Was Anyone Ever Prosecuted For Violating The Royal Marriages Act?

Last week’s post about the Royal Marriages Act 1772 led a reader to ask an interesting question: was it ever used to prosecute anyone?

If you haven’t read the original post, here are the basics: the Royal Marriages Act required most descendants of George II to obtain the Sovereign’s permission before marrying. It didn’t matter if you were first in line for the throne or a distant cousin; the Monarch still had to sign off on your nuptials. Failure to obtain royal consent rendered the marriage null and void under British law, and any children born of the union would be considered illegitimate.

But the Act didn’t stop there. The person who presided over the wedding as well as the guests would all be subject to the penalties of praemunire. This would have been a devastating punishment, for as Sir Edward Coke observed, those convicted of a praemunire “shall be out of the king’s protection, and his lands and tenements, goods and chattels forfeited to the king: and that his body shall remain in prison at the king’s pleasure.[1]

Despite these stern provisions, there were no prosecutions for violating the Royal Marriages Act even though several of George III’s sons flaunted its provisions. Part of the problem may have been the difficulty in obtaining the necessary evidence to secure a conviction. As C. d’O. Farran noted in a 1951 journal article on the Royal Marriages Act, “evidence [of the crime] could only come from a police spy provided in advance with a free pardon. No one can be compelled to give evidence which will have the effect of incriminating the witness himself.[2]” Farran also noted that, as time wore on, public opinion would have made it increasingly difficult for the authorities to prosecute anyone under the Act.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to characterize the Royal Marriages Act as anything but a failure. The people whose behavior it was supposed to correct simply ignored it, and all it really did was create busywork for the Home Office.[3]

NOTES

[1] Quoted in Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 4 (London: A. Stahan and W. Woodfall, 1791), 117-118.

[2] C. d’O. Farran, “The Royal Marriages Act 1772,” The Modern Law Review, vol. 14, no. 1 (January 1951), 55-56.

[3] For a description of the Home Office’s role in the consent process c. 1950, see “Extract from Eagleston’s Memorandum ‘The Home Office and the Crown’ Part I” last modified November 12, 2007,  http://www.heraldica.org/topics/britain/TNA/HO_45_25238.htm.

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