• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Trouble in Palace Life: Royal divorces represent a cultural change

ByAron Rosenthal

Mar 1, 2020

The Royal Family has a famously bad track-record when it comes to marriage, or rather, staying married. This reputation surely won’t be helped by the announcement that Peter Phillips, the Queen’s grandson, is separating from his wife Autumn; or by the announcement later in the same week that the Earl of Snowdon, the Queen’s nephew, is divorcing Serena Armstrong-Jones.

Both couples are said, by their respective spokespersons, to have informed the Queen of their decision last year. As such, these events contribute to a 2019 which some feel was the worst year for the Royal Family since the ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992. 

But why do royal divorces seem to spark such controversy? After all, public attitudes to divorce have surely changed since the days of Edward VIII and his abdication in favour of the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. Moreover, the Church of England, which once prevented Prince Charles from marrying the divorcée Camilla in church, seems to have changed its tone. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, voiced support for Harry and Meghan’s marriage, with the proclamation “I am so happy that Prince Harry and Ms. Markle have chosen to make their vows before God”. Welby went on to act as officiating cleric in the ceremony, reinforcing his support for the couple.

But Meghan Markle is herself a divorcée, having been married to the Hollywood producer Trevor Engelson. Andrew Goddard, Anglican priest and leading authority on Christian attitudes to marriage, says, ‘That would have been a no-no’ some years ago. Divorce is one thing but marrying a divorcée whilst their partner remains alive has remained contentious. This seems rather hypocritical, as any History student will tell you that the philandering founder of the Anglican Church, Henry VIII, split from the Papacy in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.

In 1533, divorce was legalised in England and Henry was separated from Catherine, dubbing himself ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. Arianne Chernock, associate professor at Boston University and expert on the British monarchy, notes that divorce in the royal family is now “more the norm than the exception”. Indeed, three of the Queen’s four children have divorced, with the exception of Prince Edward. However, despite the apparent normalisation of royal divorce, the Queen is said to be a member of the ‘stick with it’ school. Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty Magazine, said the Queen urges splitting couples inside the family to try and make things work, seeing as it’s ‘too easy to get divorced’.

One wonders why somebody would force themselves to endure a failing marriage if one or both parties has fallen out of touch. Then again, one is not the Queen, and therefore does not hold the responsibilities of defending the faith and upholding the monarchy. As always, maintaining stability appears to be the Queen’s primary motive. What is clear is that attitudes inside both the monarchy and Anglican Church are changing in the face of twenty-first century sensibilities. Such massive institutions have chosen to adapt, where the alternative is to flounder.

Image: LexLadyOfTheNorth via commons.wikimedia.org