This article is about the monarchy of the United Kingdom. For information on the other countries which share the same person as monarch, see Commonwealth realm. For the current monarch of the United Kingdom, see Elizabeth II.
"British sovereign" redirects here. For the coin, see Sovereign (British coin).
The monarchy of the United Kingdom, commonly referred to as the British monarchy, is the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom, its dependencies and its overseas territories. The current monarch and head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, ascended the throne on the death of her father, King George VI, on 6 February 1952.
The monarch and his or her immediate family undertake various official, ceremonial, diplomatic and representational duties. As the monarchy is constitutional, the monarch is limited to non-partisan functions such as bestowing honours and appointing the Prime Minister. The monarch is commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces. Though the ultimate formal executive authority over the government of the United Kingdom is still by and through the monarch's royal prerogative, these powers may only be used according to laws enacted in Parliament and, in practice, within the constraints of convention and precedent.
The British monarchy traces its origins from the petty kingdoms of early medieval Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England, which consolidated into the kingdoms of England and Scotland by the 10th century AD. In 1066, the last crowned Anglo-Saxon monarch, Harold Godwinson, was defeated and killed during the Norman conquest of England and the English monarchy passed to the Normans' victorious leader, William the Conqueror, and his descendants.
From the 1080s, the lordships of South Wales were held by a succession of Norman families inter-married with older Welsh houses loyal to the English throne, with many lordships also held by the English King in his own right. The process was completed in the 13th century when the north of Wales, as a principality, became a client state of the English kingdom, while Magna Carta began a process of reducing the English monarch's political powers.
From 1603, when the Scottish monarch James VI inherited the English throne as James I, both the English and Scottish kingdoms were ruled by a single sovereign. From 1649 to 1660, the tradition of monarchy was broken by the republican Commonwealth of England, which followed the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The Act of Settlement 1701 excluded Roman Catholics, or those who married Catholics, from succession to the English throne. In 1707, the kingdoms of England and Scotland were merged to create the Kingdom of Great Britain, and in 1801, the Kingdom of Ireland joined to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The British monarch became nominal head of the vast British Empire, which covered a quarter of the world's surface at its greatest extent in 1921.
In the early 1920s, five-sixths of Ireland seceded from the Union as the Irish Free State, and the Balfour Declaration recognised the evolution of the dominions of the empire into separate, self-governing countries within a Commonwealth of Nations. After the Second World War, the vast majority of British colonies and territories became independent, effectively bringing the empire to an end. George VI and his successor, Elizabeth II, adopted the title Head of the Commonwealth as a symbol of the free association of its independent member states.
The United Kingdom and fifteen other Commonwealth monarchies that share the same person as their monarch are called Commonwealth realms. The terms British monarchy and British monarch are frequently still employed in reference to the shared individual and institution; however, each country is sovereign and independent of the others, and the monarch has a different, specific, and official national title and style for each realm.
In the uncodified Constitution of the United Kingdom, the Monarch (otherwise referred to as the Sovereign or "His/Her Majesty", abbreviated H.M.) is the Head of State. Oaths of allegiance are made to the Queen and her lawful successors. "God Save the Queen" (or "God Save the King") is the British national anthem, and the monarch appears on postage stamps, coins and banknotes.
The Monarch takes little direct part in Government. The decisions to exercise sovereign powers are delegated from the Monarch, either by statute or by convention, to Ministers or officers of the Crown, or other public bodies, exclusive of the Monarch personally. Thus the acts of state done in the name of the Crown, such as Crown Appointments, even if personally performed by the Monarch, such as the Queen's Speech and the State Opening of Parliament, depend upon decisions made elsewhere:
- Legislative power is exercised by the Queen-in-Parliament, by and with the advice and consent of Parliament, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
- Executive power is exercised by Her Majesty's Government, which comprises Ministers, primarily the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, which is technically a committee of the Privy Council. They have the direction of the Armed Forces of the Crown, the Civil Service and other Crown Servants such as the Diplomatic and Secret Services (the Queen receives certain foreign intelligence reports before the Prime Minister does).
- Judicial power is vested in the Judiciary, who by constitution and statute have judicial independence of the Government.
- The Church of England, of which the Monarch is the head, has its own legislative, judicial and executive structures.
