British monarchy

This article is part of the series
Politics of the United Kingdom

The monarch or Sovereign is the head of state of the United Kingdom. The current British monarchy can trace its line back to the Anglo-Saxon period. During the ninth century, Wessex came to dominate other kingdoms, and during the tenth, England was consolidated into a single realm. Most British monarchs in the Middle Ages ruled as absolute monarchs, as was standard across most of Europe. However, their power was often limited by the nobility and, later, by an increasingly democratic House of Commons. The powers of the monarchy, known as the Royal Prerogative, are still very extensive. Most prerogative powers are exercised directly by ministers, such as the power to regulate the civil service and the power to issue passports. A few major powers are exercised nominally by the monarch herself, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and according to constitutional convention. An example is the power to dissolve Parliament. According to a parliamentary report 1, "The Crown cannot invent new prerogative powers" and "It is long established law that Parliament can override and displace the prerogative by statute".

It has long been established in the Constitution of the United Kingdom that political power is ultimately exercised by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, of which the Sovereign is a non-partisan, largely ceremonial component, along with the House of Lords and the House of Commons), and by the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Thus, as the modern British monarchy is a constitutional one, the Sovereign's role is in practice limited to ceremonial and non-partisan functions. This role has been recognised since the nineteenth century; Walter Bagehot famously identified the monarchy as the "dignified part" (that is, ceremonial), rather than the "efficient part" of government in The English Constitution (1867). In practice, political power is exercised today through the Parliament of the United Kingdom and by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Although the Sovereign is component of Parliament with the House of Lords and House of Common, in practice she is only a figurehead in Parliament. The Sovereign is the Supreme Governor of the established Church of England, but in practice the spiritual leadership of the Church is the responsibility of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The present monarch is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned since 6 February 1952. The heir apparent is her eldest son, His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales undertakes various public ceremonial functions, as does the Queen's husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. There are several other members of Royal Family besides those aforementioned, including the Queen's other children, grandchildren and cousins. The British monarch is also Head of the Commonwealth and the monarch of sixteen other Commonwealth realms.



English monarchy

Monarchs had existed in the island of Britain since before Roman times; many of these "Celtic" rulers were to ally or fall to the Romans who made Britain part of their empire. Rome withdrew from Britain in the early fifth century, and a period of history followed that has, perhaps unfairly, been referred to as the Dark Ages. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled in Britain, and formed many kingdoms, the seven most powerful of which have been referred to as the Heptarchy. This term, however, is somewhat misleading, as it does not truly convey the complicated political make-up of Britain at the time. Each kingdom had its own "monarch," and at times one powerful king would have dominance over several others: there was no "British monarchy", however, and the idea that the so-called Bretwalda was some official royal title is rather fanciful.

Following the Viking raids and settlement of the ninth century, the kingdom of Wessex emerged as the dominant English kingdom. Alfred the Great secured Wessex and achieved dominance over western Mercia, but he did not become King of England; the nearest title he assumed was "King of the Anglo-Saxons". It was Alfred's successors of the tenth century who built the kingdom now recognised as England, though even by the reign of Edgar the Peaceful England was not beyond fracturing into its constituent parts. The eleventh century saw England become more stable, despite a number of wars with the Danes which resulted in a Danish monarchy for some years. When William, Duke of Normandy conquered England in 1066 he became monarch of a kingdom with probably the strongest royal authority in Europe.

The , created in , depicts the Norman Conquest.
The Bayeux Tapestry, created in 1077, depicts the Norman Conquest.

The Norman Conquest, the last ever successful military invasion of England, was crucial in British history, 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 also continued to develop.

William I was succeeded by two of his sons: William II, and 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. Stephen's weak rule, however, allowed Matilda to challenge his reign; as a result, England soon descended into a period of disorder known as the Anarchy. Stephen maintained a precarious hold on power for the rest of his life; however, he agreed to a compromise under which he would be succeeded by Matilda's son Henry, who accordingly became the first monarch of the Angevin or Plantagenet dynasty as Henry II in 1154.

The reigns of most of the Angevin monarchs was 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 did manage to achieve an expansion of his empire; most notable was the conquest of Ireland, which had previously consisted of a multitude of rival kingdoms. Henry granted Ireland to his younger son John who ruled as "Lord of Ireland."

Upon Henry's death, his elder son Richard succeeded to the throne; Richard, however, was absent from England for most of his reign, as he was fighting the Crusades. When Richard died, John succeeded him, thereby uniting England and Ireland under a single monarch. John's reign was marked by conflict with the barons, who in 1215 coerced him into issuing the Magna Carta (Latin for "Great Charter") to guarantee the rights and liberties of the nobility. Soon afterwards, John repealed the charter, plunging 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. The barons, led by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, again rebelled later in Henry's reign, beginning the Second Barons' War. The war, however, ended in a clear royalist victory, and in the execution of many rebels.

