- Parliament and the Royal Marriages Act of 1772*
'Never was an act passed against which so much, and for which so little, was said.'1 Horace Walpole's comment was on the Royal Marriages Act, the highlight of the parliamentary session of 1772. There was then a political lull after the stormy episodes of the previous decade that had arisen mainly from the career of John Wilkes, while the imperial problems of America, India and Ireland were dormant in the early 1770s. The bill was strongly contested in both houses of parliament. The manuscript Lords Journals record several 'long debates' and five divisions.2 In the Commons 21 divisions occurred over the bill, and at least 95 M.P.s spoke during its passage, which took up 'near an hundred hours', according to Walpole.3 Prime Minister Lord North, who at this time was the only cabinet member in the Commons, spoke 54 times while steering the legislation through the House. What excited passion and controversy was the widespread belief that the bill constituted an extension of the royal prerogative, and in that sense the debates have an old-fashioned, even retrospective, character. Both sides at times claimed to be acting in the spirit of the Revolution Settlement of 1689.
The origin and timing of the legislation were fortuitous. On 2 October 1771 the duke of Cumberland, George III's youngest brother, secretly married a widow, Mrs Anne Horton, daughter of the dissolute Lord Irnham, and sister of the Henry Luttrell who had been the ministerial candidate against John Wilkes in the Middlesex elections controversy of 1769. The king felt a sense of outrage when on 1 November the duke informed him. His objection was not to the family connexion, mockingly undesirable as it was, but that it was a royal marriage to a subject. There were famous precedents, notably Henry VIII and the future James II, but before the end of the seventeenth century it had become the invariable practice of the British royal family to marry into protestant royal and princely houses of northern Europe. James II's own daughters Mary and Anne had respectively married William, prince of Orange, virtual sovereign of the Netherlands, and Prince George of Denmark. In a letter to his other surviving brother the duke of Gloucester, George III commented that 'in any country a prince [End Page 184] marrying a subject is looked upon as dishonourable. . . . I must therefore on the first occasion show my resentment. I have children who must know what they have to expect if they could follow so infamous on example'.4 The duke must have read this letter with consternation, for in 1766 he had also secretly married a subject, the dowager Lady Waldegrave, a circumstance of which the king evidently still remained ignorant. In a letter of 5 February 1772 to Lord North discussing the draft bill, George III referred to improper alliances in the singular, 'a late instance'.5 It has often been a misconception that the duke of Gloucester's marriage was a further reason for the Royal Marriages Act.6 Rumours about it did soon circulate, perhaps stimulated by the bill: in the Commons debate of 11 March Lord Foulest mentioned a public rumor of the marriage.7 But not until 13 September did Gloucester write to inform the king that he had been married for six years: 'the world being so much acquainted with my marriage, whilst your Majesty is still supposed to be ignorant of it'.8
The king now informed the North ministry that he required legislation to give the sovereign control over marriages in the royal family, the sanction to be nullity of any unauthorized marriage. 'This harsh and despotic power claimed by the Crown . . . was insisted upon by the King and Queen', so wrote Horace Walpole.9 It was generally assumed that George III's concern was over the succession to the throne, to prevent any possible heir making an unsuitable marriage, and the extent of the power he demanded therefore incurred widespread criticism. The need for royal permission was to apply to all descendants of George II, thereby including not only the king...