If Will and Kate have a girl, new succession laws will be tested

Royal baby's sex won't hinder rise to the throne


If Kate ever wondered after her storybook wedding what it would be like when the full force of royal expectations and demands descended upon her, she knows it now. The ordinary miracle of pregnancy shared by a happy couple anywhere is always a cause for celebration, but a first pregnancy in the direct line of succession to the Crown was always bound to bring on a media frenzy. This one also comes complete with a historic constitutional blizzard.

The news that she and Prince William, the duchess and duke of Cambridge, are expecting their first child in a little over seven months will be greeted with joy in many quarters, indifference in some and gnashing of teeth in still others. That’s normal in an egalitarian age when deference to royalty vanished a long time ago but residual and even renewed and growing affection for Queen Elizabeth II and her “heirs and successors” has surprised many observers.

But this particular pregnancy is also fraught with constitutional heavy traffic, the likes of which royal watchers have not seen in a long time. For starters, the current law of succession in all of Elizabeth II’s realms—and there are 16 of them, including the United Kingdom and Canada—says a first-born girl can be trumped by a younger brother.

In a historic agreement at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Australia last year—Oct. 28, 2011, to be exact—all the countries which have Queen Elizabeth II as head of state agreed to change this and one other antique law rooted in the denominational wars of past centuries (that the spouse of a monarch cannot be a Roman Catholic). That was greeted everywhere by acclaim, but the problem is that they have not changed it yet, and 16 different legislatures are not likely to get their acts together in time for this baby’s arrival sometime next summer. (They’ve set themselves a 2015 deadline.)

That’s not a problem, according to British Prime Minister David Cameron. The plan is to backdate any future legislation on the laws of succession to that October 2011 agreement in Australia. Regardless of whether it is a girl or a boy, then, she or he will one day be the reigning monarch and at birth will automatically become third in line to the throne, after the Prince of Wales and the child’s father, Prince William.

So that would seem to look after all the possible constitutional sticking points, which may or may not be a comfort to poor Kate, who was admitted to the King Edward VII Hospital thanks to acute morning sickness. In ordinary pregnancies, a couple is allowed some privacy to get through this period, which brings joy and anxiety in equal measure. In ordinary pregnancies, it is never wise to announce the happy event until the first trimester has passed, for good reasons. In ordinary pregnancies, the expectant mother would be able to go about her business with quiet, sustaining pride, free of frantic photographers and creepy tabloid doyens who will afflict the poor duchess right up to the moment of delivery with half-baked advice, old wives’ tales and censorious criticisms about her weight and etc. etc. etc. Just wait for it!

The Kate that people got to know over the past few years is an intensely private woman, so one can safely speculate that the necessity of announcing this pregnancy so soon would have brought her some real distress. The one thing royal officials know, however, is not to lie, so when she had to be admitted to hospital, the pregnancy also had to be acknowledged. Just one reign ago, in the latter years of King George VI, had Princess Elizabeth, as the heiress presumptive in 1948, suffered serious morning sickness when she was pregnant with Prince Charles, she would have been treated at the palace and would never have gone to hospital. In any event, the world would never have known, or at least not so soon.

On the day of the big news, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement: “We recall with great fondness the 2011 royal tour of Canada by the duke and duchess of Cambridge. The tremendous outpouring of affection with which Canadians greeted the royal couple is bolstered by today’s happy news. On behalf of all Canadians, Laureen and I convey our warmest congratulations to both the duke and the duchess.” All good stuff.

Meanwhile, some pretty arch comments were afflicting the Internet. One of my favourites was a self-appointed royal “necromancer” named James Kirkup, writing a blog for the Daily Telegraph in London. This required working out a few royal death dates, never a happy subject with monarchists (but a favourite of Canadian republicans who keep being chagrined at the longevity of the Queen). This game all led to the sport of calculating what year William and Kate’s first child would ascend the throne.

Looking at average life expectancies of someone like William, born in 1982, King William V has a good chance of lasting quite a few years, 86 to be exact. So, says Kirkup, Kate and William’s baby may well become king or queen around 2068, at the age of 56, and rule right into the 22nd century. To which we say, long live the future queen or king.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.