Divorce, Church of England and Edward VIII

I may make some false assumptions here. If I do, it is out of ignorance, not malice.

IIRC, the Church of England got it’s start (with the monarch as the head of the church) with Henry VIII. He wanted to divorce his wife, but the Pope denied his request. He then decided to start his own church and divorced his wife.

That being said, if those are the correct (if grossly oversimplified) origins of the Chruch of England, why was a big deal made about Edward VIII marrying a divorcee? I know that the PM (Baldwin) wanted Edward VIII off the throne, but without the King’s proposed marriage, there would have been no way to do it. So, why the problem with Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

Zev Steinhardt

In England, the monarch has amongst other courtesy titles, the one which says “Defender of the Faith”. Ironically, this was given to Henry VIII by the Pope of the time after a tussle with France – as Defender of the Catholic Faith.

Henry kept the title, and in divorcing Catherine of Aragon said that he’d start his own Church of England. Henry though was the last English monarch to try (and succeed) to marry a person already divorced, and vice versa.

As Mrs Simpson had divorced Mr Simpson, Edward VIII’s intentions raised a constitutional crisis, as the King was head of the High Anglican church, and had to behave by the rules of that church.

Thanks for the reply Ice Wolf, but that doesn’t really answer my question. Why was it OK for Henry VIII (enough so for him to start his own church), but a constitutional crisis for Edward VIII?

Zev Steinhardt

Zev, technically, Henry VIII didn’t want a divorce; he wanted an anulment. The difference is that a divorce dissolves a valid marriage tie; an anulment declares that the marriage was invalid ab initio.

His argument was based on the canonical principle that a man should not marry his deceased brother’s wife, and Henry had done just that: Katherine of Aragon was the widow of his older brother, Prince Arthur, who died shortly after the marriage and never became King.

The Pope at the time of the marriage had granted Henry a dispensation from the canonical requirement, at the request of Henry’s father, Henry VII. However, Henry argued that the fact that his marriage to Katherine had not produced a male heir proved that the marriage was sinful, notwithstanding the dispensation, and the marriage should be annulled as void, because it was contrary to canon law. He relied in part on a passage in Leviticus about the seed not taking root in the brother’s wife. I’m going by memory here, so I may not be paraphasing accurately; I’ll see if I can find a cite. (The fact that he had the hots for Anne Boleyn, who was pregnant by him, was just a side issue.)

The Pope refused to set aside the dispensation, which contributed to Henry’s decision to separate the Church of England from the Church of Rome. However, doctrinally, the C. of E. under Henry remained very catholic in doctrine. The short version is that Henry replaced the Pope’s authority with his own, as Supreme Head of the Church of England. There were some changes towards Protestantism (e.g. - the dissolution of the monasteries), but for the most part the church was still catholic at the time Henry died.

Over the next two centuries, there was a considerable struggle over the doctrine of the Church of England - was it to remain catholic, but not Roman Catholic? was it to be Protestant along the Lutheran model? was it to be Presbyterian and Calvinist? was it to be disestablished?

Eventually, a middle of the road church evolved, with elements of both Protestantism and Catholicism. (One short hand is “Low Church” for those members who are more recognisably evangelical and Protestant, and “High Church” for those that look more Catholic - it’s more complicated than that, but the short-hand is useful.)

One of the doctrinal aspects where the Church looks more Catholic than Protestant is that it frowns on divorce. Different member churches of the Anglican communion take varying views on it, but the C. of E., to my understanding, is one of the stricter ones. Thus, having a Supreme Head marry a divorcee, and by strict doctrine thereby live in sin with her, caused considerable problems for the church hierarchy in the 30s.

The Act of Supremacy of 1534 came after all the cafluffle between Rome and England over Anne Boleyn (ended 1533 with his marriage to Anne). This Act cemented the Church of England with Henry as the head. When he wanted rid of Anne, he had to wait until both Catherine of Arragon and Anne were dead. Catherine died without the ax. The ax was Anne’s fate.

You see, Henry got around the rules of the church by either(a) cutting off heads (twice) or (b) annullment. Only two died by natural causes, and the sixth outlived him.

Hope this helps, or it’s back to the books for this wolf.

I can’t really improve on jti’s explanation of the theological issues raised by Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’, but he doesn’t quite capture the significance of subsequent religious developments.

It probably is true to say that in 2001 the Church of England’s stance towards divorce is closer to that of the Roman Catholic Church than to other Protestant churches, although there are some significant differences. The same however was not true in the 1930s. Most of the major Protestant denominations in Britain were just as opposed to divorce as the C of E. What this underlines is just how unacceptable divorce was throughout British society at the time. The stigma was social as much as religious.

