Home Language & Literature Families, Status and Dynasties: 1600-2000
Marriage and the Imperative of Status Equivalence
Histories of royal dynasties routinely make the point that royal marriages were arranged, and that this was primarily motivated by political interests. They were indeed largely arranged marriages, but the question of political interests is rather more complicated. Before 1500 and occasionally still in the 1500s, marriages were brokered with real political interests in mind, above all annexations of territories, as in fairy tales where the hero marries a princess and gets half the realm. The marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469 was such an alliance which, by combining Aragon and Castile through a personal union, laid the foundation for the Kingdom of Spain. The next expansion by marriage in this royal dynasty took place in 1496, when Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to wed their daughter Juana, the future queen regnant, to the Habsburg Philip (‘the Handsome’), the heir of the Duchy of Burgundy and the Burgundian Netherlands. This advantageous marriage converted the Habsburgs from German territorial princes into a European dynasty of the first rank. Moreover, the marriage between Juana and Philip’s son, Ferdinand, and Anna of Bohemia and Hungary bore fruit in 1526, when, after the death of Anna’s brother, the King of Hungary and Bohemia, Ferdinand, was elected as his successor. This prompted the annexation of Hungary and Bohemia to the conglomeration of the Spanish- Burgundian territories under Habsburgian rule (Ingrao 2003, 2-6). Never again over the next four centuries would the Habsburgs reap significant territorial gains from dynastic marriages, an increasingly prevalent tendency throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. In the long run, only war in the hope of acquiring new domains could satisfy the ambitions of kings (Ingrao 2003, 6; Maltby 2009, 13-14).
It remained common, however, for marriage contracts to be incorporated in peace and other alliance treaties, speaking for the continuing political nature of royal marriages. But, as historiography shows, marriages were not particularly beneficial in this respect. They did not, for example, prevent wars between the married partners’ countries, as demonstrated by the marriage between Louis XIII of France (r. 1610-43) and Anne, sister of King Philip II of Spain (Fraser 2007, 8, 23). War again broke out between Spain and France during the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715), who was married to Philip II’s daughter, Maria Theresa (Fraser 2007, 23, 47, 69; Delille 2007, 164). The matrimonial treaties between Spain and England were equally inefficient in political terms: the marriage between Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess, did not prevent the two lands from going to war (Tremlett 2011, 188-99). Denmark and Sweden were also bellicose realms. Frederick IV of Denmark, for example, alongside Peter the Great of Russia and August II of Saxony-Poland, attacked Karl XII of Sweden in 1700, despite the fact that Karl XII’s mother was from the Danish royal house (Black 2004, 60). Sweden was also an enemy of the Duchy of Brandenburg in the Thirty Years’ War, even though King Gustav Adolf’s wife was from Brandenburg (Sundberg 2004, 103). Many more similar cases could be cited, but these examples suffice to show just how limited the effect of royal marriages was in terms of impeding political conflicts between monarchies. Although monarchs could no longer strengthen and enlarge their empires and prevent wars through marriages, political interests did not disappear from matrimonial alliances, but manifested themselves in a different form. Instead of being real political manoeuvres, marriages turned into performances of power. Their principal return was in prestige.
Marriage was not, however, a performance comparable to paintings, which derived their ultimate justification from the mere glorification of monarchs. The raison d’etre of marriage was the monarch’s dynastic duty to produce an heir to the throne. This made marriage obligatory for monarchs and monarchs-to-be, and this was an obligation they took very seriously. In my sample of 8 monarchies with 98 sovereigns between 1500 and 1800, 5 kings and 3 queens regnant never married. Properly speaking, however, three of these kings should not to be categorized as unmarried: Ivan VI of Russia (r. 1740-41) was deposed as an infant (Hughes 2008, 90); Peter II of Russia (r. 1727-30) lived to be betrothed but died at age 14 (Hughes 2008, 85-6) and Edward VI of England (r. 1547-53) died at age 16 while his marriage arrangements were under way. If Ivan VI, Peter II and Edward VI are excluded due to premature deposition or death, the final number of unmarried kings is only two—Rudolf II of Austria (r. 1576-1612), Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, and King Karl XII of Sweden (r. 1697-1718).
The binding rule to marry also applied to queens regnant, who numbered 13 in my sample between 1500 and 1800. One of the three queens to disregard this rule was Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603), but she too was expected to marry, not only to guarantee succession to the throne but also because it was assumed that a monarch of the ‘weaker sex’ would need a king to help her rule (Crofton 2008, 146). Elizabeth I turned down all proposals. When in 1559 the House of Commons petitioned Elizabeth to marry, she replied that she was already ‘bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England’ (Loades 2009, 210). A slightly different picture is given by Hutton (2010, 128), who says that Elizabeth seemed to have no objections to marriage as such, but the problem was one of opportunity. There were no good domestic candidates or Protestant princes of sufficient status to provide a suitable match for an English queen. It was better to remain unmarried and to enjoy one’s independence.
