The Windsors - and where madness lies

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The Independent Online

The late Robert Blake was a good historian, a fine biographer and a nice man. He was also one of that odd collection who are wheeled out before the television cameras from time to time, when the Royal Family has suffered some embarrassment or other. They are billed as "constitutional experts". Though he was a political historian, not a lawyer, he was more desrving of the label than the rest of this strange band. He was, after all, an adviser to the Palace.

The late Robert Blake was a good historian, a fine biographer and a nice man. He was also one of that odd collection who are wheeled out before the television cameras from time to time, when the Royal Family has suffered some embarrassment or other. They are billed as "constitutional experts". Though he was a political historian, not a lawyer, he was more desrving of the label than the rest of this strange band. He was, after all, an adviser to the Palace.

Who, if anyone, has succeeded him, and whether - like mice - there are more than one of them lurking on the premises, I do not know. Perhaps they will be called into conclave after the election, if it produces an inconvenient result. Who can tell?

At all events, Lord Blake had an infallible formula whenever he was asked about the latest disaster to befall the House of Windsor. He would reply that, while the events in question were no doubt unfortunate, and a cause of sadness to all right-thinking persons, they possessed no constitutional implications of any kind.

For about 15 years now, the politicians have gratefully adopted the same answer. This was what Mr John Major did when he announced the separation of Charles and Diana to the House of Commons. He went on to add that there was no legal reason why she should not go on to become Queen in due course. If Mr Major had intended to convey reassurance, he was mistaken. There was a collective intake of breath, as if there were degrees of nonsense which even the House was not prepared to swallow.

When the couple later divorced, the potential for constitutional disturbance increased, though the politicians were not prepared to admit it. They followed, as they still do, Sir Robert Walpole's maxim: "Let sleeping dogs lie." Or, as a greater authority put it: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

The politicians have adopted the same attitude towards the proposed marriage of Prince Charles and Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles, and what the consequences of that union will be. They have been content to wish the happy couple the best of British luck, with the implied proviso that no damage is to be done to the sacred memory of the Blessed Diana. They have taken this line because they think, rightly or wrongly, that this is what a tolerant, well-meaning and, above all, sentimental public wants; and, in any case, there is an election coming up. None of our business, guv: this - is it not? - is more or less the attitude of the politicians.

Accordingly they have allowed the Prince's party to come up with all manner of fancy titles and pronouncements about the future course of events which are really for ministers to decide - and which are already unravelling, with the change of venue (an old sportswriter's word) from Windsor Castle to Windsor Guildhall. We are always being told on these occasions that the Palace has received the very best legal advice available. Well, the advice given here failed to spot that if the Castle was used as a register office, the same facility would have to be offered to HM's loyal subjects for three whole years. Perhaps the Queen missed a trick by not making it so available.

It seems to me obvious that the woman who marries the Prince of Wales becomes Princess of Wales and not Duchess of Cornwall (though she can have that title too if she fancies it). And the woman who marries or is already married to the King becomes Queen, not the Princess Consort, which, as someone said, sounds like a car from the 1950s.

This, however, assumes that the marriage is valid for Royal purposes. There are two Acts, one of 1834 and the other of 1949, which deal with civil marriage and lay down that the Royal Family is outside their scope. The later statute does not seem to me to cancel the earlier one.

There is another, more fundamental difficulty. If a register-office marriage is invalid, as it may be, the couple cannot instead be married in church - not, at any rate, in the Anglican Church. This is not because Charles treated the Blessed Diana badly; she was none too kindly towards him. Nor is it because they divorced. With Diana's death, Charles was not married to anyone. He was a free man. He is free to marry anybody except Lady Sarah McCorquodale, who as his deceased wife's sister comes incomprehensibly within the Prayer Book's Table of Consanguinity. This has been abolished in law, but the original version is still, presumably, taken seriously by some Anglicans.

No, the trouble lies with Mrs Parker Bowles. It is not so much that she has been divorced from Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles as that he is alive and well. In the eyes of the church, Camilla is still married to the Brigadier. If he were unfortunate enough to be living in Tudor times, he would no doubt be executed on some trumped-up charge of treason, so leaving the field clear, even though he is an affable cove.

He is also a Roman Catholic, while his former wife is not. And yet, if she is still his wife, she breaches the 18th-century statute which says not only that no member of the Royal Family can be a Roman Catholic but that no member of the family can be married to one either. In recent years there has been talk of changing the law but, as far as I know, nothing has been done. This way madness lies, for if Mrs Parker Bowles is still married to Mr Parker Bowles, the Prince of Wales is contemplating bigamy; which, as Euclid used to say, is absurd.

In his position, I would avail myself of the services of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It was what his sister Anne did when she married Rear Admiral (as he now is) Timothy Laurence in 1992, even though her first husband was alive, as he still is. It seems to have a more liberal attitude in these matters. There must be lots of wee kirks in the heather around Balmoral. The Church of Scotland is of course the established church there, just as the Churchof England is - unless there is disestablishment.

Recent happenings have brought that outcome nearer. The Coronation will certainly be an awkward event for all concerned. Legally, it is not necessary. Edward VIII was never crowned but was none the less King. Elizabeth II succeeded in 1952 but was not crowned until 1953. Charles will succeed, whether as Charles III or as George VII, at the moment of his mother's death - unless something is done first to change the succession. But a coronation of himself alone, leaving Camilla out in the cold, would look mean-spirited in the extreme. It is now up to the Prime Minister to sort these things out before it is too late.

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