29 January 2011

A Royal Love Triangle: Eddy, Georgie and May

No one could believe what was happening. Just days before, the handsome, young prince had gone out shooting, jauntily waving his hat at his beloved mother as he made his way into the January weather. Now, he lay at death’s door surrounded by his parents, his siblings and his new fiancée.

Prince Albert Victor of Wales had been both a joy and a source of despair for his parents since the moment of his premature birth in 1864. At barely three pounds, he would have surprised no one by dying as an infant. Instead, for the first but only time in his life, he showed a remarkable tenacity and determination. Named in honor of his grandmother Queen Victoria and her late husband Prince Albert, the newborn was nicknamed Eddy by his parents, Bertie and Alix, the Prince and Princess of Wales. Eddy was destined to become King of England, but the only qualifications he had were royal blood, insouciant charm and a handsome face.

In all other ways, Eddy was a disappointment. He lacked any intellectual capacity which was only enhanced by an inherent laziness. Victoria and Albert had fretted over Bertie’s seeming lack of intelligence, but next to his son, Bertie was a paragon of learning. Eddy was joined in the classroom by his little brother Georgie and in the playroom by three adoring little sisters, Louise, Maud and Toria.

Full of fun themselves, the Prince and Princess of Wales indulged their children’s playfulness, even joining them in their games. For the Wales children, childhood was a time for sunny romps, giggles and joy. So what if the tutors were frustrated beyond belief? There was more to life than learning.

Once it was clear that Eddy would never accomplish anything in the schoolroom, it was decided to send him into the navy. He was 12 years old. Concerned that he couldn’t hack it on his own, the family sent 10-year-old Georgie with him. Together, the young princes traveled around the world. While Georgie thrived, Eddy floundered. So, he joined the army to even less success. Then, he was sent to Cambridge University where he “earned” a degree.

Eddy excelled at only one thing: dissipation. He could not resist a pretty face (of either sex, it is alleged). Even his partying papa recognized that something had to be done. Afraid to send him abroad where he might encounter more sexual escapades and contract more sexually transmitted diseases, Bertie decided that Eddy needed “A good sensible wife – with some considerable character is what he needs most – but where is she to be found?”

Eddy fell in love easily and would gladly have married any number of lovely young ladies had they been deemed suitable. Resigning himself to a royal bride, he cheerfully fell for his cousin, the lovely Princess Alix of Hesse. Queen Victoria found Alix cheerful and sensible, in short, a perfect bride for a prince who needed both beauty and guidance from his wife. Alix, however, already had a bridegroom in mind. She turned down a future as Queen of England to become Empress of Russia. Victoria applauded the fortitude it took to turn down “the greatest position there is.”

When another first cousin, Princess Margaret of Prussia proved even more reluctant, Eddy found his own royal candidate, Princess Helene of Orleans, daughter of the pretender to the French throne. They defied a disapproving Queen Victoria and became engaged without her knowledge. With a surprise visit to the romantic old queen, the gorgeous young couple soon changed her mind, but Helene’s father was not so easy to gainsay when he learned that the Roman Catholic princess would be required to convert.

Denied a bride once again, Eddy was rapidly running out of potential mates. The family would have to dig deeper into their cousins to find the right girl: beautiful enough to attract the prince, level-headed enough to keep him on the right track, dutiful enough to make a good queen, and willing enough to say yes.

Princess Victoria Mary of Teck fit the order perfectly. Despite the fact that her high-spirited mother Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge was not a favorite first cousin of Queen Victoria and her father the Duke of Teck was a serene rather than a royal highness, the young princess was stable and calm. May, as she was known, was re-introduced to Eddy and his charms soon had an effect on the princess. On one magical evening, following a royal ball, Eddy asked for her hand and May agreed.

Just weeks later, a solemn and heart-broken princess sat hand-in-hand with the distraught and overwrought Princess of Wales as the family watched the prince slipping away. Lost in delirium, a case of flu having developed into pneumonia, Eddy shouted and cried out for old friends and old flames. May certainly heard him calling, “Helene! Helene!” At one point, he even became convinced that Georgie, who had recently recovered from typhoid fever, was dead

The entire Wales family—even the worried parents—had truly adored Eddy. His brother Georgie, his best friend in the world, was now required to take his place as future King of England.

“Gladly would I have given my life for his, as I put no value on mine,” Georgie wrote to Alix. The effusive Queen Victoria added her own grief to the tragedy, “a great calamity has befallen us as well as the Country.”

