Could Kate and William’s New Baby Be a Future King or Queen?

Yahoo! Contributor
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It seems that William and Kate came home from their whirlwind tour of the South Pacific in September with more than just suntans. With the news that the Duchess of Cambridge is less than 12 weeks pregnant, it's possible that the idyllic Solomon Islands or the balmy beaches of Tuvalu worked their tropical magic on the royal couple.

Queen Elizabeth II sent the duke and duchess to the sun-drenched island nations as part of her Diamond Jubilee world tour. The islands were once part of the British Empire and are now members of the Commonwealth of former British lands. Now that Kate has announced her pregnancy to the world, and especially since she is suffering from acute morning sickness, trips to such exotic locales are probably not in the cards anytime soon.

The arrival of a royal baby will have a significant impact on the British monarchy. He or she will automatically become third in line for the throne, after Prince William and his father, Prince Charles. Although Prince Harry, William's younger brother, will get bumped down a place in the line of succession, he is reportedly delighted with the news, as are the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles.

When the child eventually ascends to the throne, probably sometime in the second half of this century, he or she will become head of a monarchy that oversees the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) as well as its remaining far-flung territories. The British monarch is also the official head of the British armed forces, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and the "fount of justice" in legal cases.

A new ruler for the Solomon Islands

Fittingly, the new monarch will also become the King or Queen of the Solomon Islands, all 992 of them. This is because the tiny country, like 14 other Commonwealth states (including Canada), is a constitutional monarchy with the British sovereign as the titular head of state.

The U.K.'s Prime Minister, David Cameron, tweeted that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge "will make wonderful parents," while his political rival, Labour leader Ed Miliband, chimed in: "A royal baby is something the whole nation will celebrate."

Throughout British history, the arrival of a royal baby has not always been met with such universal approval. Warring politicians, disgruntled relatives and foreign invasions have reshaped the monarchy on many occasions.

Ladies first?

Back in the mists of time, there were no fixed rules about who would be the next ruler of England. Early monarchs could be nominated by reigning sovereigns, inherit the title, be elected or even seize the crown by force. Those who might try to take the throne were sometimes imprisoned in the Tower of London to reduce the threat. Male primogeniture (allowing only male children to become king) became common after Matilda, daughter of Henry I, attempted to take the throne the 12th century.

During the 16th century, Parliament set the rules for succession, often at the wish of the monarch. Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I were both ruled to be illegitimate at some points in their lives before being returned to the line of succession. In 1701, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were joined in the Acts of Settlement.

Under the laws enacted over the centuries, only a male child born to William and Kate would have an automatic pathway to the throne. The law also forbids anyone who becomes a Catholic (or even marries one) from inheriting the throne. That rule continues to exclude royals from the line of succession, mostly recently Lord Downpatrick in 2003.

At a meeting last year, Commonwealth countries agreed to finally change their laws, guaranteeing female children the same rights as male heirs. These are changes that are long overdue for a monarchy that, for all its traditions, is now keen to embrace the 21st century.

But the drama is not over quite yet. If the laws are not rewritten before the Duke and Duchess's child is born, there is the remote possibility of constitutional confusion if she turns out to be a girl or marries a Catholic. Happily, whatever the baby's gender, a trip to the Tower of London these days will mean nothing more sinister than a peek at his or her very own Crown Jewels.

by Mark Harris