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

Her younger half sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, now became queen. Shrewd, tough-minded, a survivor and a Protestant, she realized that to get married as Mary had done would be to deliver her power into her husband’s hands. Might it not be better, she speculated, to avoid a trip to the altar? Her advisers were constantly suggesting suitable suitors, and she periodically indicated enthusiasm for this or that gentleman. When it came to the point, however, she never tied the knot, being celebrated by courtiers in her later years as the “Virgin Queen.” Philip II would have liked to marry her for dynastic reasons but never got the chance. Instead, her navy shattered and dispersed his great armada in 1588, inspired by her declaration: “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England too.” It was the beginning of England’s naval greatness, a period that would last nearly four hundred years.

Elizabeth I was the last English monarch to have to fear encirclement by hostile powers. When she died in 1603, unmarried and childless, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to her throne, becoming the first man to rule both lands. He lived the rest of his life in England, where he was known as King James I. He commissioned the best-loved and most influential English translation of the Bible, which celebrates its four hundredth anniversary this year.

THE RELIGIOUS division of Europe during the Reformation had left France and Spain, the two strongest powers, on the Catholic side of the divide. England was Protestant, yet reasons of state usually made a Catholic marriage alliance more attractive than a Protestant one. The relative political weakness of the Protestant royal families—most of them from Scandinavia or from small German principalities—made Protestant marriage alliances unlikely to enhance English power. On the other hand, the intense religious hatreds of the era made negotiations across the divide difficult and dangerous. Unsuitable personalities made the bargaining harder still.

This situation plagued James and his descendants. His son, Prince Charles, went to Spain for wedding negotiations in 1623, accompanied by his father’s handsome favorite, the Duke of Buckingham (King James had a reputation for being far more interested in beautiful men than beautiful women). The Spaniards drove a hard bargain, insisting that in return for marrying the infanta, Charles would have to convert to Catholicism and then stay in Spain for a year to show the sincerity of his conversion. Buckingham was outraged by the proposal and rejected it—in his view it was tantamount to holding the prince hostage. When he and Charles got back to England, they demanded that James avenge their humiliation by declaring war on Spain. He did, but unlike the Virgin Queen in her face-off against the armada, he was not adequately prepared and suffered a crushing defeat.

Charles ended up marrying a French princess instead, Henrietta Maria, in 1625. Her Catholicism made her unpopular among ordinary Britons, and she was not allowed to attend his coronation. Forty-eight years later his younger son, the future James II, married an Italian Catholic, Mary of Modena, who was similarly despised in England and nicknamed “The Pope’s Daughter.” The fact that James did become a Catholic—something his father had refused to do—alarmed the Protestant majority, which greeted the news that Mary had given birth to a son with disbelief. They argued that the baby was a changeling, smuggled into court in a bed-warming pan. Rather than accept a Catholic monarchy, England drove James and Mary out in the bloodless coup that we remember today as the Glorious Revolution.

Charles I’s older son, Charles II, meanwhile, had done rather better with a Catholic bride. The downside of his marriage to a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza in 1662, was the lack of an heir. The upside was that her dowry included the city of Bombay, on the west coast of India. Until then, the British East India Company had been finding Portuguese and Dutch competition in the Far East hard to match. With this excellent port, however, and now allied with a former rival, Britain began its rise to dominance in India, a position it would hold until the mid-twentieth century. The Anglo-Portuguese friendship begun by this marriage treaty persisted without interruption for the next 350 years. As was so often the case, the person at the center of the deal, Catherine of Braganza, got no joy from it herself. To the contrary, she lived a life of perpetual mortification. Her husband was the most notorious womanizer in the history of the British monarchy, siring at least fourteen illegitimate children and feting his mistresses openly at court. To add insult to injury, she was falsely accused of trying to poison the king and of fomenting a Catholic uprising; Parliament regularly petitioned Charles II to divorce her and take a Protestant bride instead.

IN 1707, Parliament passed the Act of Succession, specifying that from then on the monarch, whatever else he or she might be, had to be a Protestant. The Royal Marriage Act of 1772 added the further refinement that the monarch’s spouse must also be a Protestant and that no prince was allowed to marry without the king’s express permission. Making rules is one thing but living up to them is another. In 1785, George, Prince of Wales and eldest son of George III, married his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, even though she was six years older than he, twice widowed, a commoner and a Catholic! The ceremony took place in secret at Mrs. Fitzherbert’s London house, with the Reverend Robert Burt officiating, a humble curate whose motive was the prince’s agreement to pay off the debts that had until recently kept him confined to debtors’ prison. Rumors of this wedding circulated in London, but the prince preserved what a later political generation would call “plausible deniability.”

George stands out as one of the most odious men in the history of the royal family. He was widely lampooned at the time for his vanity, profligacy and greed. His father urged him to marry some suitable Protestant princess. Parliament declared that it would not pay off his massive debts or increase his annual allowance unless he did. Though the political power of the monarchy was weaker by this time, it was still a central element of the British Constitution—and George was the heir. His father’s incipient madness also made him the obvious choice in the event of a regency. The unfortunate lady selected to be his bride was Princess Caroline of Brunswick, who was brought to London in 1795 unaware that she was about to be married bigamously. The French king, Louis XVI, along with all his family, had recently been executed by revolutionaries in Paris. It would have been reasonable for George to fear that monarchs might perish across the whole of Europe, himself included, and that he should be circumspect. In fact, the lesson was completely lost on him.

Historian Steven Parissien describes what happened on the day of the royal wedding in George IV: Inspiration of the Regency (incidentally, bringing to mind the dilemma subsequently faced by Jane Eyre):

At the wedding itself . . . the groom was visibly drunk and almost passed out twice. During his carriage ride to the chapel in the company of [his close friends] the Prince professed his undying love for Maria Fitzherbert. . . . At the altar, completely inebriated, “he hiccupped out his vows of fidelity” while turning to gaze meaningfully at Lady Jersey [another mistress] and, in the anxious silence after the Archbishop of Canterbury asked whether anyone knew of “any just cause or impediment,” burst into tears. (The Archbishop was plainly terrified lest the rumoured marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert be divulged at this point: he stared directly at the Prince as he enunciated the word “impediment,” and repeated the passage regarding “nuptial fidelity” twice.)

The honeymoon was no better, being held at a nearby hunting lodge to which the prince had invited a crowd of his drinking companions. They lolled about, cracking jokes and snoring on the couches. George was too drunk and miserable to consummate his marriage at first but got around to it a few days later. He slept with Caroline only three times but did succeed in making her pregnant. The couple soon separated, and he spent the next twenty-five years spreading rumors that she was having affairs and giving birth to children by other men.

This prince, who would eventually become George IV, incidentally, illustrates another of the problems with monarchy—the fact that heirs sometimes have to wait a very long time before succeeding to the throne. Having nothing to do in the meantime, they tend to misbehave. That was certainly true for him, for his successor William IV, for the man who became Edward VII in 1901, and for the man who is currently waiting to become Charles III and is already sixty-two.

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