This article was previously published in the RWANYC Keynotes newsletter. Episodes 3 and 4 of the royal wedding serial Royally Yours, to which I contributed, are out this week! To get your hands on it, go here.
I had never considered myself an Anglophile or even knew that much about England until about eight years ago when I decided I should read Game of Thrones. The show had just premiered and I was into it, but I wasn’t sure I could make it through all those 1,000-page books. Then I read an article saying George R. R. Martin based a lot of the series on the Wars of the Roses, and since I’m a history nerd, I thought, “I’ll read a book about the Wars of the Roses instead of Game of Thrones!”
I ended up reading both, and the nonfiction book made me realized that I basically knew jack about British history. Which is sort of sad. I recently had my DNA tested, and it turns out basically all of my ancestors came from the UK, so I really should know something about where they came from. So after I read all about the Wars of the Roses, I picked up a general book about the history of England… and a book about the history of London… then I bought a 12-hour documentary on DVD… and you kind of see where this is going.
Prince William and Kate Middleton got married around this same time, so it was kind of fun to compare all ceremony and circumstance to the history. For nearly two-thousand years, royal weddings were mostly political affairs. The king needed an alliance with another country? He married one of his sons off to a princess from that country. The bride and groom didn’t even need to be in the same place; they could be married by proxy. So wasn’t it charming that Wills and Kate seemed to be a love match? And isn’t it even more charming that Harry is basically throwing generations of tradition out the window to marry an American?
Although it’s not like the prior two millennia years of British history were calm and dull. If I’ve gleaned nothing else from my weird, intense study of British history in the last few years, it’s that the whole line of monarchs—it’s nuts. It’s two thousand years of drama.
Let me drop a little history on you all.William the Conqueror’s grandson, also named William, attended a party aboard a boat called the White Ship that was so hard core, the boat sank, killing all but two of its passengers. His death caused a civil war: the only remaining direct heir was William’s sister Matilda, and English nobility wasn’t really down with having a woman sit on the throne, so Matilda’s cousin Stephen showed up to challenge her. They traded the throne back and forth for a bit.
If you’ve ever seen a Robin Hood movie, you know about Matilda’s grandsons Richard the Lionheart and Prince John. Although John is not considered a great king, he did sign the Magna Carta. John’s grandson was Edward I, known as Longshanks, who you know if you’ve seen Braveheart. (Edward was… not a great guy.) Some historians think his son Edward II was gay; he favored a fellow named Piers Gaveston who exerted so much influence over him that the ruling barons of the day had him executed. This did not exactly endear Edward II to the barons, and a prolonged conflict ensued that eventually led to Edward being deposed in favor of his 14-year-old son.If you’ve read the Shakespeare history plays, you know about the next couple of centuries. Edward II’s grandson Richard II married Anne of Bohemia, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the union was entirely diplomatic—Richard aimed to shore up England’s defense against France. After Anne died of the plague, Richard had an affair with Robert de Vere (and made him Duke of Ireland) and then the war with France got worse and Henry Bolingbroke—later Henry IV—decided he had a better claim to the throne than Richard, and that effectively kicked off the Wars of the Roses. (If you can get your hands on The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s production of 7 of Shakespeare’s history plays, I highly recommend it. Especially if you’ve got a thing for thin, pasty British actors; Ben Wishaw, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch all have major roles.) Before being buried in a car park, Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor at Bosworth, ending the Wars of the Roses and beginning the Tudor dynasty. (Fun trivia: The Tudors were Welsh. Succession gets tricky here; Owen Tudor, a Welsh nobleman, married Henry V’s wife, Catherine of Valois (mother of Henry VI), and had a son named Edmund, who married Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of Edward III. That’s the crazy thing about the Wars of the Roses; the Lancasters and Yorks were all related. Everyone who claimed the throne was a descendent of Edward III. Really.) Henry’s son Henry VIII was, of course, famous for divorcing and/or beheading his wives; perhaps not romantic as such. His daughter Elizabeth never married. There may have been some love matches in the royal family tree. The Hanover dynasty kicked off with George I, the great-grandson of Elizabeth’s successor James. George’s grandson, George III, was thought to love his wife Charlotte; they had fifteen children. You know George III from such projects as the American Revolution and then his subsequent madness, for which his son, George IV was appointed to rule as Prince Regent in his stead (hence the Regency Period). George IV spent money the monarchy didn’t have on interior decorating, faux military uniforms, and mistresses, though he did have a legitimate daughter… who died in childbirth, leaving the crown without an heir. A scramble ensued to marry off four of George III’s sons, and Prince Edward “won”; his marriage to a German princess resulted in a daughter named Alexandrina Victoria. Romantic, huh? Incidentally, George III instituted the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which stated that no heir to the throne can be considered to have a valid marriage without the consent of the monarch. This meant the offender did not lose his or her place in the line of succession, but because the marriage was invalid, any children were considered illegitimate. The act was only repealed in 2015, although the first six people in the line of succession must still get the consent of the monarch to marry; without consent, the marriage is still valid, but the couple and their offspring are disqualified from the line of succession. (The Queen gave Harry and Meghan consent to marry under the newer Succession to the Crown Act of 2013. This act also makes gender irrelevant for primogeniture, so a female firstborn could inherit the throne without controversy. Previous female monarchs only ascended to the throne if no dudes were available.) By all accounts, Victoria and Albert were a love match, despite being first cousins—PBS’s Victoria is really great, for more on that—and royal weddings in the twentieth century were less political. Though not without scandal; Edward VIII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, after all. The royal family did not approve of the marriage, which would have made it invalid under the existing law. Considering the main objection was that Ms. Simpson was American and, worse, divorced—two things also true of Meghan Markle—perhaps the monarchy has stepped into the twenty-first century.
This cheap tour through British history is mainly to support the point that the British monarchy is interesting and weird, and Prince Harry choosing to marry a biracial American divorcée seems almost mundane by comparison. But I still like the romance of it. Also the fashion; I can’t wait to see what the various European royals wear on their heads!
Some suggestions for further reading!
The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
Foundation by Peter Ackroyd
The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir