Legally Speaking

ZOOMING IN ON ALL MATTERS SUCCESSION

Will Britain Change its Succession Laws?

Will Britain Change its Succession Laws?

You may think society has progressed in the last thousand years, but if Britain’s succession laws are anything to go by, not much has changed. Indeed it’s 2022, yet the inheritance of aristocratic titles and estates still excludes daughters. Jane Austen, never short on witty social commentary, famously wrote, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Pride and Prejudice, written in the late seventeen hundreds was a deep dive into the archaic laws that governed the British aristocracy, and yet to date, the same rules remain.


The Downtown Abbey Law 

Known colloquially as ‘The Downtown Abbey Law’, for the television program’s storyline of three sisters passed over in the line of succession, Primogeniture is still in place. Introduced by the Normans in 1066, the law decreed land pass to the eldest son. Who would believe, however, that a bid to cement the power of Norman Barons over one thousand years ago would still hold today?

Call For Change

Although Primogeniture laws only affect a niche and privileged section of British society, they symbolise an archaic set of values. How much longer can we accept laws that discriminate based on gender, you may ask? Recently, aristocrats have been breaking rank.

Speaking with The Evening Standard, Lord Monson suggested the laws were cruel. After losing his only son in tragic circumstances and with a sole daughter remaining, almost 600 years of succession will end when he and his brother die. He is one of the many voices speaking out against the discriminatory law. When asked why other aristocrats disagreed, ‘It’s not easy. However, to make omelettes you have to break eggs,’ he said.

Lady Kitty Spencer, Earl Spencer’s eldest child and not entitled to her father’s estate, has also spoken out. ‘Primogeniture can be a tricky topic because as times are changing, attitudes are as well,’ she told Town and Country Magazine.

 

Who Gets the Crown?

The hallmark of British aristocracy may be tradition, but even traditions change. Recently, Queen Elizabeth made a change that many didn’t see coming. The Succession to the Crown Act, passed in 2013, abolishes the law that decrees a male inherits the throne. Indeed, if the Queen makes an exception for her own family, women of the British aristocracy should be allowed the same.

The hallmark of British aristocracy may be tradition, but even traditions change.


Progress in Parliament 

In 2019, change seemed imminent. Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, introduced the Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill to Parliament. However, at the last moment, it failed to pass.

Still, a vocal minority continues to voice their dissent. In March, 2020, The Earl of Shrewsbury spoke out. ‘Maybe the Government, with their appetite for diversity and equality, should take the lead and support a private member’s bill. Indeed, should the minister indicate her support for this initiative, I will move the matter forward to try to secure a question for short debate in order to gauge the opinion of the House before moving forward,’ he said.

 

What Would Jane Do?

Jane Austen – long-held as English literature’s first feminist, saw male inheritance as an old fashioned concept. What if someone told her that almost 250 years later, the same laws would still be in place? If this line from Pride and Prejudice is anything to go by, I have a feeling she would have encouraged us to press on. ‘There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.’

Surely, following The Succession to the Crown Act, the Queen invites the aristocracy to follow suit. After one thousand years, perhaps it’s finally time for a change. 




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