I realize it makes for a good story, but the American news media are making too much of a fuss about Prince William of Wales becoming engaged to the “commoner” Kate Middleton. It’s not the reporting of the story that bothers me (that is to be expected in a country that is fascinated with British royalty), but rather the seemingly short memory of the media and their general lack of knowledge of both near and distant royal history.
Kate is not by a long shot the first commoner to marry an heir to the throne, or even a king, in Britain. She is also just one of many commoners who have made upwardly mobile matches to royalty around the world.
Starting in Britain, Lady Diana Spencer – who was, as everyone is well aware, Prince William’s mother – was a commoner. Yes, she was the daughter of an earl, but she was a commoner nonetheless. Although she did not become queen consort, another commoner in recent history did: the mother of Queen Elizabeth II was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon before she married The Duke of York, who later became King George VI. Better known to today’s generation as the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, she was – like Diana – the daughter of an earl. And for heaven’s sake, The Duchess of Cornwall, The Prince of Wales’ second wife, is a commoner who never even held any aristocratic titles before her marriage to Prince Charles! The bottom line here is that if you’re not royal by birth, you are a commoner, even if you are the child of a titled aristocrat.
Further back in history, it’s not hard to find at least a dozen other commoners who married monarchs or their heirs in the British Isles. King Henry VIII of England married four: Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. Although Anne Boleyn is often mistakenly identified as the first commoner to become queen of England in 1533, that achievement was actually made 68 years earlier when Elizabeth Woodville married King Edward IV of England. Mary, Queen of Scots, married as her second husband Lord Darnley, an English subject. In fact, the early history of the Scottish Crown is littered with kings marrying commoners, and even the illegitimate daughters of other kings.
Perhaps the most controversial of these royal-commoner unions in Britain occurred in 1660 when James, Duke of York (the younger brother of King Charles II) married his pregnant mistress, Anne Hyde. Unlike other commoner wives before her, Anne didn’t even have an aristocratic background. Her father was chief minister to King Charles, but held no title until after his daughter married The Duke of York. Although Anne’s early death precluded her from becoming queen when The Duke of York succeeded his brother in 1685 as King James II, both of her daughters became queens in their own right. The eldest became Queen Mary II in 1689, ruling over England, Scotland and Ireland until her death in 1694. The younger, Anne, succeeded her elder sister in 1702.
This is by no means an exhaustive account of all the commoners who have married into Britain’s royal families, but it makes the point. It also leaves some room to discuss the plethora of other royals married to commoners outside of Britain.
The most recent of these royal-commoner unions is also the product of one of the more progressive royal houses in Europe: Sweden. While the American media applaud the British monarchy for its “modernity,” they are completely ignoring the fact that Sweden, unlike Britain, has something called equal primogeniture. Simply put, in Sweden, the eldest child of the monarch – male or female – is next in line to the throne. In Britain, on the other hand, males take precedence over their female siblings in the line of succession, even if they are younger. As the eldest child of the current king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, and his wife (who was, at one point, a flight attendant prior to her marriage), Crown Princess Victoria will succeed her father as monarch, even though she has a (younger) brother. This past June, Victoria married a commoner, Daniel Westling, who owned the gym where Victoria regularly exercised. He is now a Prince. In Britain, the best a commoner husband of a royal wife (other than the queen) can hope to become is an earl.
Sweden is not alone in its openness to commoners as royal spouses, as the following list attests:
- Japan: Emperor Akihito of Japan, while still Crown Prince, married commoner Michiko Shōda in 1959 (the first to do so in 1,500 years). Their son and heir, Crown Prince Naruhito, followed suit in 1993 when he married Masako Owada.
- Jordan: The late King Hussein of Jordan married American Lisa Halaby in 1978. King Hussein’s successor, King Abdullah II of Jordan, married Palestinian commoner Rania Al Abdullah in 1993.
- Norway: Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, heir to his father, King Harald V, made a controversial marriage to commoner (and single mother) Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby in 2001. It seems Mette-Marit had been something of a party girl in Norway, and the father of her son had been convicted on drug charges. The marriage was accepted by the royal family, the government, and the people of Norway.
- The Netherlands: Heir-to-the-throne Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, also caused some controversy when he married Argentine commoner Máxima Zorreguieta in 2002. Máxima’s father had served in the government of former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, under whose regime tens of thousands of people “disappeared.” Her father did not attend the wedding.
- Denmark: On May 14, 2004, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark married Australian Mary Donaldson. Nine years earlier, his younger brother, Prince Joachim, married commoner Alexandra Manley of Hong Kong, whom he divorced in 2005. Two years later, Joachim married another commoner, this time a French woman named Marie Cavallier.
- Spain: Felipe, Prince of Asturias – heir to the Spanish throne – married Spanish journalist Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano in 2004.
- Monaco: Prince Albert II of Monaco is currently engaged to South African swimmer Charlene Wittstock. Of course, the Prince’s mother was Grace Kelly, who famously married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956.
With such a preponderance of commoner princesses and queens (and at least one prince) in Britain and the rest of the world, I find it incredibly difficult to fathom why the American media are making such a fuss about Kate Middleton. Is it because it makes a more sensational news story to ignore reality? Or perhaps they just don’t care to do the research, even if it just means scratching the surface as I’ve done here? Maybe they just have an incredibly short memory of, or interest in, history?
Whatever the case, I doubt we will hear much, if anything, of these other fascinating elements of history as long as the quick and easy – but eminently hollow – catchword dictates the scope of the American news.
Oh, and one more thing… contrary to what the American media are reporting, Kate Middleton will NOT be known as “Princess Kate,” just as Diana was never really “Princess Diana” (that was merely a colloquialism). Following British custom, on her marriage, Kate will take the name of her husband, i.e. “Her Royal Highness Princess William of Wales.” Of course, it is also custom for a British royal prince to receive a dukedom upon marriage. So, if, for example, Prince William is given the title Duke of Clarence, Kate will be known as “Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Clarence.” But I’m sure the American media will call her “Princess Kate” no matter what British custom decrees.
Tags: Alexandra Manley, Anne Boleyn, Anne Hyde, british royal engagement, British royal family, Catherine Howard, Catherine Parr, Charlene Wittstock, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Crown Prince Naruhito, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, Daniel Westling, Danish royal family, Duke of York, Elizabeth Woodville, Emperor Akihito of Japan, equal primogeniture, Felipe Prince of Asturias, Grace Kelly, House of Orange, Jane Seymour, Japanese royal family, Jorge Rafael Videla, Kate Middleton, King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Charles II, King Edward IV, King George VI, King Harald V of Norway, King Henry VIII, King Hussein of Jordan, King James II, Lady Diana Spencer, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, Lisa Halaby, Lord Darnley, Marie Cavallier, Mary Donaldson, Mary Queen of Scots, Masako Owada, Máxima Zorreguieta, Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, Michiko Shōda, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Prince Charles, Prince Joachim of Denmark, Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Prince William, Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, Queen Anne, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Queen Mary II, Rania Al Abdullah, Royal family of Jordan, royal family of Norway, Scottish Crown, Spanish royal family, Swedish royal family, The Duchess of Cornwall, Willem-Alexander Prince of Orange