n 1772, the ministry of Lord North put the Royal Marriages Act through parliament, despite a great deal of opposition, especially from Charles James Fox who said that even members of the royal familyshould be able to marry whomsoever they wished. The king desired this piece of legislation to be passed after two of his brothers, William Duke of Gloucester and Henry Duke of Cumberland, made what were deemed to be unsuitable marriages to commoners.
Cumberland frequently chased women, and sometimes caught them. In 1770 he was named by Lord Grosvenor in an action for "criminal conversation" (adultery) and was cast in damages for £10,000. Cumberland's letters to Lady Grosvenor were sold around London. Cumberland also kept mistresses and everyone knew about them. In 1771 Cumberland married Anne Houghton, a widow who had been on the social scene for some time. Mrs. Houghton's father was disreputable and her brother was Henry Lawes Luttrell. Horace Walpole's comment on Mrs. Houghton (alias Nancy Parsons) was that she was: The Duke of Grafton's Mrs. Houghton, the Duke of Dorset's Mrs. Houghton, everyone's Mrs. Houghton. Cumberland's marriage was the jest of London but the couple were very happy together.
The Duke of Gloucester, who was George III's favourite brother, secretly married Maria Waldegrave in 1766. She was the illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Walpole (Horace Walpole's elder brother) who had previously married Lord Waldegrave. Gloucester and Maria had a miserable relationship; the king only got to know about their marriage because in 1771 she discovered that she was pregnant.
The Act said that all royal marriages in future must have the king's specific consent. It gave the monarch the power to veto all royal marriages until the person concerned was 25 years old and had given a year's notice to the Privy Council. This piece of legislation is still on the Statute Books. The text is as follows:
WHEREAS your Majesty, from your paternal affection to your own family, and from your royal concern for the future welfare of your people, and the honour and dignity of your crown, was graciously pleased to recommend to your parliament to take into serious consideration, whether it might not be wise and expedient to supply the defect of the laws now in being; and, by some new provision, more effectually to guard the descendants of His late majesty King George the Second, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry, into foreign families) from marrying without the approbation of your Majesty, your heirs, or successors, first had and obtained; we have taken this weighty matter into our serious consideration; and, being sensible that marriages in the royal family are of the highest importance to the state, and that therefore the Kings of this realm have ever been entrusted with the care and approbation thereof; and, being thoroughly convinced of the wisdom and expediency of what your Majesty has thought fit to recommend, upon this occasion, we, your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, in this present parliament assembled, do humbly beseech your Majesty that it may be enacted: and be it enacted by the King's most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same,
I. That no descendant of the body of his late majesty King George the Second, male or female, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry, into foreign families) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors, signified under the great seal, and declared in council, (which consent, to preserve the memory thereof is hereby directed to be set out in the licence and register of marriage, and to be entered in the books of the privy council); and that every marriage, or matrimonial contract, of any such descendant, without such consent first had and obtained, shall be null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever.
II. Provided always, and be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That in case any such descendant of the body of his late majesty King George the Second, being above the age of twenty-five years, shall persist in his or her resolution to contract a marriage disapproved of or dissented from, by the King, his heirs, or successors; that then such descendant, upon giving notice to the King's privy council, which notice is hereby directed to be entered in the books thereof, may, at any time from the expiration of twelve calendar months after such notice given to the privy council as aforesaid, contract such marriage; and his or her marriage with the person before proposed, and rejected, may be duly solemnized, without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors; and such marriage shall be good, as if this act had never been made, unless both houses of parliament shall, before the expiration of the said twelve months, expressly declare their disapprobation of such intended marriage.
III. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That every person who shall knowingly or wilfully presume to solemnize, or to assist, or to be present at the celebration of any marriage with any such descendant, or at his or her making any matrimonial contract, without such consent as aforesaid first had and obtained, except in the case above-mentioned, shall, being duly convicted thereof incur and suffer the pains and penalties ordained and provided by the statute of provision and premunire made in the sixteenth year of the reign of Richard the Second.
The Act was attacked by Chatham and Fox as extending royal powers to tyrannical levels; it passed into law easily which is indicative of the authority which Lord North had in parliament. It meant that the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Maria Fitzherbert on 15 December 1785 illegal on two counts:
- they did not have the permission of George III to marry
- she was a Catholic and the marriage of the heir to the thone to a Catholic was prohibited by the 1701 Act of Settlement
Last modified 28 February 2002