British Royals can be Catholic — but if they convert or marry one, they will lose their place in the succession. The roots of this seeming oddity lie with King Henry VIII, who was famously excommunicated after he divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, when she couldn’t give him a son. Interestingly, Henry VIII was the first Defender of the Faith. While this was a title granted by the Pope when Henry slammed the Lutheran religion in 1521, the monarch bears that title to this day.
As Catherine hit 40 and had only given birth to one daughter, Mary, Henry wanted to divorce her so he could get a son on another wife. However, Catherine was his elder brother’s widow, and a previous Pope had granted special dispensation for the marriage. The current Pope was not about to overturn that decision.
Henry turned to the politicians and pressured Parliament to pass a series of acts that threatened the Catholic leadership’s powers and funds. In 1532, Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage “invalid” and Anne Boleyn, already pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth I, married Henry. The Pope turned around and excommunicated Henry, who responded by founding the Church of England (Anglicana Ecclesia) and establishing him as its head.
Henry VIII broke up the monasteries, passed two Acts saying that his daughters were illegitimate — these were unstable times and he felt the country needed a king. Also, in 1542 he established the Kingdom of Ireland and made himself its King.
His son by Jane Seymour, Edward VI, removed Catholic practices from the Church of England and turned the church into a Protestant establishment — under him, services had to be given in English, not Latin, clergy were no longer required to be celibate, and the Mass was abolished. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote the Book of Common Prayer which is still in use today.
Here’s what happened next:
- Edward VI named Lady Jane Grey, his cousin, as heir, because she was a Protestant.
- Mary, Henry VIII’s eldest child, fought the decision and won. Lady Jane Grey was executed as a traitor.
- Queen Mary I was crowned, made England Catholic again, and burned 300 dissenters at the stake to earn herself the title Bloody Mary.
- When Mary I died five years later, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s second daughter (to Anne Boleyn) took over and turned England, Ireland and Wales back to Protestantism.
- Elizabeth I never married, and her reign was long and strong enough to firmly establish the Church of England. She named James the VI of Scotland, the son of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, her successor, thus unifying the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Elizabeth I was the last true Queen of England and had that title through her entire reign.
- Charles I, James’ heir successor, tried to overthrow Parliament and establish himself as a supreme monarch. Unsurprisingly, he was executed for treason.
- Charles II, Charles I’s son, succeeded, but at that time Oliver Cromwell had essentially turned the country into a Puritan republic. When Cromwell was overthrown, he got his throne back but died without an heir.
- His brother, James II of England and James VII of Scotland succeeded. This James was the last Catholic king, but the uprising of 1688 forced him out of the country, at which point Parliament deemed him to have abdicated. They passed the 1689 Bill of Rights to back that up in law and set up the rules of future succession.
- While there were many Catholics closer to the throne, the kingdom was tired of Catholics and invited James’ I/VI’s nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, to became king instead. William III of England, William II of Scotland, married James II’s daughter, Mary, who ruled jointly with him as Mary II. An aside: James II’s son, James, lay claim to the throne but never won it back and his son was the “Bonnie Prince Charlie” unsuccessfully whose Jacobite revolution was destroyed at Culloden.
- The 1701 Act of Settlement was passed. Among its stipulations was that that anyone who married a Catholic or was Catholic could not be in the line of succession.
- Princess Anne, Mary’s sister, succeeded but died without heirs. During her reign, the 1707 Acts of Union united England, Scotland and Wales into one Kingdom of Great Britain; Ireland remained a separate kingdom. Queen Anne was therefore, technically, the last Queen of England, though Queen Elizabeth I was the last one to have been the Queen only of England through her whole reign.
- George I of Hanover succeeded. He as James I/James VI’s great-grandson.
- In 1800, the Act of Union incorporated Ireland into the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That Act also strengthened the 1701 Act of Settlement.
- In 1920, the Government of Ireland Act effectively partitioned Ireland into Northern Ireland, which eventually became part of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and “southern Ireland” which, in 1949, became the independent Republic of Ireland.
From this it will be clear why there has been such bitterness and a long-standing rift between the Catholic Church and the Church of England, not to mention between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
There have been many centuries of bitterness between the Catholic and Anglican churches. The Pope’s official visit to the United Kingdom in 2010 was widely hailed as a “healing,” but the law against Catholics in the succession remains. Autumn Phillips, nee Kelly, the Canadian wife of Peter Phillips, converted from Catholicism so that Peter wouldn’t lose his place in the succession. Others, such as Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s cousin, just went ahead and married Catholics, losing their place.
- British Monarchy official website
- Chronicle of the Royal Family; Derrik Mercer (ed.); 1993
- Years of history classes