- Powers independent of government are legally granted to other public bodies by statute or Statutory Instrument such as an Order in Council, Royal Commission or otherwise.
The Sovereign's role as a constitutional monarch is largely limited to non-partisan functions, such as granting honours. This role has been recognised since the 19th century. The constitutional writer Walter Bagehot identified the monarchy in 1867 as the "dignified part" rather than the "efficient part" of government.
Appointment of the Prime Minister
Whenever necessary, the Monarch is responsible for appointing a new Prime Minister (who by convention appoints and may dismiss every other Minister of the Crown, and thereby constitutes and controls the government). In accordance with unwritten constitutional conventions, the Sovereign must appoint an individual who commands the support of the House of Commons, usually the leader of the party or coalition that has a majority in that House. The Prime Minister takes office by attending the Monarch in private audience, and after "kissing hands" that appointment is immediately effective without any other formality or instrument.
In a hung parliament where no party or coalition holds a majority, the monarch has an increased degree of latitude in choosing the individual likely to command the most support, though it would usually be the leader of the largest party. Since 1945, there have only been three hung parliaments. The first followed the February 1974 general election when Harold Wilson was appointed Prime Minister after Edward Heath resigned following his failure to form a coalition. Although Wilson's Labour Party did not have a majority, they were the largest party. The second followed the May 2010 general election, in which the Conservatives (the largest party) and Liberal Democrats (the third largest party) agreed to form the first coalition government since World War II. The third occurred shortly thereafter, in June 2017, when the Conservative Party lost its majority in a snap election, though the party remained in power as a minority government.
Dissolution of Parliament
In 1950 the King's Private SecretarySir Alan "Tommy" Lascelles, writing pseudonymously to The Times newspaper asserted a constitutional convention: according to the Lascelles Principles, if a minority government asked to dissolve Parliament to call an early election to strengthen its position, the monarch could refuse, and would do so under three conditions. When Harold Wilson requested a dissolution late in 1974, the Queen granted his request as Heath had already failed to form a coalition. The resulting general election gave Wilson a small majority. The monarch could in theory unilaterally dismiss a Prime Minister, but a Prime Minister's term now comes to an end only by electoral defeat, death, or resignation. The last monarch to remove a Prime Minister was William IV, who dismissed Lord Melbourne in 1834. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 removed the monarch's authority to dissolve Parliament; the Act specifically retained the monarch's power of prorogation however, which is a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar.
Main article: Royal prerogative in the United Kingdom
Some of the government's executive authority is theoretically and nominally vested in the Sovereign and is known as the royal prerogative. The monarch acts within the constraints of convention and precedent, exercising prerogative only on the advice of ministers responsible to Parliament, often through the Prime Minister or Privy Council. In practice, prerogative powers are exercised only on the Prime Minister's advice – the Prime Minister, and not the Sovereign, has control. The monarch holds a weekly audience with the Prime Minister. No records of these audiences are taken and the proceedings remain fully confidential. The monarch may express his or her views, but, as a constitutional ruler, must ultimately accept the decisions of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet (providing they command the support of the House). In Bagehot's words: "the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy ... three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn."
Although the Royal Prerogative is extensive and parliamentary approval is not formally required for its exercise, it is limited. Many Crown prerogatives have fallen out of use or have been permanently transferred to Parliament. For example, the monarch cannot impose and collect new taxes; such an action requires the authorisation of an Act of Parliament. According to a parliamentary report, "The Crown cannot invent new prerogative powers", and Parliament can override any prerogative power by passing legislation.
The Royal Prerogative includes the powers to appoint and dismiss ministers, regulate the civil service, issue passports, declare war, make peace, direct the actions of the military, and negotiate and ratify treaties, alliances, and international agreements. However, a treaty cannot alter the domestic laws of the United Kingdom; an Act of Parliament is necessary in such cases. The monarch is commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces (the Royal Navy, the British Army, and the Royal Air Force), accredits British High Commissioners and ambassadors, and receives diplomats from foreign states.
It is the prerogative of the monarch to summon and prorogue Parliament. Each parliamentary session begins with the monarch's summons. The new parliamentary session is marked by the State Opening of Parliament, during which the Sovereign reads the Speech from the throne in the Chamber of the House of Lords, outlining the Government's legislative agenda. Prorogation usually occurs about one year after a session begins, and formally concludes the session. Dissolution ends a parliamentary term, and is followed by a general election for all seats in the House of Commons. A general election is normally held five years after the previous one under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, but can be held sooner if the Prime Minister loses a motion of confidence, or if two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons vote to hold an early election.