Sweden also had an unmarried queen, Kristina (r. 1632-54), whose motives for living in celibacy seem to be similar to Elizabeth’s. Kristina strongly emphasized her independence, which she feared she would lose if married (Englund 2012, 126-7). Feminist researchers have subsequently praised these two reigning queens for their strivings for independence, which was exceptional for women at the time (Hutton 2010, 126). The third unmarried queen, Elisabeth of the Russian Romanov dynasty (r. 1741-61), did not gain a reputation for emancipatory endeavours, although she was brave enough to have a string of lovers. She also secretly married a Ukrainian court singer of peasant origin in 1742, but this marriage was proclaimed void (Hughes 2008, 90; Farquhar 2014, 78-9). Her father, Peter the Great, wished a royal husband for Elisabeth, no lesser than King Louis XV of France, but at Versailles her credentials were found wanting because her mother was a peasant and Elisabeth herself had been born out of wedlock. Afterwards Elisabeth rejected suggestions that she should marry a domestic nobleman, and chose freedom instead (Massie 2012, 30-5).
The lack of freedom to choose between marriage and celibacy severely restricted the self-determination of sovereigns, who were thought to be autocrats, but they were equally constrained in their possibilities to choose their spouses. Based on a multitude of history books on royal dynasties, we can conclude that the most preferred option was a royal, but if these intentions were thwarted, the next best option was a spouse candidate from a principality, a second-class state in the hierarchy of states. Principalities did, however, satisfy the formal requirements of status equivalence: sovereigns should marry the offspring of other sovereigns. Sovereignty was thus the key determinant of status equivalence in royalty, and it also demarcated their marriage market. In principle the borderlines were determined by the lists of prospective spouses, but in the end it was the final choice that mattered, whether it fell upon a royal, princely, noble or commoner candidate. The actual choices show just how effective the imperative of status equivalence was at the time. The results for the eight monarchies in my data set are given in Table 2.1.
In the eight monarchies under study, a great majority (83 per cent) of monarchs married according to the formal criterion of status equivalence. There are, however, marked differences between monarchies in the ratios of royal to princely spouses. If identical status equivalence had been followed, all monarchs apart from Prussia should have married royals, including the Archdukes of Austria, because Holy Roman Emperors were regularly elected from the Habsburg dynasty who ruled in Austria. Besides, Prussia joined the group of kingdoms in 1701 when the Prussian ruler was made King in Prussia, a title that Frederick the Great changed in 1772 by declaring himself King of Prussia (Clark 2007, 67). This leads one to assume that even though all eight states were monarchies and in this respect equal by title, their actual statuses were different, which
'Spouses are categorized into four groups by social background: (1) royal spouses (monarchs, their offspring, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, uncles and aunts); (2) princely spouses (princes, grand dukes, dukes and margraves who ruled a sovereign territory, their offspring, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, uncles and aunts); (3) noble spouses; and (4) commoner spouses. Princely spouses were formally acceptable for kings and queens regnant. Ruling a sovereign territory made them social equals, but, as the histories of royal dynasties convincingly show, the distinction between kingly and princely houses was by no means insignificant in the royal marriage market. This is why royal and princely spouses are recorded separately in Table 2.1. State categories are the same throughout the book, meaning that some elevations to kingdoms by Napoleon I are not taken into account. The status of monarchs’ spouses, most of them wives, was defined on the basis of their fathers' status, as was customary at the time. In addition, only official marriages and remarriages are taken into account. Most of the information is drawn from histories of royal dynasties (Aronson 2014; Barker Nichols 1989; Black 2004; Carter 2010; Clark 2007; Crofton 2008; Fraser 2007; Plughes 2008; Ingrao 2003; Kiste van der 2009; Lindqvist n.d., 2009; Loades 2009; Maltby 2009; Massie 2012; Rangstrom 2010; Rosvall 2010; Sutter Fichtner 2014; Tegenborg Falkdalen 2010). This collection of sources has been used for all tables in the book.