The next monarch, Edward I, was far more successful in maintaining royal power, and was responsible for the conquest of Wales and the establishment of English domination in Scotland. However gains in Scotland were reversed during the reign of his successor, Edward II, who was occupied with a disastrous conflict with the nobility. Edward II was, in 1311, 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 and executed by his wife Isabella and his son, who became Edward III. The new monarch soon also claimed the French Crown, setting off the Hundred Years' War between England and France. Edward III's campaigns were largely successful, and culminated in the conquest of much French territory. Edward's reign was also marked by the further development of Parliament, which came to be divided into two Houses for the first time. In 1377, Edward III died, leaving the Crown to his ten year-old grandson Richard II. The new monarch, like many of his predecessors, conflicted with the nobles, especially by attempting to concentrate power in his own hands. In 1377, whilst he was away in Ireland, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke seized power; Richard was then forced to abdicate and was murdered.

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. Henry V was victorious in his conquest; however, 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's regents, and afterwards, Henry's 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 led the Yorkists to victory in 1461. The Wars of the Roses, nevertheless, continued intermittently during the reigns of the Yorkists Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III. Ultimately, the conflict culminated in success for the Lancastrian branch, led by Henry Tudor (Henry VII), in 1485, when Richard III was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field.

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The above portrait of Elizabeth I was made in approximately 1588 to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada (depicted in the background).

The end of the Wars of the Roses formed a major turning point in the history of the monarchy. Much of the nobility was either decimated on the battlefield or executed for participation in the war, and many aristocratic estates were lost to the Crown. Moreover, feudalism was dying, and the feudal armies controlled by the barons became obsolete. Hence, the Tudor monarchs easily re-established absolute supremacy in the realm, and the conflicts with the nobility that had plagued previous monarchs came to an end. The power of the Crown reached its zenith during the reign of the second Tudor king, Henry VIII. Henry VIII's reign was one of great political change; England was transformed from a weak kingdom into one of the powers of Europe. Religious upheaval also occurred, as disputes with the Pope led the monarch to break away from the Roman Catholic Church and to establish the Church of England (the Anglican Church). Another important result of Henry VIII's reign was the annexation of Wales (which had been conquered centuries earlier, but had remained a separate nation) to England under the Acts of Union 1536–1543.

Henry VIII's son and successor, the young Edward VI, continued with further religious reforms. Edward VI died in 1553, precipitating a succession crisis. He was wary of allowing his Catholic elder half-sister Mary to succeed to the Throne, and therefore drew up a will designating the Lady Jane Grey as his heiress, even though no woman had ever reigned over England. Jane's reign, however, lasted only nine days; with tremendous popular support, Mary deposed her, revoked her proclamation as Queen, and declared herself the lawful Sovereign. Mary I attempted to return England to Roman Catholicism, in the process burning numerous Protestants at the stake as heretics. Mary I died in 1558, to be succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, who once again returned England to Protestantism. The Elizabethan era involved the growth of England as a world power, as evidenced by England's success in the Anglo-Spanish War (especially the celebrated defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588) and by English colonies in North America. The era is often referred to as a "golden age" for England, especially due to the cultural achievements of William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and others.

Scottish monarchy

In Scotland, as in England, monarchies emerged after the withdrawal of Rome in the early fifth century. The two primary groups that lived in Scotland at this time were the Picts (who inhabited the kingdom of Pictavia) and the Britons (who lived in several kingdoms in southern Scotland, including the Kingdom of Strathclyde). The late fifth century was marked by the arrival of another important group, the Scotti (who would later give their name to Scotland), from Ireland. The area settled by the Scotti would become known as the Kingdom of Dalriada. The Dalriadan King Kenneth MacAlpin obtained the Pictish Crown in the middle ninth century, and is traditionally viewed as the founder of united Scotland (or Alba). The expansion of Scottish dominions continued over the next century, as other territories such as Strathclyde were subjugated.

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The Crown of Scotland, shown above, dates in its present form to 1540.

Early Scottish monarchs did not inherit the Crown directly; instead, they were elected under a custom known as tanistry. Although such was not its original purpose, tanistry soon evolved into a system whereby the monarchy alternated between two branches of the House of Alpin. As a result, however, the two rival dynastic lines clashed, often violently. The problems relating to succession were especially illustrated by the period from 942 to 1005, during which seven consecutive monarchs were either murdered or killed in battle. Tanistry and the rotation of the monarchy between different lines were abandoned after Malcolm II ascended the throne in 1005. Thus, when Duncan I succeeded Malcolm II in 1034, he became the first Scottish monarch to directly inherit the throne. Duncan had previously become King of Strathclyde; as a consequence of his accession as King of Scots, most of modern-day Scotland stood unified under a single monarch. Only a few northern areas under the control of the Vikings remained separate.

In 1040, Duncan suffered defeat in battle at the hands of Macbeth, the subject of William Shakespeare's famous play (The Tragedy of Macbeth). Later, in 1057, Duncan's son Malcolm Canmore avenged his father's death by defeating and killing Macbeth. A few months later, after the murder of Macbeth's son Lulach, Malcolm Canmore ascended the throne as Malcolm III, becoming the first monarch of the House of Dunkeld. In achieving his victory, Malcolm had relied on assistance from England, heralding a long era of English interference in Scottish affairs. England's involvement became apparent after Malcolm III's death in 1093, when it participated in a series of Scottish succession conflicts between Malcolm's brother Donald III and Malcolm's sons.