Before a bill passed by the legislative Houses can become law, the royal assent (the monarch's approval) is required. In theory, assent can either be granted (making the bill law) or withheld (vetoing the bill), but since 1707 assent has always been granted.
The monarch has a similar relationship with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Sovereign appoints the First Minister of Scotland on the nomination of the Scottish Parliament, and the First Minister of Wales on the nomination of the National Assembly for Wales. In Scottish matters, the Sovereign acts on the advice of the Scottish Government. However, as devolution is more limited in Wales, in Welsh matters the Sovereign acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the United Kingdom. The Sovereign can veto any law passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, if it is deemed unconstitutional by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The Sovereign is deemed the "fount of justice"; although the Sovereign does not personally rule in judicial cases, judicial functions are performed in his or her name. For instance, prosecutions are brought on the monarch's behalf, and courts derive their authority from the Crown. The common law holds that the Sovereign "can do no wrong"; the monarch cannot be prosecuted for criminal offences. The Crown Proceedings Act 1947 allows civil lawsuits against the Crown in its public capacity (that is, lawsuits against the government), but not lawsuits against the monarch personally. The Sovereign exercises the "prerogative of mercy", which is used to pardon convicted offenders or reduce sentences.
The monarch is the "fount of honour", the source of all honours and dignities in the United Kingdom. The Crown creates all peerages, appoints members of the orders of chivalry, grants knighthoods and awards other honours. Although peerages and most other honours are granted on the advice of the Prime Minister, some honours are within the personal gift of the Sovereign, and are not granted on ministerial advice. The monarch alone appoints members of the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Royal Victorian Order and the Order of Merit.
See also: List of English monarchs
Following Viking raids and settlement in the ninth century, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex emerged as the dominant English kingdom. Alfred the Great secured Wessex, achieved dominance over western Mercia, and assumed the title "King of the English". His grandson Æthelstan was the first king to rule over a unitary kingdom roughly corresponding to the present borders of England, though its constituent parts retained strong regional identities. The 11th century saw England become more stable, despite a number of wars with the Danes, which resulted in a Danish monarchy for one generation. The conquest of England in 1066 by William, Duke of Normandy, was crucial in terms of both political and social change. The new monarch continued the centralisation of power begun in the Anglo-Saxon period, while the Feudal System continued to develop.
William was succeeded by two of his sons: William II, then Henry I. Henry made a controversial decision to name his daughter Matilda (his only surviving child) as his heir. Following Henry's death in 1135, one of William I's grandsons, Stephen, laid claim to the throne and took power with the support of most of the barons. Matilda challenged his reign; as a result, England descended into a period of disorder known as the Anarchy. Stephen maintained a precarious hold on power, but agreed to a compromise under which Matilda's son Henry would succeed him. Henry accordingly became the first Angevin king of England and the first monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty as Henry II in 1154.
The reigns of most of the Angevin monarchs were marred by civil strife and conflicts between the monarch and the nobility. Henry II faced rebellions from his own sons, the future monarchs Richard I and John. Nevertheless, Henry managed to expand his kingdom, forming what is retrospectively known as the Angevin Empire. Upon Henry's death, his elder son Richard succeeded to the throne; he was absent from England for most of his reign, as he left to fight in the Crusades. He was killed besieging a castle, and John succeeded him.
John's reign was marked by conflict with the barons, particularly over the limits of royal power. In 1215, the barons coerced the king into issuing Magna Carta (Latin for "Great Charter") to guarantee the rights and liberties of the nobility. Soon afterwards, further disagreements plunged England into a civil war known as the First Barons' War. The war came to an abrupt end after John died in 1216, leaving the Crown to his nine-year-old son Henry III. Later in Henry's reign, Simon de Montfort led the barons in another rebellion, beginning the Second Barons' War. The war ended in a clear royalist victory and in the death of many rebels, but not before the king had agreed to summon a parliament in 1265.
