Royal Weddings and Other Disasters

‘Did the earth move for you, darling?’

‘No, it bloody well didn’t! How am I expected to perform with all these damn’ courtiers standing around gawping?’

Fortunately for Prince Harry and Meghan, their wedding night will (hopefully) not be spoiled by the ancient custom of the public consummation of a royal marriage.

Throughout history, there have been some disastrous marriages involving royals. Not every royal wedding is the stuff of fairy tales.  Whilst we wish the happy couple all the best, history offers some cautionary examples.

Perhaps the most bizarre was the old custom of ‘bedding.’ The original purpose of this ceremony was to record the consummation of a marriage, without which the union could later be legally annulled. Public bedding was therefore essential for royalty and the nobility to establish the legality of any union. In medieval Iceland, a marriage was only valid if it included the bedding ritual witnessed by at least six men, including a lawyer. That must have put many a nervous groom off his stroke ….

Consummation was often a problem in dynastic marriages because of the age of the participants. For example, Isabella of Valois was just 6 years old when she was married off to King Richard II.  (But then, they couldn’t spell ‘paedophilia’ back in 1396 ….)  And Queen Mary II, of ‘William and Mary’ fame, was only 15 when she married William of Orange in 1677.

A less fortunate young bride was Marie-Antoinette, daughter of Austria’s Holy Roman Empress, who was married off by proxy in 1770 to the French Dauphin, the future King Louis XVI.  She was just 14, he was barely 15. Consummation was impossible because the groom was not present at his own wedding. That was held in the bride’s native Vienna; unfortunately, Louis was in Paris.

When the young bride finally arrived in France, her petulant husband sulked all through the wedding mass in Notre Dame and then, embarrassingly, later failed to do his public duty. As distinguished guests (including an archbishop to bless the newlyweds) crowded into the happy couple’s bed chamber to watch, something went wrong. An embarrassed Louis could not perform in public. It would be seven long years before Louis and Marie Antoinette finally consummated their marriage, making them the butt of suitably Rabelaisian jokes by court and commoners alike.

French royal weddings already had a dodgy track record.  On 18 August 1572 an arranged marriage between the Protestant (or ‘Huguenot’) Henri de Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois, the Catholic daughter of King Henri II, was designed to reunite two French royal houses by ending France’s savage religious civil war. It went wrong from the start.

The nervous groom had to stand outside Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral during the religious part of the ceremony – because he was not a Catholic! Inside, the blushing bride was forced by her brother to go through with the wedding at knife point. Six days later, on 24 August 1572, Catholic mobs slaughtered thousands of French Protestants gathered in Paris for the great royal wedding knees-up in the ‘St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.’ Henri himself only survived the carnage by swiftly promising to convert. Sadly the newlyweds’ marriage did not survive – it was later annulled.

Britain has had its own problems with royal marriages, too. After the death in childbirth of his third wife, Jane Seymour, Henry VIII looked around for a suitable Protestant dynastic replacement. The artist Holbein was despatched to Germany to paint a prospective bride, Anne of Cleves. He returned with a portrait that appears to have flattered her, because when she arrived in England Henry took one look and fled, dismayed by her drab looks and lack of sophistication, famously calling her ‘the Flanders mare’. Henry’s Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, convinced him to go through with the wedding for diplomatic reasons. After just one night, the king wanted out, proclaiming, ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse’, and complaining that she also had a bad case of BO. The marriage was quietly annulled on the grounds that it had never been consummated and, as a result, Anne was never crowned, just quietly pensioned off to court as ‘the King’s Beloved Sister’. Looking at Henry VIII’s track record with his brides, Anne seems to have had a lucky escape from the fat old monster.

Another continental import, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, arrived in London two centuries later in 1736, at the tender age of 16. She had been promised to King George II’s oldest son, Frederick. Speaking not a word of English, and clutching her favourite toy doll, she was likened to ‘a frightened puppy.’ Within ten days the unfortunate maiden was bundled into her wedding gown and marched off down the aisle. She was so nervous that she vomited down her wedding-dress and all over the skirt of her new mother-in-law. The wedding took place nonetheless, with Britain’s Hanoverian Queen translating the ceremony into Augusta’s ear.

History doesn’t record what happened on the new Princess of Wales’ wedding night but, despite its inauspicious beginning, the marriage is thought to have been a happy one and was definitely consummated. She bore nine children.

One of her grandchildren was Prince George Frederick Augustus, the dissolute eldest son of King George III. A marriage was arranged with his German cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. The future royal couple had never met. Worse, there was a little problem.  George was already married – to Maria Fitzherbert, a widow six years his senior and a commoner to boot. This existing marriage was recognised by the Catholic Church but not by English law. George protested, but the King ordered him to wed Caroline or lose his allowance.

In April 1795 a surly George met his affianced for the first time. Disappointed by Caroline’s looks and casual attitude to personal hygiene, the reluctant fiancé promptly demanded a large brandy, while the bride-to-be complained that her prince was ‘nothing like as handsome as his portrait.’

At the wedding, George arrived very late and very drunk. He managed to fall over on the altar steps in the Chapel Royal and only muttered his vows when his father, the King, shouted to him to behave himself – or else. The bridegroom then spent his wedding night drunk as a skunk, unconscious on the bedroom floor. The unhappy couple eventually produced a daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta, in 1796. Soon afterwards George demanded a separation; but Caroline flatly refused any divorce.

An attempt to blacken the Queen by alleging ‘scandalous and improper conduct’ became the subject of an official investigation, but failed amid widespread public sympathy for Caroline. George got his revenge by having his Queen locked out of the Abbey for the coronation service in 1821. Poor old Caroline died just two weeks after guards stopped her attending her estranged husband’s coronation – by no means the first or the last victim of a disastrous royal marriage.

Closer to home the story has continued. Royalty are no more immune to the travails and trials of marriage than anyone else. Royalty pays a heavy public price for its privilege and duties – in some cases with harsh consequences, as the abdicated King Edward VIII found to his cost in 1936, when he announced he intended to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American.

And everyone remembers the fairy tale wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 ending in bitter estrangement, divorce and ultimately tragedy. Now Britain’s future king will be a divorcé. The gilded cage of royalty can destroy relationships just like any other.

So today, let us raise our glasses to the happy couple and wish them, sincerely, all the luck in the world. They will need it on life’s journey together.

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