As Bertie returned again and again to the death chamber, unable to fully realize the loss of his son and the Princess of Wales ordered that his room be kept just as if Eddy were about to return at any moment, his quiet fiancée faced an uncertain future.

Already in her mid-twenties, she was a bit older than the average princess bride and she did not have the most stellar royal bloodlines. Grief-stricken as she was by the loss of the dashing prince and the loss of her brilliant future, May also may have felt a niggling, guilt-ridden sense of relief. During the brief engagement, she had started to realize that Eddy had less than sterling qualities, but her concerns were rebuffed by her family. Better, perhaps, a glorious future as Queen of England with an unreliable husband than a future as a penniless spinster princess.

Now, there were even more enormous pressures on May. Quite literally everyone from the Queen to the chimney sweeps thought it would be a grand idea if bereft princess would marry the grieving new heir to the throne. It would not be the first time a royal bride had been asked to transfer her affections in this way. There were only two problems; one was named Georgie and one was named May.

The couple was less than enthusiastic about the idea. Not that they didn’t like each other; they did. In fact, they developed a solid friendship through their shared grieving. But, Georgie and May were each the very epitome of English-ness when it came to what was “proper” and to expressing emotion. They each were not convinced that it was entirely seemly for a man to marry his dead brother’s girl.

With time, however, the growing affection between them and the external pressure finally convinced Georgie to propose and May to accept. Eighteen months after Eddy’s death, the couple was married and less than a year later, they named their first son Edward in memory of the joyful wastrel whose death had brought them together.

[You can read my profile of Prince Albert Victor on the Unofficial Royalty site.]

16 January 2011

Eleanor's Crosses: A Royal Love Story

For two days, the mighty king remained in seclusion. Pale and withdrawn, stricken with an overwhelming grief that distracted him from the impending war with Scotland. For 36 years, Eleanor of Castile had been the faithful and loving companion of the powerful King Edward I. Unlike most royal marriages in history, theirs was a true love story.

Initiated for political reasons designed to shore up the southern reaches of what remained of Henry II’s and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Angevin empire, the marriage between their great-grandson and the Castilian king’s darkly beautiful sister was immediately successful. Handsome, tall and blonde, like all the famous Plantagenet princes, Edward was 15 when they wed while his bride was a dewy-eyed 13.

Eleanor became pregnant with alarming haste, but both of the extremely young parents were distraught when the pregnancy ended tragically. Perhaps filled with fear for Eleanor’s life, the couple apparently engaged more cautiously for the next several years and their first child, a daughter named Eleanor, was not born for another nine years. From that point forward, they were indeed very fruitful with 16 children born in 25 years.

This reproductive success certainly reflects the couple’s devotion to each other, but it was also made possible by their constant togetherness. In an age when royal spouses were often separated for months and even years as the husband pursued his territorial claims, fought off attackers, and journeyed on The Crusades, Edward and Eleanor rarely allowed space to come between them. Even though Edward’s court was in almost constant motion, sometimes staying in one place for no more than a day or two, Eleanor was usually with him.

Even in the late stages of her many pregnancies; she could not be persuaded to leave her beloved husband’s side. Her children were born all over the world of her day as she followed Edward from campaign to campaign. Sometimes arriving in stalwart castles other times in makeshift accommodations, her infants were born at Windsor, Surrey and Woodstock in England, at Rhuddlan and Caernarvon in Wales, and in Gascony and Palestine.

Like her predecessors Eleanor of Aquitaine and Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor would not be left behind when her husband, who was not yet king, went on Crusade. During that journey, she nearly lost her husband, not in battle but at the hands of an assassin. Under the pretense of diplomacy, the culprit entered Edward’s tent and pulled out a knife. Ever vigilant and athletic, the prince personally fought off his attacker and killed him with his own knife, but not before suffering a defensive wound on his arm. The poisoned blade soon left Edward near death. Later stories circulated of Eleanor sucking the poison from his wound in a brave display of her devotion. The true story, however, also shows the depth of her passion. The doctors were forced to remove the hysterical Eleanor from the tent before they could operate: better that a princess should cry than that all of England should mourn.

Hale and hearty, Edward survived and the couple returned home to be feted as the new king and queen since his father had died in their absence. To show his love and respect for his queen, Edward had Eleanor crowned with him in the first double coronation for centuries.

As the year’s progressed, Edward and Eleanor never tired of each other. He is one of the few medieval monarchs believed to have been entirely faithful to his wife. She was with him on his journey north in November 1290 to deal with another batch of trouble with the Scots. She remained at Harby near Lincoln as he made the final push toward the frigid border. Eleanor fell terribly ill and word was sent to Edward who, forgetting the urgency of his mission, rushed to her side. But, he was too late.