The next monarch, Edward Longshanks, was far more successful in maintaining royal power and responsible for the conquest of Wales. He attempted to establish English domination of Scotland. However, gains in Scotland were reversed during the reign of his successor, Edward II, who also faced conflict with the nobility. In 1311, Edward II was forced to relinquish many of his powers to a committee of baronial "ordainers"; however, military victories helped him regain control in 1322. Nevertheless, in 1327, Edward was deposed by his wife Isabella. His 14-year-old son became Edward III. Edward III claimed the French Crown, setting off the Hundred Years' War between England and France.
His campaigns conquered much French territory, but by 1374, all the gains had been lost. Edward's reign was also marked by the further development of Parliament, which came to be divided into two Houses. In 1377, Edward III died, leaving the Crown to his 10-year-old grandson Richard II. Like many of his predecessors, Richard II conflicted with the nobles by attempting to concentrate power in his own hands. In 1399, while he was campaigning in Ireland, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke seized power. Richard was deposed, imprisoned, and eventually murdered, probably by starvation, and Henry became king as Henry IV.
Henry IV was the grandson of Edward III and the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; hence, his dynasty was known as the House of Lancaster. For most of his reign, Henry IV was forced to fight off plots and rebellions; his success was partly due to the military skill of his son, the future Henry V. Henry V's own reign, which began in 1413, was largely free from domestic strife, leaving the king free to pursue the Hundred Years' War in France. Although he was victorious, his sudden death in 1422 left his infant son Henry VI on the throne and gave the French an opportunity to overthrow English rule.
The unpopularity of Henry VI's counsellors and his belligerent consort, Margaret of Anjou, as well as his own ineffectual leadership, led to the weakening of the House of Lancaster. The Lancastrians faced a challenge from the House of York, so called because its head, a descendant of Edward III, was Richard, Duke of York. Although the Duke of York died in battle in 1460, his eldest son, Edward IV, led the Yorkists to victory in 1461. The Wars of the Roses, nevertheless, continued intermittently during his reign and those of his son Edward V and brother Richard III. Edward V disappeared, presumably murdered by Richard. Ultimately, the conflict culminated in success for the Lancastrian branch led by Henry Tudor, in 1485, when Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Now King Henry VII, he neutralised the remaining Yorkist forces, partly by marrying Elizabeth of York, a Yorkist heir. Through skill and ability, Henry re-established absolute supremacy in the realm, and the conflicts with the nobility that had plagued previous monarchs came to an end. The reign of the second Tudor king, Henry VIII, was one of great political change. Religious upheaval and disputes with the Pope led the monarch to break from the Roman Catholic Church and to establish the Church of England (the Anglican Church).
Wales – which had been conquered centuries earlier, but had remained a separate dominion – was annexed to England under the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542. Henry VIII's son and successor, the young Edward VI, continued with further religious reforms, but his early death in 1553 precipitated a succession crisis. He was wary of allowing his Catholic elder half-sister Mary I to succeed, and therefore drew up a will designating Lady Jane Grey as his heiress. Jane's reign, however, lasted only nine days; with tremendous popular support, Mary deposed her and declared herself the lawful sovereign. Mary I married Philip of Spain, who was declared king and co-ruler, pursued disastrous wars in France, and attempted to return England to Roman Catholicism, burning Protestants at the stake as heretics in the process. Upon her death in 1558, the pair were succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I. England returned to Protestantism and continued its growth into a major world power by building its navy and exploring the New World.
See also: List of Scottish monarchs
In Scotland, as in England, monarchies emerged after the withdrawal of the Roman empire from Britain in the early fifth century. The three groups that lived in Scotland at this time were the Picts in the north east, the Britons in the south, including the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and the Gaels or Scotti (who would later give their name to Scotland), of the Irish petty kingdom of Dál Riata in the west. Kenneth MacAlpin is traditionally viewed as the first king of a united Scotland (known as Scotia to writers in Latin, or Alba to the Scots). The expansion of Scottish dominions continued over the next two centuries, as other territories such as Strathclyde were absorbed.
