Divorce, once a taboo subject among royals, is now common occurrence among members of the House of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth II, as a monarch whose reign spans decades, in many ways owes her queenship to divorce and the inherent immorality and distaste it once evoked. Now, Elizabeth sits atop a throne and heads the Church of England with divorced children of her own - even Charles, Prince of Wales, the heir apparent.
The issue of divorce continues to play a part in the reign of the queen. Once relegated behind palace walls, issues of infidelity, public perception, and social norms have become very public and very much part of royal rule itself. Elizabeth has gone from a sovereign who had a strong hand in divorce and how it affected the royal family to one who now seems to have succumbed to shifts in how divorce is perceived that are well beyond her control. Here's how divorce has been a fundamental part of the queen's reign, for better or for worse.
While divorce was not the entire driving force behind the formation of the Church of England, King Henry VIII's need to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon during the 16th century was a factor.
Henry (1491-1547) married Catherine in 1509 but, by the late 1520s, wanted out of the match. Catherine had failed to produce an heir and Henry was enamored by Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of his former lovers. While both Henry and Catherine were staunch Catholics - the king had actually been given the title of Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, by Pope Leo X in 1521 - the next pope, Clement VII, refused to grant the dissolution of their marriage. His decision was both political and religious, with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, nephew of Catherine, essentially holding Rome hostage. Catherine didn't want the divorce and Clement VII was hesitant to antagonize his captor.
Henry ultimately got out of his marriage, but it was only after advisor Thomas Cromwell and churchman Thomas Cranmer, both Protestants, provided him a path. Cromwell helped persuade the king to break with Rome and establish a church of his own, one that gave Henry royal supremacy. With the establishment of the Church of England in 1534 and the installation of Cranmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry was rid of Catherine, to say nothing of heading the Reformation church.
The relationship between British monarchs and the Church of England remains one based in supremacy. When she was crowned in 1953, Elizabeth swore to "maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England." She maintains authority to appoint archbishops and other church officials, but spiritual matters within the church now reside with a General Synod.
When King Edward VIII, ruler for less than a year, abdicated the throne in December 1936, he did it for love. He intended to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, something neither the Church of England nor Parliament would allow him to do. With two former husbands - both still alive, no less - Simpson was shrouded in levels of religious and cultural stigma unpalatable to the British populace.
With Edward's abdication, his brother, George VI, took the throne. George, born Albert Frederick Arthur George, was crowned king of England in May 1937 and ruled until his demise in 1952. His successor was his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, thereafter known as Queen Elizabeth II.
Had it not been for the controversy surrounding divorce and royalty, Elizabeth would never have been in direct line to the throne.
Divorce facilitated Elizabeth's path to the throne, something that may or may not have influenced her thoughts on the topic. As early as 1949, she went on record with her opposition to divorce at a meeting of the Mothers' Union. She reportedly thought her uncle, the former King Edward VIII, was irresponsible for how he'd let divorce influence his life.
When divorce became an issue with her sister, Princess Margaret, during the 1950s, the queen both personally and as a royal official demonstrated her disapproval of the practice. After her cousin, the Earl of Harewood, divorced his first wife, the queen allowed him to marry again in 1967 (a right she held under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772), but he fell out of royal favor in the process.
A close friend and private secretary to Prince Philip, Michael Parker married his wife, Eileen, in 1943. The couple went on to have two children but spent extended periods of time apart, and rumors of infidelity resulted in Eileen filing for divorce in 1957.
The dissolution of the Parkers' marriage was full of ire, but it also threatened the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip. While Eileen lamented, "How can one maintain a deep, lasting relationship with someone who hardly ever is present in the home except perhaps to changes his clothes?" the queen also struggled with the implications the Parkers' marriage had on her own.
Parker resigned as Philip's secretary and, as the divorce case went to court, there was a very real chance the queen's husband would be called to testify. As the royals desperately tried to avoid the scandal that unfolded around them, Elizabeth promoted Philip to "prince of the realm."
According to a March 1957 article in the New York News-Chicago Tribune Dispatch, "Despite his title as duke and first gentleman in the land, Philip could have been subpoenaed to testify for Mrs. Parker until his elevation to prince on February 22 lifted him beyond the range of a subpoena."