The coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023 was a public celebration of his succession to the throne but it also symbolised the demise of the crown to the next in line according to the constitutional principle that the office of king is in perpetuity.
It is the person of the monarch that dies or abdicates; the king never dies. He may become defunct if his kingdom is abolished but that’s a story for another day. On the death of a monarch the automatic transfer of sovereign authority to his or her successor is what the coronation symbolises. For reasons of decorum the coronation takes place sometime after the death of the previous monarch. It is more theatrical than constitutional but as Oscar Wilde would say, in matters of great importance style is vital.
Just like there is no gap in the law, there is no gap in the succession of sovereign power. According to British constitutional history the crown is not only the source of political power it is also the fountain of justice administered by the king’s courts of law and equity.
The law relating to the succession of the throne is based on custom buttressed by statute law contained in the Statute of Westminster Act 1931; His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936 and the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.
The preamble to the Statute of Westminster 1931 sets out the central importance of the crown to the British Commonwealth of Nations whereby any change in the law relating to the succession of the British crown requires the assent of the parliaments of members of the Commonwealth – after decolonisation, the states that retained the British monarch as head of state.
The importance of the 1931 Act is that Britain granted legislative independence to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State and undertook not to legislate for them. It was the model that was followed when Britain relinquished most of its colonies after World War II, some of which retained allegiance to the British crown and some became republics.
In 2022 Barbados became a republic and it looks as though most West Indian states will follow suit. Prince Charles attended the Barbadian republican celebrations, which goes to show that for him being and not being King is a matter to be celebrated in either event.
Australia held a referendum in 1999 whether to become a republic but decided against despite strong republican sentiment, whereas Canada and New Zealand are firmly royalist. Unsurprisingly, Ireland became a republic in 1949 as did South Africa in 1961.
His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936 was by far the most controversial law affecting succession ever passed. It was done to reinforce King Edward VIII’s abdication declaration. The act embodies a number of constitutional principles in its wake. Under its opening provision His Majesty “shall cease to be King and there shall be a demise of the Crown and that accordingly the member of the Royal Family then next in line to the Throne shall succeed thereto and to all the rights, privileges and dignities thereto belonging.”
That short passage forms the legal basis on which Charles and Camilla were crowned king and queen: the next in line was his maternal grandfather George VI who was succeeded by his mother Elizabeth II from whom the crown passed to Charles and his rights, privileges and dignities include the crowning of his wife as queen.
For those not familiar with the Edward and Mrs Simpson story what happened was that on the death of King George V in January 1936, Edward became king and his coronation was due to take place in May 1937.
But Edward was madly in love with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, and was determined to marry her against the wishes of the British establishment including prime minister Stanley Baldwin who thought that as head of the Church of England the king should not marry a divorcee.
At the time the demise of the crown was thought only to occur when the monarch died but some clever lawyer opined that the demise of the crown also occurred by abdication, and Baldwin advised the king that he had to choose between marrying the woman he loved and kinging – he chose to renounce kinging.
It is not certain that the choice was as stark as it was presented to Edward. Winston Churchill thought he could marry Wallis Simpson and remain king, but his view did not carry much weight in his wilderness years to sway the British establishment.
Fast forward to 2005 when history repeated itself as farce – thank you Karl Marx – because Charles, then Prince of Wales, faced a similar problem on account of his love affair with Camilla Shand. She was not only a divorcee but his paramour during his marriage to Diana Spencer 1981-1996.
Charles and Camilla were both divorced from their respective spouses in 1996 and Diana tragically died in a car accident in Paris in 1997. It all seemed hopeless for Charles and Camilla and the Royal Family, but as time passed society forgave and forgot and Camilla was rehabilitated and Charles married her in 2005. However, unlike Edward he did not have to renounce his entitlement to succeed to the crown.
Society had changed and the law reflected the new more tolerant zeitgeist. By the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 gender became irrelevant to the right of succession and a royal would no longer be precluded from succeeding to the crown or possessing it on account of marriage to a Roman Catholic.
As it turned out there was no need to make provision enabling the king to marry a divorcee because there was no such bar although the consent of the monarch to marriage by an heir to the throne was preserved.
British society also rid itself of the last taboo when it allowed same sex marriages in the same year. At times the relationship between Charles and Camilla seemed farcical, but all’s well that ends well because he could hardly be denied the crown for marrying a divorcee in a climate of such progressive tolerance.
Charles will be a model monarch. He is thoughtful and serious and cultured and musical. He recently made it known on TV that he loves the music of Hubert Parry for its Englishness. Excellent news for England football fans because it is within the royal prerogative power to change England’s national anthem in international football from God Save the King to Jerusalem. It is a great poem by William Blake and great inspiring music by Hubert Parry that may change England’s fortunes. But for its Englishness as a poem it would make an excellent national anthem for United Kingdom.
Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge