The Proposed Changes to the Royal Marriages Act

When the BBC filmed the documentary A Year with the Queen or The Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work chronicling the activities of the royal family over the course of 2007, the filmakers captured a moment of the monarch fulfilling her responsibilities under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. The Queen received a request from her distant cousin, Amelia Beaumont, for permission to marry Simon Murray. The Queen granted her assent in writing, ensuring that their marriage would be legal in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed that this royal permission only be necessary for the first six people in the line of succession, as part of a broader reform of royal succession and marriage law in this year’s session of parliament.

The Earl of Athlone (seated right) with the Allied leaders at the Quebec Conferences.

Amelia Beaumont is the great-great granddaughter of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, Queen Victoria’s fourth and youngest son. Her great-grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Athlone served as the Vice-Regal couple in Canada during the Second World War, presiding over the 1943 and 1944 Quebec Conferences where Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King of Canada planned the Allied strategies for victory over Germany and Japan. Beaumont’s grandmother, Lady May Abel Smith (nee Cambridge) was a bridesmaid to the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Despite this illustrious lineage, it is highly unlikely that Amelia Beaumont will ever succeed to the throne. A list of the descendants of Sophia of Hanover compiled on January 1, 2011 estimated that Beaumont was 432nd in the line of succession at that time, below the King of Norway (a descendant of King Edward VII), and senior members of the exiled Russian Imperial Family and exiled Romanian and Yugoslavian royal families (descendants of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh).

Portrait of King George II by Thomas Hudson, painted in 1744. The Royal Marriages Act applies to all his descendants regardless of their place in the line of succession.

Despite Beaumont’s remote claim the throne, her marriage to Murray would not be legal without the sovereign’s express permission. According to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, “No descendant of the body of his late Majesty King George the Second, male or female, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry into foreign families,) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs or successors, signified under the great seal, and declared in council (which consent, to preserve the memory thereof, is hereby directed to be set out in the licence and register of marriage, and to be entered in the books of the Privy Council); and that every marriage, or matrimonial contract, of any such descendant, without such consent first had and obtained, shall be null and void to all intents and purposes whatsoever.” An exception was granted to members of the royal family over the age of twenty-five who could marry the person of their choice after giving a year’s notice to the Privy Council, provided both Houses of Parliament did not express disapproval.

Maria Fitzherbert, who illegally married the future King George IV in 1785. Although the ceremony was considered valid according to Roman Catholic canonical law, it was illegal under the Royal Marriages Act because King George III had not granted permission.

The Royal Marriages Act reflected both the eighteenth century perception of suitable royal matches and King George III’s attempts to exert control over his fractious extended family. Royalty of the period were expected to marry other royalty. George III had dutifully given up hope of marrying his first love, Lady Sarah Lennox, sister of the Duke of Richmond for a dynastic marriage to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Lennox served as one of the ten bridesmaids at the royal wedding.

King George proposed the Act in 1771 when his two surviving brothers contracted marriages to commoners. The legislation affected generations of royal couples, most notably the future King George IV, whose first wedding  to a Roman Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, took place in 1785 without King George III’s consent and was therefore not legally valid. (George IV went on to have a spectacularly unhappy legal marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick.) While the Act was originally drafted to control the actions of King George III’s siblings and children, its provisions now apply to hundreds of people.

In his recent work, Our Queen, Robert Hardman researched how the Royal Marriages Act is currently received by the sovereign’s distant relatives. He writes, “Most couples with a royal ancestor are, of course, thrilled, to get their union personally blessed by the Monarch but the Privy Council Office is aware of some exceptions. They need not fear a knock on the door from the royal wedding police, however. ‘We don’t go looking for them,’ says one of the team. ‘We take a pragmatic view. It’s a case of don’t ask, don’t tell (157).” This interview indicates that the Royal Marriages Act is no longer being enforced for more remote cousins of the royal family.

Prime Minister Cameron’s proposal that only the first six people in the line of succession should require the sovereign’s consent to marry reflects the current circumstances of the monarchy. George III’s concerns about the narrow suitability of royal marriage partners appears antiquated in the twenty-first century, when the Duchess of Cornwall is a divorcee, the Duchess of Cambridge comes from a middle class family, and both their weddings took place with the Queen’s permission. The changes to the Royal Marriages Act will deny thousands of people a souvenir of their royal ancestry but reflect the reality of the present day monarchy.

3 thoughts on “The Proposed Changes to the Royal Marriages Act

  1. I find it interesting that there are different cut-off points for the succession versus marriage authorization.

    • King George I’s only sibling was his sister, who married a Prussian Prince. The Royal Marriages Act sought to regulate the marriages of royalty who lived and/or owned property within Great Britain.

  2. I think both George I’s and George II’s sisters married Prussian princes.

    The limitation of the application of revised royal marriage legislation to the first six in line of succession could be awkward. What happens if somebody moves up in the order – for example the daughters of the Duke of York could find themselves in and out of the six quite frequently. Presumably if either were married when not in the six, the marriage would still be valid if they moved ‘up’.

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