Home Language & Literature Families, Status and Dynasties: 1600-2000
The Triumph of Love over Status Equivalence
Histories of royal dynasties are keen to emphasize the dominance of political interests in marriage arrangements, but there is in fact a good amount of evidence of love or at least expectations of love among royal couples. I suggest that even the exchange of more or less embellished portraits of the prospective bride and groom, a very common transaction in the heyday of monarchism (Fraser 2007, 65; Rangstrom 2010, 251), bears witness to such expectations. The magic of portraits was that the bride and groom could see each other and appraise their compatibility, not according to their status but their appearances, which were also thought to reflect their inner minds. Even though painted pictures were hardly a substitute for face-to-face encounters, they were tremendously important to the awakening of emotional interest (Rangstrom 2010, 259). The situation improved noticeably in the eighteenth century when visits to royal and princely courts became common and provided a good opportunity to view spouse candidates. Yet despite the increasing role of love in decisions on royal marriages, it was still within the same exclusive pool as before that most fallings in love happened. Love and status equivalence seemed to go hand in hand in the nineteenth century, but the grip began to loosen in the twentieth century.
The growing emphasis on love in the choice of spouse was paralleled by a fresh enthusiasm for family life. In England, the first king described as a family-centred man was George III (r. 1760-1820). According to Crofton (2008, 198; also Black 2004, 139-44), the king was never happier than when in the close circle of his family. He also broke with the royal tradition of keeping mistresses. Yet this change in intimacies was not permanent. George III’s son and heir to the throne, George IV (r. 1820-30), was a notorious womanizer and the father of many bastards. Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) seems to be the next monarch who turned her warm attention to her family (Kiste van der 2009), but again the monarch in the next generation did not follow his parents’ example.
Edward VII (r. 1901-10) spent a pleasurable life with his several mistresses, some of them one-night affairs, others full-blown amours with officially established mistresses, among them actresses (Aronson 2014, 140-1, 292). His successor, George V (r. 1910-36), was the antithesis of his father, a family-oriented father and husband, but his eldest son and heir Edward (VIII) took after his grandfather as a playboy prince and seducer of married women. Edward’s younger brother, George VI, who succeeded him to the throne in 1936, was like their father George V. George VI’s marriage to Elizabeth, a noblewoman, is said to have been successful: together with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, they formed a close and happy family (Crofton 2008, 222-36). To conclude, fathers and sons and brothers could be completely different in their intimate lives, but there were, nonetheless, signs of a faint change in the orientation to family life in England.
The Romanov dynasty experienced a similar change in nineteenth- century Russia. Nicholas I (r. 1825-55) is said to have been devoted to his family, but he also kept mistresses and fathered several children by them. His wife Alexandra was different: the chief element in her image was that of mother of the expanding Romanov dynasty (Hughes 2008, 163). Nicholas’s heir, Alexander II (r. 1855-81), indulged in several premarital affairs, but he finally married accordingly. His choice fell upon 15-year-old Princess Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt, with whom he fell in love during a visit to the theatre. They married in 1841. It was a love marriage, but later turned into a formality. In the mid-1860s Alexander fell in love with Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaia from a princely Boyar family, and by 1866 she was his mistress. Members of the imperial family opposed the relationship, but it flourished and finally ended in marriage in 1880, just over a month after Empress Maria’s death. Before that, in the 1870s, Ekaterina had given birth to four children by Alexander II. It is only in the next generation that we come across a Russian royal marriage that is commonly categorized as a love marriage. This marriage was Alexander III’s (r. 1881-94), who in 1866 married Marie, daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark. Alexander remained faithful to his wife, took a dim view of irregular relationships and felt that family life was central to him, extending this to a liking for his Danish in-laws (Hughes 2008, 193-5). The last Romanov Emperor, Nicholas II (r. 1894-1918), was also in a position to marry for love. He married Alix Victoria, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. Theirs was a lifelong, intense love affair and family life was their cornerstone (Hughes 2008, 202-5).
Reports on happy families can be found elsewhere, too. In Prussia, the first domesticated king was Frederick William III (r. 1797-1840), whose marriage was contracted in 1793. He is also said to have remained faithful to his wife. In France, the first reportedly faithful husband king was Louis XVI (r. 1774-92) (Black 2004, 145). In Denmark, Frederick VII (r. 1848-63) was a shameless womanizer, whereas his successor, Christian IX (r. 1863-1906), was a devoted family man, while his successor, Frederick VIII (r. 1906-12), had several frivolous relationships like his grandfather (Aronson 2014). These cases are divulged here in some detail because they reflect a more general change in the private life of royalty, coinciding with the incipient decline of the heyday of monarchism. These two currents, rising domestication and declining monarchical power, crossed by chance in the Danish royal house, one with minuscule political power, which made domesticity flourish more than perhaps ever in royalty.
