Were the bride a Roman Catholic, the talk all would be about religion, not about her bridal gown.
For three centuries British law has held that no monarch can be a Catholic, or married to a Catholic, and no heir can be a Catholic or married to a Catholic. Proposals to change the law have been made. The Canadian Supreme Court recently upheld the law in Canada, which while fully independent, is a constitutional monarchy sharing its dynasty with Britain.
All this is moot since Kate Middleton is, and always has been, a Protestant.
This law has presented problems in the past, most sensationally over a century ago. Queen Victoria was on the throne, reigning over the worldwide British Empire, “upon which the sun never set.” Her heir was her eldest son, Albert Edward, prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. He was an Anglican. His wife was the Danish Princess Alexandra, born a Lutheran, a convert to Anglicanism. So, there was no problem for him.
However, the elder son of Albert Edward and Alexandra, Prince Albert Victor, duke of Clarence, while himself an Anglican, was smitten by the great-granddaughter of the last French king, Louis Philippe. Princess Helene of Orleans, daughter of the pretender to the French throne, and sister of the Portuguese queen, in every other sense was an ideal candidate for Albert Victor’s hand.
Queen Victoria favored the match. So did her government. British leaders wanted to cement ties with France. While Helene’s family no longer reigned, she and her parents were very popular in France.
Helene’s Roman Catholicism was the problem. If married to her, Albert Victor would be denied his rights as heir.
Historians differ. Some say that her father, Prince Philippe, duke of Orleans, would not hear of her conversion to Anglicanism. This is likely. Aside from religious feelings, a movement in France actively sought to restore the monarchy, with Philippe as king. His greatest supporters were fervent Catholics who would find Helene’s conversion offensive.
Some say that Helene herself was willing to convert and personally asked Pope Leo XIII himself to give his approval. Of course he had to refuse, if he were asked. In any case, Helene stayed a Catholic.
The romance ended, although apparently not with the couple’s preferences. Time passed. Albert Victor was engaged to a minor German princess, Mary. Then tragedy struck. The prince fell ill with influenza in 1895, and in short order he died. His younger brother, George, duke of York, followed him as heir, married Mary, and from 1910 to 1936 they were King George V and Queen Mary.
It was said that, as Albert Victor lay dying, delirious in his fever, he whispered only one word, “Helene”. At his funeral, his grieving parents allowed one wreath to rest on his coffin. It bore a card with the oneword, “Helene”.
For a while, Helene was discussed as a bride for the future Czar Nicholas II. Her Catholicism again was the problem. Any Russian czarina had to be Orthodox.
Helene eventually was married to the properly Catholic Prince Emmanuel Filibert, duke of Aosta, a cousin of the Italian king. She died in England in 1951, not far from the place where she had met Albert Victor.
Seventy-five years later, some speculated that Prince Charles, eldest son and heir of Queen Elizabeth II, wished to marry Princess Marie Astrid of Luxembourg, daughter of Grand Duke Jean and Grand Duchess Josephine Charlotte. Marie Astrid was, and is, a Catholic. The religious problem arose again at least in conversation. One rumor had Marie Astrid’s uncle, Belgium’s King Baudouin, working for a solution. Nothing happened.
Charles married Lady Diana Spencer. William is their son.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV's associate publisher.