‘Anxious for the welfare of his people’: the passage of the Royal Marriages Act (1772)

Last week we welcomed the news of the forthcoming marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. This is notable as the first royal engagement since changes were made to the rules governing royal marriages. Prior to 2013 and the passing of a new Royal Succession Act, descendants of George II (reigned 1727-1760) – with some exceptions – required the sovereign’s permission to marry under the rules of the Royal Marriages Act (1772). The new Act repealed the 1772 measure (it also ended the discrimination against Catholics). Now only the six people nearest in line to the throne require the monarch’s permission to marry. As fifth in line to the throne, this includes Prince Harry. Dr Robin Eagles considers the motivations behind the passage of the 1772 Act and some of the accompanying responses.


On 20 February 1772 a message from the king was conveyed to both Houses requesting Parliament to take into consideration the question of royal marriages:

His Majesty being desirous, from paternal Affection to His own Family, and anxious Concern for the future Welfare of His People, and the Honour and Dignity of His Crown, that the Right of approving all Marriages in the Royal Family (which ever has belonged to the Kings of this Realm as a Matter of public Concern) may be made effectual… and, by some new Provision, more effectually to guard the Descendants of His late Majesty King George the Second… from marrying without the Approbation of His Majesty, His Heirs, or Successors, first had and obtained G.R. [LJ xxxiii. 258]

The catalyst for this new initiative stemmed from the occasionally troubled inter-familial politics of the mid-eighteenth century royal family.

On 1 November 1771 George III had received a surprise visit from his younger brother, Henry, duke of Cumberland. A serial womanizer, Cumberland had cost his brother £13,000 the year before to satisfy costs and damages awarded against him in a case of ‘criminal conversation’ brought against him by Lord Grosvenor. Now, he had even more difficult news to impart. While they strolled together, Cumberland handed over a paper to the king explaining his recent marriage to Anne Horton, widowed daughter of the notorious libertine, Lord Irnham. The king was flabbergasted and informed his brother that it would be best for all if the new couple quit the country. On 3 November Cumberland and his new duchess duly left for France. The king subsequently let it be known that he would not receive at court anyone who waited on the Duke and Duchess after Cumberland refused a final offer of the king’s continued friendship if he would agree not to appear in public with ‘Mrs Horton’.

The king’s consternation was in part driven by the fact that the new duchess came from what was considered to be a remarkably unsuitable background. Irnham was satirized in popular prints as the ‘King of Hell’; Anne’s brother, Henry Lawes Luttrell, was the ambitious but extremely unpopular man the administration had backed against John Wilkes in the recent Middlesex election. Anne’s own reputation was hardly decorous. Yet the king’s ostensible objections were less about these and more about dynastic concerns:

In any country a prince marrying a subject is looked upon as dishonourable, nay in Germany the children of such a marriage cannot succeed to any territories; but here, where the Crown is but too little respected, it must be big with the greatest mischiefs. Civil Wars would by such measures be again coming in this country, those of the Yorks and Lancasters were greatly owing to intermarriages with the nobility… [John Brooke, King George III, 274]

Intent on ensuring that he would not be faced with such a dilemma again, George insisted on the introduction of a new Act, requiring members of the extended royal family to seek his permission before marrying. If they did not, their marriages would be void. George discussed this with his (favoured) brother, the duke of Gloucester, who found himself in the awkward position of having to confess to the king that he too had been married without the king’s knowledge some years earlier. Gloucester was presented with the same ultimatum as Cumberland: not to acknowledge his wife publicly, or face exile from court. Like Cumberland, Gloucester chose the latter.

Nothing daunted, the king pressed on with his plan. The experienced lawyer, Lord Mansfield, was called in to draft the measure, which was then presented to the cabinet. No one much cared for it, but the king was determined and reminded the Prime Minister, Lord North, that he would ‘remember defaulters’. One of those willing to risk the king’s displeasure was the young Charles James Fox, who chose to resign his office rather than back the measure (he even acted as one of the tellers for the minority in the final vote on 24 March). His father, Henry, Lord Holland, had married clandestinely a daughter of the duke of Richmond – and thus a cadet member of the royal family – and the passage of the act now ‘was taken by the Fox family as a personal slight’ [L.G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 20] As it happened, Fox seems to have been seeking an excuse to throw in the towel for some time, and may have been only too pleased by the opportunity to quit.

On 21 February 1772 the bill was presented to the Lords. It passed on 3 March in spite of spirited opposition regimented by the marquess of Rockingham, for whose grouping the cause had proved an unexpected bonus at a time when they were otherwise in the doldrums. The next day, the bill made its way to the Commons, who examined it in detail in a series of lengthy sessions – one lasting till 2.30 in the morning. Despite this, the administration’s grasp on the business remained secure and on 24 March the Commons voted to pass the bill by 168 votes to 115. It received the royal assent on 1 April (one of 65 acts passed on that day alone).

Popular response both to the Cumberlands’ match and the new Act was lively, and at times distasteful. Historical precedents were much quoted, with the example of the Wars of the Roses cited by several writers. One anecdote told how George II had considered such a measure when he was concerned that his heir, Prince Frederick, was demonstrating too much interest in a lady of the court but that he had been talked out of it by Walpole. Another suggested the matter was the other way around: that the king’s ministers had wished to bring in such a bill but George II had been against it. At least one commentator made abusive racist comments about Cumberland’s wife, who was described as ‘an African Slave’s Bastard by a Scotchman, with an Irish Cross upon the Breed’. Irnham’s wife, Judith Maria Lawes, was the daughter of Sir Nicholas Lawes, former governor of Jamaica, and his fifth wife, Elizabeth Lawley. It is possible, then, that the family did indeed have some black heritage. They were certainly slave owners, and continued to maintain plantations for several generations to come.

In the long term, though, as John Brooke has pointed out, for all his ‘what-what-ing’ the king was not fierce in enforcing his rule preventing courtiers from visiting his brothers and their wives and Cumberland’s marriage, which had been the catalyst for the brouhaha, proved remarkably successful. Duchess Anne proved ‘a good wife to the Duke of Cumberland. She kept him straight… and she did her best to prevent him making a fool of himself in politics…’ [Brooke, George III, 279]

The greatest irony of all this, was that George had been seeking above all to avoid problems in the future with his own children. The Royal Marriages Act did not, however, prevent his heir, George, Prince of Wales, from marrying Maria Fitzherbert illegally (with the support of the Cumberlands). It did, though, make it easy for the king to insist on the voiding of the marriage, thus enabling the Prince of Wales to be forced into a thoroughly disastrous dynastic match with Caroline of Brunswick.



Further reading:

P.D.G. Thomas, ‘Parliament and the Royal Marriages Act, 1772’, Parliamentary History xxvi: pt 2 (2007)

John Brooke, King George III (1974)

W.M. Elofson, The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party (1996)


Georgian lords 2

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