And so, he sat alone with his grief. How could he honor a wife of 36 years? After so many children and so many decades, her celebrated beauty may have faded, but as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Edward could not forget his bride and would ensure that she was remembered for centuries. As her cortege made its slow journey to London, her widower erected a cross at every place where it stopped for the night. Originally made of wood, each marker was replaced with an elaborate stone sculpture topped with a large cross. Each one included three brightly colored and gilded tiers. The lowest level included stone books likely inscribed with tales of the queen’s life and prayers that passersby were encouraged to recite for her soul. The next level included sculptures of the queen herself.

Edward spent the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money to erect 12 “Eleanor Crosses” from Lincoln to Charing. Carved in the same ornate style that the king’s architects were using in Westminster Abbey, the crosses stood taller than most contemporary buildings at the crossroads where they were most likely to be seen. For the rest of his long life, Edward continued to attend services honoring Eleanor, even after he married again for political reasons.

Unfortunately, the Eleanor Crosses did not weather well the mists of time and politics. They were all made of stone that eroded, except the final cross at Charing, which was made of marble. But even Charing Cross could not stand against the Parliamentarian Roundheads of the English Civil War. It, like most of the crosses, was destroyed by the Puritans who viewed the Catholic crosses as idols. Today, only three of Edward’s memorials remain standing—at Geddington, Hardingstone, and Waltham—although each of these no longer bears the cross at its apex. Pieces from some of the crosses have been preserved or even restored by their local communities.

As for the elaborate monument which now stands in front of the Charing Cross rail station; it is a less-than-accurate replica constructed there in 1865 as a marketing device to advertise the new Charing Cross Hotel.

The crosses may have lost their golden shine or been toppled in the seven centuries that have intervened, but Edward’s tender tribute to Eleanor still echo: “We cannot cease to love our consort, now that she is dead,” he wrote, adding, “whom we loved so dearly when alive.”

For more about the Eleanor Crosses, visit the Art & Architecture feature.

13 January 2011

Become a Certified Royal Expert

The Princess Palace is pleased to announce the creation of its sister blog, Royal Certification. This is a tongue-in-cheek (hopefully fun!) response to the proliferation of so-called "royal experts" being quoted by the media. All of you royal geeks out there can indulge your love of royal trivia with me!

Death to the Queen: One Night at the Palacio Real

The queen held her son’s hand as he lay in bed, trying to be as still as possible in the midst of an attack of hemophilia. His sisters and two of his brothers gathered around the room in a death watch that may have taken some of the young people by surprise.

For the death knell was sounding not in this sick chamber, but outside the Palacio Real, where surging crowds were yelling, “Viva la republica!” and “Death to the Queen.” As Queen Victoria Eugenie looked at her children, she could at least thank God that her other hemophilic son, 17-year-old Infante Gonzalo was not also ill. The family’s escape into exile was already hampered by the illness of the 24-year-old Prince of the Asturias. Indeed, King Alfonso XIII had been forced to leave his family behind, reassured that they would leave by train the following day.

But, what a long night awaited them.

Just weeks before, the queen, known as Ena in the family, had returned from a visit to her ailing English mother, Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, to be greeted by rapturous crowds chanting “Long live the queen!” Knowing the tumultuous state of Spain’s government, she at first thought they were cheering against her. She was almost certainly pleased when the throngs of people caused her car to have to travel very slowly to the Palacio Real and their cheers led the royal family to make an impromptu balcony appearance.

For decades, the Spanish throne had been on rocky ground, saved only by successive dictatorships that at least kept the hounds of republicanism at bay. Even that stability was illusive. By late 1930, King Alfonso felt forced to ask for the resignation of the most recent “director” General Primo de Rivera. As the next spring approached, elections were set and the outcome was unpredictable. On April 17, the monarchists won an overwhelming victory—22,000 to 6,000—but only in the countryside. The cities were dominated by the republicans who seized the moment to make their own history. A civil war was imminent.

Alfonso refused to abdicate but he hoped civil war could be avoided if he and his family left the country for a while. It was a strategy that appeared to have worked in the past for their Greek cousins. As he slipped away to Marseilles, his wife and children gathered for a solemn dinner around Alfonsito’s sickbed. Only 18-year-old Infante Juan was absent, away at military school from which he would have to make his own way to safety. But, at least Juan was healthy, unlike his three brothers. Juan has not only escaped the hemophilia that plagued his oldest and youngest brothers but also the deafness of the second son Jaime, who had been rendered deaf by a botched medical procedure when he was only four.