Early Scottish monarchs did not inherit the Crown directly; instead the custom of tanistry was followed, where the monarchy alternated between different branches of the House of Alpin. As a result, however, the rival dynastic lines clashed, often violently. From 942 to 1005, seven consecutive monarchs were either murdered or killed in battle. In 1005, Malcolm II ascended the throne having killed many rivals. He continued to ruthlessly eliminate opposition, and when he died in 1034 he was succeeded by his grandson, Duncan I, instead of a cousin, as had been usual. In 1040, Duncan suffered defeat in battle at the hands of Macbeth, who was killed himself in 1057 by Duncan's son Malcolm. The following year, after killing Macbeth's stepson Lulach, Malcolm ascended the throne as Malcolm III.
With a further series of battles and deposings, five of Malcolm's sons as well as one of his brothers successively became king. Eventually, the Crown came to his youngest son, David I. David was succeeded by his grandsons Malcolm IV, and then by William the Lion, the longest-reigning King of Scots before the Union of the Crowns. William participated in a rebellion against King Henry II of England but when the rebellion failed, William was captured by the English. In exchange for his release, William was forced to acknowledge Henry as his feudal overlord. The English King Richard I agreed to terminate the arrangement in 1189, in return for a large sum of money needed for the Crusades. William died in 1214, and was succeeded by his son Alexander II. Alexander II, as well as his successor Alexander III, attempted to take over the Western Isles, which were still under the overlordship of Norway. During the reign of Alexander III, Norway launched an unsuccessful invasion of Scotland; the ensuing Treaty of Perth recognised Scottish control of the Western Isles and other disputed areas.
Alexander III's unexpected death in a riding accident in 1286 precipitated a major succession crisis. Scottish leaders appealed to King Edward I of England for help in determining who was the rightful heir. Edward chose Alexander's three-year-old Norwegian granddaughter, Margaret. On her way to Scotland in 1290, however, Margaret died at sea, and Edward was again asked to adjudicate between 13 rival claimants to the throne. A court was set up and after two years of deliberation, it pronounced John Balliol to be king. However, Edward proceeded to treat Balliol as a vassal, and tried to exert influence over Scotland. In 1295, when Balliol renounced his allegiance to England, Edward I invaded. During the first ten years of the ensuing Wars of Scottish Independence, Scotland had no monarch, until Robert the Bruce declared himself king in 1306.
Robert's efforts to control Scotland culminated in success, and Scottish independence was acknowledged in 1328. However, only one year later, Robert died and was succeeded by his five-year-old son, David II. On the pretext of restoring John Balliol's rightful heir, Edward Balliol, the English again invaded in 1332. During the next four years, Balliol was crowned, deposed, restored, deposed, restored, and deposed until he eventually settled in England, and David remained king for the next 35 years.
David II died childless in 1371 and was succeeded by his nephew Robert II of the House of Stuart. The reigns of both Robert II and his successor, Robert III, were marked by a general decline in royal power. When Robert III died in 1406, regents had to rule the country; the monarch, Robert III's son James I, had been taken captive by the English. Having paid a large ransom, James returned to Scotland in 1424; to restore his authority, he used ruthless measures, including the execution of several of his enemies. He was assassinated by a group of nobles. James II continued his father's policies by subduing influential noblemen but he was killed in an accident at the age of thirty, and a council of regents again assumed power. James III was defeated in a battle against rebellious Scottish earls in 1488, leading to another boy-king: James IV.
In 1513 James IV launched an invasion of England, attempting to take advantage of the absence of the English King Henry VIII. His forces met with disaster at Flodden Field; the King, many senior noblemen, and hundreds of soldiers were killed. As his son and successor, James V, was an infant, the government was again taken over by regents. James V led another disastrous war with the English in 1542, and his death in the same year left the Crown in the hands of his six-day-old daughter, Mary I. Once again, a regency was established.
Mary, a Roman Catholic, reigned during a period of great religious upheaval in Scotland. As a result of the efforts of reformers such as John Knox, a Protestant ascendancy was established. Mary caused alarm by marrying her Catholic cousin, Lord Darnley, in 1565. After Lord Darnley's assassination in 1567, Mary contracted an even more unpopular marriage with the Earl of Bothwell, who was widely suspected of Darnley's murder. The nobility rebelled against the Queen, forcing her to abdicate. She fled to England, and the Crown went to her infant son James VI, who was brought up as a Protestant. Mary was imprisoned and later executed by the English queen Elizabeth I.
