Home Language & Literature Families, Status and Dynasties: 1600-2000
Chapter 2 has opened a first vista from which to view and approach the association between status and family, the main subject of this book. The component parts of this association were described in some detail in order to set a benchmark for the other status hierarchies elaborated in this book. Agamben’s (2011) idea of the duality of government—its operative actions and its glorification through performances—provided a useful frame of reference against which to elaborate actual spousal choices and succession in royalty. To understand the way that monarchism came to influence marriage arrangements and succession, we have to keep in mind the historical trajectory of monarchism: its emergence to prominence in the sixteenth century, its glorious heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its fading away in the nineteenth century. Within this broader development, individual monarchies had their own trajectories, rising to their heyday at different times and staying there for shorter or longer periods. Royalty and its heyday provided a unique context in which to associate status with family.
In royalty’s heyday, the office of monarch conferred the highest status on the ruler, but internationally the monarch’s status depended on his or her political standing in the European community. The first and foremost monarchs in Europe were the Spanish kings in the sixteenth century and the French kings in the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century. This real political power—the very foundation of monarchism’s heyday—was reconciled with various performances. Ideally, the highest status and its performances were to be neatly matched. In the marriage market, one variant of this principle was status equivalence, with sovereignty as its yardstick: it was required that a sovereign marry a sovereign’s child. This imperative demarcated the boundaries of the royal marriage market up to the mid-twentieth century and the winding down of royalty’s heyday. The very foundation of the royal marriage market was its exclusiveness. Only social equals, as defined by sovereignty, had access; those who were excluded were of lower rank. Access was a marvellous performance of status.
Sovereignty was in fact a concession to lower-ranking sovereigns. Identical status equivalence would have required that monarchs marry a monarch’s child. This rule was most closely followed in Great Powers, but there were also other forces that compelled the royal marriage market to accommodate to the circumstances. Under the churches’ influence, the royal marriage market was divided into two parts, Catholic and Protestant, and marriages across that divide would henceforth be prohibited. Moreover, the decision by both Prussian and Hanoverian British monarchs to marry spouses of Germanic origin bears witness to the fact that ethnicity complicated the execution of status equivalence in the royal marriage market, making status equivalence somewhat elastic although still on the terms of sovereignty.
The erosion of status equivalence first began to gather momentum in Protestant monarchies, where half of all younger princes remained unmarried, partly because they were not allowed to marry their lower- ranking partners. In such cases, common-law marriage provided a convenient option. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, younger princes took even more radical steps by marrying their noble or commoner partners. For this they would be stripped of their royal status. It was by virtue of all these early exceptional choices that Protestant princes became the forerunners of change, for which Protestantism rather than Catholicism provided favourable ground. Finally, status equivalence lost all its remaining significance around the mid-twentieth century when monarchs and their siblings began to marry commoners. This was at once a deathblow to the royal marriage market, as the range of acceptable commoner candidates became too inclusive and too variable to form a coherent entity. The whole idea of the marriage market was its exclusiveness.
But before the royal marriage market dissolved in the mid-twentieth century, status equivalence was for most royals a compelling imperative, even at the time that royalty lost their real political power. In this situation, unaltered status performances became theatrical performances.
Marriage was not, however, a mere performance of status; it also had authoritative power. In royalty, the authority of marriage stemmed, first of all, from the monarch’s duty to produce a legal heir to the throne, a succession that was arranged on a hereditary basis. Almost all European monarchs from the sixteenth century to the present have obeyed this imperative: they have married. Marriage also categorically excluded the monarch’s illegitimate children from sovereign power. Marriage was thus a discriminatory watershed that divided children into two groups, legitimate and illegitimate, affording the privileged status to legitimate children. But to get that authority, marriage was to be contracted properly, that is, officially and publicly and, in the case of royalty, with solemn ceremonies. This was required not only to glorify those in power, but also to confirm the authoritative power of marriage, embodied by the formalization of marriage under the state’s control. This meant that among the women of the monarchy, the highest standing was afforded to the queen. The authority of marriage thus gave rise, first, to a rigid distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. Second, it also protected the queen-wife’s status, which she received from her king-husband. But it did not safeguard her from her husband’s infidelities. In that sense, the authority of marriage was in practice weak, even though adultery was outlawed.
In this historical phase, status equivalence and love were made into each other’s opposites. In the heyday of monarchism, when performances of status reflected the monarch’s real political power, spouses were chosen under the rules of status equivalence, and we are inclined to think that there would have been no room for love in such marriages. The place of love was therefore outside marriage, outside the state-based structure to which the king was closely tied, as was the queen. But as the nineteenth century in particular showed, spousal love was in fact possible even within the confines of status equivalence; in fact it was not at all uncommon. When the choice of spouse was left to the will of the two individuals concerned, love interestingly again fell upon social inferiors.
Primogeniture, which bestowed the right to the crown on the eldest son (or daughter), made it impossible to follow the imperative of status equivalence in succession. Inequality between the monarch’s children was unavoidable. For princesses, the only way to maintain a royal status equal to their mothers’ was to marry a crown prince, whereas younger princes, with no prospect of inheriting the crown, were destined to remain without any office equivalent to their royal status. One consequence was profuse idleness, but the imbalanced situation also contributed to radicalize younger princes, not politically but in their private lives, the only realm over which they had any real control. But this only happened when monarchism’s heyday was drawing to a close. Strangely, the parties concerned felt bound to the regulations when they were in their prime; changes only began to happen with the waning of their heyday.
The legacy of royalty took shape in connection with two historically significant strands—one passing from the heyday of monarchism, the other resulting from the collapse of monarchist dominion. The splendour of status performances, including palaces and weddings, harks back to the heyday, while putting royal private life on a pedestal is a more recent phenomenon. The royal family is no longer created in association with the state but with the public, with the commoners who determine what the royal family is, or should be, today.
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