Divorced, separated - and crowned: David Starkey says it is time to banish Victorian ideals and join the modern world

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We have been here before. Two hundred years ago, the marital problems of the Prince and Princess of Wales were the gossip of London. George, after an earlier semi-legitimised fling with Mrs Fitzherbert, had agreed to marry Caroline of Brunswick only to pay off his debts. He found her personally repulsive, and got so drunk on his wedding night that he fell into the grate.

The couple were, however, together long enough to beget a single daughter. But separation quickly followed and soon became permanent. Caroline eventually withdrew abroad - accompanied by her supposed bastard son and a motley crew headed by an Italian financial adviser.

When, therefore, George succeeded as George IV in 1820, he came to the throne separated from his wife. Her life was a public scandal - so was his. But no one suggested that this invalidated his claim and his coronation was planned on the most opulent scale.

The splendour of the event was, however, somewhat marred by Caroline's return to England to claim her rightful place as queen. This George was absolutely determined to deny. She turned up at the coronation service at Westminster Abbey nevertheless, and made her presence known by battering on the doors. Soon after, she was put on public trial before the House of Lords for adultery. She was saved by public hatred of her husband and the oratory of the young Henry Brougham. Within a few months she was dead, and the mob seized the hearse and carried it through the City in triumph.

So the early 19th-century monarchy weathered a separation. The early 18th-monarchy had survived a divorce. George, the Hanoverian claimant, had not only divorced his wife, Sophia Dorothea, but imprisoned her as well. No one, however, cried out that the Church was in danger when George I succeeded - divorced and a wife-abuser - in 1714. On the contrary, he was accepted with joy by the Anglican establishment as he guaranteed the Protestant succession: better a divorced Lutheran than a Roman Catholic, however uxorious.

As what passes for the British constitution was cobbled together between 1688 and 1707, and as George I and George IV, despite their marital difficulties, succeeded without challenge in 1714 and 1820 respectively, there can be no question of the similar difficulties of the present Prince of Wales presenting any more formidable constitutional problems than those of his Hanoverian ancestors: which is to say, none at all.

Why, then, the fuss in 1936 when Edward VIII's unshakeable determination to marry the twice-

divorced Mrs Simpson led to his own abdication and the succession of his brother as George VI, with the present Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as his consort? The answer lies in a general change of attitude to marriage, and a dramatic alteration in the role of royal unions in particular.

Part of the reason for the infrequency of divorce in earlier periods was that the law of matrimony was so uncertain. In theory, it took only the unambiguous consent of the couple to establish a valid marriage. These unions were as easily unmade as made. A great tidying up was carried out by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke in his Marriage Act of 1753. This established the rules still familiar to us. A marriage was valid only if solemnised by an ordained clergyman in a public place of worship and before witnesses, the ceremony being registered in a document that was a matter of public record.

Three groups, however, were excluded from the provisions of Hardwicke's act - Jews, Quakers, and members of the Royal Family. The latter availed themselves freely of the opportunities offered by the old uncertainties and both the Dukes of Clarence and Cumberland entered into quasi-legal unions with women of lowish rank and lower reputation. The result was the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. Members of the Royal Family were now subject to the same rules as everybody else, with the added requirement that the marriage required the consent of the monarch to be valid.

To change the law is one thing; to change attitudes and behaviour is quite another. As late as 1831, Victoria's uncle, the Duke of Sussex, scandalised society by marrying a Mrs Buggins. Victoria eventually recognised the union by creating her Duchess of Inverness. But with Victoria herself, and her marriage to Albert, the change becomes substantial. We enter the age of a modern, moral monarchy. Edward VII marked a brief return to an earlier laxity, more than compensated for by the uptight and upright George V and Queen Mary. The most eloquent expression of the new spirit was the marriage in 1923 of the Duke of York and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. In their wedding address they were told: 'You cannot resolve that your marriage will be happy, you can and will determine that it should be noble.' In other words, you will stick together.

The change was part of the deliberate democratisation of the monarchy. Royal pageantry might become ever more lavish,but because the pageantry celebrated the rites of passage of family life, it could and did strike a common chord with the experience of the humblest. The Royal Family had become the symbol of the Great British Family.

It is now clear why the abdication crisis presented such a threat. The Archibishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, put his objections in terms of the Anglican theology of marriage. Because marriage was indissoluble, he would not crown a king who had married a divorcee. But it was the political judgement of the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, that gave substance to the archbishop's moral scruples. At the moment, we confront only a royal separation. But should the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales turn, like that of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, into a divorce, what would George Carey, do?

To judge from the fact that Princess Anne is to remarry in the Church of Scotland, it would appear that the Anglican church's stance on the sanctity of marriage has not changed since 1936. But would the secular arm be so robust in its support of the spiritual this time? Would John Major, so indulgent of the foibles of his Cabinet, become a severe censor with the Royal Family?

Moreover, of course, the coronation of Charles III is hardly an immediate event. Twenty years from now, will there still be an established Church of England? Will our multicultural society still want a coronation service that is exclusively Christian? All these issues were raised in 1936. The answers then were rigidly conservative.

As we stand on the threshold of a new century and a post-modern monarchy, we should surely think again. The British Family has changed as much as the Royal Family: the symbolic language of monarchy must change as well.

The author is a constitutional historian at the London School of


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