Personal union and republican phase
Elizabeth I's death in 1603 ended Tudor rule in England. Since she had no children, she was succeeded by the Scottish monarch James VI, who was the great-grandson of Henry VIII's older sister and hence Elizabeth's first cousin twice removed. James VI ruled in England as James I after what was known as the "Union of the Crowns". Although England and Scotland were in personal union under one monarch – James I became the first monarch to style himself "King of Great Britain" in 1604 – they remained two separate kingdoms. James I's successor, Charles I, experienced frequent conflicts with the English Parliament related to the issue of royal and parliamentary powers, especially the power to impose taxes. He provoked opposition by ruling without Parliament from 1629 to 1640, unilaterally levying taxes and adopting controversial religious policies (many of which were offensive to the Scottish Presbyterians and the English Puritans). His attempt to enforce Anglicanism led to organised rebellion in Scotland (the "Bishops' Wars") and ignited the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In 1642, the conflict between the King and English Parliament reached its climax and the English Civil War began.
The Civil War culminated in the execution of the king in 1649, the overthrow of the English monarchy, and the establishment of the Commonwealth of England. Charles I's son, Charles II, was proclaimed King of Great Britain in Scotland, but he was forced to flee abroad after he invaded England and was defeated at the Battle of Worcester. In 1653, Oliver Cromwell, the most prominent military and political leader in the nation, seized power and declared himself Lord Protector (effectively becoming a military dictator, but refusing the title of king). Cromwell ruled until his death in 1658, when he was succeeded by his son Richard. The new Lord Protector had little interest in governing; he soon resigned. The lack of clear leadership led to civil and military unrest, and for a popular desire to restore the monarchy. In 1660, the monarchy was restored and Charles II returned to Britain.
Charles II's reign was marked by the development of the first modern political parties in England. Charles had no legitimate children, and was due to be succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother, James, Duke of York. A parliamentary effort to exclude James from the line of succession arose; the "Petitioners", who supported exclusion, became the Whig Party, whereas the "Abhorrers", who opposed exclusion, became the Tory Party. The Exclusion Bill failed; on several occasions, Charles II dissolved Parliament because he feared that the bill might pass. After the dissolution of the Parliament of 1681, Charles ruled without a Parliament until his death in 1685. When James succeeded Charles, he pursued a policy of offering religious tolerance to Roman Catholics, thereby drawing the ire of many of his Protestant subjects. Many opposed James's decisions to maintain a large standing army, to appoint Roman Catholics to high political and military offices, and to imprison Church of England clerics who challenged his policies. As a result, a group of Protestants known as the Immortal Seven invited James II's daughter Mary and her husband William III of Orange to depose the king. William obliged, arriving in England on 5 November 1688 to great public support. Faced with the defection of many of his Protestant officials, James fled the realm and William and Mary (rather than James II's Catholic son) were declared joint Sovereigns of England, Scotland and Ireland.
James's overthrow, known as the Glorious Revolution, was one of the most important events in the long evolution of parliamentary power. The Bill of Rights 1689 affirmed parliamentary supremacy, and declared that the English people held certain rights, including the freedom from taxes imposed without parliamentary consent. The Bill of Rights required future monarchs to be Protestants, and provided that, after any children of William and Mary, Mary's sister Anne would inherit the Crown. Mary died childless in 1694, leaving William as the sole monarch. By 1700, a political crisis arose, as all of Anne's children had died, leaving her as the only individual left in the line of succession. Parliament was afraid that the former James II or his supporters, known as Jacobites, might attempt to reclaim the throne. Parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which excluded James and his Catholic relations from the succession and made William's nearest Protestant relations, the family of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, next in line to the throne after his sister-in-law Anne. Soon after the passage of the Act, William III died, leaving the Crown to Anne.
After the 1707 Acts of Union
See also: List of British monarchs
After Anne's accession, the problem of the succession re-emerged. The Scottish Parliament, infuriated that the English Parliament did not consult them on the choice of Sophia's family as the next heirs, passed the Act of Security 1704, threatening to end the personal union between England and Scotland. The Parliament of England retaliated with the Alien Act 1705, threatening to devastate the Scottish economy by restricting trade. The Scottish and English parliaments negotiated the Acts of Union 1707, under which England and Scotland were united into a single Kingdom of Great Britain, with succession under the rules prescribed by the Act of Settlement.
