Romancing the Throne

Romancing the Throne

Mini Teaser: Dynastic survival. Diplomatic alliances. Religious supremacy. Ahh, the good old days of monarchical marriage. From the drunken George to the uppity Victoria, what was once the realm of high politics is now the domain of celebrity culture.

by Author(s): Patrick Allitt

THE ENGLISH-speaking world bubbled with enthusiasm this spring over the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. French, German, Chinese and Japanese audiences weren’t far behind in their excitement about the royal couple. Why all the fuss, especially here in the United States, a country that once fought a bloody revolutionary war to get away from one of the prince’s ancestors? And does the royal wedding matter, except as an incident in modern celebrity culture?

The case against hereditary monarchy has proved widely persuasive over the last couple of centuries. Nearly everywhere it has either been phased out completely or reduced to no more than a matter of ceremony. No wonder. Monarchy was always inherently unstable, vesting as it did so much power in one individual. If the monarch was strong, wise, resourceful, charismatic, generous, merciful and shrewd, the system could work, but a casual glance at the kings and queens of England shows all too plainly how few of them even remotely approached such a standard. As Thomas Paine remarked in Common Sense, “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

Quite apart from the ass-and-lion dilemma, every monarch had to worry about producing an heir. Kings hoped that their wives would give birth to at least one healthy son. High death rates made second and third sons valuable insurance against the heir’s premature death—something that has happened repeatedly in English history. As soon as possible these sons too had to be married in politically advantageous ways. The choice of royal brides was often linked to diplomatic alliances with other kingdoms. With very few exceptions, the princes and princesses involved in marriage treaties were in no position to choose for themselves. Rather, they were forced to do the bidding of their parents, no matter how incongruous the proposed mates might seem from a personal or romantic point of view. The history of royal marriages before the twentieth century is largely a story of misery, exile, incompatibility, xenophobia and a clenched-teeth doing of one’s duty. Royal weddings, far from being the feel-good celebrity events of our own time, were often moments of maximum political and personal anxiety.

ROYAL WEDDINGS today are certainly very different from those of five hundred years ago. Think about King Henry VII, the first of the Tudors. In 1485, having just defeated and killed the last leader of the House of York, King Richard “my-kingdom-for-a-horse” III, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry asserted his claim to the throne by right of conquest. But to end the long and bitter civil conflict that we remember as the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485), Henry recognized the need to marry a prominent figure from the other side. The logical choice was Elizabeth of York, niece of Richard III—the fact that she was a nineteen-year-old fair-haired beauty was just a bonus. Their wedding at Westminster Abbey in January 1486, soon after his coronation, helped reconcile the warring factions in his kingdom. Better still, she bore him three sons and appeared to secure the royal succession.

With the pacification of his own lands well in hand, Henry’s next move was to increase his legitimacy in the eyes of his great European contemporaries. What better way to do so than by marrying his eldest son, Prince Arthur, to a daughter of Europe’s rising superpower, imperial Spain? Catherine of Aragon was the youngest child of Christopher Columbus’s patrons Ferdinand and Isabella. Well educated, admired by the great Renaissance humanists Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, she was also attractive and a fine linguist. After rigorous diplomatic negotiations and the promise that she would bring a big dowry, she was married by proxy to Prince Arthur before ever seeing him. For two years they exchanged letters in Latin. When he turned fifteen she sailed to England to meet and marry him, but they discovered, on their first encounter, that their pronunciation of Latin was so different that neither could understand a word the other one said.

Their wedding, at the old St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London, was followed by a week of wild revelry and jousting. Royal brides in those days did not wear white. Instead they wore wealth, loading up on furs, jewels and cloth of gold to emphasize the magnificence of the kingdoms they represented. Henry VII appeared to have taken another sound step toward securing his dynasty. But joy quickly turned to sorrow. Prince Arthur died suddenly, just five months after the wedding. Now what? The tightfisted Henry did not want to return the dowry that had come with Catherine. So she stayed on in England and even served briefly as Spain’s representative at the English court, becoming the first female ambassador in European history. Then the old king died and, after further hard bargaining, she married the new king, Henry VIII, Arthur’s younger brother, in 1509. The wedding itself was subdued, and took place not in one of the cathedrals but in Greenwich Church. Two weeks later, however, the couple celebrated a lavish joint coronation. Henry was seventeen; Catherine was twenty-three.

THE MARRIAGE, auspicious at first, soured, and its unraveling had immense political and religious implications for English history. Of the couple’s six children, five died in infancy. The only survivor was Princess Mary. Henry dreaded the prospect of going to his grave without a male heir, lest anarchy and civil war (still a recent memory) return to haunt the kingdom. He tried to get his marriage annulled on the grounds that it was uncanonical to marry your brother’s widow. The pope said no: his predecessor had specifically granted a dispensation. Besides, Catherine said that Prince Arthur had never managed to consummate their marriage, rendering it invalid.

Rather than take no for an answer, Henry took the drastic step of severing ties with Rome, appointing himself Defender of the Faith, head of the Church of England. He then dissolved Catholic monasteries throughout England and seized their property, making himself incomparably wealthier than anyone else in the kingdom. The Church of England has had to blush ever since at the knowledge that it owes its founding, not to a point of high theological principle, but to a sordid royal maneuver to off-load the aging queen. Among Henry’s many subsequent brides he tried four local girls—two of whom ended up on the executioner’s block—and one more foreigner, Anne of Cleves. That experiment worked better only to the extent that he didn’t actually kill her. Having never seen her, and having gained an overoptimistic view of her beauty from a painting by Hans Holbein, Henry suffered a jarring disappointment on encountering the reality. Of their wedding night he told his friends, the next morning:

I liked her not well before but now I like her much worse. She is nothing fair, and have very evil smells about her. I took her to be no maid by reason of the looseness of her breasts, and other tokens, which, when I felt them, strake me so to the heart, that I had neither will nor courage to prove the rest. I can have no appetite for displeasant airs, and have left her as good a maid as I found her.

After six months and no consummation, they separated. She lived on in England with a royal pension and the role of king’s “sister” at court. He got busy with the next bride, Catherine Howard, a teenager whose disastrous mixture of promiscuity and indiscretion brought her to an early and violent end.

Henry finally sired a son in the twenty-eighth year of his reign, but the sickly boy, Edward VI, who ascended the throne at the age of nine, lived for only another six years. He never married but was briefly betrothed to Mary, Queen of Scots, when she was just seven months old. Henry’s daughters, on the other hand, were a redoubtable pair and ruled England for the rest of the sixteenth century.

DURING THEIR reigns, the Catholic-Protestant division racked not only England but all of Europe, complicating the issues involved in the negotiation of royal weddings. The eldest of Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary I (sired with Catherine of Aragon), married Prince Philip, heir to the Spanish throne, in 1554. Both were fanatical Catholics. Hoping to reverse the English Reformation they soon set to work burning prominent Protestants at the stake, hence the queen’s nickname, “Bloody Mary.” After a year Philip was called back to his homeland; his father’s decision to retire to a monastery made him the new king, Philip II. The couple never met again, but the queen believed herself to be pregnant at the time of his departure. The fact that it was a phantom pregnancy greatly consoled the hard-pressed Protestants, who took it as evidence of divine intervention on behalf of the Reformation. It was becoming clear by then that a Spanish king married to an English queen was going to subordinate England and its resources to Spanish policies. When Mary died in 1558, the Protestant majority in England breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Image: Pullquote: There’s a palpable sense of what might be called dynasty-envy in the United States, by which the Kennedys, the Clintons and the Bushes take on a pseudoroyal glamour of their own. Essay Types: Essay