Prince Harry Is Married To A Woman With Catholic Connections – Here's Why That's A BIG Deal

Prince Harry is finally getting hitched! As the world has been getting to know Meghan Markle, his American bride-to-be, one interesting point sticks out: the prince is marrying someone who was once a Catholic schoolgirl. As innocent as that may sound, links between Catholicism and the royal family have been pretty serious historically. A look at a Catholicism in England timeline proves that the English monarchy has had a rocky relationship with the Catholic faith.

True, reports are that Meghan Markle is actually a Protestant who simply went to a Catholic girls' school. She even has plans to get confirmed in the Church of England. But her links to the Catholic faith nonetheless make her a surprising choice for a British prince who is near the front of the line of succession.

Like most European states, England, Scotland, and Wales before the 16th century were in the Catholic fold. But when a German monk by the name of Martin Luther ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517, Protestantism as an alternative to Catholicism swept through the island of Great Britain. In the 1530s, Henry VIII made it official. He bound royal and religious authority together by establishing England as a Protestant kingdom and making the monarch the head of the Church of England. Religion wasn't just a spiritual matter - it was undeniably political. Being a Catholic became downright dangerous.

Can British monarch marry Catholic? Nowadays, yes. But that answer is a relatively new one. Historically, Catholics were not just excluded from the throne - they were shut out and couldn't even marry a future king or queen. Though there is a list of Catholic royals since the 16th century, many of them had to hide their faith, renounce it, or risk losing the throne.

Though the religious wars within the British monarchy have long since cooled, the fact remains that Meghan Markle’s links to Catholicism - weak as they appear on the surface - may have been enough to have prevented her from marrying Prince Harry just a few decades ago. Thankfully, times have changed.

  • The English Would Rather Have A Revolution Than A Catholic King
    Photo: R White/Private Collection of S. Whitehead / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The English Would Rather Have A Revolution Than A Catholic King

    James II was a Catholic king - and English Protestants were totally not okay with it. Even though he was Catholic, his two daughters - Mary and Anne - were Protestant, and many English men and women were simply biding their time until the king died and one of the Protestant princesses would ascend the throne. In 1688, those dreams were dashed when James and his Catholic wife had a male heir. Since boys always inherited ahead of girls at this time, it meant that James II would be succeeded by a Catholic prince.

    Parliament wouldn't stand for it. Rather than accept a Catholic monarch, they invited Princess Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange to come to England and rule instead of her father. Panicked, James, Mary, and their baby boy fled for the continent. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 basically confirmed that Catholic kings were not welcome in England. 

  • More Than 50 Catholics Were Skipped Over To Make Sure A Protestant Inherited The Throne - Even Though He Didn't Speak English

    When Protestant Queen Anne's only living child died tragically in 1700 at the age of 11 - sadly, though she had 17 pregnancies, none of Anne's children survived to adulthood - the English and Scottish thrones had no direct heir. The crown faced a succession crisis and the possibility of a Catholic inheriting the throne reared its head once more.

    So in 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which settled the question of succession. It decreed that only Protestants could ascend the throne. Moreover, Protestant kings and queens couldn't even have a Catholic spouse. 

    Parliament struggled to find a legitimate heir to fit the bill, and it finally settled on one of Anne's distant relatives, George of Hanover. By electing to make George the heir, it skipped over more than 50 Catholics who had a better claim to the throne than a prince of a Germanic state. How did George become the heir? He was the great-grandson of James I, and so he succeeded Queen Anne in 1714. He may have been a German who didn't even speak English - but at least he wasn't a Catholic. 

  • Charles II Converted To Catholicism On His Deathbed Because Anti-Catholic Sentiment Prevented Him From Getting Around To It Sooner
    Photo: Henri Gascar / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Charles II Converted To Catholicism On His Deathbed Because Anti-Catholic Sentiment Prevented Him From Getting Around To It Sooner

    When Charles II became king in 1660, he took the reins of an England that had become severely anti-Catholic. Catholics were even blamed for starting the Great Fire of London in 1666. Seven years later, Parliament passed the Test Act, which basically tested military and government officials by requiring them to take a Protestant oath. Parliament even tried to strong-arm Charles into excluding his younger brother James from the throne. James was an avowed Catholic, and, since Charles didn't have an heir of his own, the crown would pass to him. Charles refused, and his brother remained his heir.

