The media spotlight has once again fallen upon the heir to the British Throne, Prince William, and his long term girlfriend, Kate Middleton. The recent attention has been garnered due to the fact that betting shops (commonly referred to as bookies) in England and Wales are no longer taking bets on the year that Prince William will marry (although not for the first time). The betting shops have said that the odds are so certain the couple will marry in 2011 that they will no longer accept bets on this year. They have, however, kept the month in which the wedding may occur, as well as the destination for a honeymoon, open for bets.
There has actually been a surprising amount of law and discussion regarding the marriage of Royals over the years. The laws that apply to the marriage of members of the Royal Family are distinct to those that apply to ‘the rest of us’ who wish to get married in England and Wales.
One of the more significant pieces of legislation for descendants of King George II that may, in some instances, scupper their wishes to marry a certain individual is the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. This law was introduced by the U.S.’s last King (no, not Elvis), George III, who was the reigning Monarch at the time of the U.S.’s successful revolutionary war against England. The law was enacted as George III was reportedly displeased by the marriages of two of his brothers, which occurred in secret and to women he considered to be unsuitable (commoners).
As a side note, in an interesting parallel to one of the U.S.’s founding fathers – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.’s third President Thomas Jefferson – George III also amassed a large collection of books – over 60,000 titles. These were later given to the British Museum by his son King George IV, and are currently housed in the King’s Library at St. Pancras, London.
The Royal Marriages Act, despite being controversial at its inception, remains in force today and requires the consent of the Sovereign to be obtained prior to the marriage of descendants of King George II, unless the descendants are the children of Princesses who have married into a foreign family. The consent is made under seal and declared in council and entered into the official books of the Privy Council. The consequence of getting married without this consent is fairly harsh – section 1 provides that the marriage is considered to be “… null and void to all intents and purposes whatsoever.”
There is an ‘escape clause’ of sorts to the section requiring the consent of the monarch, which applies if a descendant of George II that is over the age of 25 wishes to enter into a marriage that the monarch has disapproved of. The descendant may marry after giving 12 months notice to the Privy Council, provided the House of Lords or House of Commons “expressly declare their disapprobation of such intended marriage.” So far, this clause has not been used.
One of the reasons behind the continued existence of this legislation is:
that the personality and personal life of the individual who is or may become head of state is a matter of profound public interest to the well-being of the government and the country. The head of state’s consort is inter-woven into this public interest in good governance, for he or she not only has considerable de facto official, ceremonial and diplomatic functions to perform, but normally will be the father or mother of the subsequent heir apparent.
In 2005 the government noted that there was a need to relook at the Royal Marriages Act, given that each generation expanded the scope of the application of the Act. However, it considered that the issue was not urgent and that any review would likely be part of a larger constitutional assessment given that:
as a country without a written constitution, we depend, more than most, on symbolism, on historical precedent and subtle linkages between Crown, Parliament and Church. None of those is unalterable, but we need to get out of our minds the idea that it is possible to make a few simple changes without the risk of triggering off a whole series of other changes which might be far from what we want.
As a result of these laws, Prince William will have to obtain his Grandmother’s consent before he can get married.