Prince Harry might’ve had to do a little Googling before proposing to his fiancée Meghan Markle in November 2017. Harry is now sixth in line for the throne—behind his father, brother, nephew, niece, and brand-new baby nephew —which means he’s just barely under the jurisdiction of the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, which requires the first six persons in line for succession to obtain the approval of the sovereign to marry.
And so Queen Elizabeth II, Harry’s paternal grandmother, gave her consent this past March. “My Lords,” she wrote in an official statement to the Privy Council, “I declare my Consent to a Contract of Matrimony between My Most Dearly Beloved Grandson Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales and Rachel Meghan Markle, which consent I am causing to be signified under the Great Seal and to be entered in the Books of the Privy Council.”
The queen’s awkward use of caps aside, the whole process—pronouncements and great seals and official consent—may seem absurdly outdated to people outside the United Kingdom, as if the British Royal Family is stubbornly dragging along its archaic traditions, refusing to get with the times. But the Succession to the Crown Act marked a dramatic shift in the tradition of British royal marriages, which had been codified by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772—and remained virtually unchanged for 243 years until it was repealed in 2015. Although the spectre of politics still casts a shadow over Harry and Meghan’s nuptials, the British monarchy has come a long way since the days when royal marriages were political alliances first, and love matches only if you were lucky.
No marriage without consent
Sir Henry Singleton’s The Marriage of the Duke and Dutchess of York, painted in 1791 and on view at Mia in gallery G324, is a great illustration of the changes brought on by the Royal Marriages Act, then newly enacted. The act prescribed conditions under which members of the British Royal Family could contract a valid marriage, and it was intended to safeguard against marriages that could diminish the status of the royal house. The act stated that no descendant of George II, male or female, other than those descended from princesses who married into foreign families, could marry without consent of the reigning sovereign. It was proposed by King George III, who might’ve been more than a little bitter at the time: two of his brothers had married commoners in alliances that George considered unsuitable, as he felt he’d been forced to marry purely out of dynastic necessity rather than personal preference.
Singleton’s painting shows the marriage of Prince Frederick (Duke of York and the second son of George III) to Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia (the daughter of King Frederick William II), and what we are seeing is actually a direct consequence of the passing of the Royal Marriages Act nineteen years prior. Although the Duke and Duchess had been given consent to marry by Frederick’s father, the sovereign, the Great Seal wasn’t obtained in time for their nuptials in September 1791 in Berlin, so the marriage had to be re-performed in London two months later so as not to throw the legality of the marriage into doubt.
Although sources suggest that the Duke of York had indeed fallen for the Princess when he met her in Berlin, there is no doubt that an amicable marriage between the royal lines of Britain and Prussia was also politically useful and certain dynastic demands were made in advance of the marriage—the King of Prussia stipulated that no children from their union should assert any claim upon the throne of Prussia.
Loosening the reins
All European monarchies have some sort of law in place requiring prior approval for royal marriages, but the fact that Britain’s Royal Marriages act was unmodified for its entire 243 year existence had some unwieldy and unintended consequences. Its sphere of control grew quite wide as the branches of the royal family also grew, meaning even distant relatives of the monarch had to obtain permission to marry.
The Succession to the Crown Act not only loosened the reins by stipulating that only the first six persons in line for the throne still needed the sovereign’s consent, it also cleaned up a few other outdated and messy provisions that had been complicating British royal marriages for a while. Most importantly, the act replaced male-preference primogeniture with absolute primogeniture. In other words, now the eldest child—regardless of sex—would precede his or her siblings in line to the throne, a move that puts William and Kate’s middle child Charlotte ahead of her infant brother Louis, for instance. It also ended the historical disqualification of a person who married a Catholic from the line of succession.
Ms. Markle certainly ticks a few boxes that have scandalized royal marriages in the past—she is, after all, a divorced American of distant fourteenth century royal descent. But much has now changed. Although the rules regarding marrying into the royal family are less stringent and public sentiment is overwhelmingly positive, Harry and Meghan will share one thing in common with the Duke and Duchess of York’s complicated nuptials in the late 1700s: it will be quite the public occasion. In fact according to William Hone’s 1841 calendar of popular amusements, the Duke and Duchess’s first reception included a flambeau dance with torches carried by ministers of state, in case the newlyweds need a clever idea for entertaining and slightly terrifying guests.
Photo illustration: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle by Alexi Lubomirski/Kensington Palace; detail of Sir Henry Singleton’s 1791 painting The Marriage of the Duke and Duchess of York.