Article related image

The British Line of Succession, Explained

The British line of succession determines who in the royal family will inherit the throne and become the king or queen of the United Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth II, reigned for seven decades, since taking the throne when she was just 25 years old, after her father, King George VI, died in February 1952.

By that time, Elizabeth had been married to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, for nearly five years. Together, they have four children: Charles, Prince of Wales, born in 1948; Anne, Princess Royal, born in 1950; Prince Andrew, Duke of York, born in 1960; and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, born in 1964.

Under the rules of succession, Charles, the queen’s firstborn child (and firstborn son, although this is no longer a determining factor in the sequence of inheritance), will take the throne as King Charles III after his mother's passing. But how does the rest of the sequence play out?

What Is the Current Line of Succession to the British Throne?

Queen Elizabeth II with her dog in garden
Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images

King Charles III and the late Princess Diana's firstborn child, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, is second in line for the throne, followed by William’s firstborn (with wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge), Prince George. William and Kate’s second child, Princess Charlotte, is fourth in line to take over as the head of the Commonwealth, while their third child, Prince Louis, is fifth.

Charles’ second-born child, Prince Harry, is sixth in line for the throne, after his older brother, William, and his brother’s children. His son Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor — whom Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, welcomed in 2019 — is seventh, and the couple's second child, Lilibet, is eighth. (Despite the fact that Harry and Meghan have left their roles within the royal family — and the fact that their kids do not have royal titles — Harry and his children will remain in the line of succession. Only Parliament has the power to remove someone from the order.)

The queen’s son Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, is ninth in the line of succession. His oldest daughter, Princess Beatrice, is 10th in line and her daughter with husband Edoardo Mapello Mozzi, Sienna, is 11th. Beatrice's younger sister, Princess Eugenie, is 12th, and her son with husband Jack Brooksbank, August, is 13th.

Next, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s youngest son, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, is 14th in line for the throne. His children with wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, will follow his placement: James, Viscount Severn, born in 2007, is 15th, while Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor, born in 2003, is 16th.

In the 17th spot is Anne, the Princess Royal, the second-eldest child and only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. She and her ex-husband, Mark Phillips, have two children: Peter Phillips, born in 1977, and Zara, born in 1981.

Peter, as Anne’s firstborn, is 18th in line for the throne. Because of now-outdated rules, which will be explained below, his daughters, Savannah and Isla, are 19th and 20th. This places them ahead of Princess Anne’s own daughter Zara, who is 21st in line to lead the Commonwealth.

Zara has two daughters with husband Mike Tindall: Mia Grace, born in 2014, is 22nd in line for the throne, while Lena Elizabeth, born in 2018, is 23rd.

The current line of British succession is, of course, subject to a reordering, should the higher-ranking members of the family have more children, or should there be any deaths in the family. This is especially relevant to Prince William, as he and his children are the most likely to become king or queen someday.

How It Works

Buckingham Palace Road, London, United Kingdom
Credit: Thomas Kelley/ Unsplash

The line of succession is determined not only through descent and birth order, but also by Parliamentary law. The rules that originally governed the process came to be in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and were most notably defined by two specific government measures: the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1701 Act of Settlement.

Prior to the 1680s, a long line of self-governed royals had handled the transfer of power individually, often using the principle of primogeniture — the act of transferring all power and wealth to the firstborn son. Then, in 1688, King James II fled the country, leaving the throne vacant. Rather than offer the crown to his young son, as was tradition at the time, Parliament asked his older daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, to become joint sovereigns. This was partly because James II had converted to and raised his son in Catholicism, while Mary remained Protestant.

As part of their ascension to the throne, William and Mary had to sign and promise to uphold the 1689 Bill of Rights. This act essentially created the constitutional monarchy, which means that while the king or queen acts as head of state, they're limited by the laws of Parliament. The Bill of Rights also established a line of succession for the crown, with William and Mary at the top, followed by Mary's heirs; her sister, Princess Anne; and Anne's heirs.

The 1701 Act of Settlement further codified the hierarchy, stating that a successor to the throne could not marry a Roman Catholic, and that only a Protestant could ascend to the throne. It also reinforced the age-old system of primogeniture, which gave preference to the son of an heir apparent, even if there was an older daughter.

How Have Things Changed?

The crown to be worn by Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Soverign Entrance of the House of Lords, in Westminster, in London, 06 November 2007
Credit: AFP/ Getty Images

From the early 1700s until the early 2010s, the laws of royal succession remained largely the same — despite informal efforts to modernize the monarchy. Around 2011, however, the countries that make up the Commonwealth of Nations agreed to do away with primogeniture as it concerned the line of succession.

Two years later, Parliament formalized the change and amended the law to remove the gendered aspect of the sequence of successors. The Succession to the Crown Act, written in 2013 and put into effect in 2015, stated that sons and daughters have equal rights to the throne — now, birth order, regardless of gender, is the determining factor.

However, this only applies to those born after October 28, 2011, so neither Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, Princess Anne, nor Prince Edward’s daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, will move up in the current order, despite being older siblings. The ruling did work in favor of Prince William’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, however; she retained her spot when her younger brother, Prince Louis, was born.

The Succession to the Crown Act also did away with the rule that monarchs cannot marry a Roman Catholic, but the rule that says only Protestants can take the throne remains.

Outside of the rules of succession, the monarchy has slowly modernized some of its other formalities as well, in large part because of the progressive thinking of some of the most prominent members of the royal family, including Princes William and Harry. Protocols around interacting with members of the public, for example, have become much less rigid, and divorce and remarriage have also found their way into the royal family after long being banned by the Church of England. Whereas King Edward VIII had to abdicate the throne in 1936 to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson, Prince Harry was free to marry Meghan Markle, who was also previously wed, in 2018. That said, the monarchy is still the subject of much debate and scrutiny, and events such as Princess Diana's death and Harry and Meghan's royal exit have led many to increasingly question its place and legitimacy in the world today.