This week in history marks the anniversary of Edward VIII’s abdication of the English throne in favor of marrying the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson, which took place in 1936. Edward had met Simpson in 1931 and they became an item by 1934. This relationship caused a great scandal because Simpson was already married to Ernest Aldrich Simpson…her second husband. She was an American, she had already been divorced once, and was now planning to divorce again to marry Prince Edward. This was unacceptable at the time for a future royal, let alone the future queen. Society was very different then and divorce was not approved by the Church of England of which the monarchy is still the head of (thanks to Henry VIII…who ironically gained a divorce!). Since Edward was the eldest son of George V; he was subject to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.
In 1772, George III created this act as a reaction to his brothers both marrying “commoners” which was some kind of disgrace to the crown (though maybe it was just because George III was jealous that he could not have married for choice). This act states that any descendant of George II could not marry without the currently reigning sovereigns consent. This consent had to be documented and any marriages that did not have this consent were considered null and void. But, if the royal person was over the age of 25 and still had not received the consent of the ruler, they would be able to give a one year notice to the privy council and marry how they wished unless both houses of Parliament refused.
Well, this backfired a bit on George himself. His many sons were a reckless group, almost having no interest in the monarchy itself. Due partly to this act, none of his sons got married until they were over 40 years old. They found it better to have a long term mistress instead. For example, George’s eldest son (also named George) secretly married Marie Fitzherbert a Catholic widow. A Catholic as part of the royal family was just unthinkable in England (just ask the Stuarts!) and extremely disgraceful.There was actually a law preventing any Catholic to ascending to the English throne. The two seemed to have loved each other, but George IV was forced to give her up to marry Charlotte of Brunswick (who he despised). George IV was under 25 years of age and his father George III would never have given his consent for his heir to marry a Catholic. An unhappy marriage persisted, but there is evidence George IV did not quite leave his first “wife” behind. His belongings were left to his “real and true Wife” in his 1796 will and supposedly asked to be buried with Fitzherbert’s miniature around his neck.
With all the brothers opting out of marriage, a succession crisis had emerged as Princess Charlotte (daughter, and only child, of George IV and Charlotte of Brunswick) was the sole legitimate heir to the throne. She died at age 21 in childbirth along with the child. There was no one left so the remaining sons of George III (all over 40) were in a mad rush to finally have a marriage and produce an heir. Which, only the Duke of Kent won by leaving his long term mistress, Thérèse-Bernardine Montgenet, (after 28 years together) and marrying Victoria, Princess of Leiningen. This marriage ended up producing the famous Queen Victoria.
But how did this affect Edward in 1936? He was over 25 years old wasn’t he? Well, another stipulation was that Parliament could deny the marriage. Wallis Simpson’s background was unacceptable to them and the royal family. As she was twice divorced, the Church of England would never recognize the marriage since they did not recognize divorce (especially when the ex-spouse was still alive). It was often rumored that Simpson was sexually promiscuous and was only after Edward for his status/money. I would not be able to tell you if any of these rumors were true, but this is how the government and those in the monarchy were thinking at the time. Yet, I believe Simpson proved them wrong as she stayed with Edward even after his abdication of royal life. This was how he obtained an exemption to the Royal Marriage Act of 1772. By abdicating he gave up his claim to the throne and it would prevent any children of an undesirable marriage to be part of the succession. This was all documented in His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act of 1936.
If you have been watching Netflix’s The Crown (I have been binge watching the latest season), you would know another more recent couple that had been affected by the Royal Marriage Act: Princess Margaret (daughter of George VI) and Peter Townsend. Townsend and Margaret had started a relationship and he had proposed to her in 1953. Unfortunately, Townsend had been divorced in 1952 causing a difficult choice to be made by Queen Elizabeth II. Being the head of the Church of England (a church that still did not recognize divorce) she could not approve the marriage. She could not be seen to the public approving of this practice. Margaret was asked to wait until she was 25 when she could make her own choice to marry (as long as Parliament did not object). Unfortunately, Parliament did object and by the time Margaret was 25 she was told that in order to marry this man she would have to give up all her royal privilege and place in the succession (just as her uncle Edward had to before her). She ended up choosing the crown and duty over Townsend.
Yet, in 2013 the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 was overturned and replaced by the Succession to the Crown Act. Now only the first six in the line of succession need the monarchs permission to marry. The act also made other important changes such as: gender is not a deciding factor to the succession of the throne any longer and one is not disqualified from the succession due to marrying a Catholic. I find this very interesting. It is even more exciting now that Prince Harry is engaged to Meghan Markle who is an American and has been divorced before, yet the crown and the church of England has not objected which shows the progress that has been made in society since Edward and his niece Margaret.
To me the traditions and rules of the monarchy have always been interesting and it is even better seeing the progress that has been made in recent years. I can only imagine the reaction of George III if he saw the world now.
What do you believe brought about the changes in the way the monarchy views divorce?
I encourage you all to read more about the sons of George III as they are so crazy and would do anything to annoy their father.
And I apologize for my delay in posting as my weekend was very busy leaving little time to research and write. I hope you are all having a great holiday season!
Text of Royal Marriage Act: http://www.heraldica.org/faqs/rma1772.html