Flowever, some complementary information was drawn from Wikipedia as genealogical tables in history books are unfortunately often incomplete. For example, they do not always contain princes and princesses who died in early infancy, or they mention that, for example, three other children were born into the royal family. Wikipedia, on the other hand, does mention these children. To check the reliability of Wikipedia information, I compared a random sample of royal families with those in the histories of royal dynasties. This checking proved that the information on Wikipedia was indeed consistent with the information from history books. More generally, the use of Wikipedia as a source of scientific information still gives rise to some doubts (Harris 2015, 73-93). An arena where everyone's version of the facts is equally valid, Wikipedia easily marginalizes the voice of specialists, or at least blurs the boundary between scientific facts and public opinion. As Harris's examples go to show, the most controversial sites are those that are related to religious, political or health issues. When mired in a battle over the truth, scientists may continue to defend and advocate their own version for a while, but sooner or later they will give up. According to my own experience of Wikipedia, there are many sites which are quite evidently left to researchers: these include the short biographies of royal dynasties, artists and professors that I have used as sources. At least they are valid for that part of information that I needed about family backgrounds and to complement the genealogies of royal families.
would also explain the great differences seen in the proportions of royal- to-royal marriages. According to Table 2.1, unrivalled at the top of the table were Spain and France with their very royalist stand on the marriages of their monarchs, whereas Russia, Prussia and Denmark occupied the lowest rankings with very low proportions of royal-to-royal marriages. England, Austria and Sweden came in between, with equal proportions of royal and princely marriages.
Let us take Spain and France, the two most royalist monarchies in the royal marriage market, under closer scrutiny to see, first, whether the high proportion of monarchs’ royal-to-royal marriages coincided with their realms’ dominant standing in the European political community, an assumption that stems from the idea of equivalence between real power and its performances. Spain was indeed credited with superpower status by the early sixteenth century, which came to be her ‘Golden Century’, but Spain’s imperial decline began after Philip Il’s death in 1598. In the first half of the seventeenth century, France was considered to be Europe’s second most powerful state after Spain, but Spain lost this position around the mid-seventeenth century, when France rose to dominance during the long reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) (Ingrao 2003, 27; Collins 2009, 71-82; Maltby 2009, 100-45). The successes of Spanish and French sovereigns in the royal marriage market speak for a strong association between political gains and gains in the royal marriage market. All marriages of Spanish monarchs into royal dynasties were contracted between 1496 and 1690, taking in the heyday of Spain but also extending some time beyond it. The time for spouses from princely houses came in the eighteenth century, long after Spain’s political heyday. All three marriages of French kings to brides from principalities were contracted in the sixteenth century, before France emerged as a Great Power.
Not only those who arranged royal marriages but also the brides were keen to marry politically high-ranking monarchs. In Spain’s heyday, Charles I of Spain (r. 1516-56) was considered the finest catch in Europe (Tremlett 2011, 204). In 1615, when Louis XIII of France was married to Anne of Spain, she was very conscious of her status as a great Spanish princess eminently suitable to fill the role of Queen of France. By birth, there was no one to equal her; this is how she saw her own status (Fraser
2007, 19). The rivalry between Spain and France came out into the open in the plans for Charles’s (I) marriage. King James I (r. 1603-25) would have preferred the Spanish princess as his son’s consort, but negotiations for this marriage broke down. The second best candidate was a French princess, Henrietta Maria, daughter of King Henry IV of France, whom Charles eventually married in 1625. In 1657, when Louis XIII’s son, 18-year-old Louis XIV, was of marriageable age, it was felt that he would be the best possible match in Europe. France was at the height of its heyday, but Spain’s star was clearly in decline, even though she was still basking in her Great Power reputation. And so it happened that in 1660 Louis XIV of France married Maria Theresa of Spain, but when plans for Marie-Louise of Orleans’s marriage to King Charles II of Spain were made in the late 1670s, Spain’s decline and France’s rise in the European political community were reflected in Marie-Louise’s attitude. She would have preferred to marry her cousin, Grand Dauphin Louis, rather than Charles II of Spain. She considered the prospect of being Queen of France her highest possible destiny. However, this marriage dream never happened.
Just as marriages into the royal houses of Great Powers were held in high regard, so spouses from principalities were often belittled. For example, when Catherine de’ Medici in 1533 married Henri of Valois, the second son of King of France, it was generally felt that Henri had married beneath his station. Catherine was disdained for being just a ‘tradesman’s daughter’ (Strathern 2007, 343). After the death of Henri’s elder brother in 1536, Henri became the heir apparent to the throne and King of France in 1547. For Catherine, this meant a notable upgrading, of which she was very proud. Marguerite-Louise of Orleans, daughter of King Louis XIII’s brother, made a reverse status journey. She was married off in 1661 to Cosimo (III) de’ Medici, the future Grand Duke of Tuscany. Marguerite-Louise strongly resisted her marriage to Cosimo and the idea of living in far-flung Florence, which could not provide the kind of splendour she was used to in the French court. She wrote to King Louis XIV, begging him to have the pope annul the marriage, but the king refused. Despite her misery, Marguerite-Louise gave birth to three children, but finally in 1674 the king allowed her to return to France where she entered a convent (Strathern 2007, 383-9).
