Why do royals prefer to marry commoners?
Princess Eugenie’s wedding was the latest bid to move the monarchy into the 21st century, says Hannah Betts
Well, it’s done, then. Princess Eugenie Victoria Helena of York has married some chap who sells tequila, in a three-hour This Morning special that will enter the annals of Hello! magazine, if not history.
As that publication noted, Euge (to her friends…) was “the first princess bride since 1992, when the Princess Royal married Timothy Laurence”. For the first time in more than a quarter of a century, we had pomp, fairy-tale, proper princessdom – a “princess of the blood”, to use a phrase that’s been well-worn by her father.
And Princess Eugenie proved herself more on trend than usual by marrying a commoner.
For Jack Brooksbank may be a posh boy, with a background including those Sloane bastions that are Stowe and Mahiki, but he is a commoner none the less.
There had been speculation that Brooksbank might be handed an earldom on getting hitched. However, like every royal love match since Lady Diana Spencer – think Sarah Ferguson, Timothy Laurence, Sophie Rhys- Jones, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Autumn Kelly, Mike Tindall, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle – he is not of royal, nor even blue-blooded stock.
As the bride’s mother, herself a commoner, somewhat optimistically stated before the nuptials, it was a wedding “about love, future and inclusivity”. Sarah, Duchess of York added: “The York family embraces the magic of Jack totally.”
And the magic of Jack is that he isn’t Lord Jack, but “Barman Jack”, as the Chelsea set refer to him.
And what of it, one might ask? Even within living memory, a royal marrying a regular type has raised eyebrows; a shocking step rather enjoyed by Princess Margaret when she wed plain old Mr Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. Moreover, even the Queen Mother’s union with her Bertie proved controversial back in 1923, despite her being a lady and he merely the Duke of York, the idea that he might become George VI yet unimaginable.
Regardless, the union was seen as a striking move towards modernity for the House of Windsor.
For the law had been weighted
‘Catherine will be our first middleclass Queen’
against royal/commoner unions since the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which ensured that members of the Royal family could only marry with the permission of the monarch, in order to guard against nuptials that might diminish royal status.
Brilliantly, this attempt by George III to secure the Hanoverian line produced a situation in which he spawned more than 50 grandchildren, with only one legitimate heir among them, until the death of the Regent’s daughter spurred his brothers into marital action. The Mad King’s maddest move may have stopped his relatives marrying commoners, but it didn’t stop them falling for them.
Even before this, the need for royal matches to be used to secure political allegiances and territorial gain made weddings between royals and non-royals a rarity. The most notable exception was the coup de foudre that took place between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. History tells it that the blonde widow sprang out from beneath an oak tree, immediately ensnaring her beloved with her “mournful beauty”. It is said they married the next day with all the lustful fervour this implies. The queen’s mother was later accused of sorcery in inveigling the monarch to succumb to her commoner daughter’s charms.
Historian Claudia Gold, author of the Henry II biography, King of the North Wind, explains: “For the most part, unions between commoners and royalty have proved incredibly controversial. The exceptions were marriages to the great English heiresses, which brought a lot of money to the Crown; marriages to heal civil war (notably Henry VII and Elizabeth of York); or marriages to women such as Jane Seymour, who was so seemingly innocuous that no one could possibly hold anything against her.
Yet, even here, people complained about her relatives’ advancement.
“Elsewhere, commoner queen consorts were often cast in the role of witches or jezebels: Isabella of Angoulême, say, who was said to have kept King John chained to her bed, or Anne Boleyn, who was reported to have an extra finger on her right hand – surely the sign of a witch. Or women such as Wallis Simpson and Elizabeth Woodville, using their sexuality to keep their royal spouses in thrall.”
Old prejudices die hard, and there are still zealots who feel that introducing a lack of even vaguely blue blood will represent a fatal watering down of royal stock. Others – the Queen, apparently, included – consider not embracing change more ruinous.
After all, one of her favourite family members is the Countess of Wessex, formerly the resolutely middling Sophie Rhys-Jones. Eugenie has said that Her Majesty knew that Brooksbank was the one “right at the beginning” and “was very happy”.
According to royal expert Katie Nicholl, author of Harry: Life, Loss and Love, it was unlikely radical the Duke of Cambridge who really broke the mould.
“Prince William rewrote the rules when he married Kate Middleton, the first commoner to marry an heir in likely line to the throne. It was something of a royal revolution, and has only benefited the Royal family.
“Kate will be our first middle-class Queen. She has the ancestry of coal miners coursing through her veins, and that makes her relevant and relatable to.”
Nicholl sees Diana, Princess of Wales’s influence, despite Lady Diana Spencer having had blood arguably bluer than the Windsors.
“Diana broke the royal mould, she pushed boundaries – and we’ve seen her sons do the same. They are paving the way for the monarchy to move into the 21st century.”
Gold agrees: “Diana changed the game. She made royalty more accessible, more attainable. She behaved like a movie star, but one that needed our love, help and support – and we loved her for it. The Royal family learned that people find vulnerability attractive, and they use it incredibly effectively.”
Examples of royals in rival modern monarchies hankering after bits of rough no less abound. One thinks of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, their son Prince Albert and Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock. The picture-perfect Letizia Ortiz, now Queen of Spain, was once a television news anchor; Sofia Hellqvist, Princess of Sweden, a reality television contestant.
Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby was criticised for being a single mother, whos whose child was fathered by a drug drug-dealer, when she married Crow Crown Prince Haakon of Norway. Princ Prince Frederik of Denmark fell in love with advertising executive Mary Dona Donaldson in a bar, while Swedish heir Crown Princess Victoria pledg pledged herself to her personal train trainer, Daniel Westling.
Nevertheless, Ne we Britons like to think that we do things better than the so-called s bicycling monarchies and their ilk. If much of the justification for monarchy resides in its specialness, exoticism, magic, are there dangers in mixing the pomp with the plebeian, the queenly with the quotidian? And might it spell problems down the line, given that the line is so very much the thing?
Gold thinks not: “We live in an age of celebrity. In Catherine and Meghan, we have two young princesses with movie-star looks to dazzle us. And we love them even more because they are commoners.
“We can aspire to be like them, and some of their family members have issues that enable us to identify with them. It’s all very Jane Austen-esque: the perfect princesses with the selectively challenging families. Our future queen’s sister is known for her beautiful bottom, her mother is teased for being a former air hostess, and her uncle provides the requisite black sheep. But we adore Kate all the more for it.”
The commoner consort looks here to stay.
For love is blind – even royal love these days; meaning members of The Firm now stand the same chance as the rest of us of remaining happy ever after.