So, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor has been welcomed as the first mixed-race member of the British Royal Family and no doubt there will be many more to come! The delighted media, both in Britain and elsewhere, have been saying that this first-born son of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has at long last modernised the monarchy but in fact, such modernisation has been on-going for decades. For instance, several of the children of the current monarch have been divorced (and some remarried) which back at the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1952 would have been unthinkable.
Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, was unable to marry her first love, Group Captain Peter Townsend, because he was divorced and at that time the Church of England, of which the monarch is its head, forbade divorce and remarriage. Later, she married and then divorced commoner Tony Armstrong-Jones, being the first of the current Royal Family to do both, but not the last. Princess Anne, the Queen’s only daughter and given the title of the Princess Royal, first married Mark Phillips and then after a divorce, married Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence. Sarah Ferguson, daughter of Major Ronald Ferguson, became the wife of the Queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, Duke of York and a divorce followed, but as is often the way in modern times, the couple have maintained a friendly relationship with each other.
Then came the most surprising divorce and remarriage: Prince Charles, the Queen’s eldest son and heir to the throne, was divorced by his wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, and then remarried (in the register office in Windsor and attended by Queen Elizabeth) his long-term mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles, who was also divorced. In 2011, Prince William, the elder son of Prince Charles and therefore second in line to the throne, married Kate Middleton, whom he had met during their university days. And then in 2018, with Queen Elizabeth’s permission and support, Prince Harry, Prince Charles’ younger son, married Meghan Markle, a divorced bi-racial American, at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
So what had changed since Princess Margaret ended her engagement to Peter Townsend in 1955 on the grounds that the Church teaches that Christian marriage is indissoluble and that therefore she should not marry someone who was divorced? By the start of the second millennium the Church of England had recognised that society had changed, that divorce and remarriage was now common and therefore in the 2002 General Synod it modernised its marriage laws and stated that while ‘The Church of England teaches that marriage is for life, it also recognises that some marriages sadly do fail and, if this should happen, it seeks to be available for all involved’.
Society has also changed considerably in other ways since Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952.
Until 1967 homosexuality was considered a crime, punishable by jail sentences and also by public shame, but it was decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act of that year, and in 2015 The Marriage Equality Act legalised same-sex marriages for all UK citizens, royal or not. There is therefore no legal reason why the UK should not have a gay or lesbian Monarch some time in the future. And although the matter has not yet reached Parliament, with the acknowledgement by society that some people feel they have been born into the wrong physical body, it is quite possible that the country might, at some point, have a transgender King or Queen.
Then, in 2011 the leaders of the 16 Commonwealth countries where the Queen is Head of State, unanimously approved two changes in the Laws of Succession to the throne and after necessary legislation, these changes took effect on 26th March 2015. The first change gave both sons and daughters of any future UK monarch the equal right to the throne so that an elder daughter would take precedence over a younger son. At the same time they lifted the ban on the monarch marrying a Roman Catholic which was put in place some 300 years ago when Catholic Europe was a threat to Britain and to prevent the heirs to the throne being raised as Catholics and not Anglicans, which would happen if the Royal Spouse were a Catholic.
However, the change to the law of succession continues to insist that that even though married to a Catholic, the Monarch would still need to be ‘in communion with the Church of England’. This would also be the case if the Sovereign married a member of another faith. It may be a surprise to learn that there has never been a ban on a monarch marrying people of other faiths – probably because until recently, this would have been thought inconceivable. But since the UK is now not only a multi-racial but also multi-faith country, it would be entirely possible for a future sovereign to marry a member of any religion or none, the only stipulation being that the monarch must be, and remain, a member of the Church of England.
Some time ago Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, said that wished to become ‘Defender of Faiths’ on becoming king in order to reflect Britain’s multicultural society. In 2018 he altered this to ‘Defender of Faith’ but this move would still mean the monarch, as Supreme Head of the Church of England, would no longer be known as Defender of The [Christian Protestant] Faith for the first time since the reign of Henry VIII. The University College London have also been commissioned to produce new accession declarations and coronation oaths to take into account that Christianity is not now the only faith in Britain.
Three changes have been suggested. The first would simply put the oaths into a modern context; the second would involve toning down the religious exclusivity of Christianity in the oaths; the third would remove all references to Protestantism and the Church of England.
It seems that the modernising of the British Monarchy will continue – as long as there is a Monarchy.