Why Being Catholic Is a Bigger Issue for Royal Marriages Than Being Divorced

How royal protocol from centuries ago could impact Harry and his new love

It may be early days in their relationship, but Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have focused attention on the protocol behind royal marriages.

Should things continue to get serious, though, Markle’s divorce has been raised as a possible impediment. (Markle’s marriage to producer Trevor Engelson ended in 2013; they were officially divorced the following year.)

It’s not.

Harry’s father Prince Charles was himself divorced from Princess Diana before marrying Camilla in 2005. She too had been divorced—showing that the royals’ view of marriage and divorce had evolved with the times.

But it wasn’t always that way. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, Queen Elizabeth took years to signal that she approved of her son’s new union. When they finally wed, it was in a civil ceremony rather than a church. Still, the Queen and the extended family were witnesses to the blessing that followed in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.

In the 1950s, Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret chose to give up her relationship with divorced Capt. Peter Townsend. She said in a sad statement at the time, “Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others.”

Since 2015, the rules have been eased so that only the first six in line to the throne have to ask the Queen for permission to marry. (Harry is fifth.)

Interestingly, it was only last year that the rules also changed to permit a senior member of the royal family to wed a Catholic. (Markle went to the private Immaculate Heart Convent school in LA.)

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The law came into force in 2015 following Prince George’s birth when the on the implications swirled should Princess Kate have had a girl. The system of primogeniture, whereby a second-born son would have precedence over a first-born girl in the same family, was ruled out. So if Prince William and Kate were to have a third child, or second son, he would not precede their daughter Charlotte in the pecking order.

But, under the law, should the children of an heir be raised Catholic, they would not be able to inherit the throne. That’s because the monarch is also Head of the Church of England, a Protestant Anglican church established by the royals’ 16th-century forebear Henry VIII. (The last Catholic monarch was Mary Tudor, who was posthumously deemed “Bloody Mary” for her executions of Protestants.)

Insiders believe it is likely to be a moot point, as Charles has signaled that he will be a defender of faiths rather than Defender of the Faith (Anglican Protestantism) to the exclusion of all else—meaning his heirs, from Prince William and George downward, would not be inclined to favor one church over another.

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