In 1714, Queen Anne was succeeded by her second cousin, and Sophia's son, George I, Elector of Hanover, who consolidated his position by defeating Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1719. The new monarch was less active in government than many of his British predecessors, but retained control over his German kingdoms, with which Britain was now in personal union. Power shifted towards George's ministers, especially to Sir Robert Walpole, who is often considered the first British prime minister, although the title was not then in use. The next monarch, George II, witnessed the final end of the Jacobite threat in 1746, when the Catholic Stuarts were completely defeated. During the long reign of his grandson, George III, Britain's American colonies were lost, the former colonies having formed the United States of America, but British influence elsewhere in the world continued to grow, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was created by the Acts of Union 1800.
From 1811 to 1820, George III suffered a severe bout of what is now believed to be porphyria, an illness rendering him incapable of ruling. His son, the future George IV, ruled in his stead as Prince Regent. During the Regency and his own reign, the power of the monarchy declined, and by the time of his successor, William IV, the monarch was no longer able to effectively interfere with parliamentary power. In 1834, William dismissed the Whig Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, and appointed a Tory, Sir Robert Peel. In the ensuing elections, however, Peel lost. The king had no choice but to recall Lord Melbourne. During William IV's reign, the Reform Act 1832, which reformed parliamentary representation, was passed. Together with others passed later in the century, the Act led to an expansion of the electoral franchise and the rise of the House of Commons as the most important branch of Parliament.
The final transition to a constitutional monarchy was made during the long reign of William IV's successor, Victoria. As a woman, Victoria could not rule Hanover, which only permitted succession in the male line, so the personal union of the United Kingdom and Hanover came to an end. The Victorian era was marked by great cultural change, technological progress, and the establishment of the United Kingdom as one of the world's foremost powers. In recognition of British rule over India, Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1876. However, her reign was also marked by increased support for the republican movement, due in part to Victoria's permanent mourning and lengthy period of seclusion following the death of her husband in 1861.
Victoria's son, Edward VII, became the first monarch of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1901. In 1917, the next monarch, George V, changed "Saxe-Coburg and Gotha" to "Windsor" in response to the anti-German sympathies aroused by the First World War. George V's reign was marked by the separation of Ireland into Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the United Kingdom, and the Irish Free State, an independent nation, in 1922.
During the twentieth century, the Commonwealth of Nations evolved from the British Empire. Prior to 1926, the British Crown reigned over the British Empire collectively; the Dominions and Crown Colonies were subordinate to the United Kingdom. The Balfour Declaration of 1926 gave complete self-government to the Dominions, effectively creating a system whereby a single monarch operated independently in each separate Dominion. The concept was solidified by the Statute of Westminster 1931, which has been likened to "a treaty among the Commonwealth countries".
The monarchy thus ceased to be an exclusively British institution, although it is often still referred to as "British" for legal and historical reasons and for convenience. The monarch became separately monarch of the United Kingdom, monarch of Canada, monarch of Australia, and so forth. The independent states within the Commonwealth would share the same monarch in a relationship likened to a personal union.
George V's death in 1936 was followed by the accession of Edward VIII, who caused a public scandal by announcing his desire to marry the divorced American Wallis Simpson, even though the Church of England opposed the remarriage of divorcées. Accordingly, Edward announced his intention to abdicate; the Parliaments of the United Kingdom and of other Commonwealth countries granted his request. Edward VIII and any children by his new wife were excluded from the line of succession, and the Crown went to his brother, George VI. George served as a rallying figure for the British people during World War II, making morale-boosting visits to the troops as well as to munitions factories and to areas bombed by Nazi Germany. In June 1948 George VI relinquished the title Emperor of India, although remaining head of state of the Dominion of India.
As a rule, progressive Britain prefers to ignore the monarchy. First, it's embarrassing: 364 years after we first abolished it and long after most of the rest of the world dispensed with such feudal relics, we're still lumbered with one. Second, there are always more important things to confront – from rampant corporate power and escalating inequality to incessant war and the climate crisis. And last, the media and political class form such a sycophantic ideological phalanx around the institution that dissent is treated as, at best, weird and miserabilist.
