This year, Prince Harry, the sixth in line to the British throne, married divorced woman Meghan Markle, which seems unremarkable unless you consider how the royal family had viewed divorce up until only a few decades ago.
Not so very long ago, this wedding — with this service, and this officiant, at this place — would have been impossible.
Not because Markle is an American and a commoner, marrying a prince now sixth in line for the throne. And not because the actress is biracial, was raised Episcopalian and attended Catholic school in Los Angeles.
No, such a service would have been opposed by the Church of England hierarchy because Markle is divorced and her former husband, Hollywood producer Trevor Engelson, is still alive.
Divorce is a modern revolution amongst the royals. In fact, there was a massive crisis in 1936 when King Edward VII decided to abdicate the throne because the crown refused to grant him permission to marry American commoner, Wallis Simpson. Simpson had been divorced twice before. There would be no Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex without the abdication scandal.
In fact, when Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret wanted to marry divorced military man Peter Townsend, parliament refused to grant their permission. The princess went on to marry Antony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer. When their marriage ended 18 years later in 1978, it was the first divorce for a senior member of the royal family since 1901.
The Washington Post writes that the marriage between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is a historic moment for a bedrock British institution. Church and crown, at various points, have resisted its arrival. But the House of Windsor has also generated a century’s worth of headlines — and teachable moments — about adultery, separation, divorce and remarriage. Embarrassing as their scandals have been, the royal family’s lapses have mirrored those in greater British society, and some say helped the church leadership to modernize.
Queen Elizabeth II is not only the sovereign but also the “supreme governor” of an official state religion, the Church of England. At Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, church officials draped her in the Imperial Robe and placed in her hand the Sovereign’s Orb, brought to her from the altar at Westminster Abbey, a cross above a globe that represents, according to the Crown Chronicles, “‘Christ’s dominion over the world,’ as the Monarch is God’s representative on Earth.”
The Church of England was very much opposed to divorce from the medieval age to the 19th century. In 1953, not wanting to be seen as condoning divorce, she withheld her approval of the hoped-for union between her sister, Princess Margaret, and the divorced Capt. Peter Townsend. Elizabeth later worked out a deal whereby Margaret could relinquish her place in the line of succession to the throne, thus avoiding the need for the queen to sign off. The Church of England would not officiate — Margaret would marry at a government register’s office in London. In the end, Margaret let Townsend go.
It wasn’t just divorce encapsulated in the Church of England doctrine; remarriage of divorced people was also covered. Until 2002, the church would not recognize the marriage of any divorced person whose ex-spouse was still living. And thanks to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, the sitting monarch had to approve the marriage of any descendant of George II, and if they didn’t, both houses of Parliament had to do it instead. This law gave monarchs massive control over their families’ love lives, and it came into play when royals tried to marry divorced people.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the Church of England’s conservative governing body, a synod composed of clerics, bishops and laity, accepted — after three failed attempts dating back to the 1960s — that divorce is a sad reality of the modern age and allowed its priests to offer second and even third “further marriages” in “exceptional cases” to divorced members whose former spouses were alive.
Since 2002, the Church of England has allowed the remarriage of divorced persons in certain special circumstances. In the case of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the church won’t be making a fuss—the officiant, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, says the couple has gone through the appropriate steps and that he’s excited to officiate.
The “exceptional” is now routine.
Britain’s divorce rates are about the same as in Europe and the United States. The Office of National Statistics says 4 in 10 marriages in England and Wales end in divorce, although the rate is down from its peak in 1992.
These rates reflect a similar rate of divorce in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.