From 1107, Scotland was briefly partitioned under the will of King Edgar, who divided his dominions between his elder son Alexander I (who ruled northern Scotland as a king) and his younger son David (who ruled southern Scotland as an earl). After Alexander's death in 1124, David inherited his dominions, and Scotland became unified once more. David was succeeded by the ineffective Malcolm IV, and then by William the Lion, the longest-reigning King of Scots before the Union of the Crowns. William participated in an rebellion against King Henry II of England; however, the rebellion failed, and 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 death in 1286 brought his three year-old Norwegian granddaughter Margaret to the throne. On her way to Scotland in 1290, however, Margaret died at sea, precipitating a major succession crisis, during which there were thirteen rival claimants. Several Scottish leaders appealed to King Edward I of England to settle the dispute; Edward chose John Balliol. Edward proceeded to treat Balliol as a vassal, exerting considerable influence over Scottish affairs. In 1295, when Balliol renounced his allegiance to England, Edward I invaded and conquered Scotland. During the first ten years of the ensuing Wars of Scottish Independence, Scotland had no monarch; however, it was informally led by the rebel leader William Wallace. After Wallace's execution in 1305, Robert the Bruce took over and declared himself king. Robert's efforts culminated in success, and Scottish independence was acknowledged in 1328. However, only one year later, Robert died, and the English again invaded under the pretext of restoring John Balliol's "rightful" heir, Edward Balliol, to the throne. Nonetheless, during further military campaigns, Scotland once again won its independence under Robert the Bruce's son David II.

James IV attempted to invade England in 1513, but was killed in the process.
James IV attempted to invade England in 1513, but was killed in the process.

In 1371, David II was succeeded by Robert II, the first Scottish monarch from the House of Stewart (later 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; in order to restore his authority, he used ruthless measures, including the execution of several of his enemies. James II continued his father's policies by subduing influential noblemen. At the same time, however, the Estates of Scotland (the Scottish Parliament) became increasingly powerful, often openly defying the King. Parliamentary power reached its zenith during the reign of the ineffective King James III. As a result, James IV and his successors tended to avoid calling parliamentary sessions, thereby checking the power of the Estates.

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 over ten thousand soldiers were killed. As James IV's son and successor, James V, was an infant, the government was taken over by regents. After he reached adulthood, James ruled successfully until another disastrous war with the English in 1542. James's death in the same year left the Crown in the hands of his six-day-old daughter, Mary; once again, a regency was established. Mary, a Roman Catholic, reigned during a period of great religious upheaval in Scotland. Due to the efforts of reformers such as John Knox, a Protestant ascendancy was established. Mary caused considerable alarm by marrying a fellow Catholic, Lord Darnley, in 1565. After Lord Darnley's assassination in 1566, 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 and to flee to England (where she was imprisoned and later executed by Elizabeth I). The Crown went to her infant son James VI, who was brought up as a Protestant. James VI would later become King of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

Since the Union of the Crowns

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James VI and I was the first monarch to rule over England, Scotland, and Ireland together.

Elizabeth's death in 1603 brought about the end to the rule of the House of Tudor; she was succeeded by the Scottish monarch James VI, who ruled in England as James I. Although England and Scotland were in personal union under one monarch, they remained separate kingdoms. James belonged to the House of Stuart, a royal house whose monarchs experienced frequent conflicts with the English Parliament. The disputes frequently related to the issue of royal and parliamentary powers, especially the power to impose taxes. The conflict was especially pronounced during the reign of James I's successor Charles I, who provoked opposition by ruling without Parliament from 1629 to 1640 (the "Eleven Years Tyranny"), unilaterally levying taxes, and adopting controversial religious policies (many of which were offensive to the Scottish Presbyterians and the English Puritans). In about 1642, the conflict between King and Parliament reached its climax as the English Civil War began. The war culminated in the in the execution of the king, the overthrow of the monarchy, and the establishment of a republic known as the Commonwealth of England. In 1653, however, Oliver Cromwell, the most prominent military and political leader in the nation, seized power and declared himself Lord Protector (effectively becoming a military dictator). Oliver Cromwell continued to rule until his death in 1658, when he was succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell. The new Lord Protector had little interest in governing; he soon abdicated, allowing the brief re-establishment of the Commonwealth. The lack of clear leadership, however, led to civil and military unrest, and for a popular desire to restore the monarchy. The Restoration came about in 1660, when Charles I's son Charles II was declared king. The establishment of the Commonwealth and Protectorate was deemed illegal; Charles II was declared to have been the de jure king since his father's death in 1649.

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. There arose a parliamentary effort to exclude James from the line of succession; the "Abhorrers," who opposed it, became the Tory Party, whereas the "Petitioners," who supported it, became the Whig Party. The Exclusion Bill, however, 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 as an absolute monarch until his death in 1685. The Catholic James II accordingly succeeded Charles (who himself converted to Catholicism on his deathbed). James pursued policy of offering religious tolerance to Roman Catholics, thereby drawing the ire of many of his Protestant subjects. Many opposed James's decisions 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 (see Seven Bishops). As a result, a group of Protestant nobles and other notable citizens known as the Immortal Seven invited James II's daughter Mary II and her husband William 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 on 23 December of the same year. On 12 February 1689, the Convention Parliament declared that James's flight constituted an abdication, and that William III and Mary II (not James II's Catholic son James Francis Edward Stuart) were joint Sovereigns of England and Ireland. The Scottish Estates soon followed suit.

