01 May 2020

Worst Royal Romances

Some royal love stories are greatly treasured. Antony and Cleopatra. Victoria and Albert. Others are remembered down the centuries for far less romantic reasons. I recently asked my Twitter followers to choose the worst royal couples from among four of Britain's most notorious: King Edward II and Isabella of France, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, and Charles Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. I expected that the recency of the War of the Waleses would put them well ahead of the pack, but my followers were more discerning and historically minded than I foretold. Apologies, dear friends. Here is their ranking from best of the worst to worst of the worst.

#4 Edward & Isabella
Isabella of France, Queen of England
From the Psalter of Isabella of France via Wikimedia Commons
It's been nearly 700 years since the storied death of King Edward II. The sheer length of time (and perhaps less familiarity) may have contributed to Edward and Isabella making the list as best of the awful royal marriages with only 6.1% of participants choosing them, but I should remind you that many contemporary sources and later historians placed the blame for his possibly gruesome murder squarely on his estranged wife. Or perhaps, the more recent scholarship calling all of those historical accusations and suppositions into question led many of you to think this case is not so clear. What is clear, however, is that Isabella and probable lover Roger Mortimer led the rebellion against Edward and deposed him, placing themselves at the head of the nation in the stead of her young son, the new King Edward III. These kinds of things don't usually happen in happy marriages.

As with most royal and noble marriages of the day, their coupling had been arranged when they were both children. The wedding final took place early in his reign, when he was in his early 20s and she was just 12. They were both attractive people and cracks did not appear in the relationship for quite some time -- and the political tensions of the day certainly contributed. Chief among these were Edward's questionable leadership skills. He quickly racked up a string of military failures (especially when compared to his renowned father Edward I, known as the Hammer of the Scots) and he invested too much authority, power and privilege in his favorites (who were perhaps also his lovers). The rebellion against him included many high lords and his younger half-brothers as well as his wife. Edward II died under mysterious circumstances within a year of being deposed.

Although most believe he was murdered under someone's orders, some scholarship now contends he died less violently but no less awfully of starvation or illness during his imprisonment. Isabella lost her control of the country within a few short years when her son Edward III asserted his authority, executed Mortimer and assumed his own throne. Isabella lived another 18 years. Initially held under house arrest and suffering from a nervous breakdown or other mental illness, she eventually regained her freedom though never again any position of power.

Books about Isabella

#3 Charles & Diana
Diana Princess of Wales
by Nick Parfjonov via Wikimedia Commons
Only a fifth of participants (20.1%) of participants selected the most recent disastrous royal coupling as the worst. With hindsight, we have been able to see that the rosy, storybook romance we readily believed in 1981 was never true. Charles Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer were mismatched from the beginning. Insecure and introspective, pining for a lost love, mourning for his assassinated great-uncle and desperate to do the right thing, the sporty and intellectual 32-year-old Charles was ill-prepared for life with his much younger bride. Diana was barely 19 when they began seeing each other and they had only been with each other, usually not alone, on about a dozen occasions before he proposed.

Shy and loving, Diana was scarred by her parents' brutal divorce and clearly imagined that Charles was her Prince Charming despite very, very few interests in common. As Diana's need for affection and attention overwhelmed the ill-equipped Charles, he sought comfort from that lost love, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Diana, in turn, found her comfort with a series of willing (and sometimes) men. No doubt fueled by the public's complete adoration for Diana versus the man who had previously been their focus, the couple's anger and resentment for each other spilled out into painful public interviews and secretly sourced biographies designed to tell each one's "true story" while damaging the other. Finally, as the War of the Waleses began to cause potentially serious harm to the Monarchy, The Queen herself requested their divorce. Once it had been completed, Diana seemed set on a new life of her own direction while it was unclear how long it would take for Charles's reputation to recover. Her tragic death after weeks of pursuit by the paparazzi pushed that clock back even further.

The ghost of Diana hung over Charles for many years as he finished raising their two young sons alone and finally married that previously lost love, Camilla Parker-Bowles. It remains today as their sons and daughters-in-law are subjected to speculation about what Diana would have or wouldn't have wanted and as Charles's second wife uses his secondary title as Duchess of Cornwall instead of Princess of Wales, a title that will remain closely associated with Diana in the public's mind until it is assumed by their eldest son's wife some day.

Books about Diana

#2 George & Caroline
Caroline of Brunswick, Queen of the UK
from the National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons
Just a few more participants (22.6%) selected George Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) and his bride Caroline of Brunswick as worst royal couple, placing them just ahead of the their later counterparts, Charles and Diana. George, who had earned the despair of his father King George III and the nickname Prinny, was a laughingstock of late 18th Century British society. Of course, everyone still wanted the good time prince at their party even while the burgeoning press mocked him for his expanding waistline, supercilious fashion sense, overextending gambling debts, and habit of buying and lavishly refurbishing homes.

His romantic escapades were no less notable. Like future Princes of Wales, he dabbled with actresses and enjoyed long-term relationships with married women before finally stabilizing his home life and outrageous behavior (a bit) thanks to the love of his beloved wife. Oh, I don't mean Caroline. I mean his first wife the widowed Maria Fitzherbert, who only agreed to marry him (secretly) after he threatened suicide. Maria's Catholicism made it impossible for George to seek his father's consent to marry her; all of which made their marriage illegal. It wasn't long, however, before the attractions of gambling tables and massive spending lured Prinny back to his old ways. Without any knowledge of the little wife, George III and Parliament offered the prince a way out of his financial struggles: marry a princess and they would not only pay his debts but also increase his income. Young George agreed and, ever the romantic, he looked forward to meeting Caroline, who was his father's niece.

