Friday 23 January 2009
A fresh attempt is to be made to reform a 308-year-old law which bars the monarch from marrying a Catholic. Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris will present a bill to parliament in a bid to change the Act of Settlement. He also wants to end the discrimination against female heirs to the throne, but his bill does not alter the requirement for the monarch to be a Protestant. There have already been several bids to reform the law on the grounds it is outdated and discriminatory. The 1701 Act of Settlement states that only the Protestant heirs of Sophia, granddaughter of James I, can become King or Queen.
The British monarchy traces its origins from the kings of the Angles and the early Scottish kings. By the year 1000, the kingdoms of England and Scotland had resolved from the petty kingdoms of early medieval Britain. The last Anglo-Saxon monarch (Harold II) was defeated and killed in the Norman invasion of 1066 and the English monarchy passed to the Norman conquerors.
In the thirteenth century, the principality of Wales was absorbed by England, and the Magna Carta began the process of reducing the political powers of the monarch. From 1649 to 1660, the tradition of monarchy was broken by the republican Commonwealth of England that followed the War of the Three Kingdoms. 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 at its greatest extent in 1921.
In 1922, most of Ireland seceded from the Union as the Irish Free State, but in law the monarch remained sovereign there until 1949. After World War II, the declaration of Indian independence effectively brought the British 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 the independent countries comprising the Commonwealth of Nations. In 1931, the unitary British monarchy throughout the empire was split into legally distinct crowns for each of the Commonwealth realms. At present, 15 other independent Commonwealth countries share the same monarch as the United Kingdom.