The "Royal Wedding"

and the Historical Background of the Ceremony


A few weeks ago millions of people all over the world were watching the "Royal Wedding" of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.  People were glued to the tube for various reasons--some to see what Catherine's gown would look like, others to see who would walk in the door of Westminster to attend the ceremony, some of the older folks wanted to see how Queen Elizabeth II looked as she aged, but how many were viewing the proceedings to see two people married in the sight of God is debatable.  The presiding clerics were Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster, who did the first portion of the service, and then Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England conducted the ceremony, asked the vows, and concluded with a brief sermon.  There were some attending and watching on television who would have known about the history behind the Anglican wedding ceremony, but it is likely that the great mass did not know and could have cared less.  Much of the actual ceremony can trace its words back to another Archbishop of Canterbury that served from 1533-1553, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556).  Archbishop Cranmer composed The Form of the Solemnization of Matrimony for what could be called the first edition of The Book of Common Worship, which was published in 1549.  Thomas Cranmer had served King Henry VIII and continued to serve the throne when Edward VI was crowned following his father's death.  The following will take a look at some of the history of a portion of the marriage ceremony and how it played into the Royal Wedding.

The Marriage of Henry VIII (1491-1547) and Catherine of Aragon
The historical story begins with the tumultuous reign of England's King Henry VIII.  For years the reign of Henry VIII has entertained reading and viewing audiences with its intrigue and deception, as exemplified in the 1970 series of plays by the BBC The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Allison Weir's 1990 book with the same title.  Marriage increasingly influenced the rule and decisions of Henry's years due to his obsessive compulsion, which was common to kings, to father a strong, intelligent, and wise son to take the throne when it became necessary.  However, Henry had a real problem fathering that robust son for the throne due to complications with his wives.  Henry spent a considerable portion of his rule finagling and maneuvering people and powers to achieve his end--a male heir to the throne.
In 1502, a marriage was arranged by Henry VII between his young son Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, who was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.  In arranging the marriage, Henry VII was doing what royalty often does--use their children's marriages to achieve some political or military end.  In this case, the marriage would strengthen England's ties to Spain as they both opposed France.  Arthur was Henry VII's oldest son, seventeen at the time, and he was one year younger than Catherine.  Catherine and Arthur were married and within five months Arthur died.  The next in line for the throne was Prince Henry, who was only twelve years old in 1503.  With Arthur dead, King Henry VII wanted to arrange for Widow Catherine a marriage to his son, Prince Henry.
The proposed marriage for Henry and Catherine had a bit of a problem; well, really it was a substantial and thoroughly difficult problem.  If Henry was to marry Catherine he would be marrying his deceased brother's wife.  Mosaic Law prohibited a man marrying his deceased brother's wife due to the exclusion of such marriages in Lev. 18:16, which reads--You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness.  The enforcer of biblical laws upon Roman Catholic royalty and common folks was the papacy, so how could Roman Catholic King Henry get the marriage by the pope?  It is important to note that the use of Leviticus 18:16 to judge the marriage illegitimate was not the issue as much as the marriage was forbidden by Rome's canon law.  For Roman Catholicism, the Word of God is the Word of God as it is interpreted by the Pope.   Over the centuries, Roman Catholicism had developed a long history of expanding on the biblical prohibitions against near kin marriages so that the laws of the church exceeded the Law of God.  The papacy was serious about the error of such marriages, but Pope Julius was maneuvered into granting a bull allowing King Henry VIII, crowned April 23, 1509, to marry Catherine in June.  Henry VII had died earlier that year and the throne was open for Prince Henry's accession.  When they married, Henry was eighteen and Catherine was twenty four years of age.
By 1514, it was clear to King Henry that he was not going to have a surviving male-child with Catherine.  Catherine had five conceptions delivering 2 miscarriages, 2 sons who died within a few weeks of birth, and Princess Mary, who would survive to become Queen Mary I in 1553. [1]   By 1526, Henry was seeking an annulment of his marriage with Catherine as he followed his lust for Ann Boleyn (1500-1536).  When Henry married Catherine, the marriage to his deceased brother's wife had been approved by Pope Julius, but now he had to get the even thornier annulment past the current pope, Clement VII.  Since there was a new pope, Henry pursued an annulment of his marriage to Catherine claiming that Pope Julius's bull had been in error; Henry declared that the marriage to his deceased brother's wife was against God's Law. [2]  Henry claimed that he had "discovered" the Bible told him why his marriage was barren--which was a stretch given the young child Mary, so that the marriage was not really barren--but he claimed it was "barren" because of the curse at the end of Leviticus 20:21 that reads--If a man takes his brother's wife, it is impurity, He has uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless. Henry persisted and pushed his case for an annulment before Pope Clement VII while Catherine defended the legitimacy of the marriage at least partially due to her concern that Mary not be declared illegitimate because of an annulment.  All of this wrangling with Rome and its canon law, as well as canvassing the universities and scholars for opinions on the legitimacy of the marriage, came to naught, because after several years of conflict between Henry and Rome the matter was to be solved through another means.  Archbishop Thomas Cranmer provided the annulment that Rome refused to grant when on May 23, 1533, he announced his decision that the near-kin marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine had been invalid from its beginning and therefore must be annulled.  Henry had married secretly his already pregnant mistress, Anne Boleyn, in January 1533.  Anne was crowned queen in May and Elizabeth, who would become Queen Elizabeth I, was born to her in September.  For Henry VIII, the problem of the pope was resolved finally and fully in 1533, when via the Act of Supremacy, he declared himself the ruler of the church in England.
Catherine was condemned to live out her days on the royal dole with no power and few friends within the Tudor household.  For Henry, Catherine, as all of his future wives, would be weighed in the balance of his favor according to whether or not they provided the greatly coveted male heir to the throne.  When Catherine died in 1536, Henry did not attend her funeral.  However, Catherine would posthumously obtain a coup de grâce against King Henry when her daughter Mary acceded to the throne in 1553.