The central figure in domestication was King Christian IX of Denmark, who in 1842 married Louise of Hesse-Kassel. The royal circle around him was gathering together through marriages to a degree and in a way that would have been virtually impossible in the past. This clan was formed in the 1860s when four of Christian’s children, in compliance with identical status equivalence, married royals: Alexandra of Denmark married in 1863 the future King of the United Kingdom, Edward (VII); Dagmar of Denmark married in 1866 the future Emperor of Russia, Alexander (III); William, a Danish prince, who was elected King of the Hellenes (r. 1863-1913 as George I), married in 1867 Emperor Alexander III’s first cousin Olga; and the Crown Prince Frederick (VIII) of Denmark married in 1869 Louise of Sweden. The central position of Denmark, Britain and Russia in this very royalist network owes to several reciprocal marriages between Danish, British and Russian royals, many of them cousin marriages. Quite soon after Christian’s accession to the throne in 1863, Christian developed the tradition of family gatherings when all or almost all members of the clan came together to spend a few weeks with King Christian and Queen Louise (Aronson 2014, 71).
Domesticity marked a profound change in royalty, even though it did not hold appeal among all monarchs at the time. Domestication in royalty reflected the gradual separation of the royal family from the iron grip of the state, which took place at the same time as the monarchs were losing their power. Across European courts, this was performed by periodic withdrawals from publicly lived grand palaces to smaller palaces in the countryside, where the royal family could enjoy each other’s company, either alone or with the extended family, as King Christian did every year. Nicholas II retreated with his family to their favourite palace, Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (Hughes 2008, 202-5). In England, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in 1844 and built Balmoral in Scotland in 1852-55 (Montgomery-Massingberd 1983, 127); their family were never happier than when relaxing at either of these homes (Kiste van der 2009, 22-3). Frederick William III of Prussia preferred to stay in the smaller Paretz Palace, where he could live in tranquil domesticity, unlike his predecessors who did not draw a clear distinction between their private life and public functions (Clark 2007, 314-15). Grand royal palaces, built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to manifest the power of monarchs, were now of secondary interest. They were reserved for formal occasions and seasons when state governance required the monarch’s presence. But real life was lived out in cosy residences, or so it seems from descriptions of royal family life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Even though King Christian IX was a central figure in the creation of nineteenth-century royal familialism, the leading symbol of this whole epoch was Queen Victoria and her family. This was to be known as the ‘Victorian’ age. In his comprehensive volume on the Victorian frame of mind, Houghton (1957) presents a long list of ongoing simultaneous changes in the nineteenth century. A home of one’s own, sheltered and separated from the threatening outside world, was the key performance of the Victorian age and, more generally, the transition which made the family a world of their own making (Gillis 1997). Central to their own making were gatherings on many occasions, purposely arranged so that the whole family could be together (Houghton 1957, 341). A case in point is provided by King Christian IX’s annual family gatherings in the summertime, when his children and grandchildren, eventually 36 in total, spent a few weeks in the Danish country palace. Yet this blissful time did not last forever. It flourished for as long as King Christian IX’s grandchildren were growing up and establishing their own families. Then, many of the third-generation grown-up members began to regard these family gatherings as rather tedious occasions rather than the joyful get-togethers they used to be. King Christian’s death in 1906 was one milestone in the dissolution of the clan. This was followed by the death of King Edward VII in 1910, and seven years later Nicholas II was deposed from the throne. A year after that Nicholas II and his family were murdered, severely shaking the very foundations of monarchism as well as the familial atmosphere that had so deeply inspired these royal people. And finally, the deaths of King Christian’s two daughters, the Dowagers of Edward VII and Alexander III in 1925 and 1928, respectively, definitively terminated the epoch. No one from within the family appeared to take the place of Christian IX or his daughters as a unifying figure. So, the heyday of this royal family-centred clan lasted from the 1860s to the early twentieth century, four decades or three generations, from King Christian IX to his grandchildren who, when they were setting up their own families, began to withdraw from this enclave.
