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From bliss to miss

April 14, 2011


Kate Middleton and Britain's Prince William.

Let's hope things work out better for Kate Middleton and Britain's Prince William than they did for some historical European royal couples.

The up–and–down history of royal weddings

By Deane Morrison

As the wedding of Britain's Prince William draws near, we remember the wedding 30 years ago of William's parents, Charles and Diana. Their experience is a reminder that royal matches don't always work out. We asked English professor and historian John Watkins to enlighten us on the history of royal weddings.

Q:  How did royal weddings get to be such a big deal?

A:  In the 5th through 8th centuries, Frankish kings divided their kingdoms. That lowers the amount of prestige, and potential angst, surrounding the marriage of the eldest son. But around the year 1000, primogeniture, or succession of the firstborn son, was becoming a normal practice. Primogeniture adds pressure to royal marriages.
    Another element: In the 11th century there was a Peace of God movement trying to stop what was a perception of massive aristocratic warfare and infighting. The movement was about how you regulate warfare, like a really early version of international law. For example, the Church stressed you should not kill clerics. And it wasn't cool to mow down peasants. The Crusades were a huge factor. Once you have the Crusades, you have a big incentive to find mechanisms to bring peace to Europe so you can have coordinated Crusades. In this environment, marriage alliances become regularized. You didn't waste an heir; you used him to build these alliances. 
    This snowballed and eventually produced the Hapsburgs, who became masters of marriage diplomacy.

Q:  Can you give an example of how this changed history?

A:  Charles V, holy Roman emperor (1519-1526). He was a Hapsburg, and because of a series of really wise previous Hapsburg marriages, he ended up owning everything. He was from the line of the dukes of Burgundy; in the15th century, they were more powerful than the kings of France. The dukes of Burgundy married into the Hapsburgs, that line married into the kings of Spain, and soon one of them—Charles V—controlled German-speaking lands, the Low Countries, and Spain. It was 100 years in the making. And France engaged in marital diplomacy with the de Medici's in Italy and with England and Scotland.
    These alliances also help if you have a newly crowned king whose claim to the throne is slightly dodgy; he can justify himself and get international recognition if he can make a good marriage. 

Q:  Any ceremonies that went wrong?

A:  Yes. Normans were invading France early in the 10th century. One was Rollo the Viking, who sailed up the Seine and menaced Paris. A deal was cut to establish Normandy as a Viking dukedom and make the dukes vassals of the king of France. The daughter of King Charles the Simple married Rollo, who had to pay homage by kissing the king's foot. But Rollo didn't realize he was supposed to kneel to do it. Instead, he grabbed the king's foot and pulled it up, dumping the king over. This all may be quasi-mythic, but the story was popular in Normandy.
    The biggest mess was England's George IV. He married Caroline of Brunswick [Germany] as part of a deal to get Parliament to up his allowance and to give him legitimacy. But he didn't like her one bit. They separated. She allegedly had an affair with an Italian man; George supposedly had many affairs. When he became king, she returned from Italy to be queen consort, but he wanted a divorce on grounds of adultery. The case was tried in the House of Lords; the king's side won by a few votes. But the public was in favor of her, and the government didn't dare press the divorce. George forbade her to go to his coronation, and she died three weeks later. It was massively damaging to the prestige of the Crown.
    I think it's important that [William and Kate's] is going to be marketed as a marriage where the couple is in love, not an arranged marriage. I think this will help give the monarchy a sense of not being out of touch with the people. 

Q:  Has TV made royal weddings more lavish?

A:  Undoubtedly. The details matter because you can get close-up shots. Most importantly, it's TV's last paparazzi culture. The real danger of TV is that I'm not sure the monarchy can hold up to that kind of scrutiny.  

Q:  Are royal weddings a spectator sport?

A:  I suppose if you like slow British entertainment like cricket, yes.

    John Watkins is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of English. His specialties include sovereignty and queenship, and Medieval and early modern diplomacy. He is on the faculty of the Center for Medieval Studies and is an adjunct professor in the Department of History.

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

Related Links

John Watkins' page

Department of English

Department of History

Center for Medieval Studies

College of Liberal Arts