The Regency Acts are Acts of the British Parliament passed at various points in time, to provide a regent if the British monarch were to be incapacited or in minority (under the age of 18). Prior to 1937, Regency Acts were only passed in necessity. In 1937, a specific Regency Act provided the scope for a regent in law, and also established the post of Counsellor of State, who would act on the monarch's behalf when temporarily absent from the realm.
The only Regency Act to be enacted was the Regency Act of 1811 which allowed, HRH Prince George, Prince of Wales to act as regent whilst his father, King George III was incapacited. George rules as the Prince Regent until his father's death, and he ascended the throne as King George IV.
Prior to 1937, there was no provision in British law for the provision of a regent to be appointed in the event of the current British monarch being incapacitated or absent from the country. Neither was there the provision for a regent to rule on behalf of the heir to the throne succeeding the throne as a minor. As Parliament did not gain the power to determine the Order of succession to the British throne until the Glorious Revolution, it was up to the sovereign to decide who would be regent in any event.
The passing of the Bill of Rights 1689, by the English Parliament confirmed in law that parliament, not the sovereign, decided the order of succession. The Act of Settlement 1701 saw the English parliament pass the line of succession to Electress Sophia of Hanover, confirmed by the Act of Union 1707 for Great Britain. With its new power over the sovereign finally confirming the notion of Parliamentary supremacy in British law, it was now possible for the parliament to pass Regency Acts to determine who would act as regent under the absence, incapacity or minority of the ruling sovereign. Subsequently several Regency Acts have been passed.
Regency Act 1728
The first Regency Act passed by the British Parliament was in 1728. The Act specified that HM Queen Caroline would act as regent in the absence of her husband King George II. The Act was necessary because George II was also Elector of Hanover and was returning to his homeland for a visit.
Regency Act 1751
In 1751, HRH Prince Frederick, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King George II and heir apparent died. This left his eldest son, HRH Prince George of Wales the heir apparent. However George was only 12 at the time of his father's death. In the event of the King dying before George reached 18, the throne would be passing to a minor.
Resultantly, Parliament made a provision for a regent by passing the Regency Act 1751. This Act provided that George's mother, HRH Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales would act as regent. The act also specified that a Council of Regency be put in place to rule alongside Princess Augusta. The Council of Regency was in place to act as a brake on the regent's power, as some acts of the royal prerogative, such as the signing of war or peace treaties, would require a majority vote of the council.
Regency Act 1765
In 1760, King George III ascended the throne, with his brother the Duke of York as heir presumptive. However, the new King soon married and had several children. By 1765, the King had three infant children in the order of succession. Parliament again passed a Regency Act to provide for a regent in the event of the King's death.
The Regency Act 1765 provided that either the King's wife HM Queen Charlotte or his mother, HRH Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales would act as regent. This act also required the formation of a Council of Regency.
Regency Bill 1789
The Regency Bill of 1789 was a proposed Act of Parliament to provide that King George III's eldest son HRH Prince George, Prince of Wales would act as regent due to the King's incapacity through mental illness. With no legislation already in place, there was no legal basis for providing a regent, and the King was in no fit state to give Royal Assent to the act. Parliament decided to have the Lord Chancellor approve the bill by fixing the Great Seal of the Realm to give Royal Assent. However, the King recovered in time before the bill could be passed.
The King's continuing mental problems throughout the rest of his life, confirmed the need for a suitable Regency Act to be in place. However, the King was hostile to the passing of such an act while he was of sound mind.
Regency Act 1811
In late 1810, King George III was once again overcome by mental illness, following the death of his youngest daughter, HRH Princess Amelia. Parliament agreed to follow the precedent of 1788; without the King's consent, the Lord Chancellor affixed the Great Seal of the Realm to letters patent naming Lords Commissioners. The Lords Commissioners, in the name of the King, signified the granting of the Royal Assent to a bill which became the Regency Act 1811. Parliament restricted some of the powers of the Prince Regent (as the Prince of Wales became known). The constraints expired one year after the passage of the Act.
The importance of this Regency Act was that it did not require a Council of Regency, as required by previous legislation. One reason for this was that the Prince Regent was heir to the throne in any case, and would assume full powers upon his father's death.
Regency Act 1831
By 1831, the throne had passed to George III's third eldest son, King William IV. However William IV had no legitimate children, and given the age of his wife, Queen Adelaide, would unlikely to have any in the future. The heiress presumptive to the throne was his niece, Princess Victoria of Kent, who was only twelve.
