The eyes of the world will turn to Windsor next week, when actress Meghan Markle marries Prince Harry. Markle has already become enormously popular in the U.K. Between her beauty and her informal demeanor, comparisons are often made between the soon-to-be-royal and Princess Diana. The media, in particular, is portraying her as a “breath of fresh air” and “modern” royal who will breathe life into a traditional monarchy. There is one way, however, in which Markle is anything but revolutionary and that was her willingness to convert to the Church of England before her marriage.
In March it emerged that Markle had been baptized and confirmed in the Church of England in a private ceremony. Prior to her conversion the yoga fan had been baptized Roman Catholic and raised Protestant. It’s an unusual step, especially given that Markle is the first royal bride of whom conversion was not required. Until the introduction of new legislation in 2013, the 1701 “Act of Settlement” meant that anyone in the royal family who married a Roman Catholic would lose their place in the line of succession. The legislation has practical effects: In 2008 Peter Phillips’ then fiancée, Autumn, converted from Roman Catholicism in order to preserve her husband-to-be’s position in line. Had the Act of Settlement not been altered, however, the baptized (though non-practicing) Catholic, Markle too would have had to convert or Harry would have forfeited his right to the throne.
It seems that Meghan, who identifies as Protestant, is converting out of respect for the queen, who is head of the Church of England. And while most know about rulers such as Catherine the Great, there are other famous monarchs whose religious affiliations have been shaped by love or forced politics.
King Solomon, the son of King David and legendary owner of diamond mines, is most popularly known for his wisdom. A story involving his decision in a matter of the contested of an infant has been enshrined in our cultural consciousness as a part-genius and part-fable. But when it came to matters of the heart it appears that Solomon was considerably less savvy.
According to 1 Kings 11:1 Solomon “loved many foreign women.” This is despite the fact, the Bible tells us, that God had told the Israelites, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods” (1 Kings 11:1-2). But the heart wants what it wants and Solomon “clung to these in love” all 700 princess-wives and 300 concubines of them. Just as God had predicted, however, these women did sway Solomon’s commitments. And, when he was older, Solomon “turned away his heart… and was not true to the Lord his God.” In addition to following the female goddess Astarte he built religious sites for several deities including one in Jerusalem for the child-sacrifice deity Molech. While we couldn’t exactly describe this as conversion, it is very much an example religious apostasy. And so the great Solomon, the architect of the first temple in Jerusalem, was led astray by matters of the “heart.” It was this incident of disobedience that the author of 1 Kings believes led to the division of the country into Israel and Judah.
Sometime in the 1520s a young Polish woman known to Europeans as Roxelana was captured by Crimean Tartars, forced into slavery, and trafficked to Istanbul when she was purchased as a gift for Sultan Suleiman I (better known as Suleiman the Magnificent). Roxelana was probably only in her mid-teens when she arrived in the royal harem, but, despite her youth and cultural differences she rose to become, first, the favored concubine of the Sultan and, later, the first legal wife of an Ottoman Sultan since 1362. Bearing an unprecedented six children for the Sultan, she garnered power and authority despite the considerable opposition that she faced from other members of the harem (most notably the mother of the Sultan’s only other son).
As a slave from Poland (or, some say, the Ukraine), Roxelana, would have been baptized and raised Christian. Somewhere along the way, whether under duress or from choice (the matter is debated) she converted to Islam and changed her name to Hürrem. This was a common state of affairs in an Ottoman harem that was populated almost exclusively with slaves who had converted to Islam. Certainly, as Leslie Peirce argues in her book Empress of the East she behaved as a true convert and channelled her philanthropic efforts into, among other things, the construction of a mosque.
Finally, to bring us into recent history, there is Queen Noor of Jordan. Queen Noor was born Lisa Najeeb Halaby to a Christian Arab-American Washington-based family. In 1978 the Princeton graduate shed her Western roots by moving to Jordan, converting to Islam and marrying King Hussein. The Jordanian constitution stipulated that any potential heir to the throne be the product of a legitimate marriage and the offspring of Muslim parents. Thus both Queen Noor and her predecessor, Hussein’s second wife the British-born Princess Muna, converted. As a point of information, King Abdullah II is the eldest son of Princess Muna.
In case it seems inevitable that American women must convert to the religion of their new countries and spouses, it’s worth noting that when (a pregnant) Rita Hayworth married Price Aly Khan (the son of Aga Khan III) in May 1949, she did not convert to Islam. In the case of Meghan, however, her conversion makes sense. Not only does she view herself as Protestant rather than Catholic, her conversion will soothe the nerves of a country that vividly recalls what happened the last time a Prince married an American divorcée.