THE HISTORIAN David Cannadine once proposed that the way to think of the morality of British monarchs was by analogy with a pendulum, swinging back and forth between probity and debauchery. The accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 certainly bore witness to a swing in the direction of moral uprightness. A highly principled and virtuous eighteen-year-old with an overdeveloped sense of duty, Victoria soon got busy singling out an appropriate husband from among Europe’s Protestant royals and selected the even more upright Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Because she was the monarch, she proposed to him, a scene nicely re-created in the recent film The Young Victoria. When he said they should have a long honeymoon she chided him gently in a letter, writing: “You forget, my dearest Love, that I am the Sovereign, and that business can stop and wait for nothing. Parliament is sitting, and something occurs almost every day, for which I may be required, and it is quite impossible for me to be absent from London.” She permitted them no more than three days at Windsor.
Victoria was, nevertheless, besotted with Albert and married him at St. James’s Palace on February 10, 1840, in a state of high excitement. She was the first royal bride to wear white, a decision that greatly contributed to white becoming the standard color for young brides. Hers was also the first of the royal nuptials to feature a wedding cake (displacing an earlier delicacy known as “bride pie,” which could contain living birds). After the day’s official duties were accomplished, they retired. In her diary Victoria recalled their first evening together:
I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert sat on a footstool by my side, and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness—really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!
Next morning, “when day dawned (for we did not sleep much) and I beheld that beautiful angelic face by my side, it was more than I can express.” They lived happily for the next twenty-one years and brought forth nine children, nearly all of whom married into the other royal families of Europe (perhaps generations of interbreeding among royal cousins contributed to the hemophilia that they inadvertently spread across the continent).
Albert’s death in 1861 was a crushing blow from which Victoria never recovered. Although she outlived him for forty years, she never cast off her mourning clothes. When her oldest son, Bertie, later Edward VII, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, the bride again wore white. Victoria refused to wear anything but black and would not join the main celebration, watching instead from an enclosed balcony in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Her diary entry that night was full of self-pity:
All is over and this (to me) most trying day is past. It all seems like a dream now and leaves hardly any impression on my poor mind and broken heart. Here I sit lonely and desolate, who so need love and tenderness, while our two daughters have each their loving husbands and Bertie has taken his lovely, pure, sweet bride to Osborne . . . Oh, what I suffered in the chapel, where all was joy, pride and happiness . . . Only by a violent effort could I succeed in mastering my emotion.
Alexandra was also destined to lead a long and difficult life, because Bertie represented the opposite swing of the pendulum. He was already developing a scandalous reputation for gambling and womanizing. Among his many mistresses was Alice Keppel, the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker-Bowles, who was to feature in a later generation’s royal-wedding scandals.
IN THE twentieth century, facing a large and literate electorate, the British monarchy began to pay attention to its public image. During World War I, for example, the Britain of King George V fought the Germany of his first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The two men looked similar; both were grandsons of Queen Victoria, and George’s family name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was resonantly Germanic. The sudden surge of blazing hatred for everything German that came with the war prompted the king to change the family name to “Windsor,” which it remains to this day. He also encouraged his children to marry in Westminster Abbey, just over the road from the Houses of Parliament, as a way of underlining, and drawing attention to, their Englishness. Kate Middleton and Prince William had their ceremony this year in Westminster Abbey, and it is easy to regard the place as the logical spot for royal weddings. For several hundred years, however, it had been reserved for coronations and funerals, while the weddings took place elsewhere.
One of the first royal couples to take advantage of this new location was George V’s second son, another George, and his bride, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who have recently enjoyed a lot of popular attention thanks to the movie The King’s Speech. They married in the abbey in 1923. George’s older brother became King Edward VIII when their father died in January 1936. Yet again, marriage plans caused a severe political problem. Just as it was illegal for the heir or monarch to marry a Catholic, so was it illegal for him to marry a divorcée, because the king was head of the Church of England, and the Church did not permit the remarriage of divorced people if the former spouse was still alive. Edward, however, was infatuated with a twice-divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson, and declared his determination to marry her. Political power was now vested firmly in Parliament rather than the monarchy. The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, told the new king that Mrs. Simpson was unacceptable. Edward retorted that he would not live without her and, to the horror and astonishment of politicians and common folk alike, abdicated.
That left his brother to ascend the throne as King George VI. He hated it but had the same flinty sense of duty as Queen Victoria, a sense conspicuously absent in Edward himself. Edward married Mrs. Simpson in France, and among their honeymoon visits was one to see the German dictator Adolf Hitler. Political supporters of the monarchy were relieved that he and his American wife (who became the Duchess of Windsor) had no children since they would have become rival claimants to the throne, challenging the right of succession of George VI’s daughter Elizabeth.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip in 1947 bear witness to the changing fortunes of Britain and the changing nature of monarchy. No longer politically significant, royal marriages were less fraught with the making and breaking of dynasties, leaving slightly more room for the forces of personal attraction. The choice of spouse was narrowly restricted but the future queen had at least some opportunity to decide for herself whom she would wed. She had met Philip in 1939, when he was eighteen and she thirteen, and had admired him. Philip, born in Corfu, belonged to the deposed royal family of Greece but grew up in England, served in the Royal Navy during World War II and was thoroughly Anglicized.
By the time they announced their engagement, Britain was undergoing a profound political transformation at the hands of a majority-Labour government that was dedicated to socialism. The major industries were being nationalized, the National Health Service was being established, the British Empire was slated for abolition, India was about to become independent and Prime Minister Clement Attlee was eager to raze, as far as possible, the invidious class distinctions that had bedeviled England for centuries. To add to the drama, the nation was in the midst of an economic crisis, brought about by the stress of fighting World War II. The Marshall Plan had not yet begun, the winter of 1947 was extremely severe, and draconian rationing of food, clothes and other essentials persisted.
Could a regime of this kind, under these emergency circumstances, possibly countenance a lavish and costly royal wedding? Ironically, the answer was yes. Ministers, Attlee included, recognized the overwhelming popularity of the monarchy among nearly all classes, shared the admiration felt by most Britons for the king’s willingness to stay in London throughout the Blitz (Buckingham Palace had suffered bomb damage) and understood the political folly of opposing a wholehearted regal spectacle. The princess wore an elaborate white silk dress with an immense train, the groom looked smart in full navy uniform, the gilded coaches and prancing horses were brought out of storage and stables, and the parade route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey was lined with great cheering crowds. It seems illogical that the same people who had ejected Prime Minister Winston Churchill two years earlier by voting Labour should love the king and his winsome daughter, the living embodiments of social inequality, yet they did.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