The Royal Wedding and the Law: an Update!

The Royal Wedding and the Law: an Update!

Seven years ago when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka Prince William and Kate Middleton) tied the knot, we gave you an overview of the extra legal hurdles the royal couple were required to surmount beyond simply notifying the vicar or local register office.

There’s another royal wedding happening in just a few days, so we’re using this as an excuse to tell you about the new UK law that effected some changes after William and Kate’s big day, including a requirement that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had to follow in order for their wedding on Saturday to be lawful. The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 repealed the Royal Marriages Act 1772 doing away gender inequity, a religious requirement for royal spouses, and a cumbersome hurdle for very distant royal relations.

The first provision of the 2013 act was in the news just weeks ago: it instated absolute primogeniture rather than male-preference primogeniture in the United Kingdom. When William and Kate’s third child, Prince Louis, was born on April 23, his sister Princess Charlotte became the first British princess ever to retain her position in line to the throne and not be leapfrogged by a younger brother. She remains fourth in line to the throne after her grandfather Prince Charles, father Prince William, and elder brother Prince George.

In making this change, the UK joined Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, and Luxembourg in modernizing their monarchies. Fun side note: Belgium, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands all have one or more female heirs in direct line to their thrones! As we shared in 2011, the UK monarch is also the head of state in 15 Commonwealth realms (including Canada, New Zealand, and Jamaica). In order not to have different heads of state in these countries, during the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (aka CHOGM) held in Perth, Australia in October 2011, these nations agreed to update their laws to match, which they all did in 2015. Alas for any ambitions of Princess Anne–Queen Elizabeth II’s only daughter–the UK and Commonwealth laws were not retroactive and she remains in her place after younger brothers Princes Andrew and Edward.

The second provision of the Succession of the Crown Act 2013 removed the provision of the Act of Settlement 1701 that those in the line of succession who married Roman Catholics be disqualified from the line of succession. This provision was retroactive, and restored the Queen’s cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, and his children and grandchildren, to the line of succession starting in position number 46. Read about the history of why Catholic spouses were forbidden for heirs to the throne in our earlier post.

As for Harry and Meghan, the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 requires–as did the defunct Royal Marriages Act of 1772–that they seek permission from the Queen in order to marry. The big difference here is the number of other people the new act affects compared to the prior act. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 specified that:

No descendant of his late Majesty, [King George II] (other than the issue of princesses married, or who may marry into foreign families) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, &c.

This might have been reasonable at the time, but over 200 years later there are so many descendants of George II that even dedicated royal watchers won’t recognize some names of recent couples on the list of consents for marriages under the Act who had to seek the Queen’s permission in order to have a valid marriage.

The 2013 Act stipulates that “a person who (when the person marries) is one of the 6 persons next in the line of succession to the Crown must obtain the consent of Her Majesty before marrying.” Since Harry is currently 6th in line, his marriage is likely to be the last such instance of permission sought and granted for a good 20-30 years–presumably when his nephews or niece marry.

Hand-illuminated Instrument of Consent

Hand-illuminated Instrument of Consent

Harry and Meghan’s consent to marry was officially approved by his grandmother the Queen on March 14. They will also receive a hand-illuminated Instrument of Consent on vellum, suitable for framing, just as his brother and sister-in-law did. Although this aspect of the consent isn’t law-related, it’s both fun and strange as an American to see some of our symbols included on such a document in honor of Markle’s American and Californian heritage. The left side of the document contains traditional emblems of the realms of the United Kingdom, and Harry’s coronet. On the right is a leek–an emblem of Wales (as son of the Prince of Wales aka Prince Charles, Harry’s formal title until his grandmother gives him the job title upgrade to Duke on the wedding morning is Prince Henry of Wales)–surrounded by a heraldic-style rose (national flower of the United States since 1986), California’s golden poppies, and olive branches adapted from the Great Seal of the United States. Heraldry geeks may also note the labels on both sides featuring shells or “escallops” from the Spencer coat of arms, the family of Harry’s mother, Diana. Read more about the art and symbolism and get some closeups at ye olde royal website.

In addition to all the other things that will change in her life, there’s one more thing the formerly politically active American bride will have to get used to: not voting.  Watchers of Netflix’s The Crown may have picked up on the requirement that the Queen be politically neutral, including not voting. This is a requirement that comes from tradition rather than law, and the rest of her family are presumed to follow suit. Read more about the Queen’s role in government.

Happy royal wedding watching to everyone who will be up at 4am this Saturday!

About: Meg Kribble

Research Librarian & Outreach Coordinator at the HLS Library.
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