Equality at the palace gates: princesses to win the same rights as male heirs under new law

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Ministers are to consider scrapping the law which allows the eldest son of the British monarch to become king even if he has an older sister.

Ministers are to consider scrapping the law which allows the eldest son of the British monarch to become king even if he has an older sister.

Almost 30 years after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act, aimed to ensure equality between the sexes, an attempt is to be made to end the system of male primogeniture. Lord Dubs, a Labour peer and former minister, will today publish a Succession to the Crown Bill, which would also abolish the bar on the monarch or an heir to the throne marrying a Catholic and scrap the 1772 Royal Marriages Act, which requires the heir to get the monarch's permission before marrying.

Buckingham Palace is believed to be sympathetic to the abolition of male primogeniture. If the law is changed, it would mean that Prince William's eldest child, whether a girl or boy, would succeed him.

Although Tony Blair has avoided modernising the monarchy since coming to power in 1997, one senior Labour source said: "We have more urgent priorities before the election. But this is an issue we will have to address afterwards. There is a growing consensus that this is an outdated rule and should go."

Lord Dubs, whose Bill will be debated on 14 January, told The Independent: "If Parliament is unwilling and the monarchy is unable to discuss the issue, then royal reform risks becoming the Bermuda Triangle of the British constitution. The monarchy itself will increasingly suffer from this politics of 'benign neglect'. A majority of Britons support the monarchy but regard these highly anachronistic features as unacceptable." His measure is based on recommendations last year from a commission on the monarchy set up by the Fabian Society, on whose executive he sits. But it does not include the commission's call to end the requirement for the king or queen to be a Protestant.

To keep up pressure on the Government, MPs will table a Commons motion backing the Bill, which was given a first reading in the Lords yesterday.

Lord Dubs said: "The idea that a female first-born heir should be passed over in favour of a younger brother is surely offensive to the vast majority of Britons, following the great social revolution in the position of women in recent decades."

The Labour peer said the ban on the monarch or heir marrying a Catholic was an outdated piece of religious bigotry. "At present, Prince William could live with a Catholic girlfriend without forfeiting the right to be king, but the moment they were married he would be instantly disqualified. Indeed, while the heir is barred from marrying a Catholic, it is surely absurd that the spouse could later convert to Catholicism without this being a problem," he said.

The last attempt at gender equality in the succession was made in 1998 when Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, the former deputy Tory chairman, brought in a Bill. The Government said there was "no real reason" to oppose equality but wanted to bring in its own legislation. Lord Archer then withdrew his measure but the Government has taken no action since.



Stephen and Matilda

Raised by his uncle, Henry I, Stephen of Blois pledged to support Henry's daughter Matilda as successor to the throne but then usurped her when Henry died in 1135 and nobles balked at the idea of a female ruler.

His actionscaused civil warbetween the rival camps. In 1138, Matilda's half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, took up arms on her behalf. She invaded England in 1139.

"Maud" captured Stephen in 1141, but eventually he was released and went on to gain the upper hand. She fled in 1148 but he had little control over the warring nobles, hoping only to secure the succession for his son, Eustace.

Matilda's son Henry, invaded in 1153 to claim his inheritance. Eustace died early, and Henry succeeded Stephen. The affair resonated 400 years later, with Henry VIII's demand for a son - resulting in the divorce and beheading of wives who did not bear male heirs - rather than allow the crown to pass to his eldest child, Mary.


Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I

Edward VI became king aged nine on Henry VIII's death in 1547 - the throne passing over his sisters Mary, top right, and Elizabeth, below. Edward's uncle, the Duke of Somerset, wielded power as protector but was executed in 1549 and succeeded by the Duke of Northumberland. In 1553, Edward showed signs of TB and by May it was clear he would die. His rightful successor was Mary, but Northumberland devised a new order of succession passing instead to Lady Jane Grey, his daughter-in-law. She was queen for nine days before Mary entered London. "Bloody Mary", who burnt Protestants at the stake, died in 1558. Elizabeth, who was imprisoned by Mary, succeeded and went on to defeat the Spanish Armada sent by Philip II, Mary's husband, re-establishing the Protestant faith.


The Princess Royal (Empress Frederick) and Edward VII

Despite being born a year before her brother Edward, Princess Victoria, eldest child of Queen Victoria, never went on to rule her country. When their mother died in 1901, the risqué Edward - famous for his indulgence in drink, gambling and women - became Edward VII. He proved remarkably popular as a monarch and his European connections paved the way for the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904. The throne passed down his line of the family - to his son George V - when he died after a series of heart attacks in 1910. The 17-year-old Victoria had been free to marry Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, and gave birth to Wilhelm, later Wilhelm II, the last German Kaiser, and arch-enemy of Britain during the First World War.