    Despite fears of "Popish Plots" that pervaded England and Scotland, Charles actually had a sneaking admiration for Catholicism. In fact, he was resolved to become a Catholic himself. But, correctly gauging the anti-Catholicism of his subjects, he waited until the last possible moment. He converted on his deathbed in 1685.

  • Autumn Kelly Was Raised A Catholic And Had To Convert Before She Could Marry Prince Harry's Cousin In 2008
    Photo: Archives New Zealand / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Autumn Kelly Was Raised A Catholic And Had To Convert Before She Could Marry Prince Harry's Cousin In 2008

    Prince Harry isn't the first member of the royal family to wed a North American bride. In 2008, Harry's cousin Peter Phillips - Queen Elizabeth I's eldest grandchild - married Autumn Kelly, a McGill-educated Canadian. Kelly actually grew up as a Catholic, and even attended Catholic school. While this fact did not prevent the marriage from taking place, the Act of Settlement did mean that Peter Phillips's place in the line of succession was threatened by marrying a Catholic. Per the 1701 law, men and women in the line of succession could lose their place if they married a Catholic. So shortly before her May 2008 wedding, Kelly actually renounced her Catholic faith and converted to Anglicanism

    If Phillips and Kelly had waited only a few more years, she would not have had to go through the trouble of converting. In 2013, the monarchy modernized a bit thanks to the Succession to the Crown Act. Among other things, the act states that men and women in the royal family can marry Catholics and retain their place in the line of succession. 

  • The Warming-Pan Scandal Was A Moment When Protestants Freaked Out Over The Birth Of A Catholic Heir

    When James II became king in 1685, he was the first Catholic to ascend the throne in over a century - and it freaked everyone out. Protestants distrusted James so much that they feared he had a Catholic agenda. But they accepted him at first, since his two daughters and likely heirs were firm Protestants. Mary and her younger sister Anne had no intention of converting to Catholicism, and so Protestants tolerated James because they knew that things would go back to normal when one of his daughters became queen.

    But that all changed in 1688 when James and his young, Catholic wife welcomed a legitimate male heir whose gender threatened to downgrade his Protestant older sisters in the line of succession. If Protestants were concerned before, they were losing it now. Rumors started to circulate that the infant - James Francis Edward Stuart, the Prince of Wales - wasn't the legitimate son of James at all. The real infant prince was stillborn, many insisted, and the baby that now slumbered in royal cradle had been born to someone else and smuggled into the palace in a warming pan. The scandal was noisy enough that it threatened to make illegitimate the king's bouncing baby boy. 

  • Remember, Remember That The Fifth Of November Was About The Persecution Of English Catholics

    After England became a Protestant kingdom in the 1530s - with a brief return to Catholicism under Mary I between 1553 and 1558 - Catholics were marginalized. Their ties to the Catholic Church and a foreign figure of authority - the Pope in Rome - were met with suspicion by a crown that defined its authority by being head of its own Protestant Church. Elizabeth I proved herself to be Queen of Anti-Catholicism in England, as she persecuted Catholics through penal laws that fined them and marked priests as treasonous traitors. Many priests were even executed.

    Her successor James I was the son of Catholics - Queen Mary of Scotland was his mother - but he remained committed to Protestantism in England. It would be an understatement to say that English Catholics were not thrilled about the same, old forms of persecution under a new king. So on November 5, 1605, a group of them took matters into their own hands by engineering the so-called Gunpowder Plot: they intended to blow up parliament, thereby assassinating James I. They then planned to kidnap his young daughter, Princess Elizabeth. They intended to raise Elizabeth as a Catholic and name her queen. The conspirators didn't get very far, and the plot was uncovered before they could even light a fuse.

    Though the plot failed, "Guy Fawkes Day" or "Bonfire Night" is still celebrated in England to commemorate the defeat of the Gunpowder Plotters.