James's overthrow is normally known as the Glorious Revolution, and was one of the most important events in the long evolution of parliamentary power. The Bill of Rights 1689 declared that the English people held certain rights, including the freedom from taxes imposed without parliamentary consent. The Bill of Rights also 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 the Princess Anne's children had died, leaving Anne as the only individual left in the line of succession. Parliament, afraid that the former James II or his Roman Catholic relatives might attempt to reclaim the Throne, passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which placed William's distant Protestant cousin Sophia, Electress of Hanover, in the line of succession. Soon after the passage of the Act, William II died, leaving the Crown to his sister-in-law Anne.

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England and Scotland were united as Great Britain under Queen Anne.

After Anne's accession, the succession issue quickly re-emerged; the Scottish Estates, infuriated that the English Parliament did not consult them on the choice of Sophia of Hanover, passed the Act of Security, 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 cutting free trade. As a result, the Scottish Estates acquiesced to the Act of Union 1707, under which England and Scotland were united into a single Kingdom of Great Britain, with succession to be determined under the rules prescribed by the Act of Settlement.

Accordingly, in 1714, Queen Anne was succeeded by the son of the deceased Sophia of Hanover, George I, who consolidated his position by defeating Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1719. The new monarch was much less active in government than many of his predecessors, preferring to devote much of his time to the affairs of his German kingdoms. Instead, George left much of his power to his ministers, especially to Sir Robert Walpole, who is often considered the first (unofficial) Prime Minister of Great Britain. The decline of the influence of the monarch and the rise of the power of the Prime Minister and Cabinet continued during the reign of the next monarch, George II, but was halted during that of George III. George III attempted to recover much of the power given up by his Hanoverian predecessors; he also acted to keep the Tories (who favoured royal control in government more than the Whigs) in power whenever possible. George III's reign was also important because of the union of Great Britain and Ireland into the United Kingdom under the Act of Union 1800. At the same time, George III also dropped the claim to the French Throne, which had been nominally made by all English monarchs since Edward III.

King George III asserted his political authority on several occasions, in contrast with his two Hanoverian predecessors.
King George III asserted his political authority on several occasions, in contrast with his two Hanoverian predecessors.

From 1811 to 1820, George III was insane, forcing his son, the future George IV, to rule as Prince Regent. During the Regency, and later during his own reign, George IV continued to maintain what remained of royal authority, instead of ceding it to Parliament and the Cabinet. His successor, William IV, attempted to do the same, but met with much less success. In 1834, William dismissed the Whig Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, over policy differences, and instead appointed a Tory, Sir Robert Peel. In the ensuing elections, however, the Whigs maintained a large majority in the House of Commons; they forced Peel to resign by blocking most of his legislation, thus leaving the King with no choice but to recall Lord Melbourne. Since 1834, no monarch has appointed or dismissed a Prime Minister contrary to the will of the democratically chosen House of Commons. William IV's reign was also marked by the passage of the Great Reform Act, which reformed parliamentary representation and abolished many rotten boroughs. The act, together with others passed later in the century, led to an expansion of the electoral franchise, and the rise of the increasingly legitimate 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; thus, the personal union of the United Kingdom and Hanover came to an end. The Victorian Era was an historic one for the United Kingdom, and 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, the 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-Gotha in 1901. However, in 1917, the next monarch, George V, replaced "Saxe-Coburg-Gotha" with "Windsor" due to the anti-German sympathies aroused by the First World War. George V's reign was also 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. Soon thereafter, Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster 1931, under which self-government was granted to several parts of the British Empire. Formerly, the entire Empire was deemed to be the territory belonging to the British Crown; after the passage of the Statute, however, each dominion obtained its own monarchy. Hence, George V was separately King of the United Kingdom, King of Canada, King of Australia, and so forth.

The reign of Queen Victoria was the longest in the history of the United Kingdom.
The reign of Queen Victoria was the longest in the history of the United Kingdom.

George V's death in 1936 was followed by the accession of the celebrated King Edward VIII, who caused a public scandal by announcing his desire to marry a divorced American woman, 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 realms granted his request. Edward VIII and any children by his new wife were to be excluded from the line of succession; instead, the Crown went to his brother, George VI. The new monarch served as a figurehead for the British people during the Second World War, making several morale-boosting visits to munitions factories and to areas bombed by Nazi Germany. George VI was also the last British monarch to hold the title "Emperor of India," a title relinquished when India was granted independence in 1947.

George VI's death in 1952 was followed by the accession of the present monarch, Elizabeth II. Like her recent predecessors, Elizabeth II continues to function as a constitutional monarch. During her reign, there has been some support for the republican movement, especially due to negative publicity associated with the Royal Family (for instance, the divorce of HRH The Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales). Nevertheless, a large majority of the British public supports the continuation of the monarchy.