With her one healthy son far from her ability to help him, Ena focused on the children in the room. Praying with them and trying to get some rest as the crowds bellowed outside. Suddenly, loud crashes rang through the palace. A truck rammed the gate over and over again. The terrified family awaited its fate. As the attackers emerged from the vehicle, the relief must have been overwhelming—instead of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, the truck carried the nuns who had taught Infante Jaime to speak after he lost his hearing. They had braved the crowds to bring comfort to the young prince, afraid that he would not understand what was happening around him.

When morning finally arrived, Ena and her children attended one last mass together at the Palacio Real and then bade goodbye to their servants. With Alfonsito carefully carried on a stretcher, the royal family departed, not knowing when or if they would ever return. Their journey was slow and emotionally exhausting. Newspapers reported that the 43-year-old queen appeared anxious and fatigued. Along the way, they stopped at El Escorial, which houses the crypt of Spanish monarchs. Ena had never liked this morbid place, but she had to have wondered if this would be her last visit, would she be forced to find some other final resting place? Hounded by peasants at one way station, where she found only a rock to rest upon, her demeanor remained calm and dignified. “Viva la republica,” one woman called out to her. “Long live whatever is best for my people,” the queen replied quietly.

In exile, King Alfonso XIII and Ena gave up the pretense of their marriage and separated. He had married the young British princess for her beauty and gentleness, but he never forgave her for the genetic disorder she passed on to their sons. Their very wedding day was filled with portents of the unhappiness that awaited their life together: a would-be assassin’s bomb left soldiers and horses mangled all around the bridal carriage.

The civil war they had sought to avoid ravaged Spain from 1936 to 1939, finally ending with the strong-arm dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. The dictator-for-life declared Spain a monarchy again in 1947, although he named no king. In the 1960s, he invited Alfonso and Ena’s grandson, Juan Carlos to live with his young Greek bride and their children in Spain. In 1969, Franco designated him as his heir. Upon Franco’s death in 1975, he became absolute king of Spain, but contrary to his predecessor’s plans, Juan Carlos transitioned Spain into a democracy with himself as a constitutional monarch.

Queen Ena also returned to Spain, although briefly, for the christening of her great-grandson Felipe in 1968—he is the current Prince of the Asturias. Ena died a year later in Lausanne. She returned at last to El Escorial in 1985, where her remains were placed next to her husband, who had been transferred their five years earlier, nearly 40 years after his death in exile.

04 January 2011

A Tragic Royal Birth

In 1817, King George III's only legitimate grandchild, Princess Charlotte, went into labor with her first child on Nov. 3. On the evening of the 5th, a large baby boy was finally delivered, but he had died hours before, unable to pass safely through the birth canal. In the early hours of the 6th, Charlotte awoke in intense pain and violently vomiting. Minutes later, she had died from internal hemorrhaging. Although the male midwife, Sir Richard Croft, had decided not to use forceps to progress the delivery, the royal family absolved him of any guilt in the deaths.

Sir Richard, however, could not forgive himself. Months later, as he oversaw another difficult delivery, he adjourned to another room in the lady's house and committed suicide.

The deaths of Charlotte and her son marked a true crisis for the royal family. They were the only heirs to the throne and Charlotte had been the only publicly loved figure in a royal family marred by scandal and "madness." As the florists sold out of flowers with the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the shops sold out of black mourning cloth in 1817. Her first biographer even announced that historians of the future would focus on Charlotte's tragic death more than any other events of the day--which included, by the way, the recently concluded Napoleanic wars!

Within two years, George III had several new grandchildren thanks to a rush to the altar by Charlotte's uncles and her public memory was rather quickly forgotten as the nation focused its hopes on a little princess named Victoria, whose memory would be preserved in hundreds of place names and even the naming of an era of history.

This week, the Cross of Laeken blog celebrates its second anniversary by publishing a guest post from me about the life of Princess Charlotte. The connection between a blog about the Belgian royal family and a British princess may not be immediately clear. Charlotte's husband, who would have been Albert to her Victoria, remained a widower in England for more than decade. Then, he was offered the newly create Belgian throne as King Leopold I. He remarried and named his only daughter for his beloved Charlotte. But, even this remembrance is laced with darkness for she grew up to be the mad Empress Carlota of Mexico.

Click here to read the Cross of Laeken post. Congratulations on your second anniversary! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your excellent blog!