As Victoria's father was dead, and Parliament mistrusted the younger sons of George III, the Act placed any potential regency caused by the King's death before Victoria had reached 18, in her mother, HRH The Duchess of Kent.
Lord Justices Act 1837
In 1837, HRH Princess Victoria of Kent succeeded her uncle to become Queen Victoria. She became monarch aged 18, and as still unmarried and without children, had no heir. The next in line of succession, was her uncle, King Ernst August of Hanover, who succeeded King William IV in Hanover as Salic Law prevented Victoria becoming Queen of Hanover. Thus Ernst August departed England to take up his role in Hanover. This meant that until the Queen married and had legitimate children, the heir to the throne and his children would reside abroad. Although they would almost certainly return to the UK in the event of Victoria dying without a heir, it would take some weeks for this to happen in 19th century transport.
To provide for the continuation of government in such an instance, Parliament passed the Lord Justices Act 1837. This Act did not provide for a specific regent to be appointed, as it would be expected for the new monarch to arrive in the country within a reasonable time. Thus the Act only provided for Lord Justices, made up of such people as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice to take up some of the monarch's duties. Unlike the powers granted to prospective regents in previous legislation, the powers of the Lords Justice were more limited, and they could not dissolve Parliament or create peerages for example.
Regency Act 1840
By 1840, Queen Victoria had married her cousin, HSH Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and had one child, HRH Princess Victoria, Princess Royal. It was expected that the Queen would have many other children, however they would be in minority for at least the next 18 years, and Parliament again would have to provide for a regent in the event of Victoria's death. The previous Lord Justices Act 1837 would not apply to the Queen's children, as they resided in the UK. Parliament therefore passed the Regency Act 1840 which provided for the Queen's consort, Prince Albert to rule as regent until the eldest child reached the age of 18. The Act did not require a Regency Council to operate alongside Prince Albert, potentially giving him more power than other proposed regents. The Act was fairly controversial at the time, as the people of the UK were suspicious of Prince Albert, and he was generally unpopular in Parliament.
Regency Act 1910
By 1910, Queen Victoria's grandson, King George V was monarch. However his children were all under the age of 18. Therefore Parliament passed a new Regency Act in 1910, that named the King's consort, HM Queen Mary as regent. No regency council was provided for, the same as the previous Regency Act of 1840.
Regency Act 1937
By 1937, King George V's son, King George VI was monarch, and his eldest daughter HRH The Princess Elizabeth was the heiress presumptive. However Princess Elizabeth was under the age of 18, and thus could not succeed the throne in her own right, leading for the need for a new Regency Act.
However, rather than pass a specific Regency Act relating to the succession of George VI only, Parliament passed the Regency Act 1937, which provided for the events by which a Regent would rule in the event of the monarch's incapacity or minority to be applied for all future monarchs. It also repelled the Lord Justices Act 1837, and provided a new office, Counsellor of State to be appointed during the monarch's absence abroad, or temporary illness.
The Act required that the regent should be:
- The next person in the line of succession
- Should be over the age of 21
- Be a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom
- Be capable of succeeding the crown under the terms of the Act of Settlement 1701
Counsellors of State were to be:
- The consort of the monarch
- Then the next four people in the line of succession, over the age of 21.
Thus at the time of the Act, HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester would have been appointed regent in the event of HRH The Princess Elizabeth succeeding the throne on the death of her father. The current prospective regent would be HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales.
Regency Act 1953
In 1952, King George VI died and his daughter, HRH The Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh succeeded the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. With her eldest son and heir apparent, HRH Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall under the age of 18, the Regency Act 1937 would provide for the next person over the age of 21 in the line of succession, HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester to act as regent. However, Parliament instead decided to pass a new Regency Act, which would provide for the Queen's husband, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh to be Regent. This was despite the fact that a Regent would be provided for in any case under the 1937 Act.
The new Act also removed the anomaly that a person aged 18 could become monarch in their own right, but could not act as a regent.
The Act also allowed, the Queen's mother, HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother to become a Counsellor of State.
Currently, under the provisions of the Regency Act 1937, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales would act as regent in the event of the incapacity of HM The Queen. The next three individuals in the line of succession would be eligible to succeed or be regents in their own right. The first person under the age of 18 is HRH Princess Beatrice of York. If she were to succeed the throne whilst still under the age of 18, her uncle, HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex would be regent under the 1937 Act. Of course, Parliament ultimately decides the regent, and may choose to pass a new regency act in this case to make HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh or HRH Princess Anne, Princess Royal regent in place of Edward.