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The Act of Settlement 1701 was introduced in the reign of William III, to provide for a stable executive branch to the British Government. The future Queen Anne was very sickly and had problems producing an heir. She had seventeen pregnancies, but none of her offspring survived childhood. She also had Roman Catholic relatives, who would assume the throne before the Protestant Hanoverian line by order of succession. She would not have been able to sit on the throne herself had the traditional order of succession not been changed by William and Mary.  Instead the throne would have passed to her nearest (and Catholic) male kin.  William and Mary ensured that the throne would pass to the monarch's nearest Protestant relative, and by a quirk of history Anne's heir was to be her German-born cousin George, Elector of Hanover. Uniquely in the history of the monarchy, the Crown was shared between William III and Mary II. 

The Act was a last attempt by Parliament to maintain the status quo, as there had been too much slaughter of one side or the other, ever since Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. Today, it is probably the only remaining piece of anti-Catholic legislation of any note on the British statute books. Almost all of Britain's anti-Catholic laws were repealed by the Relief Act of 1793, the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, and the Removal of Clergy Disqualification Act of 2001.

In Britain the sovereign is the Chief Executive of the constitutional monarchy that governs the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; 'constitutional monarchy' being the name given to the partnership between the Crown and Parliament, in which the Crown has executive authority and Parliament has legislative authority. This arrangement was settled on when the monarchy was restored after the interregnum.

The Act of Settlement has recently come under fire, because it ensures that only Protestant descendants can become 'Sovereign' of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Key Points:

  1. That all and every person and persons, who shall or may take or inherit the said Crown, by virtue of the limitation of this present act, and is, are or shall be reconciled to, or shall hold communion with, the See or Church of Rome, or shall profess the popish religion, or shall marry a papist, shall be subject to such incapacities. (This makes the succession of Catholics, the illegitimate, or those who are adopted illegal.)​

  2. That whosoever shall hereafter come to the possession of this Crown, shall join in communion with the Church of England, as by law established. (The sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must join in communion with the Church of England.)

  3. ... that every King and Queen of this Realm, who shall come to and succeed in the imperial Crown of this Kingdom, by virtue of this act, shall have the coronation oath administered to him, her or them, at their respective coronations, according to the act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of His Majesty. (The sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must promise to uphold Protestant succession.)

  4. ... this nation be not obliged to engage in any war for the defence of any dominions or territories which do not belong to the Crown of England, without the consent of Parliament. (The sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must not involve the country in wars to defend the territories of foreign monarchs.)

  5. ... judges commissions be made quamdiu se bene gesserint ([Latin: as long as he shall behave himself well] A clause found in grants of certain offices (as that of judge or recorder) to secure the office holders in their posts so long as they shall not be guilty of abusing them.)

  6. and their salaries ascertained and established. (The sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should appoint no judges and that judges should receive fixed salaries.)

  7. That no pardon under the Great Seal of England be pleadable to an impeachment by the Commons in Parliament. (Impeachment by the House of Commons is not subject to pardon under the Great Seal of England.)

It should be noted that many other nations of which the British sovereign is Head of State have similar laws, and that it may take legislation in up to fifteen independent Commonwealth countries to remove the restrictions imposed by this act from the British sovereign.


Not for the first time the Conservative Party let itself down when in 2000, with one honourable exception, the Parliamentary Party in the Scottish Parliament voted in support of a Liberal Democrat motion that called for the repeal of the Act of Settlement. The Edinburgh parties had no mandate for this vote nor were it their business, as the future of this Act of Parliament lies with the Westminster Parliament.

Fortunately, backbench Conservatives in the Westminster Parliament, in the Commons and the Lords, proved to be much more robust in defence of the Act of Settlement in a series of debates between 2001-05 (though Michael Howard was distinctly wobbly on this one - Adrian Hilton was forced to resign as PPC for Slough on account of articles he had written in the Spectator in defence of the 1701 Act some years before his candidature). Hand in hand with proposals to repeal the Act of Settlement, there have been proposals to undermine the Monarch and the institution in other ways such as Jonathan Sayeed’s proposal in January 2005 to retire the Monarch at age 75 and to abolish the presumption of male succession, as it was not compatible with our age of “equality”. Sir Patrick Cormack, a fellow Tory MP, told him he had not heard such balderdash spoken in the Commons for many years. There has not so far been any debate in Parliament in modern times on actually abolishing the Monarchy - yet. In the aftermath of the abdication crisis in 1936 a motion for a Republic secured only five votes in the Commons. One assumes that a similar motion today would secure much greater support.

In a recent statement on the Act of Settlement, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer of Thoroton said that while he regarded the Act of Settlement as discriminatory, its effect was limited. The Act does not prevent a member of the Royal Family from becoming or marrying Roman Catholics, but it removes them from the line of succession if they do. The Act also effectively excludes from the throne others whose religion prevents them from being in communion with the Church of England.

Nevertheless, agitation against the 1701 Act of Settlement continues. The Leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Alex Salmond, has joined those asking for a repeal of the Act of Succession. He raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, describing the Act as “clear institutional discrimination against millions of our fellow citizens.” Mr Blair dismissed any idea of repeal, and this was borne out by a spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs who said that there were no changes to the Act in the pipeline. The Government did not believe that changes were necessary.

Not long before Mr Salmond’s question, the Scottish Roman Catholic Primate Cardinal Keith O’Brien had raised the issue when he met political leaders at the House of Commons. Peter Kearney, Director of the Roman Catholic Church Scottish Media Office, described the Act as “unjust legislation”, and an editorial in the Roman weekly, ‘The Universe’, was headed “A repeal of the Act of Settlement is long overdue”. It said “However, the ongoing resistance reminds many that anti-Catholicism is not dead in this country… It is not okay for the Government to deal with colour prejudice but ignore religious hatred”. The Act “ remains blatant discrimination against different religious groups in this land”.

All this fails to take into account the historical reasons for the Act and the benefits it has ensured for this country. It is nonsense to speak about “anti-Catholicism”. How many Roman Catholics are disadvantaged by it? So long as the Sovereign is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England it would be as ridiculous to believe that a Roman Catholic could be Monarch as that a Protestant could be ruler of the Vatican City and Bishop of Rome.

Thanks to the late Bro. Allan Robertson who provided the above information

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