Main articles: Succession, Coronation

Succession is governed by several enactments, the most important of which are the Bill of Rights 1689 and Act of Settlement 1701. The rules for succession are not fixed, but may be changed by an Act of Parliament. Succession is according to the rules of male-preference cognatic primogeniture, under which sons inherit before daughters, and under which elder children inherit before younger ones of the same sex. The Act of Settlement, however, restricts the succession to the natural (non-adopted) legitimate descendants of Sophia, Electress of Hanover (lived 16301714).

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The Sovereign is crowned at Westminster Abbey, as depicted in the above portrait of King Charles II.

The Bill of Rights and Act of Settlement also include certain religious restrictions, which were imposed because of the English people's mistrust of Roman Catholicism during the late seventeenth century. Most importantly, only individuals who are Protestants at the time of the succession may inherit the Crown. Moreover, a person who has at any time professed Roman Catholicism, or has ever married a Roman Catholic, is also prohibited from succeeding. One who is thus disabled from inheriting the Crown is deemed "naturally dead" for succession purposes; the disqualifications do not extend to the individual's descendants. In recent years, there have been some efforts to remove the religious restrictions (especially the specific rules relating to Roman Catholicism), but the provisions still remain in effect.

Upon a "demise in the Crown" (the death of a Sovereign) his or her heir immediately and automatically succeeds, without any need for confirmation or further ceremony. (Hence arises the phrase "The King is dead. Long live the King!") Nevertheless, it is customary for the accession of the Sovereign to be publicly proclaimed by an Accession Council that meets at St. James's Palace. After an appropriate period of mourning has passed, the Sovereign is also crowned in Westminster Abbey, normally by the Archbishop of Canterbury. A coronation is not necessary for a Sovereign to rule; for example, Edward VIII was never crowned, yet was undoubtedly king during his short reign.

After an individual ascends the Throne, he or she continues to reign until death. Monarchs are not allowed to unilaterally abdicate; the only monarch to voluntarily abdicate, Edward VIII (1936), did so with the authorisation of a special Act of Parliament. Historically, however, numerous reigns ended due to irregular or extralegal procedures; several monarchs have been killed, deposed, or forced to abdicate, chiefly during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The last monarch involuntarily removed from power was James II, who fled the realm in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution; Parliament interpreted his flight as an abdication.


Main articles: Regency Acts, Counsellor of State

Under the Regency Act 1937 and Regency Act 1953, the powers of a monarch who has not reached the age of eighteen, or of a monarch who is physically or mentally incapacitated, must be exercised by a regent. A physical or mental incapacity must be certified by at least three of the following people: the Sovereign's spouse, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the Master of the Rolls. The declaration of three or more of the same persons is also necessary to terminate the regency and to allow the monarch to resume power.

When a Regency is necessary, the next qualified individual in the line of succession becomes Regent; no special parliamentary vote or other confirmation procedure is necessary. The Regent must be aged at least twenty-one years (eighteen years in the case of the heir apparent or heir presumptive), be a British citizen, and be domiciled in the United Kingdom. The only individual to have acted as Regent was the future George IV, who took over the government of the realm whilst his father, George III, was insane (18111820). However, the Regency Act 1953 states that if the successor to the Queen is in need of a regency, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh will act as Regent. However, if the Queen herself is in need of a long-term regency, the next eligible in line of succession will act as Regent, unless that person is not one of the Queen's children or grandchildren. In that case, the Duke of Edinburgh will be regent.

During a temporary physical infirmity or an absence from the kingdom, the Sovereign may temporarily delegate his or her functions to Counsellors of State, the Sovereign's spouse and the first four qualified people in the line of succession. The qualifications for Counsellors of State are the same as those for Regents. The present Counsellors of State are: HRH The Duke of Edinburgh (the Queen's husband), HRH The Prince of Wales, HRH Prince William of Wales, HRH The Duke of York, and HRH The Earl of Wessex.

Political role

Although the monarch's powers are in theory vast, they are in practice very limited. As a constitutional monarch, the Sovereign acts within the constraints of convention and precedent, almost always exercising the Royal Prerogative on the advice of the Prime Minister and other ministers. The Prime Minister and ministers are, in turn, accountable to the democratically elected House of Commons, and through it, to the people.

Whenever necessary, the Sovereign is responsible for appointing a new Prime Minister; the appointment is formalised at a ceremony known as Kissing Hands. In accordance with unwritten constitutional conventions, the Sovereign must appoint the individual most likely to maintain the support of the House of Commons: usually, the leader of the party which has a majority in that House. If no party has a majority (an unlikely occurrence given the United Kingdom's First Past the Post electoral system), two or more groups may form a coalition, whose agreed leader is then appointed Prime Minister. In a "hung parliament," in which no party or coalition holds a majority, the monarch obtains an increased degree of latitude in his or her choice of Prime Minister. Still, however, the individual most likely to command the support of the Commons, usually the leader of the largest party, must be appointed. Thus, for example, Harold Wilson was appointed Prime Minister soon after the February 1974 general election, even though his Labour Party did not have a majority. It has also been suggested that in the same situation, if a minority government tried to dissolve Parliament to call an election early to strengthen its position, the monarch could refuse, and instead allow opposition parties to form a coalition government. However, Harold Wilson's minority government elected in February 1974 successfully called an early election in October 1974 which gave it a majority.

