Part 2. We have a problem.
Meeting of Nigel Haselor (Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office), Will Petersham (Private Secretary to the Sovereign) and Lionel Henshall (Principal Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales).
12 November 2014, 11.00 AM.
Will Petersham’s small, liver-spotted hands slid a piece of paper off the notes in front of him and to his right as if he were a newsreader turning to the next story.
‘Can we discuss Princess Alexandra’s engagement? I believe Her Majesty met the Princess on Sunday and has asked that no official announcement be made until we can work out the details. Is that okay with you, Lionel?’
The younger man looked up from the note he was taking. ‘Yes. We’re fine with that. It’s a very tight group “in the know” at the moment. The Prince and Princess of Wales and Princess Eleanor know, and the Stephens family know: that is Mr and Mrs Stephens and their son, Captain Patrick Stephens. They’re all aware it can’t be announced. And the Queen, of course, knows.’ Lionel Henshall put the end of his pen to his lower lip and then put the finishing touches to his interrupted note.
‘The Queen has asked for clarification regarding the Succession to the Crown Act, specifically her requirement to give consent. Does a same-sex marriage by a member of the Royal Family fall under the terms of the Act?’
Nigel Haselor removed his spectacles and looked at the Queen’s Private Secretary. He then carefully placed his frames upside down on the blotter in front of him.
‘The legal advice that I got yesterday says “yes”. Had it been a civil partnership then the answer would have been “no” because the Succession to the Crown Act doesn’t cover civil partnerships. But, as we’re dealing with a marriage, the Queen is required to give her consent and the marriage should be declared in council as per usual.’
‘I thought so.’ Will Petersham sucked his teeth. ‘Reading between the lines, I think this is a problem for Her Majesty. I’m not sure how she can sanction a marriage that goes against the teachings of the church of which she is the titular head.’
‘Are you saying the Queen won’t give her permission? Princess Alexandra didn’t give me that impression,’ said Lionel Henshall.
Will Petersham shifted in his seat. ‘I’m not saying that she won’t give her consent. I just think Her Majesty would rather not be put in this position if it can be avoided. Would Princess Alexandra consider a civil partnership?’
In for a penny, in for a pound, thought Lionel Henshall and, taking a deep breath, said, ‘Unfortunately, a civil partnership isn’t an option. Her Royal Highness feels that it has to be a marriage and, because both the Princess and Lieutenant-Commander Stephens are practising Anglicans, they will be seeking to have the marriage blessed in church.’
‘Really? Crumbs. They’re not doing things by halves, are they?’ The Comptroller raised a black, shaggy, anticipatory eyebrow. He liked a good fight.
‘It’s important to them and, they believe, it circumvents any possible questions surrounding their lifestyle being at odds with the church and any future query over the Princess’s role as Supreme Governor.’
‘They have a point.’
‘At the moment, the Church of England’s stance is an absolute “no”. Lieutenant-Commander Stephens was brought up as Church of Scotland, and, unfortunately, the Kirk’s stance is the same.’
‘Isn’t it illegal for a member of the Church of England or the Church of Wales to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony? Didn’t think that applied to the Church of Scotland though?’ The Comptroller queried.
‘You’re talking about a marriage ceremony but we’re going to be seeking a blessing following a civil ceremony.’
‘Ah, yes.’ The Comptroller was impressed with Lionel Henshall. He had thought the younger man a brainless clotheshorse when the Prince had first hired him but he’d turned out all right. ‘Any chance either church would do that?’
Lionel Henshall shook his slick, groomed head. ‘We don’t know. We haven’t asked yet.’
‘Who’s looking at that?’
‘We are. We’re starting with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office. Of course, we’d like him to officiate, and we’re thinking about Westminster. I know the Archbishop has no jurisdiction over the Abbey but, out of courtesy, I’ll approach him first and then I’ll speak to the Dean.’
Will Petersham, who had remained quiet during this exchange, ran a finger across the creases on his freckled forehead and looked nervously at the Prince’s PPS. ‘She may be the Supreme Governor but the Queen won’t influence the church’s decision in this. You know that?’