It may be wondered at this point what all this has to do with the recent and less historically interesting "Royal Wedding."  As was mentioned earlier, Thomas Cranmer authored the 1549 Book of Common Worship.  In that first edition is found The Form of the Solemnization of Matrimony that begins with the following words in preface to the first words of the actual ceremony--

First the banns must be asked three several Sundays, or holy days, in the service time, the people being present, after the accustomed manner.

And if the persons that would be married dwell in diverse parishes, the banns must be asked in both parishes, and the Curate of the one parish shall not solemnize matrimony betwixt them, without a certificate of the banns being thrice asked, from the Curate of the other parish.

At the day appointed for Solemnization of Matrimony, the persons to be married shall come into the body of the Church, with their friends and neighbors.  And there the priest shall thus say...[etc.]

The first step to be taken for marriage is for the "banns" to be asked in three previous services of the church, which raises the question, "what are 'banns'?"  As was seen in the case of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, there was an impediment to his marriage because he was to marry his deceased brother's wife.  Roman Catholicism had a list of near-kin relationships, that is relationships of consanguinity or blood relations, and affinity or relations established through marriage, which were taken predominantly from Scripture but included relationships that had been deduced from the Law of God but there were also others that could not be traced directly to a Bible text.  In asking the "banns," the cleric was to question the congregations of both parties for wedlock if they knew of any kinship relationship between the man and woman within the prohibited degrees.  If so, they were to let a church official know about the relationship.  The reason for the banns was to prohibit a man and woman from marrying and committing incest by virtue of the fact that they were related by blood or marriage.
Following these introductory points, the curate in charge was then to read the familiar words of the marriage ceremony saying--Dearly beloved friends, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of his congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honorable estate instituted of God in paradise, in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his church...[etc.]  This introductory section goes on from there with much of the text having been used in the marriage of William and Catherine.  However, a sample of the changes to note include--in the 1549 edition it is said that marriage is "commended by St. Paul," but in the current version it is "commended by Holy Writ"; another change is that in the 1549 order it is said that marriage is not to be entered "to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding," which has been removed in the current version; and a final sample modification is Cranmer's version of 1549 reads, "[o]ne cause [for matrimony] was the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and the praise of God," which was presented in the Royal Wedding as, "it was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God and that children might be brought-up in the fear and nurture of the Lord and to the praise of his holy name."  The history and progression of editions between 1549 and the version used for William and Catherine is a long one of 462 years, but despite the changes that have been wrought for a multitude of reasons, the ceremony was very much like the one penned by Archbishop Cranmer.
Later in Prince William and Catherine Middleton's ceremony, the subject returned to issues of consanguinity, affinity, and the banns.  In Cranmer's order, the banns were three worship days in advance of the service, that is, the ceremony could not begin without it being determined that the prospective bride and groom were not related in a degree sufficient to prohibit their marriage.  In the Royal Wedding, the banns, no longer called by that name in the ceremony, appear later.  The ceremony for William and Catherine came to this portion of words with Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster, presiding.  Dr. Hall said--

Therefore, if any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace.