In the two other groups of monarchies, the relationship between the state’s political heyday and the monarchs’ success in the royal marriage market is more obscure, suggesting that not only political status but also other factors came into play in the choice of spouse. It seems that England’s entry into the royal marriage market in the early sixteenth century started surprisingly well, considering the country’s political standing in comparison with Spain and France (Tremlett 2011, 70, 215, 230, 307). English royals were indeed popular candidates in the royal marriage market at the time. For instance, two Swedish kings negotiated marriages to English princesses. One of them was Gustav II Adolf, although he eventually had to content himself with a princess from Brandenburg (Rangstrom 2010, 57-60, 145). England’s success in the royal marriage market collapsed when the Hanover dynasty came to power, even though England’s standing in the European political community was on the rise. From George I’s marriage in 1682 up to Queen Victoria’s marriage in 1840, England’s monarchs took their consorts from German duchies, indicating that common German origin was a more important consideration than identical status equivalence. Austria became a Great Power during the reign of Charles VI (r. 1711-40) and Maria Theresa (r. 1740-80) (Ingrao 2003, 126, 175), but royal-to-royal marriages were more frequent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as was the case in England. Sweden’s political heyday lasted a century or so, from the reign of Gustav II Adolf (r. 1611-32) to that of Karl XI (r. 1660-97), when Swedish monarchs expanded their realm through many wars (Upton 1998). Yet, only one Swedish monarch at the time married a royal princess.
Disparities between political standing and success in the royal marriage market are also apparent in the third group of monarchies, where consorts were mainly taken from principalities. In Russia, tsars’ marriages to domestic noblewomen were in keeping with the country’s inferior political position, but when Russia began to emerge to Great Power status under the reign of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) and Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96), Russian rulers became acceptable candidates in the royal marriage market, though only to the houses of principalities. Tsarina Anne (r. 1730-40) was the first Russian ruler to marry outside Russian nobility. Her marriage to the Duke of Courland was contracted in 1710. Three other marriages, all of them in the eighteenth century, were made with brides from German ducal houses. Prussia was accepted as a fully fledged member of the Great Powers at the same time as Russia, in other words, by the mid-eighteenth century (Collins 2009, 191, 306; Clark 2007, 214), and for the same reasons, that is, the expansion of the realm through successive conquests. Despite this, Prussian sovereigns continued to opt for brides from German ducal houses, obviously for the same reason that Hanoverian monarchs chose their spouses from German duchies. Denmark enjoyed her short political heyday in the first half of the sixteenth century (Upton 1998, 7), attracting one royal princess into the Danish royal house. This happened in 1515, when Christian II of Denmark married Isabella, a princess from Spain, a Great Power at the time. Two marriages into the British royal house in the mid-eighteenth century were exceptionally great matches for the Danish monarchs. This was keenly appreciated by the Danish party, who renovated the Great Hall of Christiansborg Palace for the wedding of Crown Prince Christian (VII) in 1766, to make the place of celebration worthy of Princess Caroline Matilde (Lund 1980, 62).
Based on our study of the dynamics of the royal marriage market so far, we can conclude that the requirements of status equivalence were most closely followed in the front-ranking monarchies of Spain and France, where royal-to-royal marriages were most common of all. This made the Habsburgs and the Bourbons the most eligible candidates in the royal marriage market. However, the broader dynamics of the royal marriage market was more complicated than that, kept in motion by two dynamos, that is, the imperative of status equivalence, which gave priority to politically equal partners, and the pursuit of greater prestige than the realm’s standing in the political community would otherwise warrant. Status equivalence yielded the highest rewards in the highest ranks, and therefore it was in these ranks that it was most keenly maintained. At the bottom, by contrast, status equivalence was less rewarding. To attain more prestige through marriage, the only way was to try one’s luck at finding a spouse from a higher-ranking royal house, but such efforts seldom bore fruit for the houses of minor rulers. Denmark was one such monarchy at the time. In the middle, the pursuit of higher-ranking spouses was often more successful, as is evidenced by numerous circulations in European courts. Competition for prestige in the royal marriage market was often hard, but the plain truth is that marriages, whether above or beneath one’s political position, did not change the hierarchical order of states, which was determined by their real political power. In other words, an upward marriage could not upgrade the monarchs’ political status no more than a downward marriage could downgrade it. What made the choice of spouse so significant, nonetheless, was the prestige that came with an advantageous choice of spouse, a momentous asset to any sovereign. Prestige drew its potency from the merger of family with state governance, making the choice of spouse a recurrence of political power, in the same way as royal palaces were at the time. There was one further powerful actor that had the right to pervade the royal marriage market: this was the Church, which had the capacity to force the royal couple to confess its faith.
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