Why did King Edward VIII have to abdicate while Charles can become King while married to a divorcee? (And in Charles’s case, also being a divorcee himself!)
In January 1936, the Prince of Wales succeeded his father, King George V and not only became King but also Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time was Cosmo Lang, who vehemently disapproved of the King’s relationship with the (then still married) Wallis. Nevertheless, he did not discuss his disapproval with the King at first, but rather with other members of the royal family, such as Queen Mary and the Duke and Duchess of York. By October, Wallis had been granted her divorce nisi and now just needed to wait out the six-month waiting period for her divorce to become final. The King was set on marrying her and making her Queen.
Technically, the King was free to marry whomever he wanted. However, it would be unconstitutional for the King to marry against the advice of his ministers. It wasn’t until early November 1936 that the King finally told his adviser Walter Monckton that he intended to marry Wallis once her divorce had become final. Monckton was not surprised but told the King to keep his intentions private for now. However, the King did not intend to do that, and soon the Prime Minister and other senior members of the government were discussing the situation. In no uncertain terms, they advised for Wallis to leave the country immediately. Wallis herself was exasperated. She said, “They do not understand that if I did so, the King would come after me regardless of anything. They would then get their scandal in a far worse form than they are getting it now.”1
There were just two legal statutes to consider. The Act of Settlement regulated the passage of the Crown to the House of Hanover, and it stipulated that potential heirs and successors could only marry a Roman Catholic if they gave up their dynastic rights. The Royal Marriages Acts decreed that all members of the royal family were required to obtain the sovereign’s consent before contracting a marriage. As King, he was obliged to follow the Act of Settlement, but he was exempt from the Royal Marriages Act. There was also no law against marrying a divorcee.
From a religious standpoint, there were more serious issues. The Church of England was strongly opposed to Anglican ministers performing marriages that involved parties who still had a former spouse living. The Archbishop considered the King to be a corrupting, morally questionable influence, and he feared having to anoint him in the coronation ceremony. This would signify the church’s blessing of a man who was openly living with his divorced mistress, whom he intended to marry. He wrote, “The thought of my having to consecrate him as King weighed on me as a heavy burden.2
Prime Minister Baldwin also did not approve. He later recalled, “That marriage would have involved the lady becoming Queen. I did tell His Majesty that I might be a remnant of the old Victorians but that my worst enemy would not say of me that I did not know what the reaction of the English people would be to any particular course of action… I pointed out to him that the position of the King’s wife was different from the position of the wife of any other citizen of the country. His wife becomes Queen; the Queen becomes the Queen of the country; and therefore, in the choice of a Queen, the voice of the people must be heard.”3 Most ironically, the Prime Minister suggested that it was perfectly acceptable if Wallis remained on as his mistress.
Although, at this point, the King had stated that he would be willing to go if he could not marry Wallis, he did float the idea of a morganatic marriage. This had no recent precedent in England and had a legal impediment. The Statute of Westminster, which had formally severed sovereign authority of Great Britain over its dominions, allotted the dominion heads and parliament the right of consultation and assent where any alterations of the succession to the throne were made, as well as any changes in royal titles or styles. Even a morganatic marriage would mean having to consult the dominions, and their approval was not in the least assured.4
In the end, the King choose Wallis, and he ended up abdicating on 10 December 1936.
Nearly 70 years later, there was a divorced Prince of Wales who wanted to marry his equally divorced girlfriend. Now well out of the Victorian age and will into a new Elizabethan age, the Prince of Wales was actually the second of the sovereign’s children to remarry after a divorce. His younger sister Anne, Princess Royal, had divorced Mark Phillips in 1992 and had remarried to Timothy Laurence that same year. She did so in the Church of Scotland, which permitted remarriage, and the sovereign does not hold a leadership position.
By the time of Prince Charles’s remarriage, the Church of England also allowed remarriage at the discretion of the member of the clergy conducting the ceremony. This was made possible in 2002.5 The Archbishop of Canterbury also issued a statement that said, “These arrangements have my strong support and are consistent with Church of England guidelines concerning remarriage which the Prince of Wales fully accepts as a committed Anglican and as prospective Supreme Governor of the Church of England.”6
On 2 March 2005, the Privy council met to give effect to the Queen’s consent to the marriage in accordance with the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which Prince Charles needed as he was not exempt like his great-uncle was. This second marriage also ticked the boxes of the Act of Settlement as Camilla was not a Catholic. On Saturday 9 April, the day had finally come. The civil ceremony7 was attended by senior members of the family, excluding the Queen and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Prince William, son of Prince Charles, and Tom Parker Bowles, son of Camilla, were the couple’s witnesses. Their wedding rings were made from Welsh gold.
With the support of the former sovereign, the family, the church of England, and the people, Prince Charles became King Charles III on 8 September 2022 as a divorcee with a Queen by his side, who is also a divorcee. It’s the 21st century, after all.
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.190-191
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.194
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.195
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.203
- MARRIAGE IN CHURCH AFTER DIVORCE
- Charles and Camilla – Archbishop’s statement
- “The Government are satisfied that it is lawful for the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Parker Bowles, like anyone else, to marry by a civil ceremony in accordance with part III of the Marriage Act 1949.”
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