Lionel Henshall nodded. ‘The Princess understands and doesn’t expect the Queen to involve herself. The worst result for her would be that the wedding causes some sort of schism between the church and the palace.’
Nigel Haselor pushed his eyebrows in Lionel Henshall’s direction again. ‘Any contingency plans if the church won’t do it?’
‘I’ll need to revert to the Princess in that eventuality. I don’t know at the moment how strongly she feels about the issue.’
The Queen’s Private Secretary shook his head. ‘The church won’t agree. It just won’t happen. I think Princess Alexandra needs to be realistic about this. I also think that she needs to consider the position in which this places her grandmother.’
‘Following her conversation at the weekend, Princess Alexandra was happy that Her Majesty was comfortable with the idea of her marriage. What’s changed?’
‘I don’t think anything has changed. I’m just not sure Her Majesty was as comfortable with the idea as Princess Alexandra wanted her to be.’
‘Has the Queen said she won’t give her permission to the marriage? If so, I need to let Princess Alexandra know so she can decide what she wants to do.’
Will Petersham held up a hand. ‘All I am saying is that the Princess has placed Her Majesty in a very difficult position.’
‘Gentlemen, the problem seems to be that the Queen cannot be seen to consent to her granddaughter’s marriage. So, what if we were to remove the requirement for the Queen to give permission?’ asked Nigel Haselor.
‘Out of the question,’ said Her Majesty’s Private Secretary. ‘It would be removing an important safeguard; one that has been in place for centuries.’
‘Repeal the law? On what grounds?’ asked Lionel Henshall. ‘I can foresee an almighty backlash from the church if they think it is being done to circumvent them.’
‘Leaving aside the consent-of-the-monarch aspect, the Princess’s marriage presents us with a curious problem.’ The Comptroller leaned back from the highly-polished meeting table and his pin-striped jacket gaped open to reveal a pin-striped waistcoat straining at its buttons. He placed a large, fleshy hand, palm down, on the table and addressed the oil painting of Venus hanging over the fireplace opposite him. ‘Consider for a moment what the original Royal Marriages Act was passed to stop, the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, if you will. It was designed to allow the monarch an ultimate means of sanction against anyone thought undesirable, for whatever reason, from marrying into the Royal Family and, in so doing, having a legally binding contract from which they might profit or use against the crown.
‘One of the weak points of an unsuitable marriage is, of course, the children who can be manipulated by either party and, in the event of the incapacity or early death of a monarch, by a regent. The very nature of how the Princess would conceive a child means that a third party to the marriage would have to be involved. As things stand, we have a bizarre situation where the spouse of the heir to the throne, in this case Lieutenant-Commander Stephens, undergoes a process of approval but the father of the future heir doesn’t.’
The Comptroller reluctantly drew his gaze back to the men at the table.
‘I see your point,’ said the Prince of Wales’s PPS.
‘Do we know whether Princess Alexandra and Grace Stephens want children?’ asked Will Petersham.
Lionel Henshall shook his head. ‘Princess Alexandra has told the Prince of Wales that she has no firm plans to have children and neither has Lieutenant-Commander Stephens. If they were to have children, their view is that their offspring would not be heir to the throne because of the complexities of conception and that, irrespective of any children they might have, on Princess Alexandra’s death, should her sister still be alive, the succession would pass to Princess Eleanor and then to her firstborn.’
‘That’s also a position worth considering,’ Will Petersham observed. ‘That Princess Alexandra removes herself from the line of succession on her marriage.’
Nigel Haselor shot a fierce glance in Will Petersham’s direction. ‘You’re not serious?’
Will Petersham waggled his head in a non-committal way. ‘Well… not really.’
Lionel Henshall continued, ‘I don’t think the Princess is right to remove her children from the line of succession as, under the provisions of the 2008 Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act, any children born to her or Grace Stephens would be legitimate. But, I see Nigel’s point, what would happen if a sperm donor was unsuitable? It could be just as disastrous to the crown as an unsuitable spouse. We do need to clarify it.’
The Comptroller leaned forward again and straightened the arms of his spectacles on the blotter. ‘I think we have to seek to repeal the section of the Succession to the Crown Act that deals with the Queen’s consent. It removes the conflict between approved spouse and non-approved biological father, and it solves the problem of Her Majesty consenting to a same-sex marriage.’ He turned to Will Petersham. ‘How would the Queen feel about that?’
