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The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 is an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain (12 Geo III c. 11) which prescribes the conditions under which members of the British royal family can contract a valid marriage and provides very stringent safeguards against undesirable marriages that might affect the succession to the throne or lower the status of the Royal House. The right of veto vested in the sovereign by this Act is remarkable and provoked severe criticism at the time.

Provisions of the Act

The Act said that no descendant of George II, male or female, other than the issue of princesses who had married or might thereafter marry "into foreign families", could marry without the consent of the reigning monarch, "signified under the great seal and declared in council". That consent was to be set out in the licence and in the register of the marriage, and entered in the books of the Privy Council. Any marriage contracted without the consent of the monarch was to be null and void.

However, any member of the Royal Family over the age of 25 who has been refused the sovereign's consent may marry one year after giving notice to the Privy Council of their intention to so marry, unless both houses of Parliament expressly declare their disapproval. There is, however, no instance in which the sovereign's formal consent in Council has been refused.

The Act further made it a crime to perform or participate in an illegal marriage of any member of the Royal Family. This provision was repealed by the Criminal Law Act 1967.

Reasons for the Act

The Act was proposed by the King as a direct result of the marriage of his brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland who, in 1771, had married the commoner Mrs Anne Horton the daughter of Simon Luttrell and the widow of Christopher Horton. Although not discovered until the year after the passing of the Act, another brother Prince William, Duke of Gloucester had in 1766 secretly married Maria, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole and the widow of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave. Both alliances were considered highly unsuitable by the King.

Couples affected by the Act

  • On 15 December 1785 the King's eldest son George, Prince of Wales married privately and in contravention of this Act and of the Act of Settlement 1701, at her house in Park Lane, London, according to the rites of the Church of England, the twice widowed Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a practising Roman Catholic. Although viewed as a canonically sound marriage by Roman Catholics this marriage was completely invalid as a consequence of the Act. If valid the marriage would have excluded the Prince from succession to the throne under the terms of the Act of Settlement 1701.

  • On 4 April 1793 Prince Augustus, the sixth son of the King, married in contravention of the Act, privately and without witnesses, according to the rites of the Church of England at the Hotel Sarmiento, Rome, Lady Augusta Murray, and again, after banns, on 5 December 1795, at St George, Hanover Square, London. Both marriages were declared null and void by the Court of Arches, 14 July 1794, and their two children were subsequently considered illegitimate.

  • After the death of Lady Augusta Murray, Prince Augustus, now Duke of Sussex, apparently married secondly (no contemporary evidence survives), again in contravention of the Act, about 2 May 1831, at her house in Great Cumberland Place, London, Lady Buggin who on that day had taken the surname Underwood in lieu of Buggin and who, on 10 April 1840 was created Duchess of Inverness by Queen Victoria (the Duke being Earl of Inverness). The Queen had, as Lord Melbourne wrote, thereby "recognized the moral and religious effect of whatever has taken place whilst she avoided the legal effects of a legal marriage which was what her Majesty was most anxious to do". Acceptance of the marriage, would have meant the acceptance of the Duke's earlier marriage and the legitimacy of his two children. However, the couple cohabited and were socially accepted as husband and wife.

  • On 8 January 1847 the Queen's first cousin Prince George of Cambridge married by licence of the Faculty Office but in contravention of this Act Sarah Fairbrother, a pregnant actress with four illegitimate children (two by himself and two by other men), at St James, Clerkenwellmarker. From about 1858 Sarah took the name Mrs FitzGeorge but the marriage being invalid it is incorrect to call it a morganatic marriage as many have done. It is also incorrect to say that Queen Victoria refused to consent to this marriage as no application was made to her under the Act, it being very apparent that no consent would be given.

Broad effects

The Act renders void any marriage wherever contracted or solemnized in contravention of it. It had been claimed that the marriage of Prince Augustus had been legal in Ireland and Hanover but the Committee of Privileges of the House of Lords ruled (in the Sussex Perage Case), 9 July 1844, that the Act incapacitated the descendants of George II from contracting a legal marriage without the consent of the Crown, either within the British dominions or elsewhere.

The effects of the law, not always foreseen, remain very much in force. An example is seen in the royal House of Hanover, which descends from Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, a younger son of King George III, who inherited the crown of Hanover according to its Salic order of succession when the British crown went to his niece, Victoria. Despite the fact that his descendants lost their royal crown in 1866, and their royal titles in 1918, as male-line descendants of George II they continue to seek permission for their marriages from the British monarch.