The last few days have been par for the course. As in the case of every other royal event, the birth of a son to the heir but one to the throne has been reported in tones that wouldn't be out of place in a one party state. Newsreaders adopt regulation rictus grins. The BBC's flagship Today programme held a debate to mark the event between two royalists who fell over each other to laud the "stability", continuity" and "mystery" of the House of Windsor. The press is full of talk of "fairytales" and a "joyful nation".
But ignoring it leaves a festering anti-democratic dynasticism at the heart of our political system. As things now stand, Britain (along with 15 other former island colonies and white settler states) has now chosen its next three heads of state – or rather, they have been selected by accident of aristocratic birth. The descendants of warlords, robber barons, invaders and German princelings – so long as they aren't Catholics – have automatic pride of place at the pinnacle of Britain's constitution.
Far from uniting the country, the monarchy's role is seen as illegitimate and offensive by millions of its citizens, and entrenches hereditary privilege at the heart of public life. While British governments preach democracy around the world, they preside over an undemocratic system at home with an unelected head of state and an appointed second chamber at the core of it.
Meanwhile celebrity culture and a relentless public relations machine have given a new lease of life to a dysfunctional family institution, as the X Factor meets the pre-modern. But instead of rising above class as a symbol of the nation, as its champions protest, the monarchy embodies social inequality at birth and fosters a phonily apolitical conservatism.
If the royal family were simply the decorative constitutional adornment its supporters claim, punctuating the lives of grateful subjects with pageantry and street parties, its deferential culture and invented traditions might be less corrosive. But contrary to what is routinely insisted, the monarchy retains significant unaccountable powers and influence. In extreme circumstances, they could still be decisive.
Several key crown prerogative powers, exercised by ministers without reference to parliament on behalf of the monarchy, have now been put on a statutory footing. But the monarch retains the right to appoint the prime minister and dissolve parliament. By convention, these powers are only exercised on the advice of government or party leaders. But it's not impossible to imagine, as constitutional experts concede, such conventions being overridden in a social and political crisis – for instance where parties were fracturing and alternative parliamentary majorities could be formed.
The British establishment are past masters at such constitutional sleights of hand – and the judges, police and armed forces pledge allegiance to the Crown, not parliament. The left-leaning Australian Labor leader Gough Whitlam was infamously sacked by the Queen's representative, the governor-general, in 1975. Less dramatically the Queen in effect chose Harold Macmillan as prime minister over Rab Butler in the late 1950s – and then Alec Douglas-Home over Butler in 1963.
More significant in current circumstances is the monarchy's continual covert influence on government, from the Queen's weekly audiences with the prime minister and Prince Charles's avowed "meddling" to lesser known arm's-length interventions.
This month the high court rejected an attempt by the Guardian to force the publication of Charles's "particularly frank" letters to ministers which they feared would "forfeit his position of political neutrality". The evidence from the controversy around London's Chelsea barracks site development to the tax treatment of the Crown and Duchy of Lancaster estates suggests such interventions are often effective.
A striking feature of global politics in recent decades has been the resurgence of the hereditary principle across political systems: from the father and son Bush presidencies in the US and the string of family successions in south Asian parliamentary democracies to the Kim dynasty in North Korea, along with multiple other autocracies.
Some of that is driven by the kind of factors that produced hereditary systems in the first place, such as pressure to reduce conflict over political successions. But it's also a reflection of the decline of ideological and class politics.
Part of Britain's dynastic problem is that the English overthrew their monarchy in the 1640s, before the social foundations were in place for a viable republic – and the later constitutional settlement took the sting out of the issue.
But it didn't solve it, and the legacy is today's half-baked democracy. You'd never know it from the way the monarchy is treated in British public life, but polling in recent years shows between 20% and 40% think the country would be better off without it, and most still believe it won't last. That proportion is likely to rise when hapless Charles replaces the present Queen.
There are of course other much more powerful obstacles to social advance in Britain than the monarchy, but it remains a reactionary and anti-democratic drag. Republics have usually emerged from wars or revolutions. But there's no need for tumbrils, just elections.
It's not a very radical demand, but an elected head of state is a necessary step to democratise Britain and weaken the grip of deferential conservatism and anti-politics. People could vote for Prince William or Kate Middleton if they wanted and the royals could carry on holding garden parties and travelling around in crowns and gold coaches. The essential change is to end the constitutional role of an unelected dynasty. It might even be the saving of this week's royal baby.