Royal wedding watchers the world over were recently apprised of yet another milestone along the thrilling march to the altar: On Tuesday, March 6, Meghan Markle, the beautiful, biracial, divorced, 36-year-old American actress engaged to marry Prince Harry, grandson of Elizabeth II, was baptized and confirmed in the Church of England.
According to news accounts, the private ceremony lasted 45 minutes and was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, England’s most senior prelate. “The move appears to be a mark of respect to Queen Elizabeth II, who is head of the Church of England,” CNN reported.
But the subtext surrounding Markle’s baptism is a good deal more significant than simply a “mark of respect to Queen Elizabeth II.” The royal family has gone out of its way to emphasize that it was not a condition of the marriage that Meghan join the Anglican Church, that this was her choice. And it undoubtedly was. But with so much history behind it, so many wars fought and blood spilled to keep the monarchy at the head of the church, it was a condition for the wedding to take place at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury officiating. And if the ceremony did not take place in the traditional way, then no matter how gorgeous the wedding gown or how celebrity-filled the crowd, there would always have been something not-quite-right about it. It might have affected the succession as well, even if her children were later baptized into the Church of England.
The Church of England got its start during the reign of Henry VIII, the Harvey Weinstein of the 16th century. Henry had a problem: He wanted to annul his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, so he could wed Anne Boleyn, with whom he was famously besotted. To do this, Henry, a Catholic like just about everybody else in Europe at the time, had to apply to the pope. But it was expensive and time-consuming to obtain a papal dispensation and Henry was not used to being denied, particularly when it came to sex (Anne was holding out for marriage). So he decided to start his own church, the Church of England, with himself at the head. This turned out to be a brilliant idea as it meant that not only could he finally sleep with Anne Boleyn, he could also appropriate for the use of the royal treasury all the money that had been hoarded by the English monasteries over the centuries.
Henry’s motives having nothing to do with Latin or liturgy, he left the religious rites alone—the Church of England began as simply Catholicism without the pope. This made it easier for the majority of the king’s subjects, who did not have to give up their traditional service, to join a nationalist Anglican Church. Of course, there were sticklers like Sir Thomas More, who stood by the pope and paid the price for it, and other deeply religious Catholics who were horrified by what they considered to be Henry’s heresy, but they soon became an oppressed minority.
There have been many threats to the Church of England since Henry VIII’s time, and not just from Catholics. In the 17th century, Charles I lost his head trying to protect the rights of the Anglican bishops from the Puritan fanaticism of Oliver Cromwell, whose ideas about what constituted a pious kingdom—no dancing, no music (outside of psalms), no immodestly dressed women—echoes contemporary religious fundamentalism.
Additionally, the need to have the reigning monarch also act as head of the Church has caused all manner of chaos to the succession. In 1688, James II, a Catholic, was betrayed by James’s adult Anglican daughters, Mary and Anne, who, fearful of losing the chance to rule, challenged the legitimacy of their infant stepbrother, a baseless smear that nonetheless stuck and resulted in the severing of the true line of inheritance. The current British royal family owes its position not to historical precedent but rather to the expert negotiating of Sophia of Hanover, mother of George I. As the fourth daughter and 12th child of Elizabeth Stuart, granddaughter of Mary, queen of Scots, Sophia shouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the English crown, and wouldn’t have but for the need to find a Protestant monarch.
The queen’s administration must have heaved a huge collective sigh of relief when Meghan agreed to be baptized. Her gracious acquiescence effectively kicked the question of what would happen if a Catholic, Jew, Hindu, or Muslim tried to marry into the royal family to the next generation.