The Sovereign appoints and dismisses Cabinet and other ministers, but exercises such a function only on the Prime Minister's advice. Thus, in practice, the Prime Minister, and not the Sovereign, exercises complete control over the composition of the Cabinet. The monarch may, in theory, unilaterally dismiss a Prime Minister, but convention and precedent bar such an action. The last monarch to unilaterally remove a Prime Minister was William IV, who dismissed Lord Melbourne in 1834. In practice, a Prime Minister's term comes to an end only with death or resignation. (In some circumstances, the Prime Minister is required to resign; see Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.)

The monarch holds a weekly audience with the Prime Minister, as well as regular audiences with other members of the Cabinet. The monarch may express his or her views, but, as a constitutional ruler, must ultimately accept the Prime Minister's and Cabinet's decisions. Walter Bagehot, the nineteenth century constitutional writer, summarises this concept, "the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy ... three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn."

The monarch has a similar relationship with devolved governments of Scotland and Wales. The Sovereign appoints the First Minister of Scotland, but on the nomination of the Scottish Parliament. The First Minister of Wales, on the other hand, is directly elected by the National Assembly for Wales. In Scottish matters, the Sovereign acts on the advice of the Scottish Executive. However, as devolution is more limited in Wales, the Sovereign acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of the United Kingdom in Welsh matters. (Northern Ireland presently has no devolved government; its Assembly and executive have been suspended.)

The Sovereign also plays a symbolic role in the United Kingdom. Oaths of allegiance are made to the Queen, not to Parliament or to the nation. Moreover, God Save the Queen (or, if the Sovereign is male, God Save the King) is used as the British national anthem. The monarch's visage appears on postage stamps, on coins, and on banknotes issued by the Bank of England. (Banknotes issued by other British banks, such as the Bank of Scotland and the Ulster Bank, do not depict the Sovereign.)

Royal Prerogative

Main article: Royal Prerogative

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St. Edward's Crown, the crown used during the British monarch's coronation, is sometimes used on coats of arms, flags, and logos as a symbol of royal authority.

The powers that belong to the Crown are collectively known as the Royal Prerogative. The Royal Prerogative includes many powers (such as the powers to make treaties or send ambassadors) as well as certain duties (such as the duties to defend the realm and to maintain the Queen's peace). As the British monarchy is a constitutional one, however, the monarch exercises the Royal Prerogative on the advice of ministers. Parliamentary approval is not required for the exercise of the Royal Prerogative; moreover, the Consent of the Crown must be obtained before either House may even debate a bill affecting the Sovereign's prerogatives or interests. Although the Royal Prerogative is extensive, it is not unlimited. For example, the monarch does not have the prerogative to impose and collect new taxes; such an action requires the authorisation of an Act of Parliament.

The Sovereign is considered one of the three components of Parliament; the others are the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is the prerogative of the monarch to summon, prorogue, and dissolve 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 (which lasts a maximum of five years), and is followed by general elections for all seats in the House of Commons. These powers, however, are always exercised on the Prime Minister's advice. The timing of a dissolution is affected by a variety of factors; the Prime Minister normally chooses the most politically opportune moment for his or her party. The Sovereign may theoretically refuse a dissolution, but the circumstances under which such an action would be warranted are unclear. (See Lascelles Principles.) No parliamentary term may last more than five years; at the end of this period, a dissolution is automatic under the Parliament Act 1911.

All laws are enacted in the monarch's name. The words "BE IT ENACTED by the Queen's [King's] most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows," known as the enacting formula, form a part of each Act of Parliament. Before a bill can become law, the Royal Assent (the monarch's approval) is required. Theoretically, the Sovereign may either grant the Royal Assent (thereby making the bill law) or reserve the Royal Assent (postpone granting the Royal Assent), or withhold the Royal Assent (veto the bill). By convention, however, the monarch always grants the Royal Assent; therefore, the Sovereign's role with respect to approving bills is purely ceremonial. The last monarch to withhold the Royal Assent was Queen Anne, who did so when presented with a Scottish Militia Bill in 1708.

The Royal Prerogative with respect to domestic affairs is extensive. He or she is responsible for the appointment and dismissal of ministers, Privy Counsellors, members of various executive agencies, and other officials. Effectively, however, the appointees are chosen by the Prime Minister, or, for less important offices, by other ministers. In addition, the monarch is the head of the Armed Forces (the British Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force). It is the Sovereign's prerogative to declare war, make peace, and direct the actions of the military; as usual, the power is used only on ministerial advice.

The Royal Prerogative, in addition, extends to foreign affairs. The Sovereign may negotiate and ratify treaties, alliances, and international agreements; no parliamentary approval is required. However, a treaty cannot alter the domestic laws of the United Kingdom; an Act of Parliament is necessary in such cases. The Sovereign also accredits British High Commissioners and ambassadors, and receives diplomats from foreign states. In addition, all British passports are issued in the monarch's name.

Furthermore, the Sovereign is deemed the fount of justice, and is theoretically responsible for rendering justice for all subjects. The Sovereign does not personally rule in judicial cases; instead, 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 in his or her own courts for criminal offences. The Crown Proceedings Act 1947 allows civil lawsuits against the Crown in its public capacity (that is, lawsuits against the government); however, lawsuits against the monarch personally are not cognizable. The Sovereign also exercises the "prerogative of mercy," and may pardon offences against the Crown. Pardons may be awarded before, during, or after a trial, but are in practice granted only on ministerial advice.