One could develop a further argument that the very small steps which had been made by the 1930s to liberalise the civil laws regarding divorce made things more difficult for Edward VIII. There had been a time when a divorce could only be obtain in England by getting a private Act of Parliament. This was an option open only to the very wealthy and well-connected. By the 1930s a civil divorce could be granted by the courts, although care had been taken to ensure that as much discouragement as possible was applied to any applicant. Divorce was thus expensive and embarassing, but nevertheless a possibility for the middle classes. In the days when divorce had been virtually impossible, it didn’t much matter if the king tried to get a divorce. (George IV had tried, although the case became bogged down in political infighting in Parliament.) Once it become a practical option for some, the argument that the monarch ought to set a moral example began to carry greater weight. This idea - that somehow the Supreme Governor should be a moral example to the Church of England - was a relatively new one and had little to do with how Henry VIII had thought of the position.

If I read you all correctly, you seem to be saying that it was the tone of the times that forbade the King from marrying a divorcee, and not so much Church law or the law of the land. How much did the then-King’s known political opinions (pro-facist?) influence the ministers of state in interpreting the tone of the times as requiring his abdication in order to marry the woman of his choosing?

If it’s just a question pure and simple of the woman having been married before, what is the probability of the current heir (Charles) of being denied the accession to the throne on account of his relationship with what’s-her-name?

The Church of England’s position on divorce would have created major constitutional problems for Edward VIII, but these could have been circumvented had the Anglican hierarchy been prepared to cooperate. The biggest difficulty was the legal requirement that the monarch receive Anglican communion at the coronation. The usual policy applied to ordinary divorcees or their spouses was for them to be refused communion. The question was therefore how far the Church of England was prepared to bend its own rules and the answer which very quickly emerged was not at all. The contrast with the position of Prince Charles is instructive, as, in theory, the Church of England’s position remains more or less the same, but it might now be prepared to be much more flexible. Public disapproval of any divorce in 1936 immeasurably strengthened Archbishop Lang’s case - he could plausibly claim to be the voice of the nation’s morals. The present Archbishop of Canterbury or his successors might not be so confident.

How far Edward VIII’s political views were ‘pro-fascist’ remains a subject of some debate. A more accurate description of his views at this stage might be that, as someone whose contemporaries had fought in the trenches twenty years before, he was simply keen to encourage reconciliation with Germany in a vague, unthought-through sort of way. This was not incompatible with British policy at the time. The British government would have just ignored him if it had been.

the church of england and the catholic church seem to have the same thoughts on divorce. the diffrence is that one can divorce in the church of england and not have to have the marriage annulled.

there is a rule in the church of england that states that divorce persons cannot remarry in the church if the former spouse is living. this is what stopped edward and wallis from having a coe marriage. as head of the church, edward would have to marry in the church.

henry the eigth annulled his first and fourth marriage, it went a bit further than just divorce. also 1 & 4 went in to nunneries after the marriages were disoulved. the former wives going into convent solved the “living partner” problem.
the windsor problems:

wallis was divorced twice. her former husband was still alive.

charles after divorcing diana would not be able to remarry in the church of england. he can now due to her death. however ms. parker-bowles cannot remarry in the church of england according to the bann against living former spouse.

There is no legal, religious or constitutional rule requiring the monarch or any of his or her family to be married by the Church of England. Any form of ceremony recognised by English law is valid, subject only to the monarch’s permission under the Royal Marriage Act.

Moreover, there is an obvious alternative option. The monarch, despite being Supreme Governor of the Church of England, is also a member of the Church of Scotland, whose attitudes towards divorce are now much more liberal than the official policy of the Church of England. This was the solution adopted by Princess Anne for her second marriage. (In so far as this decision was queried at the time, the argument was over whether or not it was just the monarch who enjoyed dual membership, not whether it invalidated Princess Anne’s claim to the throne.) A civil marriage would also be a valid option.

The real issue is therefore not whether Charles can marry Mrs Parker-Bowles, but whether he would then be allowed to continue receiving communion as a member of the Church of England. If he was prevented from doing so, his claim to the throne would become suspect, although the precise legal implications raised by this are far from clear. However, the unofficial policy of the Church of England on this is now notoriously flexible. Admission of divorcees to communion is currently left to the discretion of the individual vicar. Indeed, this de facto compromise is the only reason why the Church of England has managed to resist changing its official policy. All Prince Charles probably needs is a clear public indication from the Archbishop of Canterbury that re-marriage would not affect his rights to receive communion. It remains uncertain whether that indication would be granted or whether his mother would grant the necessary permission. In the absence of any publicity to the contrary, I assume that his sister has been allowed to remain in communion with the Church of England.

rocking chair writes:

Not true. Neither Katherine of Aragon nor Anne of Cleves ever entered a convent. The solution of Katherine “voluntarily” entering a convent, and Henry graciously consenting to an annulment in light of her “desire” to do so, had been proposed, but foundered (as did other approaches short of “Junker Heintz”, as Luther called him, having himself declared to be Supreme Head of the Church of England) on the rock of Katherine’s insistence that her marriage with Henry was a true one. Although Henry forced her from castle to castle (by his pravda, she could claim no rights as Queen Consort of England, but only as dowager Princess of Wales), and eventually into what amounted to internal exile, a convent was not among her residences.

