy, they are reserved for formal occasions. While subjects of the Commonwealth realms and the Crown Dependencies are expected to use the formal address, backstabbers like the current Prime Minister of Australia might prefer to show their lack of manners, breeding and education by not doing it. Citizens of other countries are not expected to either bow or curtsy but may do so out of respect for the person rather than the institution (meaning that Americans do not have to bow or curtsy to the Queen but may do so).


After Kate Middleton had become part of the Firm as Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, she was plunged into the middle of an etiquette blunder produced by the Queen in 2005. A Royal edict intended to keep peace in the family might start to backfire spectacularly. The rules regulating etiquette within the Royal Family has recently been amended without much rectifying the blunder.




At European Royal courts, the old rules governing the etiquette of curtsies and bows are relatively simple to follow; if the person you greet outranks you, you bow or curtsy; if it is the other way round, they do. The problem might be in deciding whether the person outranks you as titles can be deceiving, but that is nothing a bit of history knowledge can't fix. 


Under the old rules, the curtsies within the closer Royal Family were as easy to follow. To keep it with the ladies in order of precedence: Queen, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Anne The Princess Royal, Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Princess Alexandra The Honorable Lady Ogilvy etc. The Queen obviously outranks everyone; Camilla would only curtsy to the Queen, while Princess Alexandra would curtsy to all listed before her. 


Trouble started with Lady Diana's marriage to Prince Charles. Princess Anne and Princess Alexandra were brought up under premises that still pointed to a Royal Princess marrying the heir to the throne. Instead, a mere lady and a chit of 19 years took the place. Hearsay reports that Princess Anne refused point blank to curtsy to her. The situation was exacerbated in 2005 when Charles finally married Camilla. 


Anne and Alexandra went up in flames and the Queen felt compelled to take steps. She changed the pecking order to accommodate the two long serving Princesses in a sort of order of merit. Both Anne and Alexandra are constantly on the move to represent the Queen in public appearances; they each cover several hundred of those appointments every year. And they have done that not for years, but for decades. Camilla just stepped in as a superannuated latecomer. 


Unhappily, the Queen was thinking in terms of Royal birth instead of merit. Instead of just moving Anne and Alexandra up in the line of precedence in recognition of services rendered, she moved the two fashion scarecrows (Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie) up as well. The new structure is so inadequate that it can hardly be remedied except by a major cut. But we shouldn't expect that cut to happen before William accedes to the crown.




How does this all work out now? It’s easy if the Queen is present, as everybody will curtsy (or bow) to the Queen; but in her absence it goes quite literally downwards. If Prince Charles is in the room, everybody curtsies to Camilla even if Prince William is there as well. If Charles is absent but William is there, everybody including Camilla curtsies to Catherine. If William is absent as well, but Princess Anne is there, everybody including Camilla and Catherine curtsies to her. It just doesn't make sense, but here it is.

Further reading
The Prince, The Princess, and The Perfect Murder
Official Biography of the Queen Mother