Thus, on 11 January 1999, Elizabeth II issued the following Order-in-Council: "My Lords, I do hereby declare My Consent to a Contract of Matrimony between His Royal Highness Prince Ernst August Albert of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Her Serene Highness Princess Caroline Louise Marguerite of Monaco...". Without the Royal Assent, the marriage would have been void in Britain, where the groom's family continues to own substantial property and retains the right to petition for resumption of the Duchy of Cumberland, suspended since World War I (likewise, the Monégasquemarker court officially notified Francemarker of Caroline's contemplated marriage to Prince Ernst August and received assurance that there was no objection, in compliance with the 1918 Franco-Monégasque Treaty). (However, as Ernst August married a Roman Catholic, he lost his place in the succession to the British throne under a different piece of legislation, the Act of Settlement 1701).

All European monarchies, and many non-European realms, have laws or traditions requiring prior approval of the monarch for members of the reigning dynasty to marry. But Britain's is unusual because it has not been modified since originally adopted, so that its ambit has grown rather wide, affecting not only Britain's immediate Royal Family, but more distant relatives of the monarch. Moreover, its purview is growing: Whereas in the past British princesses usually married into foreign dynasties thereby exempting their descendants from the Act, most now marry fellow Britons so that their children become subject in turn to the Act's restrictions, as do their Protestant descendants who marry Britons, and so on potentially without limit. Nor is the law's application confined to those that bear the official style of "princess". For purposes of the Act, that term is deemed to include any legitimate female descendant of George III, since each inherits a claim on the British crown, unless excluded by the Act itself.

Farran exemption

In the 1950s, Charles d'Olivier Farran, B.C.L., M.A., Ph.D., Lecturer in Constitutional Law at Liverpool University, theorised that the Act could no longer apply to anyone living, because all the members of the immediate royal family were descendants of British princesses who had married into foreign families .

Due to inter-marriage, many of George II's descendants in female lines have married back into the British royal family. In particular, the Queen and other members of the House of Windsor descend (through Queen Alexandra), from as many as two princesses — (Mary of Great Britain, Landgravine of Hesse and Louise of Great Britain, Queen of Denmark — who were daughters of George II that married foreign rulers (respectively Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel), and King Frederick V of Denmark).

This so-called "Farran exemption" met with wide publicity, but arguments against it were put forward by Mr Clive Parry, Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, and Farran's interpretation has since been ignored. Consent to marriages in the Royal Family (including the distantly related House of Hanover) continues to be sought and granted as if none of the male-line descendants of George II were also his descendants in the female line.

As Clive Parry pointed out the "Farran exemption" theory was further complicated by the fact that all the Protestant descendants of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, ancestress of the United Kingdom's monarchs since 1714, had been entitled to British citizenship under the Sophia Naturalization Act 1705 (if born prior to 1948, when the act was repealed). Thus, some marriages of British princesses to continental monarchs and princes were not, in law, marriages to foreigners. For example, the 1947 marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, by birth a Greek and Danish prince but descended from the Electress Sophia, was a marriage to a British subject even if he had not been previously naturalised in Britain. This would also mean theoretically, for example, that the present royal family of Norway is bound by the Act, for the marriage of Princess Maud, a daughter of King Edward VII, to the future King Haakon VII of Norway, was a marriage to a "British subject", since Haakon descended from the Electress Sophia.

Exemption of Edward VIII

In 1936 His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936 specifically excluded Edward VIII from the provisions of this Act upon his abdication, allowing him to marry the divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The wording of the declaration also excluded any issue of the marriage from being subject to the Act.

Proposal to repeal

The Succession to the Crown Bill, a private member's bill, presented to the UK Parliament on December 9, 2004, would have repealed this act in its entirety. However, the Bill was withdrawn January 15, 2005 by its sponsor after being told that it would not receive government support.

Other legislation

The Regency Act 1830, which provided for a regency in the event that Queen Victoria inherited the throne before she was eighteen, made it illegal for her to marry without the regent's consent. Her spouse and anyone involved in arranging or conducting the marriage without such consent would be guilty of high treason. This was more serious than the offence created by the Act of 1772, which was equivalent to praemunire. However the Act never came into force as Victoria was eighteen when she became queen.

Consents for marriages under the Act

Consents under the Act were entered in the Books of the Privy Council but have not been published. In 1857 it became customary to publish them in the London Gazette and notices appear of consents given in Council at Courts held on the following dates. Not all consents, however, were noted there and gaps in the list have been filled by reference to the Warrants for Royal Marriages in the Home Office papers (series HO 124) in The National Archives:

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