Editor’s Note: Kate Williams is Professor of History at Reading University, a CNN royal historian/commentator and author of “Young Elizabeth,” about the Queen. The views expressed here are her own. For more on the royal family, watch CNN Original Series “The Windsors: Inside the Royal Dynasty” Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Divorce has always been a complicated issue, to say the least, for the royal family – right back to King Henry VIII’s reign during the 16th century, when he changed the course of world religion to get out of one marriage and into another.
But in more recent history, as divorce has become more common in Britain and across the world, the royal family has shown that in this way, at least, they really are just like the rest of us.
Our future King and his consort are both divorced, and there’s no constitutional crisis to be found. Prince Harry married divorcee Meghan Markle in St. George’s Chapel and the world was delighted by their nuptials and mutual devotion. Two more royal divorces were announced back-to-back this year, and they received about the same amount of flash-in-the-pan interest as a Hollywood breakup.
This shift in acceptance has happened only in the past three decades, after three Windsor divorces rocked the royal family in the 1990s – and it was never the same again.
In the past, marital breakups spelled disaster for the reigning House of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle, Edward VIII, gave up the throne for the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson in 1936, causing a political crisis that was narrowly averted. At the time, divorcees were not acceptable in society, and the royal Court was the strictest of all.
It’s a hurdle prior English and British monarchs knew well. Henry VIII had the entire kingdom break from the Church of Rome in 1533 so he could split from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn in his quest for a male heir – a history-defining moment set in motion because the Catholic Church wouldn’t grant his request for an annulment.
In the early 19th century, profligate George IV tried to divorce his wife by accusing her of adultery, and the public was shocked by his exposure of her.
Queen Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII, seduced various women, mostly married. He expected the husbands to put up with it. One did not, and he threatened to divorce his wife, Harriet Mordaunt – and the prospect of the Prince of Wales as a witness in a divorce case was too dreadful. A coverup was launched, and Harriet was declared mad and packed off to an asylum for the rest of her life.
By the early 20th century, divorce law was changing. In 1923, as part of a raft of pro-women reforms instigated after World War I, the Matrimonial Causes Act allowed women as well as men to petition for divorce solely on the grounds of adultery.
Yet divorce was still frowned on in British society – and marrying a divorcee whose former spouse was still alive was verboten according to the Church of England. This is why Edward VIII had to abdicate the throne for his brother George VI: He couldn’t be both the head of his country’s Church – a role established, ironically, by his divorced ancestor Henry VIII – and the husband of a divorced woman with two living spouses.
Even Queen Elizabeth II previously upheld these strict rules. In the early years of her marriage to Prince Philip, a then-Princess Elizabeth gave a speech to a Christian women’s organization called the Mothers’ Union declaring “divorce and separation are responsible for some of the darkest evils in our society today.” But only a few years later, it became clear that her sister, Margaret, was in a relationship with their father’s former courtier, Peter Townsend, a man not only 16 years her senior but also one who’d just filed for divorce six months earlier.
Margaret adored Townsend, but his divorced status was a problem – it was that old Church rule about not marrying divorcees again. Although measures were drawn up by which she would be allowed to keep her title and continue performing public duties, she would lose her place in the succession. The Princess finally decided not to marry – choosing duty, unlike her uncle Edward, over love.
In 1960, she married the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was created Lord Snowdon in a lavish ceremony that was the first royal wedding to be televised. But in the 1970s, Margaret’s affair with a young landscape gardener was splashed all over the papers and Snowdon – who himself had been repeatedly unfaithful – sued for divorce.
Since then, giant weddings were perhaps something of a curse. The 1980s saw over-the-top weddings for Prince Charles and Diana, which was watched by nearly a billion people across the world, and Prince Andrew and Sarah at Westminster Abbey. In 1992, the year the Queen has called her ‘annus horribilis,’ those fairy-tale images were torn to pieces.
Prince Andrew announced he was separating from his wife, and Princess Anne, the Queen’s only daughter, finalized her own divorce after separating from Mark Phillips three years prior. Then in June, Andrew Morton’s bombshell book “Diana, her True Story” was published, sharing with the world the story of a woman so unhappy in an unloving relationship that she had considered suicide.
Tabloid leaks and speculation dogged Charles and Diana until the end of 1992, when the Prime Minister announced the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales. The speculation continued and, in 1995, Diana gave an interview to the BBC in which she talked about her unhappiness at her husband’s affair. “There were three of us in this marriage,” she famously said – and subsequently, the Queen actually encouraged Charles and Diana to officially divorce, which they did in 1996.
It would take another six years before the Church of England agreed to allow divorced people with a spouse still living to remarry in their houses of worship, and in 2005, Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles, who herself had divorced in 1994.
All of this set the stage for the Windsors to come full circle in their public acceptance of divorce, from it being anathema to being increasingly common. The queen sends out congratulatory telegrams to her subjects when they have been married for 60 years, but her own children are unlikely to reach the milestone. And in this way, the monarchy is a reflection of its people: British society itself has become more accepting about marital splits, with just over 40% of couples ending their unions as of 2016.
As we’ve seen throughout history, royals and their spouses locking themselves into toxic relationships or marriages that were clearly prisons in an effort to uphold ancient rules hasn’t worked out so well – for them, or their populace. The painful dramas around the divorces have at times undermined their popularity, and what should have been private pain was publicly displayed. The royal family may have been dragged into accepting divorce and the idea of marrying divorcees, but it is vital that they did.