Similarly, the monarch is also the fount of honour, the source of all honours and dignities in the United Kingdom. Thus, the Crown creates all peerages, appoints members of the orders of chivalry, grants knighthoods, and awards other honours. In practice, peerages and most other honours are granted on the advice of the Prime Minister. Some honours, however, are within the personal gift of the Sovereign, and are not granted on ministerial advice. Thus, 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.

Finally, the Sovereign is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the officially established church in England. As such, the monarch has the power to appoint archbishops and bishops. The Prime Minister, however, chooses the appointee, though he or she must select from a list of nominees prepared by the Crown Nominations Commission. The Crown's role in the Church of England is purely titular; the most senior clergyman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is seen as the spiritual leader of the Church and of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The monarch is only an ordinary member, and not the head or leader, of the established Church of Scotland; however, he or she does hold the power to appoint the Lord High Commissioner to the Church's General Assembly. The Sovereign plays no formal role in the Church in Wales and the Church of Ireland, neither of which is an established church.

The Great Seal of the Realm is the device used to authenticate important official documents, including letters patent, proclamations, and writs of election. The Great Seal of the Realm is in the custody of the Lord Chancellor. For matters relating exclusively to Scotland or Northern Ireland, the Great Seal of Scotland or the Great Seal of Northern Ireland is used, as the case may be.

Commonwealth role

The Sovereign is the monarch not only of the United Kingdom, but also of several other Commonwealth Realms. Though his or her constitutional powers in each realm are virtually identical to those held in the United Kingdom, the monarch does not play an active political or ceremonial role as head of state in these countries. Instead, day-to-day functions are performed by the Governor-General, who serves as the monarch's representative. In each realm, the Sovereign and Governor-General act solely on the advice of the local Prime Minister and Cabinet. Hence, the Government of the United Kingdom does not interfere with the governance of Commonwealth realms.

Formerly, every member of the Commonwealth of Nations was a Commonwealth Realm. However, when India became a republic in 1950, it was decided that it should be permitted to remain in the Commonwealth, even though the Sovereign was not its head of state. It was nevertheless decided that the British monarch would be acknowledged as "Head of the Commonwealth" in all Commonwealth member states, whether realms or not. The position is purely ceremonial, and is not accompanied by political power.


Main article: Privy Purse

Parliament meets much of the Sovereign's official expenditure from public funds. The Civil List is the sum that covers most expenses, including those for staffing, state visits, public engagements, and official entertainment. The size of the Civil List is fixed by Parliament every ten years; however, any money saved may be carried forward to the next ten year period. Thus, the Sovereign's Civil List expenditure in 2003 was approximately £9.9 million. In addition, the Sovereign receives an annual Property Services Grant-in-Aid (£15.3 million for FY 20032004) to pay for the upkeep of the royal residences, as well as an annual Royal Travel Grant-in-Aid (£5.9 million for FY 20032004). The Civil List and the Grants-in-Aid are paid from public funds.

Formerly, the monarch met all official expenses from hereditary revenues, including the profits of the Crown Estate. In 1760, however, King George III agreed to surrender the hereditary revenues of the Crown in return for the Civil List; this arrangement still persists. In modern times, the profits surrendered from the Crown Estate have by far exceeded the Civil List and Grants-in-Aid provided to the monarch. For example, the Crown Estate produced over £170 million for the Treasury in the financial year 20032004, whereas parliamentary funding for the monarch was less than £40 million during the same period. The monarch continues to own the Crown Estate, but cannot sell it; instead, the estate must continue to pass from one Sovereign to the next.

Aside from the Crown Estate, the Sovereign also owns the Duchy of Lancaster. The Duchy is the monarch's private inherited property, unlike the Crown Estate, which belongs to the monarch in an official capacity. Like the Crown Estate, however, the Duchy is held in trust, and cannot be sold by the monarch. The revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster need not be surrendered to the Treasury; instead, they form a part of the Privy Purse, and are used for expenses not borne by the Civil List. The Duchy of Cornwall is a similar estate held in trust to meet the expenses of the monarch's eldest son.

The Sovereign is subject to indirect taxes such as the value added tax (VAT), but is exempt from income tax and capital gains tax. Since 1993, however, the Queen has voluntarily paid taxes on personal income. As the Civil List and Grants-in-Aid are used solely for official expenditure, they are not taken into account when calculating taxes.


Buckingham Palace is the monarch's principal residence.
Buckingham Palace is the monarch's principal residence.

The Sovereign's primary official residence is Buckingham Palace in the City of Westminster. Buckingham Palace is the site of most state banquets, investitures, royal christenings, and other ceremonies. Moreover, visiting heads of state usually reside in Buckingham Palace. Another principal residence is Windsor Castle, the largest occupied castle in the world. Windsor Castle, located in Windsor, Berkshire, is used principally as a weekend retreat; the monarch also resides there during the Royal Ascot, an annual race meeting that forms a major part of the social calendar. The Sovereign's principal official residence in Scotland is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, more commonly called Holyrood Palace, in Edinburgh. The monarch stays at Holyrood Palace for at least one week each year, and when visiting Scotland on state occasions.