‘Certainly, Her Majesty was in favour of amending the Royal Marriages Act when the number of descendants affected by it kept growing every year. Now it’s reduced to the six persons in line to the throne only, I don’t know how she’d feel about repealing it.’
‘Alternatively, amending the Succession to the Crown Act to provide for the approval of biological fathers might clear up any confusion?’ offered Lionel Henshall, twisting a cufflink in his Paul Smith shirt.
Nigel Haselor frowned and his bushy eyebrows leapt towards the Prince’s PPS. ‘Bad idea.’
Will Petersham looked horrified. ‘Dear God, the gutter press would have a field day over that! Can you imagine the headlines: Queen to approve sperm?’
‘You’d need to draft a new Act if you wanted to do that, and that would take longer than we have. It also doesn’t solve Will’s problem of the Queen’s consent,’ concluded the Comptroller.
‘I’m not sure that repealing a law that has stood the test of time is the solution, though. I would rather that Her Majesty was not put in this position in the first place. We need to think very carefully before we tamper with laws that protect the crown from undesirables.’
‘Undesirables? Honestly, Will, you’re stuck in the Victorian era,’ said Lionel Henshall. ‘Repealing this law will make no practical difference. When was the last time the monarch refused to give their permission? I mean it’s not as if we’re shipping in unknown European princes twenty-four hours before the ceremony; everyone lives together before marriage now. By the time a member of the Family’s getting engaged their partner’s been vetted to within an inch of their lives anyway. I tend to think the Queen’s consent is rather redundant in this day and age.’
‘I’m all for the old traditions but, in this case, I rather agree that it has out-served its usefulness,’ Nigel Haselor said.
‘I seem to be out-voted,’ said the Queen’s Private Secretary.
‘May I suggest that, Lionel, you discuss this with His Royal Highness to see what his take on it is? If he agrees that repealing section three of the Act is the best course of action, we can leave it to you to arrange matters.’
‘If the Prince of Wales does agree, I’d appreciate it if you would let me know before setting wheels in motion so that I can brief Her Majesty.’
‘As I need to phone the PM on another matter, I’m wondering whether it might be an idea to test the water regarding repealing the Act.’ The Comptroller was savvier than his colleagues when it came to the machinations of government. Getting the politicians on board early was always a good move. It made them feel important.
Lionel Henshall nodded.
‘Okay but don’t set any hares running, please.’ Will Petersham added.
‘Right, good, is there anything else we need to discuss arising from the engagement?’
‘I don’t think so. I’m going to speak to His Royal Highness and the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ confirmed Lionel Henshall.
The Comptroller’s eyes wandered to the nude over the fireplace again. ‘Hmm, I think we need to do some research into the viability of a blessing by a member of the Anglican Church. I think they could be our main sticking point. Leave it with me.’
‘We rather feared they would be,’ said Lionel Henshall, closing the notepad in front of him.
‘Thank God she’s not a Catholic!’ Will Petersham smiled weakly at his colleagues. He had a feeling that the next few months were going to be hellish.
Telephone conversation between Lionel Henshall and Dr Declan Quinn.
14 November 2014, 9.19 AM.
‘Is that Sue?’
‘It’s Lionel Henshall.’
‘Good morning, Mr Henshall.’
‘Is the Archbishop available?’
‘One moment and I’ll try his line… Archbishop, I have Lionel Henshall on the line for you.’
‘Must be about the carol service for the Prince’s foundation. Put him through… Hello, Lionel, is it you?’
‘Declan? Good morning.’
‘Are you phoning with the final choices for the carol service?’
‘No, they’re still with the Prince for his agreement. Actually, I was phoning on another matter. I know this will set the cat among the pigeons, but Princess Alexandra will be announcing her engagement to Grace Stephens on Sunday the fourteenth of December. And that’s not all. It gets worse, I’m afraid. The Princess has asked if they could have the union blessed. They’d like Westminster, if possible… Declan?’
‘I’m still here. Did you say cat? Bloody great big tiger, I’d say.’