Finally, in the late 1950s, the primeval imperative of status equivalence began to crumble for good. Nineteenth-century Victorian familial- ism had started the process by emphasizing love in marriage and family, but the royal youth of the day went even further and completely rejected the authority of status equivalence in the royal marriage market. When Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, Princess Margaret, in the late 1950s expressed her intention to marry Captain Peter Townsend, a divorced commoner, it was made clear to Margaret that he was not a suitable match. Contrary to her uncle Edward VIII, Margaret decided not to marry her beloved one. She was the last royal to agree to walk away. In 1960, Margaret was, nonetheless, permitted to marry a commoner, the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Crofton 2008, 241-2). This widely publicized marriage came to mark a turning point in the royal marriage market. The next royal generation would bury status equivalence and let love dictate their choices of spouse. Strangely, some 70 per cent of royal marriages contracted since 1960 in the monarchies of the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium have been royal-to-commoner marriages. But interestingly, one of the rare royal-to-royal marriages was made between Greece and Denmark, and another between Spain and Greece. Royal-to-noble marriages were still contracted, but less and less often. The royal marriage market ceased to be exclusive. That being the case, we can ask whether the whole idea of a royal marriage market evaporated into thin air. Based as it was on the exclusiveness of status equivalence, the royal marriage market had lost the very foundation for its existence.
The latest love stories of the youngest royal generation perfectly illuminate the heroic triumph of love over the imperative of status equivalence. This is depicted time and again by books and special editions of magazines that proliferate before and after royal weddings. We have learned how Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden fell in love with Daniel Westling (Lindwall 2010; several special editions of magazines published before and after her marriage to Daniel) and Prince William of the United Kingdom fell in love with Catherine Middleton (Joseph 2010; several special editions of magazines published before and after his marriage to Catherine). The books and magazines place great emphasis on love with commoners, turning a commoner status into the best possible proof of great love, in the spirit of romantic love (de Rougemont 1963), a specific form of love most commonly cultivated in literature and cinema but also recognizable in reality. Romantic love draws its vigour from barriers that separate people into their own social enclaves. Status difference was such a barrier par excellence.
Crown Princess Victoria made it clear from very early on that she would be choosing her own spouse. This was like an omen, anticipating a marriage to a commoner. However, her choice was not in fact universally accepted, and indeed the couple initially decided to keep their love secret, a clear indication of the continued and persistent influence of the imperative of status equivalence. In the same way, the repeated references by the author of a book on Victoria’s private life (Lindwall 2010) to Daniel’s social background—a man from a middle-class family, not a prince from another European royal house, not a count or a young man from an aristocratic background, but an utterly ordinary man—clearly serve to demonstrate that status equivalence does matter. These innocent and benevolent utterances convey the message that status equivalence is no longer obligatory, but, nonetheless, a matter that must be commented upon. It was such an integral and essential part of royal life for so long that even today people react to royal marriages with status equivalence in mind—regardless of what they think about status equivalence. The general public was mostly behind Victoria’s and William’s choices, but only on one condition: that the humble social background of their chosen ones was compensated for by love, true love that withstands any pressures, all doubt and denial. The long wait served as one testimony, but the ultimate one was Daniel’s wedding address to Victoria, which exceeded all expectations. It was a perfect eulogy of his great love for Victoria. It won him repeated acclaim from the media and the general public. Just as monarchical power was earlier displayed in a variety of magnificent performances, so did love have to be put on display to convince the public. However, as well as showing his sincere love, the prince consort also needed to demonstrate a certain character, which is perhaps best paraphrased as that of a ‘good husband’. Daniel was said to be honest, friendly, helpful and enterprising, and hence suitable for Victoria. And the same characterizations applied to Catherine as well. Great emphasis was furthermore put on the fortunate fact that the bride and groom have so much in common.
Despite the triumph of love, the imperative of status equivalence did not disappear from the royal scene. As before, the spouse of lower rank had to be elevated to a higher rank, as close to royalty as possible. Catherine was created Duchess of Cambridge after William, Duke of Cambridge. Daniel was upgraded to Prince and Duke of Vastergotland. It was the marriage that furthermore authorized this elevation and entry into a royal house. Catherine belongs to the House of Windsor and Daniel to the House of Bernadotte by marriage. This primeval metamorphosis not only associated consorts with royal houses, but their own pedigrees also aroused great interest. I do not know who made them, but the point here is that they had to be made. Not only royal dynasties have their roots in the past, but the same goes for those who are of lower ranks. Their genealogical history, now made public, added to their respectability.
The expansion of media publicity created a new role for the royal family: to perform the family in public, from birth to death. As Agamben (2011, 253-6) remarks, generally speaking, ceremonies and liturgies tend today to be simplified; the insignia of power reduced to a minimum; crown, thrones and sceptres kept in glass cases in museums or treasuries; and the acclamations that had such great importance for the glorious function of power appear everywhere to have almost disappeared. But Agamben goes on to say that the sphere of glory does not disappear in modern democracies, but shifts to another area, that of public opinion and the media. As long as royal families stand high in the public’s favour, their existence is assured. The public’s favour depends not on the glorification of the king at the pinnacle of power, but on the glorification of the family, performed in great events of family life, above all births, christenings, weddings and funerals.
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