Caroline's arrival in England, however, did not go well. George showed up unexpectedly only to discover that she was not as attractive as he'd expected and, he said, she smelled. He demanded a drink and withdrew. As for Caroline, after asking whether or not he was actually the prince, declared that he was both fat and unattractive. George was flat-out drunk at the wedding and wedding night was no more successful than their first meeting. He passed out (surprise) but later declared that she was clearly not a virgin. The couple lived together barely long enough to conceive the requisite child, which happened within days. Their daughter Princess Charlotte of Wales was born nine months later. The couple was already living separately -- Caroline fleeing the imposed presence of his married mistress Lady Jersey. While both the Prince and Princess of Wales embarked upon ever more outrageous behavior and affairs, their daughter lived in her own household, occasionally visiting with one or the other of her parents, with her grandparents the King and Queen (when the King was well), or with her unmarried aunts, the daughters of George III. Caroline, when she was permitted to see Charlotte, was supervised by the child's caregivers. Eventually, Caroline took in several foster children and traveled often to the Continent, where she paraded her wild fashion sense and raucous behavior, gaining an ever lower reputation, while her estranged husband was eventually named Prince Regent in place of his ailing father.

When their daughter was 10, George attempted to divorce Caroline, launching the "Delicate Investigation" into her alleged, but ultimately unproven, infidelity. He remained as unpopular ever, especially as Charlotte grew into womanhood and became the most popular member of the family. The young princess made a love match with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, against her father's wishes. Within 19 months, however, Charlotte died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn son. Caroline was still abroad. In fact, she was even abroad the next year, when her husband finally became King George IV. She rushed back to claim her crown, but George actually barred her from the coronation. Caroline died in England the next year at age 53 but her body was returned to Brunswick.. George never remarried. He died nine years after her. He was survived by Maria Fitzherbert and succeeded by his younger brother King William IV.

Books about Caroline

#1 Henry & Anne
Anne Boleyn, Queen of England
From National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons
The majority (52.1%) of participants voted for King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. With six choose from, I had to decide for myself which represented the "worst" of Henry's marriages. Ultimately I settled on Anne Boleyn because it was a relationship born of true passion that ended with such violence. It was also a relationship that helped change the course of religion in England and ultimately led to the spread of Protestantism to the United States, Canada, and Australia, where it remains the dominant faith. When Henry met Anne, he had been married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly 20 years. The two had been a loving couple but the continual tragedy of lost pregnancies, still births and dead infants had taken a toll. For a time, it seemed Henry accepted their only surviving child, Princess Mary, as his potential heir. But the era did not readily embrace female rulers. As only the second king of the Tudor dynasty, Henry became worried about his legacy and Catherine aged beyond childbearing.

Enter the worldly and flirtatious Anne Boleyn, the one woman who refused his advances. She would not yield without a wedding. Henry, convinced that the luscious young lady would bear him many sons, decided to divorce Catherine, expecting his usually meek wife (and their teenage daughter) to retire quietly from court. Devoutly Catholic Catherine stood her ground. Her marriage was valid and divorce was sinful. She had the Pope on her side -- perhaps because the Pope was in the custody of her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor. Anne stood her ground too: no crown, no bed chamber. The stalemate drew on for several years until finally the king was convinced the he, not the Pope, had authority over the English Church. He could declare his marriage invalid and declare his daughter a bastard and marry Anne and keep all the money and treasures of the English church. To be clear, Henry remained Catholic and was opposed to the Reformation. In fact, he nearly executed his sixth wife when she was accused of promoting Protestantism. However, his break with Rome made it easier for the Reformers to take control after his death. But, I'm getting ahead of himself.

Once it became clear that Henry was going to get his divorce, Anne yielded. She was pregnant when they finally married. Despite their greatest hopes, the baby was a girl, Princess Elizabeth. Anne conceived another child. She also conceived an imperious manner. Her teasing and tantrums that had seemed so attractive started to irritate the son-less king, who was growing more irascible as he aged. When Anne miscarried a son, Henry began to think this marriage was likewise cursed by God. She quickly conceived a third time, but Henry was already casting his eye elsewhere. His affections turned to the quiet and docile Jane Seymour, whose sweetness stood in marked contrast to Anne's sharpness. In January 1536, just three years after Henry and Anne's wedding, Catherine died. That same month, Anne became enraged upon seeing Henry and Jane together. When he was seriously injured in a tournament, the overly stressed queen could bear no more. Within days, she had miscarried another boy. Within weeks, numerous charges of adultery and even incest (most of which are now believed to have been untrue) were brought against her. For a queen, these kinds of actions were not just crimes against her husband, but crimes against the Crown. In short, she was found guilty of treason and sentenced to beheading. Henry, claiming she had used sorcery to lure him into a false marriage, bastardized their daughter and quickly married Jane, his first "true" wife.

The validity of his third marriage was proven to him when Jane gave birth to a son, Prince Edward, who would live long enough to survive Henry, but died before adulthood. After Jane died from childbed fever, he married and divorced the German Anne of Cleves, then married Anne Boleyn's cousin Catherine Howard and had her beheaded when she actually did commit adultery, and then married Catherine Parr, the wife who cleverly escaped being charged with Protestant tendency and managed to keep her crown until Henry's death at the age of 55.

Books about Anne Boleyn (including some fiction)

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