‘I’m sorry. The Princess believes it circumvents any possible questions surrounding her partnership being at odds with the church and therefore any future query over her role as Supreme Governor.’
‘I can’t disagree with that.’
‘It’s still very hush-hush, so if you could refrain from telling anyone until then we’d appreciate it.’
‘Sure. You know I have no jurisdiction over the Abbey? That’s up to the Queen and Adam Wild.’
‘I know, but the Dean won’t act against canon law, will he? So, it’s really a matter for Synod. Do you think you can get an amendment to church law passed?’
‘Mid-June is looking most likely.’
‘You’re talking to the wrong man if it’s miracles you’re wanting! You need to get on your knees, Lionel.’
‘If you think things move slowly at the palace you should try the church.’
‘I realise it’s a tall order, but maybe the profile of the couple and the short timeframe is the kick that’s needed?’
‘You’re hopeful and that’s a fact.’
‘The Princess knows your personal stance on this issue and, without placing you in an awkward position, would very much like you to be part of the ceremony. Obviously, if it is Westminster she’d like you and the Dean to officiate.’
‘I’d love to but if Synod don’t change their minds I’m not sure how my involvement would be perceived.’
‘The Princess realises that this could be difficult for you and she has asked me to reassure you that she will understand if you don’t feel you can do it.’
‘Look, General Synod is on Tuesday. Would it be okay if I sounded out some thoughts? It’s too late to add a question to the agenda but I’ll be seeing a number of people whose views I’d welcome.’
‘Of course. We’d just ask that it remains out of the public domain for the next few weeks.’
‘I’m sorry to drop this one in your lap, Declan. I’m sure it’s the last thing you want to deal with.’
‘Actually, Lionel, you know what, this could be the thing that makes all the difference to moving this issue forward.’
‘I hope so. Thank you, Declan.’
‘Always a pleasure. And you’ll come back to me about those carols now?’
‘I’ll chase up the Prince.’
Telephone conversation between Nigel Haselor and John Pelham (Prime Minister).
14 November 2014, 9.36 AM.
‘Prime Minister, I have the Comptroller from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for you.’
‘Thank you… Hello, Nigel. This is a surprise. How are things with you?’
‘About to get a whole lot busier. How about you?’
‘Same as usual: not enough hours in the day. What can I do for you?’
‘Two things, actually. I’m phoning to give you prior warning that Princess Alexandra will be announcing her engagement to Grace Stephens on Sunday the fourteenth of December. Because of the long time-frame we’d be grateful if you didn’t mention it yet.’
‘Of course. Thank you for the notice. I can see why you’re about to get busy.’
‘As you can imagine, there are quite a few T’s to cross and I’s to dot before we go live with the news.’
‘I understand. It’s not a big shock, though, is it? When we met in the summer you thought it was on the cards.’
‘Absolutely. It’s happened slightly faster than we anticipated. We thought they’d wait until Lieutenant-Commander Stephens returned from her tour, but you play the hand you’re dealt; which brings me to my next question. How much support would there be for a repeal of the section of the Succession to the Crown Act that deals with Her Majesty’s consent to a marriage?’
‘We have a discrepancy arising from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. The Act enables a couple to marry who, by definition, are unable to conceive without assistance. All good so far. The Succession to the Crown Act means we are obliged to ask Her Majesty’s permission for any member of the Family – who is in line to the throne – to wed, straight or gay. However, we don’t require her permission for a member of the Family to conceive using a third party to the marriage. If one considers the monarch’s consent to marriage a necessity in this day and age, then surely one must also ask the Queen to approve any person additional to the marriage who is used to produce the next in line to the throne?’
‘I see your dilemma. Is Her Majesty in favour of reform?’
‘You know I can’t possibly answer that one, John.’
‘I suggest you speak to John Raymond at the Law Commission. He’s on the statute law repeals team and he’s a can-do sort of chap.
‘But to answer your original question: by the time that a repeal gets to the Commons it’s usually a done deal. Your bigger worry is what the Lords will do with it.’
‘I think we’ve got some allies in the Lords!’
‘Well, good luck with it, and thanks for the heads-up.’
‘On another matter entirely, I need to speak to you regarding…’
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