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The Act of Settlement: Religious & Governmental Assurances

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  • 0:02 A Monarchy Problem
  • 1:29 Assuring Succession
  • 2:35 Guarantees for Parliament
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will discuss the 1701 Act of Settlement, which established the Protestant succession of the British throne and offered Parliament some important guarantees.

A Monarchy Problem

The year is 1701. You are a member of the British Parliament - a peer in the House of Lords, to be exact. You are also a loyal subject of the current monarch, King William III, and his late wife, Queen Mary II. In fact, you had cheered alongside many other Lords when the two monarchs assumed the throne in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution that had deposed Mary's father, James II.

You shudder as you remember James II. He was abominable as far as you are concerned. A Catholic king in a Protestant country like England! And one who was willing to put his Catholic friends in high places at that! The horror of it! 'Good riddance to him,' you think with a satisfied smile.

Then your smile fades as you recall the current situation. William is dying, and he has no heirs to assume the throne after him. Mary's sister, Anne, still lives, and she will become queen when William passes on, but she, too, has no heirs. Her only surviving son died just last year, and she is highly unlikely to have more children.

Who, then, will become the British monarch when Anne dies? You hardly even want to think about it. The Catholic descendants of James II, that deposed Catholic king, are waiting in France, biding their time, ready to jump in and retake the throne. It's too awful to even think about! You and your fellow members of Parliament need to do something quickly!

Assuring Succession

After some long, sleepless nights and much discussion and debate, you and the other members of Parliament have come up with a solution to your vexing monarchy problem. King William signed the Act of Settlement into law on June 12, 1701. The Act bans any Catholic or any person with a Catholic spouse from assuming the British throne. All British monarchs, now and in the future, must be members of the Church of England.

This means that when King William and Queen Anne die, the descendants of that deposed Catholic king will not be able to retake the throne. Instead, the crown will go to the Protestant Sophia, Electress of the German state of Hanover, and her descendants. Sophia, you recall, is the granddaughter of a previous king, James I, and, therefore, has a legitimate claim to the throne.

You have to admit, however, that you have some reservations about the British throne eventually ending up in the hands of a German, but it seems preferable to the alternative. The new Act secures Protestant succession and keeps the Catholics firmly out of power.

Guarantees for Parliament

You also feel rather self-satisfied about the Act's guarantees for your beloved Parliament. Back in 1689 when William became king, he had agreed to a Bill of Rights, which limits his royal powers and makes him a constitutional monarch. As such, he must rule in conjunction with Parliament, and he needs Parliament's permission to do things like establish courts.

The Bill also protects Parliament's right to free speech, and since its passage, Parliament has become a powerful governing body. The king simply has to cooperate with you and your fellow parliamentarians. You like this level of authority, and you don't want to lose it. The new Act further strengthens Parliament's position:

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