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Royal women to get equal rights to throne

A thousand years of tradition will end after the 16 Commonwealth countries where the Queen is the head of state – including Canada – agreed Friday to change the succession rules and give female members of the Royal Family the same rights to the throne as men.

The unanimous decision, made at the Commonwealth summit in Perth, Australia, also lifts the statutes that barred the throne to Royal Family members who had married Catholics.

"The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic – this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become," British Prime Minister David Cameron said.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the changes "reasonable modernizations that will help the Crown to remain an institution that reflects the values of Canadians."

But what if the male primogeniture rule hadn't been in place? How would history have been changed? Queen Victoria would have been succeeded by a second Queen Victoria, rather than by Edward VII. And there would have been no George III, the Mad King who lost America, because he had an older sister.

Going further back in time, Henry VIII wouldn't have reigned and the Church of England might not have existed.

Most of the current debate about the changes have focused on the end of the male primogeniture rule because of the prospect that the first child of Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, could be a girl.

The English have practised male primogeniture since the Norman Conquest of 1066, University of Victoria historian Mariel Grant said.

She said that ending the ban on marrying Catholics connects to even more profound, divisive moments in British history, between 1688 and 1704, when ultimately, the German-speaking Protestant House of Hanover was favoured over the Catholic members of the House of Stuart.

"There's more than 1,000 people who should be the queen or king of England right now, who have been ruled out because they're Catholic. They basically took the entire Catholic Stuart line out of the succession," Dr. Grant said.

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The third king from the House of Hanover, George III, was a colourful, controversial monarch, decried both at home and in the colonies. Under his reign, the empire lost the American colonies and he was criticized as a tyrant in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. His illnesses late in life made him known as the Mad King.

He wouldn't have been king, but for the male primogeniture rule, because he had an elder sister, Augusta.

Similarly, under the proposed rule change, when Queen Victoria died in January of 1901, she would have been succeeded by her daughter, Victoria Adelaide, rather than her second child and eldest son, the future Edward VII.

The second Queen Victoria lived less than seven months longer than her mother. However, she had married the Crown Prince of Prussia and was the mother of Wilhelm II, the German kaiser during the First World War.

Would the Great War have happened anyway with Wilhelm II as the sovereign of both Germany and Britain?

Dr. Grant said it is unlikely Wilhelm would have reigned over both countries, with a sibling likely getting one of the two crowns.

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Sovereign must still be Anglican

When Autumn Kelly married Peter Phillips, the son of the Queen's only daughter, Princess Anne, in 2008, the Canadian bride, who was raised a Roman Catholic, converted to Protestantism.

That way, her husband, who is 11th in line to the throne, did not lose his claim to succession.

This will no longer be an issue with the proposed change to the statute that says that royals cannot accede to the throne if they have married a Catholic.

However, religious restrictions haven't fully disappeared. The throne remains closed to Catholics, ever since the last Catholic king, James II, was toppled by the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

People who "profess the popish religion or … marry a papist," are excluded from the throne, says the 1701 Act of Settlement.

In announcing the changes to the rules of succession, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the sovereign still has to be a member of the Anglican Church.

"Let me be clear, the monarch must be in communion with the Church of England because he or she is the head of that church," Mr. Cameron said Friday.

"But it is simply wrong that they should be denied the chance to marry a Catholic if they wish to do so. After all, they are already quite free to marry someone of any other faith."

Ironically, Henry VIII, who broke with Rome and initiated the Church of England, wouldn't have been a monarch under the proposed rule changes because he had an older sister, Margaret.

- Tu Thanh Ha

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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