Monday’s announcement that Britain’s Prince Harry is engaged to American actress Meghan Markle was remarkable for a reason that seemed to receive relatively little attention. It’s not because the 36-year-old future Duchess of Sussex is American, three years older than Harry, or even because she’s biracial.
(The reaction on the British tabloid comment boards Monday seemed to contain much more snark about the fact that Markle’s an actress and a Yank than about her racial background.)
The remarkable thing is that the grandson of a monarch, son of the heir to the throne, and a prince who could possibly, albeit in the event of a major catastrophe, one day inherit the British crown is engaged to marry a divorced woman, and the royal establishment is not batting an eyelash.
This is the same royal family in which King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, had to give up his throne and go into exile in order to marry a thirty-something divorced American in 1936. And the same family in which Princess Margaret, the current queen’s younger sister, was pressured to give up the love of her life, the divorced Captain Peter Townsend, in 1953 in order to preserve her royal title and her claim to the throne.
And I still remember that in 1981, much was made of the fact that Lady Diana Spencer was reportedly a virgin when she became engaged to Harry's dad Prince Charles, the prince of Wales.
In centuries past (as anyone knows who has watched Showtime’s “The Tudors”), royal brides had to be pure and chaste in order to ensure their offspring were truly the rightful heirs to the throne, and not some other bloke’s love child. That’s why cheating on the king was a treasonous offense that often led to being parted with one’s head, for both the wife and the unfortunate sap she cheated with.
But in 2017, all that has changed. For one thing, British monarchs no longer rule the nation by divine right; their role is ceremonial. For another, the royal family has evolved since Charles married Di a generation ago. Not only are royal brides no longer expected to be virgins, but royal heirs are now marrying the person they want to and not the one they’re told to, as Charles did.
After his and several other royal marriages ended in tabloid-hell disaster in the 1990s, it was clear there was no longer any point in pretending the Windsors upheld some Victorian-based ideal standard for family values and marital harmony, even if the monarch is figurative head of the Church of England.
Charles himself divorced his first wife and made a divorced woman, Camilla Parker-Bowles, his second wife in 2005. In Henry VIII’s time, that would have taken a religious revolution or a frame-up of the first wife for adultery, both of which he managed to pull off.
Prince William married a middle-class commoner that he had been dating for a decade, something once unheard of for the heir to the throne.
Meghan Markle is reportedly Catholic, which was also a major no-no for royal alliances not so long ago, but Parliament changed that rule some years back.
So kudos to Harry for proposing to the girl he wants to be with instead of having a hand-picked bride foisted on him from the British upper classes. It may or may not last. Meghan is going to have to put a lid on her reputed political activism and get used to restrictions that are alien to most Americans. I give it a 50-50 shot.
But it’s obvious that like with a lot of other things, being divorced is no longer a barrier to getting an HRH before your name.
Congrats, Meghan. Hope the second time's the charm ;)