With Meghan Markle recently baptised and confirmed into the Church of England ahead of her marriage to Prince Harry on 19 May, Insights asked Charles Rae, News International’s royal correspondent for over two decades, to take a deep dive into the religious conventions that have shaped the royal family.
Royalty and religion: they are two institutions that have existed as strange bedfellows for the last 500 years. It has only been in the last decade or so that the rules of ‘who was in and who was out’ have been relaxed, and this has usually been at the convenience of those finding themselves directly embroiled in the pomp and process.
This relaxation of the religious conventions of the monarchy has also slowly been moving with the times, never more evident in the relationship and marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. Ms Markle faith background is a multi-layered one: She is a Protestant who attended a Roman Catholic high school, her mother, Doria Ragland, is Protestant and her father, Thomas Markle, is Episcopalian – the US branch of the Anglican Church — and the 36-year-old was married in a Jewish ceremony to Trevor Engelson from 2011 to 2013.
While some conventions may have been overlooked, there is no doubt that some will stay the same. This is evident in the fact that recently, the Suits star was baptised and confirmed into the Church of England ahead of her wedding to Prince Harry on 19 May. There is no denying however, that Ms Markle’s background and understanding of faith will be an excellent foundation on which to move forward into a new life in the royal family and all this entails.
Traditionally every member of the royal family is christened into the Church of England. The reigning monarch holds the title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Interestingly, Ms Markel’s status as a divorcee is no impediment to a Church of England service. Since 2002, the church has agreed that divorced people can remarry, with the discretion of the priest. Despite this ruling, in the three years before his marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles — Prince Charles, Meghan’s prospective father in law — still fell foul of convention.
Despite the fact that he is a future monarch and Head of the Church of England, for his 2005 wedding to Parker Bowles Prince Charles was denied a Church of England service and had to settle for a civil service and a church blessing.
A brief history of the Royals
Going further back, Princess Anne as a divorcee was also denied a Church of England service when she married Commander Tim Laurence in 1992. Instead, the couple wed at Crathie Church near the Balmoral Estate in a Church of Scotland service.
The hardline of the Church of England – albeit slightly softened of late – started in 1534 when Henry VIII established it, over a row with the Pope regarding his divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted the Pope to grant him an annulment, on the grounds that the marriage was illegal and incestuous because Catherine was the widow of his dead brother Arthur. After several failed attempts to persuade Rome, Henry split and made himself the head of a new church.
Since then, any Roman Catholic was banned from becoming a Monarch, and members of the royal family who marry a Catholic lose their place in the line of succession.
This all changed three years ago however when new rules on royal succession came into force, removing male bias and discrimination against Roman Catholics, except for one – they still cannot become a monarch. The change was made at the same time as allowing young women to take their rightful place in the line of succession and not be bumped out by a younger brother, as happened previously. Under those former rules of male primogeniture, royal sons took precedence over their female siblings, including first-born royal daughters. So, for instance, Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s first cousin, is now back in the line of succession at number 47. He was removed when he married his Catholic wife, Princess Michael of Kent, 37 years ago.
Moving forward, Prince George’s children could be affected if his wife is Roman Catholic. Their children could be brought up in that faith and would be barred from becoming monarch and supreme governor of the Church of England because of their faith.
An unconventional wedding
Meghan and Harry will marry in St George’s Chapel, Windsor where the Prince was christened. It has become a very special place for the couple in their relationship, and invitations have been posted to 600 guests, with a select 200 close friends invited to an after party at Frogmore House.
It will be a traditional ceremony, conducted by The Dean of Windsor, the Rt Rev David Conner. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, will officiate as the couple make their marriage vows.
Meghan is unlikely to opt to ‘obey’ the prince. They will probably choose the Series One (1966) Book of Common Prayer ceremony, just as William and Kate did, which allows the bride to drop “obey him” and “serve him” from the religious proceedings. Harry also has to decide whether to wear a wedding ring – William does not wear one.
After the ceremony, among the first people to congratulate the couple will be some of the 2,640 charity workers, community champions and local schoolchildren who are being invited to watch the wedding from inside the walls of Windsor Castle.
At 1pm, the newlyweds will then undertake a tour of Windsor as their first trip as man and wife, to greet well-wishers.
Marriage formalities done, religious conventions applied, Harry will insist faith has a large part to play in their duties going forward, though just as the church has modernised itself in the past few decades, so too will the happy couple look to refresh and re-energise our perception of the royals, in what is the family’s boldest move yet.