These words are directed to the congregation, the witnesses to the wedding.  It is at this point that one was to get the curate's attention and state any near-kin or other relationship that might prevent their marriage, the possibility of someone doing this at the Royal Wedding was about as high as it beginning to snow in Westminster, but this is the purpose of the statement.  However, the concern for determining impediments to marriage continued as Dr. Hall was replaced by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.  Archbishop Williams said to the couple--

I require and charge you both that you will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony ye do now confess it.  For be ye well assured that as many as are coupled together otherwise than God's Word doth allow are not joined together by God, neither is their matrimony lawful.

At this point, Archbishop Williams is instructing William and Catherine to tell about any kindred relationship or impediment to their marriage.  If somehow they had been related in a way prohibited, now was the time to make it known.  If either party had been married in the past and was not divorced, then it was time to let it be known and avoid bigamy.  Even though impediments, near kin relations, and the banns were not present in the Royal Wedding to the degree of the 1549 order for marriage, they were still there in a modified and summary form.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer went on to serve through Edward VI's brief reign influencing the king in the direction of Protestant reform.  His 1549 book was followed by a new edition in 1552.  When sickly young King Edward died July 6, 1553, the opportunity for posthumous revenge by Catherine of Aragon became a reality.  Edward had declared Lady Jane Grey his heir and she was proclaimed queen on July 9th, which was followed on July 10th with Mary declaring herself queen from her estates in East Anglia where she was well supported by the people.  So, two women claimed to be the Queen of England.  Support for Queen Jane crumbled, and Mary entered London on Aug. 7 to begin her reign at the age of 37.  Mary would not only rule England, but she would work to re-establish Roman Catholicism in the land.  The Act of Uniformity of 1549 terminated the mass and Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer of the same year shifted England to a more Protestant worship and celebration of the Lord's Supper.  In 1552, the Book was refined into an even more Protestant form.  Mary's accession resulted in Thomas Cranmer's suspension along with other bishops supporting Protestantism, while supporters of Catholicism that had been imprisoned were restored to their positions.  Given Cranmer's support of Edward and his position as Archbishop of Canterbury, he was in the lantern-light in terms of his having to be dealt with by Catholic Mary.  The gist of it all was that former Archbishop Cranmer had to either accept the return of Catholicism to some degree, or other actions would have to be taken.  Thomas Cranmer was persuaded to sign a recantation of his Protestant views via accepting key points of Catholic doctrine, but upon further reflection, he withdrew his recantation and was burned at the stake March 21, 1556.  Thomas Cranmer thrust his hand that had signed the recantation into the fire first so that his offending member would be the first destroyed.  Mary's reign would earn her the epithet "Bloody Mary" due to her executions of many leaders of the Protestant cause.  Thomas Cranmer was an admirable, heroic, but very human and fallible personality in the long history of England's becoming a Protestant nation.
So, as the Royal Wedding itself was presented on BBC-America and other networks, the commentators droned-on about aesthetics, decorations, personalities, architecture, traffic routes, couturiers, the Windsors, some of the ugliest hats ever seen in human history, and other things rather than the history and significance of the Anglican wedding ceremony and the importance of divinely instituted marriage.  The queen's yellow hat and dress, the design of Catherine's dress, the distinguished appearance of William's uniform, Prince Charles's dashing appearance as the father of the groom, the entrance of the Prime Minister and his wife, and so on, etc., etc., etc., are not what marriage is all about whether it be the marriage of royalty or commoners.  Whether one is a Christian or not, a man and woman unite in marriage because it is a creation ordinance; Adam and Eve were first united in marriage and men and women have united in marriage ever since.  The marriage ceremony, as the words stated, is performed before God.  What is more, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer knew the theological importance of marriage, and he ultimately died for the order of marriage included in the prayer book used then, and which continues to be used partially by the Church of England today.

[1]Mary I, or "Bloody Mary," ruled from 1553 to 1558.  She succeeded Edward VI (1537-1553; ruled 1547-1553), who was the son delivered to Jane Seymour resulting in her death.  Edward VI ruled 1547-1553.  When sickly Edward died and Mary I received the throne, it was as if Catherine of Aragon was getting her revenge on Henry VIII.  Mary I was a Roman Catholic; Edward VI was advised by Protestants and his reign achieved gains for Protestants.  Mary's description as "Bloody Mary" referred to her execution of many Protestants.
[2] J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (London:  Eyre & Spottiswood, 1968), 163-197, contends with Henry's view and examines canon law, papal precedent, and Henry's case for the annulment.