There also exist a number of other palaces not used as residences by the monarch. The Palace of Westminster was originally the Sovereign's primary residence until 1530; although it is still officially a royal palace, it serves as the home to both Houses of Parliament. Thereafter, the Sovereign's principal London residence was the Palace of Whitehall, which was destroyed by fire in 1698, to be replaced by St. James's Palace. Although it was replaced as the monarch's primary residence by Buckingham Palace in 1837, St James's is still used for various official functions. For example, foreign ambassadors are accredited to the Court of St. James's, and the Palace is the site of the meeting of the Accession Council. However, St James's Palace is not one of the Sovereign's official residences; instead, it is used by members of the Royal Family. Other residences used by the Royal Family include Clarence House (presently the home of the heir-apparent, HRH The Prince of Wales) and Kensington Palace.

The aforementioned residences belong to the Crown; they are held in trust for future rulers, and cannot be sold by the monarch. However, the monarch does own certain homes in a private capacity. Sandringham House, a privately owned country house near the village of Sandringham, Norfolk, is typically used from Christmas to the end of January. Similarly, during parts of August and September, the monarch resides in Balmoral Castle, a privately owned castle in Aberdeenshire in Scotland.


Main article: Style and Title

The present Sovereign's full style and title is: "Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith." The title "Head of the Commonwealth" is held by the Queen personally, and is not vested in the British Crown. (However, her father, George VI, was also recognised as such.) Pope Leo X first granted the title "Defender of the Faith" to King Henry VIII in 1521, rewarding him for his support of the Papacy during the early years of the Protestant Reformation. However, Henry VIII later broke from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England; Pope Paul III revoked the grant, but Parliament passed a law authorising its continued use.

The Sovereign is known as "His Majesty" or "Her Majesty," though, in certain formal circumstances, "Most Gracious Majesty" or "Most Excellent Majesty" is used instead. The form "Britannic Majesty" appears in international treaties and on passports to differentiate the British monarch from foreign rulers. Queens Consort (wives of Kings) and Queens Dowager (widows of Kings) are also entitled to the style "Majesty," but husbands of female monarchs are not. Thus, the husband of the present Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, is only styled "Royal Highness."

The ordinal used for the monarch only takes into account monarchs since the Norman Conquest. If only one monarch has used a particular name, then no ordinal is used; for example, Queen Victoria is never known as "Victoria I." After the Union of England and Scotland in 1707, numbering was based solely on previous English monarchs, and not on Scottish ones. In 1953, however, Scottish nationalists challenged the right of the Queen to style herself "Elizabeth II," on the grounds that there had never before been an "Elizabeth I" in Scotland. In MacCormick v. Lord Advocate, the Scottish Court of Session ruled against the plaintiffs, finding that the Queen's title was a matter of her own choice and prerogative. Nevertheless, it was announced that future monarchs would use the higher of the English and Scottish ordinals. Retroactively applying this policy yields no change in numbering.

Traditionally, a monarch's signature includes his or her regnal name (but not ordinal) followed by the letter R. The letter stands for rex or regina (king or queen in Latin). Hence, the present Queen signs "Elizabeth R". From the reign of Victoria to that of George VI, they also signed an I, due to their status as Emperor of India, thus Queen Victoria would sign her name "Victoria RI".

Arms of Dominion

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The Royal Standard is the Sovereign's official flag in the United Kingdom.
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A slightly different form of the Royal Standard is used in Scotland.

Main article: Arms of Dominion

The coat of arms used by the Sovereign, known as the Arms of Dominion, are: Quarterly, I and IV Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or (for England); II Or a lion rampant within a double tressure flory-counter-flory Gules (for Scotland); III Azure a harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland). The supporters are the lion and the unicorn; the motto is Dieu et mon Droit (French for "God and my Right"). Ireland is represented even though most of the island is not a part of the United Kingdom, but instead forms the Republic of Ireland. (Only Northern Ireland is still a part of the UK.)

In Scotland, the monarch uses an alternative form of the Arms of Dominion in which quarters I and IV represent Scotland, II England, and III Ireland. The motto is Nemo me impune lacessit (Latin for "No-one provokes me with impunity"); the supporters are the unicorn and lion.

The monarch's official flag in the United Kingdom is known as the Royal Standard, and depicts the Arms of Dominion. (The Royal Standard used in Scotland depicts the Scottish version of the arms.) This flag is only from buildings and vehicles in which the Sovereign is present; elsewhere, the Union Flag is flown. The Royal Standard may never be flown at half-mast because there is always a sovereign: when one dies, his or her successor becomes the sovereign instantly.

See also


  • Blackstone, Sir William. (1765). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • British Monarchy. (2005). Official website. (
  • Cannon, John, and Ralph Griffiths. (2000). The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Farnborough, Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron. (1896). Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Fraser, Lady Antonia (Editor). (1975). The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee. (2003). "The Royal Prerogative." (
  • Raphael, D.D., Donald Limon, and W.R. McKay. (2004). Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, 23rd ed. London: Butterworths Tolley.
  • Note 1: Parliament Report on the powers of the Royal Prerogative ( Britannique

Template:Commonwealth Realms


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