Anne of Cleves was fairly liberally treated by Henry in terms of landed property (although not of cash, which Henry was often short of), since her instinct was to say, “Whatever pleases your Grace”, something that Henry liked to hear and that he usually responded well to. The liberality was, of course, based on the unspoken condition that she never leave England again, and, despite some whining, she didn’t.

From what I understand, they were more upset by the fact that she was an AMERICAN and a COMMONER. Nowadays, that’s not such a big deal, but Edward’s generation was probably the first that didn’t marry into other royalty, at least for heirs.

Following up on APB’s excellent summary of the issue of the social attittudes towards divorce, I offer the following little anecdote, told of Lyon, King of Arms, the official who vetted the guest list to the Queen’s Scottish Palace, Holyroodhouse:

(The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, p. 512.)

zev, I found the cites for you (quoting from the KJV). Henry relied on a couple of passages from Leviticus in support of his position in support of the sinful nature of his marriage, and thus the need to declare it void:

On the other hand, Queen Katherine’s supporters tended to cite Deuteronomy 25:5:

As well, Henry had the weight of a lot of precedents on his hand, as summarised by Carolly Erickson in Great Harry:

The problem for Henry was that while his petition was under consideration in the papal curia, the Imperial troops of Charles V captured Rome, and essentially made the pope, Clement VII, a prisoner. Unfortunately for Henry, Charles V was the nephew of Katherine of Aragon, and he had no intention of letting Henry dishonour his aunt. He opposed the suit, Henry’s agents pressed it, and Clement, caught between two forces, dithered purposefully. Eventually, Henry lost patience and set out on the road to separation from Rome.

Most of Henry VIII’s wives were commoners (however well connected, if you’re not a member of a royal family, you are considered a commoner, as IIRC, was Diana).

I don’t think being American would have caused any real problem, since we can’t accuse the royal family of being xenophobic (apart from Prince Philip) since marriage to foreigners has been common.

Some recent tv documentaries on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor suggest a great deal of personal antipathy between the royals and Mrs Simpson. Importantly there was the fact that she had a past. Diana, for example, had virginity and an umblemished reputation in her favour.

And lets not forget Mrs Simpson’s age - the Prince of Wales would be expected to marry good breeding stock.

The dislike of Mrs Simpson by the Royal Family, the court, senior government ministers and most of the British public was based on many factors. That she was an American and a social climber was part of it. (Sir Doris is correct that the English definition of what constitutes a ‘commoner’ is very narrow and that Lady Diana Spencer, even although she was the daughter of the earl, counted as one. The Duchess of York, now the Queen Mother, had also been one.) However these were not the arguments which proved decisive in 1936. Edward VIII would have been on strong ground had he argued that there was no constitutional reason why he should not marry an American or someone without an aristocratic pedigree. Nor were these arguments the ones which were used by Baldwin and Lang to the king. To have done so would have been tactless. What they did argue was that the king’s marriage to a divorcee would create a constitutional crisis and that any solution which might circumvent it would require assistance from them which they were not prepared to give.

The extent to which the views of the other members of the Royal Family influenced events may have been far less than might be imagined. It undoubtedly made things easier for Baldwin and Lang that they knew that they had the strong support of Queen Mary and most of other members of the Royal Family, but it was the advice of his ministers and of the bishops which cornered Edward.

Actually, from what I understand, later on, the resentment was more towards Edward himself, rather than Wallis. At least, according to Princess Margaret.
(Also, it’s a good possibility Wallis still WAS a virgin-her first husband was abusive, she wasn’t very much in love with her second, and she was quoted as to saying she didn’t allow anyone to touch her “below the Mason-Dixon line”…)

As for commoners: yes, Henry did, but this was years later. I think from Queen Anne on, the family married foreign consorts. Anne married George of Denmark, the Georges all married German princesses (Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz and Caroline of Brunswick come to mind), William IV married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meinegen. His niece, Victoria married Prince Albert of Coburg and the next two queens were princesses of Denmark and Teck. In the 19th century, one didn’t marry a commoner, or the marriage was considered morganatic.