Prince Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey is doubtless historic. Of the many revelations, one that has caused confusion for some was the disclosure that they had entered a private ceremony of marriage in their gardens at Kensington Palace, three days before the public ceremony on May 19 2018. With the Archbishop of Canterbury present, and only Harry and Meghan, they committed themselves to each other in marriage in a ceremony that was private and meaningful to them.
So when did they actually marry, and what is the significance of having two ceremonies? While being royals certainly has implications where weddings law is concerned, dual ceremonies are not unique to them. Many couples in England and Wales do this every year.
Those who live their lives in accordance with a particular faith or belief system, for example, will often have a prescribed manner of marrying that is not recognised by English law. These couples may be compelled to undertake two ceremonies, one that is recognised by their faith/belief, and another that is recognised by the law. This includes, though is not limited to, humanists, Muslims, pagans and Hindus.
Many others, similar to Harry and Meghan but perhaps without the same profile, also want a ceremony that is personally meaningful to them. In such instances, they can even engage one of over 1,000 independent celebrants in the UK who can tailor the service to the needs of the couple.
In normal circumstances, Anglican weddings require the publishing of banns (a notice of the proposed wedding) or a licence, two witnesses, and to be held in premises of the Church of England. For royals, however, it is specifically provided that the Marriage Act 1949 does not “affect any law or custom relating to the marriage of members of the Royal Family”. Over time, various laws and customs have existed that bind royals, including the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which sets out, among other things, that royal marriages require consent from the monarch – which is still in force today for the first six members of the royal family in the line of succession.
The royal exemption from current marriage legislation originated in the Clandestine Marriages Act 1753, and effectively means that royal marriages are governed by the law as it stood before that act – known as the Canon Law of the Church of England. On this basis, one could perhaps argue that the secluded private garden ceremony could be considered binding. However, there is an important distinction between an exchange of vows that is binding and a legal marriage. Their legal marriage was the one celebrated publicly by special marriage licence from the Faculty Office at St George’s Chapel in Windsor on May 19 2018.
Nonetheless, legalities aside, it seems that for Meghan and Harry the private ceremony was the one that was personally meaningful to them. For many who undertake dual ceremonies, the personally meaningful element may in fact be the most important part of their wedding process. For example, a Muslim couple would generally consider their religious nikah ceremony as marking their marriage, and this is often celebrated with many friends and family present, and following prescribed religious norms. A follow-up civil wedding, where this occurs, is often more muted and considered procedural for legal recognition purposes.
Mixed-faith couples on the other hand may undertake two religious ceremonies, representing the couple’s differing faiths. One of these may be a legally binding marriage, assuming that it is conducted in accordance with the law. Setting aside the special rules that apply to Anglican, Jewish and Quaker weddings, the latter two being exempt from restrictions on the venue, religious weddings must take place in a registered place of worship to be legally recognised.
Crucially, however, not all recognised places of worship, and certainly not all places where people worship, are registered for marriages.
Changing the law
If you are reading this and wondering why the system for marrying is so complex, you are certainly not alone. Provisional proposals put forward by the Law Commission of England and Wales pave the way for a simpler way to marry without the need for a dual ceremony. Having consulted on these proposals, it will be making recommendations for reform later this year.
We are undertaking research on how people marry in England and Wales, with a focus on those who have a dual ceremony or chose to have a single meaningful ceremony that isn’t legally recognised. This research will help understand why people marry in multiple ways, so that any reforms in weddings law can reflect the way people marry today.
For some, legal recognition isn’t what makes a wedding ceremony meaningful. And while many may wrangle over when Meghan and Harry were actually married, the ceremony three days before the one the rest of us saw may be the one that mattered most to them.