Everybody loves a royal wedding, from the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in England to the beautiful ceremony marrying Princess Ayako and Kei Moriya in Japan. But these modern ceremonies (and the everlasting partnerships they confer) are a far cry from royal marriages from history and the beliefs said royals had about said marriages. Royal marriages have often been very confusing behind the scenes, with fights over legitimacy, bitter negotiations for power, strange traditions and interfering diplomats all creating havoc. Much as we might dream of royal weddings, the marriages themselves in European history have often been subject to some truly bizarre beliefs.
Royal marriages have very rarely been about love; they’ve been about binding together dynasties, creating peace between countries, strengthening alliances, and providing heirs for family names. When you look at them less as romantic undertakings and more as hideously complicated affairs of state, you can understand why matters could get so complex, and so out-and-out weird. Forget the startling oddity of courtiers “witnessing” wedding nights to make sure the parties consummated their marriage — it wasn’t even necessary for royalty to be present at their own weddings at all. Turn off the soap opera and prepare to dive into European royalty’s beliefs about marriage; I promise it’s even more eye-opening and dramatic. Princesses in limbo and accusations of witchcraft, anybody?
The practice of “morganatic,” “left-handed,” or “quiet” marriage refers to royals marrying people of lesser rank — and giving their left hands in the marriage ceremony, not their right ones. Morganatic marriages mean that the lower-ranking partner (usually a woman) and any children resulting from the union inherit nothing, have no property beyond the dowry and can’t take the other partner’s rank. Morganatic marriages happened predominantly in Germany, but it wasn’t unheard of to marry “below” yourself in England; the first Duke of Sussex before Prince Harry got himself into trouble when he married a lower-class woman without asking permission first.
Medieval queenship in Europe, notes historian Theresa Earenfight, wasn’t just about marrying your spouse; it was about marrying your country. Being a legitimate queen meant going through a process called ‘consecration’, where a queen went through a “symbolic marriage to the realm, with prayers and blessings, a ring and a crown bestowed as signs of faith”. It was basically a wedding, but with the groom as the country.
Throughout European history, women who married kings have been accused of using witchcraft to seduce them. The most famous is likely Elizabeth Woodville, a widow who married King Edward IV in 1464 and was accused in an act of Parliament of being a “sorceress” and causing “the laws of nature and of England” to be “broken, subverted and disregarded.” (Her enemies really didn’t like her.) Woodville’s own mother Jacquetta was also accused of using witchcraft to get her daughter on the throne.
They were hardly the first to be called witches for their royal connections, though. Eleanor Cobham married Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in the late 1420s and was imprisoned for using “necromancy” to try and predict the deaths of people who’d leave his path clear to the throne. Joan of Navarre was also accused of witchcraft by her son, apparently to get hold of her dowry from her marriage to his father, King Henry IV.
Ann of Cleves, Henry VIII’s famously rejected fourth bride (he responded poorly when she didn’t look like her portraits), is one example of what happened when royal marriages didn’t go as planned. Henry married Ann anyway so as not to cause offense, but others didn’t fare as well. Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, lived from childhood in the German court of her betrothed, Holy Roman Emperor Henry V — and after he died, was rejected by the English because she was now “too German.”
It was common for royals from the medieval period onwards to be married without ever seeing each other in person. A “proxy” would stand in for them at the wedding ceremony; for Marie Antoinette, her proxy was her brother. They’d then have a second marriage in person once the bride or groom had travelled, in royal style, to their new country. Sometimes the new consort would be greeted in great style, but sometimes they’d be left in the lurch by hostile courtiers — or, in the case of Catherine of Aragon, prodded by her new father-in-law, who demanded to see under her veil before his son.
When you’re binding together dynasties, why stop at one wedding? Double royal weddings have happened several times in royal history, and more recently than you’d think; only 200 years ago, in 1818, the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the Duke of Clarence and Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen got married in a double ceremony in Kew Palace. And in the 1500s, the royal houses of Hapsburg and Hungary married two sets of youngsters together, which was understandably seen as a massive coup for the diplomats who’d been going back and forth arranging the matter since the kids were born.
A queen who outlived her king was no longer protected by royal marriage, and royal widows were often seen as threatening; they may have had decades of experience of power, and weren’t about to give it up. Some of them were sent to religious institutions to be abbesses; Elizabeth Woodville survived Edward IV and was sent to a nunnery so she wouldn’t meddle. Other widows were reprimanded for enjoying their newfound freedom a little too much. Clemence of Hungary was actually told off by the Pope himself because she wasn’t dressing modestly enough.
Royal marriages, with their mix of tradition and power, have always been a bit odd. Compared to proxy weddings, left-handed ceremonies and being sent to nunneries, the royal nuptials of William and Harry seem, well, rather quaint.