Hugo Vickers: Let the Prince marry, if he can face the consequences

Some address Mrs Parker Bowles as 'Ma'am', though no one yet curtsies, as far as I know
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It was always said that there would be no resolution of the Charles/Camilla situation during the lifetime of the Queen Mother. So it is little wonder that her death has produced a rash of tabloid stories predicting that a marriage will soon take place.

I prefer to adhere to the original statement made by the Prince of Wales in 1997 that he had no intention of remarrying. His experience of married life was uncomfortable, and at present he has a convenient arrangement. Mrs Parker Bowles is at hand when he needs her, he can undertake his public duties on his own (which he always preferred), and he can retreat into solitude from time to time. They are a middle-aged pair and he has been knocked about by past experiences.

But there is a dilemma. Arguably, they should be allowed to regularise an irregular relationship as many other Britons do. My own view is that it depends what the lady in the case wishes. Should she wish to marry him, he will, I am sure, do so, and find a means.

We know that at the end of the day, anything is possible, and this king in waiting is unlikely to have to go to the lengths of Henry VIII in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533. King Henry relied on Parliament, who gave their ready support. The Acts of Annates, Appeals and Supremacy acknowledged the King as head of the Church of England, and the ecclesiastical authority of the Pope in Britain was repudiated. The marriage, solemnised on 25 January 1533, was declared valid on 28 May.

So what stands in the way of the Prince of Wales? There are several obstacles. The Royal Marriage Act was passed in 1772 because George III was displeased that two of his brothers, William, Duke of Gloucester, and Henry, Duke of Cumberland, had married commoners. The purpose of the act was to reserve to the monarch the right to consent to the marriages of any descendant of George II, other than the issue of princesses who married into foreign families.

The Act was passed to protect the royal family from unwelcome intruders. It states: "We have taken this weighty matter into our serious consideration; and being sensible that marriages in the royal family are of the highest importance to the state, and that therefore Kings of this realm have ever been entrusted with the care and approbation thereof."

The Act further states that the King's permission was required to be signified "under the great seal, and declared in council". Any marriage or matrimonial consent entered into without such consent would be "null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever". There was one interesting proviso. When a member of the royal family reached the age of 25, they could give notice to the Privy Council of their intention to marry, and after a year, they would be free to do so, unless, within that year "both houses of parliament expressly declare their disapprobation of such intended marriage".

The Royal Marriage Act hung over Princess Margaret when she wished to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. It was an issue when Lord Harewood sought to remarry in 1967, and when Prince Michael of Kent wished to marry a Roman Catholic divorcee in 1978. A gentleman from the Lord Chamberlain's Office was an unlikely witness to the hippy wedding of Lord Harewood's second son in 1973, and as recently as 11 April 2001, the Queen declared her consent to a contract of matrimony between Lady Alexandra Carnegie (an obscure great-great-grand-daughter of Edward VII) to a divorced man. They were subsequently married in church.

However, the marriage of a sovereign or future sovereign is more serious, as Edward VIII discovered in 1936. He behaved very well about the issue of marrying Mrs Simpson. He put the matter quietly to his Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who consulted the empire and the dominions. As the King must have known, a woman with two husbands living was never going to be accepted as a suitable Queen. He then proposed a morganatic marriage, whereby Mrs Simpson would become his wife, but not his Queen. This was likewise rejected.

These issues were not debated in Parliament. There was no constitutional crisis. The King stuck to his guns, and quietly signed the instrument of Abdication. In December 1936, he sailed to France.

Unfortunately for him, this was not the end of the saga. He had gone quietly without dictating his terms while in a position to do so. Having been forbidden to marry morganatically, he was effectively forced to do just that. King George VI was prepared to grant him the title of Duke of Windsor and to confirm him as a Royal Highness. He did not mind the duke's wife being a duchess and pointed out to his bitter brother that this was the highest grade in the peerage. But he refused her the title of Royal Highness, and she was never technically a member of the royal family.

For this reason, the Duke of Windsor remained in self-imposed exile in France. He insisted that she be addressed as "Your Royal Highness" by his staff, and it is apparently the case that under French Law, the wife always has the same status as the husband. Thus the Duke of Windsor chose to believe that she was a Royal Highness in France if not in Britain.

Some there are who address Mrs Parker Bowles as "Ma'am", though no one yet curtsies to her, as far as I know.

History suggests, therefore, that the Prince can do what he likes, so long as he is prepared to face the consequences. To marry and be king, he needs Parliament to accept it. If he should apply to marry Mrs Parker Bowles, the matter would go to the Privy Council, and it would then be up to Parliament to respond – within a year. He would need to consider the wisdom of provoking such a debate.

Then there is the issue of the Church of England. He seems to wish to be "prince of faiths", with a clear implication of distancing himself from the C of E. Prince Michael and Lord Harewood went abroad to marry. The Prince of Wales, as future head of the Church of England, could hardly do that. The higher echelons of the church turned a blind eye to the church wedding of Lady Alexandra Carnegie. They could not ignore the remarriage of the Prince of Wales. But if Parliament sanctioned it, then they would surely accommodate him?

Ultimately the force of public opinion is of overall importance. Some would say that the Prince should be allowed the comfort and security of marriage to the woman he loves. No one would wish him unnecessary unhappiness.

That is a sophisticated view, but there is a more sinister undercurrent. The memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, is far from forgotten, the girl who lived and died and provided the Prince with two fine sons. She claimed on more than one occasion that there were three people in her marriage. Mrs Parker Bowles is all too associated with the woes of that marriage and with its tragic conclusion. If the Princess were now resurrected, would she not be confirmed in many of her paranoid suspicions?

The ultimate question is whether the grass roots of this country would give their blessing, and the Prince remains rightly cautious of putting that question to the nation.

The writer's biography, 'The Queen Mother', is published by Cassell