Somehow, Americans find royalty fascinating, if it’s British royalty. When Prince Harry was married recently, it was big, big news in this country. The king and queen of Sweden have a new grandbaby. The husband of the queen of Denmark died not long ago. Japan’s emperor has announced his plans to abdicate. Americans could not care less.
Prince Harry’s bride attended a Catholic school in Los Angeles but has never been a Catholic. If she were, the marriage would be legal today, although for centuries, British law said that no one in line for the throne could be married to a Catholic. This law very much affected a royal romance in the latter years of the reign of the legendary Queen Victoria. Victoria’s heir was her eldest son, Albert Edward, prince of Wales, who in time would succeed his mother and reign as King Edward VII.
Albert Edward’s wife was Princess Alexandra of Denmark, a daughter of the Danish king, and a Protestant. Their marriage had produced six children, the oldest of whom was Prince Albert Victor, duke of Clarence. Under British law, Albert Victor was second in line for the throne, just after his father. He had his faults, historians admit, but as a young man he was, without competition, the world’s most eligible bachelor. Rarely a day passed without a newspaper story somewhere, including in the United States, speculating about whom Albert Victor would choose to be his wife.
Albert Victor met Princess Helene, great-granddaughter of the last French king. Quickly, the couple was attracted to each other. Deeply in love, they wanted to marry. The problem was that Helene was a Roman Catholic, as were her parents. For centuries, the French Royal Family had championed all things Catholic. Because of British law, if Albert Victor and Helene were married, then he could never be king. Their children, if any, could not be reared as Catholics. Queen Victoria and the parents of the couple recognized true love when they saw it. Compromises were sought. Could Helene wed Albert Victor, but then could their children be raised as Protestants? Could she herself become a Protestant?
Victoria finally insisted that British law had to be obeyed. Helene herself was devoted to the Church, and her parents said that never would they condone her departure from the Catholic Church, under any circumstances, not even to be Britain’s queen. The princess asked to discuss the matter with Pope Leo XIII. The pope received her. Reports say that he was kind and understanding, but said he could not give to her a privilege not granted to ordinary Catholics. The princess bit the bullet. Unwilling to renounce her faith, she ended the relationship with Albert Victor. Several years later she was married to a cousin of the Italian king. She died in 1951.
Albert Victor never married. He was engaged to a Protestant princess, however, in 1892 when he fell ill with influenza. In a few days, he died. Bystanders said that in his delirium, Albert Victor continually spoke one word, “Helene!” At his state funeral, nothing lay on his casket but a single wreath of flowers — the wreath sent by Princess Helene.
Incidentally, not too many years later, Albert Victor’s first cousin, Victoria Eugenie, did convert to Catholicism. She married the king of Spain, with the full approval of King Edward VII. Spain’s current king is her great-grandson and godchild.
Likely without remembering Albert Victor or Victoria Eugenie, the prime ministers of the 15 nations now sharing with Britain their head of state met in 2011 and agreed to allow British royalty to be married to Catholics.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.