The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton will join a historic list of colourful royal marriages, some more successful than others, writes historian Dr David Starkey.
Walter Bagehot the Victorian commentator on the monarchy said: “A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind”
And especially perhaps womankind.
In other words a Royal Family is a heightened version of an ordinary family. And big Royal events are our big events too – births, marriages and deaths – with oddities like coronations thrown in.
But in the Middle Ages Royal weddings were great political events as the personal alliance cemented and sealed treaties between nations. For instance, the biggest Royal wedding of them all was that of Prince Arthur – son and heir to Henry VII – to Catherine of Aragon. It celebrated the alliance between the upstart House of Tudor and the triumphant House of Trastamara, which was turning Spain into the first world power.
The marriage took place in London in old St Paul’s Cathedral, which was getting on for twice as big as the present one. A walkway was constructed at head-height from the great west doors to the steps of the high altar some 600 feet away.
The marriages of Henry VIII were all private affairs…because of the doubt and ambiguity that surrounded them.
The wedding ceremony itself took place in the centre of the nave on a circular platform raised 12 feet above the walkway. Both bride and groom wore white; the service was conducted by archbishops and bishops, trumpeters were placed in the roof vaults with elaborate instructions as to when to sound the fanfares to punctuate the service; the future Henry VIII acted as escort to the bride and, just before the bride and groom disappeared to celebrate the nuptial mass at the high altar, they turned, waved to the crowd – and I think – kissed. The crowd, which numbered about 20,000 (or half the population of London) went wild.
A very similar show was put on for the marriage of Hentry VIII’s daughter, Mary Tudor, to Philip of Spain. This however took place at Winchester and there was little or no popular enthusiasm.
In contrast, the most famous marriages in English royal history, those of Henry VIII were all private affairs. This was because of the doubt and ambiguity that surrounded them. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon was his own sister-in-law and the widow of his deceased brother Prince Arthur. And it got worse after that. Worst, from a legal point of view, was his second marriage which was to Anne Boleyn. This took place while he was still legally married to Catherine of Aragon and was so contentious that he seems to have married Anne twice, just to make sure.
The marriage of Victoria and Albert…was a true love story.
This pattern of private royal weddings continued for the next three centuries. Under the Stuarts, it was because Royal brides were Catholic, which jarred on a Protestant nation. Under the Hanoverians, it was because the brides were German, ugly and of no interest to anybody – usually including their husbands. This tendency culminated in the marriage of the future George IV – then Prince of Wales – to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795. The bridegroom only agreed to the marriage to pay off his debts and was so appalled when he saw (and smelt) the bride that he spent most of the marriage night in an alcoholic stupor with his head in the grate. Nevertheless he managed to father a daughter. It was probably the only time the couple slept together.
The marriage of Victoria and Albert on the other hand was a true love story. It was arranged by their uncle, Leopold of Belgium. But Victoria fell in love with Albert when she saw him coming up the great staircase at Windsor. “He is so beautiful,” she confided to her diary. Despite her infatuation however, this marriage took place in the comparatively private surroundings of the Chapel Royal at St James’ Palace. As did the weddings of Edward VII and George V.
The big break comes in 1917, when George V – at the height of the First World War – reinvented the royal family for new, democratic times. He renamed it the House of Windsor, which led to the only recorded joke by his cousin and enemy Wilhelm II the German Kaiser. On hearing the news Wilhelm remarked that he much looked forward to the next performance of Shakepeare’s famous play, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
As well as changing the name of the Royal House, George V also reformed its marriage customs. Up to that point the English Royal Family had behaved like a German royal dynasty and invariably married German princesses of the same social rank and the same Protestant religion. Now George decreed that his children could marry “English men and English women”.
“It was an historic day,” he wrote in his diary.
Indeed it was, for the notion of a Royal wedding as a national romance was born. First off the mark was the king’s eldest daughter, Mary, who married the Earl of Harewood in a grand ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Next it was the turn of the king’s second son, Albert, who married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon also at Westminster Abbey. They were to find fame as the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and to embody all the virtues of a Windsor happy marriage.
It reached a pinnacle with the magnificent, preposterous and overblown ceremony for Charles and Diana in 1981.
The marriage was also the first to excite the interest of the illustrated popular newspapers and women’s magazines, who drooled over the couple’s choice of furniture, clothes, interior decoration and even their nannies and servants. A very similar show was put on in the years of post-war austerity with the marriage of the present Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh – again at the Abbey, in 1947 – and it reached a pinnacle with the magnificent, preposterous and overblown ceremony for Charles and Diana in 1981.
This interestingly was the first marriage of a Prince and Princess of Wales to take place in St Paul’s since the similarly ill-fated wedding of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, some 380 years earlier. The marriage of Charles and Diana, I suspect, will be a turning point. The House of Windsor had enjoyed a unique success as a reigning dynasty in the 20th Century because it was able to present itself as the embodiment of British family values. Following the tempestuous love life of Princess Margaret, that reputation was already on the rocks. And instead, it was hoped that the marriage of Charles and Diana would restore the old formula and the old magic. Instead, their very public marital disaster, destroyed it forever.
The result, I would guess, will be that William and his bride will probably seek a compromise. Public interest means the ceremony can’t be private but rather than the grand statements of the Abbey or St Paul’s, why not once again use a Chapel Royal, not, I would hope, St James’s, which is poky and mean. But perhaps, St George’s Windsor: the building is magnificent, it’s where Charles and Camilla celebrated their wedding and it’s at the heart of the noble building that gave the House of Windsor its name.
David Starkey’s latest book is: Crown and Country: a history of England through the monarchy. Harper Press £25