Happy Friday, Friends. Today happens to be the 36th birthday of Prince Harry’s girlfriend, Meghan Markle. It also happens to be the date once put forth on which the Palace would announce their engagement. So far, all quiet on the [central London] front, so let’s agree to move on, shall we? The idea of their marriage is an interesting one, even putting aside for a moment their actual relationship. Weighing this match purely in terms of its hypothetical historical significance is worth considering because it underlines so many weird nuances to how the British monarchy has evolved and where it’s seemingly headed.
Harry is currently fifth in line to the throne, putting him squarely within the arena of royals who are required to receive the monarch’s approval in order to wed. The rule is a holdover from the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, put in place by George III after two of his brothers married women considered unsuitable by the House of Hanover. In the autumn of 1771 Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland married an English widow (aka a commoner) named Anne Horton. She was widely perceived to be an “opportunist” who took advantage of the Prince’s feelings to secure the stable position of wife – in reality, she was also one of the famed beauties of her age and it’s more likely that Henry genuinely fell in love with her. The next year George III learned that his other brother, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, had secretly married another commoner, Maria Walpole, the bastard granddaughter of Robert Walpole, six years before. What helped bring the union to light was Maria’s pregnancy with the couple’s first child, Princess Sophia of Gloucester.
George had always been a bit touchy about marriage. In 1761 he married a German princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was plain, meek and wholly suitable. They created an existence of domestic bliss, but such a state is not actually very royal at all. They embraced what can only be described as a sort of middle class idyll – idling at their country homes, paying attention to their children and generally perpetuating the idea that the Royal Family should be seen as a moral barometer for social mores. George was neither his grandfather nor his great-grandfather, and certainly not a Stuart – he was a loyal husband, an attentive father and he took seriously his role as king (to varying degrees of utility).
Put another way, George married and lived as he “ought,” and he found at least some sense of security from it. His brothers, with less responsibility, entered into liaisons that undermined their good names, his reputation and called into question the stability of the House of Hanover. And so we had the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 that dictated no descendent of George II could marry without the reigning monarch’s consent, with the caveat that if a marriage was refused the family member had to reach the age of 25 and notify Council if they wished to go forward with the union anyway.
The idea was that the law would ensure members of the Royal Family weren’t making unsuitable marriages. Did it work? Of course not, but here’s how Meghan Markle ties in: Meghan is an American-born, divorced actress (who also happened to be educated at Catholic schools). She is, in other words, the definition of every quality from which a British prince would have once been deterred. Even so, for all that this relationship may have raised some eyebrows and driven some stupid headlines, there really isn’t a serious question of whether or not Harry will be “allowed” to marry her. If he ever goes to his grandmother and asks for permission, it’s almost entirely certain it will be granted.
And that’s rather incredible – less because of the relationship or woman in question, and more as firm evidence of how far the RF has come in the last century. In 1955 Princess Margaret was forced to give up the love of her life because he was divorced. In 1936, Edward VIII had to abdicate the throne in order to marry the woman he loved because she was a twice-divorced American. More recently, it’s generally accepted that part of why the late Princess of Wales was given such a glowing endorsement as a potential bride was her presumed virginity, a sharp contrast to most eligible single women in the 1970s and 1980s.
While Prince William’s 2011 marriage to Kate Middleton was viewed as remarkable in its own way – her commoner status as compared to Diana’s title and the fact they lived together before marriage, it was hardly shocking. She mixed in the same circles as William. They attended the same University. They had been dating for nearly decade by the time an engagement was announced. Meghan, on the other hand, is a completely different ballgame. No one would have put Harry and Megan together, if for no other reason than sheer proximity (she’s based in Toronto).
Personally what I find so fascinating about this relationship is how at first blush it seems so incongruous and then once you stare at it for a bit…it’s a perfect pairing.
But even if it wasn’t, it’s unlikely that the Queen would deter them. The simple fact is, what the British Royal Family has truly learned over the years is that it’s best to not stand in the way of relationships. That in this day and age, putting duty before the heart has a way of making the professional untenable. I don’t think that’s a lesson the Queen herself had to learn – for God’s sake, she didn’t have any easy time getting her marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh approved back in the 1940s (a foreign prince of German ancestry in, post-war Britain? No, thank you.). I do think this is a lesson that the royal court has had to learn, however, and it’s an important one.
In today’s media environment and given the fact the RF are essentially treated like a special brand of celebrity, particularly the younger set, it would be impossible to hide an unhappy marriage the way they used to be able to. Those unions need to be airtight and the best way to ensure that they are is to let them be those of choice.
So the Prince of Wales is married to the Duchess of Cornwall. Foreign alliances are no longer procured via marriage. One’s first cousin is not a viable option. Kate was a commoner. And marrying a divorced person isn’t a scandal.
In October 2011, six months after William and Kate married, the Perth Agreement addressed a number of succession rules and traditions, including those dictated by the 1772 Royal Marriages Act. For some Commonwealth countries this meant at complete eradication of the policy; for Britain it meant the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, policies far more sweeping than just undoing what George III had done.
Most notably, it did away with male primogeniture in favor of absolute primogeniture, which means that the firstborn child stands to inherit all, not the firstborn son. Secondly, it meant that marriage to a Roman Catholic no longer disqualified someone from the line of succession. And finally, it removed the requirement for all descendants of George II (pretty big crew at this point) to receive the permission of the monarch to marry, whittling that number down to the first six.
For context, had Princess Charlotte been born before Prince George, she would then be William’s heir despite a younger brother. If William and Kate have a third child, regardless of its gender, he or she will come after Charlotte in the line succession. In fact, because George was born a boy, it wasn’t until Charlotte’s birth in 2015 that the new rules really went into place.
At that point, Charlotte made it so that Princess Beatrice no longer requires the Queen’s permission to marry. Prince Michael of Kent, who had married a Catholic 37 years before, was allowed back in the line of succession, coming in at a solid 47. And the Princess Royal does not move up in the line since the rule is not retroactive.
A complicating factor here, however, is that should, for example, George marry a Catholic and raise his children as such, they could still be considered ineligible to take the throne because they would be considered unfit to serve as Head of the Church of England. That tricky little rule has yet to be reformed.
And why does all of this matter? Well, you’re going to hear a fair bit more about these rules should Harry and Meghan announce an engagement because a generation ago this marriage probably couldn’t have gone forward. I mentioned yesterday that the couple were planning on spending Meghan’s birthday here in London, but today The Sun broke the story that the two are off to Africa for a safari. You know, the same continent where William proposed…