Royal Wedding: Pomp, Circumstance, and Law

Royal Wedding: Pomp, Circumstance, and Law

The carriages are polished, the cakes baked, and the trees are in the Abbey (really!)…if you plan to celebrate your Anglo-American legal heritage by putting on your tiara at 4am tomorrow morning, it may be of interest that Prince William and Catherine Middleton have more legal requirements involved in their getting hitched than the average British couple.

For one thing, things could have been interesting had Kate been Catholic instead of Church of England in her religious affiliation. (And just to make things clear, the bride of the future Defender of the Faith was belatedly confirmed in the C of E earlier this month.) Following the Glorious Revolution and subsequent fighting between the Catholic and Protestant factions of James II and his daughter Mary II and her husband William of Orange, the Act of Settlement of 1701 was enacted due to a shaky line of succession. Mary and William were childless and the last legal heir wasn’t looking so healthy either. Seeking stability, parliament decreed that the line should carry on through the now obscure Sophia, Electress of Hanover and her Protestant heirs. Roman Catholics and heirs who married them were explicitly removed from the line of succession. The most recent senior member of the family to lose his place for marrying a Catholic is Prince Michael of Kent, a cousin of the Queen. He still got to keep the title and his wife nevertheless became a princess. All the royal privilege and no worry about becoming the main attraction? Not such a bad deal if you ask this commoner. The anti-Catholic provision was most recently in the limelight in 2007 when the Queen’s eldest grandchild Peter Phillips became engaged to Autumn Kelly, who was raised Catholic. She converted before the wedding and he remains 11th in line to the throne.

Aside: Sophia of Hanover was a granddaughter of King James I (or VI to our Scottish friends) who died before she could inherit the throne; her son became George I. Now you know when those jokes about the British royal family being German began.

Another law affecting William and Kate is the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which requires descendants of George II to seek the consent of the monarch to marry. Less complicated in its history, this law was passed because our friend George III didn’t approve of the marriage of his brother to a commoner. After the law was passed, he would discover that another brother had secretly married an illegitimate commoner. Oh, the horror!

Instrument of Consent

Won't this look smashing hanging in the royal den?

William received his grandmother’s permission to marry “Our Trusty and Well-beloved Catherine Elizabeth Middleton” in February. A quick glance at consents to marriages of other close relations of the Queen reveal that the compliments bestowed on Middleton as the incoming spouse are unique. Well done, Trusty Kate! Such consents are published in the London Gazette, but William and Kate also received a decorative Instrument of Consent suitable for framing.

Finally, there was chatter in January about amending the law to affect children born to the happy couple so that a first born daughter would not lose her place in succession to a younger brother, per traditional male primogeniture rules specified by the Act of Settlement. I know, let them get married first, right? However, the Act is the law of the land in 14 commonwealth countries in addition to the UK, so any changes must be approved by all of them, or else we might face the bizarre–or not, depending on one’s point of view–prospect of Canada and Australia having different heads of state. Any change could thus take years, but there is good precedent in Europe for abolishing the preference for male heirs: Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have all done it. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden lost her place in succession when her brother was born, but was re-made heir apparent by law when she was three years old. Princess Elisabeth of Belgium, Princess Catharina-Amalia of the Netherlands, and Princess Ingrid Alexandra of Norway are each second in line to their respective thrones after their fathers and will eventually become queens regardless of whether they have any younger brothers. You go, girls! Yes, except for Victoria they are all literally girls–the oldest of the other three princesses will be ten later this year.

The new Succession to the Crown Bill is available to read and track on the UK Parliament website; it will be read a second time in the House of Commons and debated in mid-May. For legislation geeks, there are some links on the page to read more about how a bill becomes a law in the UK. For more fun while reading it, imagine Schoolhouse Rock’s Bill with a posh accent.

Addendum: not to put a damper on the celebrations, but last week In Custodia Legis, the Law Library of Congress blog, explored the potential legal aspects of William and Kate Plus a Pre-nup?

About: Meg Kribble

Research Librarian & Outreach Coordinator.