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Royal Blood Loss
Marrying "below their station" is the latest way for monarchies to survive
BY ROLAND FLAMINI
What do Britain, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have in common? They’re all European countries, but they are also Europe’s remaining monarchies. That’s not counting one grand duchy (Luxembourg) and two principalities (Monaco and Liechtenstein). It’s a remarkable survival story despite revolutions, two world wars and the resulting global upheavals. Though they have little remaining political power, Europe’s royal houses retain a hold on social history, and in some cases – Britain, Spain, the Netherlands – on some relics of their earlier power. They are a puzzling phenomenon that’s deeply embedded in the national psyche: witness, for example, Helen Mirren’s transcendental performance as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in the film The Queen.
In a system that depends on continuity, procreation is key. To quote another recent movie, Sofia Coppola’s sparkling Marie Antoinette, the heir to the throne’s most important duty is to produce his own successor, preferably two, to be on the safe side – “an heir and a spare,” as the saying goes. The future King Louis XVI was not exactly talented in that department. Now, a new generation of young crown princes from the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Norway and Belgium have recently faced the dynastic challenge with flying colors, at the same time creating a minor revolution with their choice of spouses.
In the past, as in the Coppola film, a royal marriage was an alliance of two monarchies. Princes married princesses, or at the very least members of the high aristocracy. But that was then. In the past five years all of Europe’s kings-in-waiting (which is what crown princes are) have dispensed with the old rules, and have wed “commoners.” European royals have married non-bluebloods before, but the new crop of future queens has crashed through the barriers of convention like a runaway train. Whether this change turns out to be a formula for survival or will spell doom for Europe’s monarchies in the 21st century remains to be seen (but more on that later).
There was a collective holding of breath in European royal families as their firstborns went to the altar with, in turn, a single mother who was a self-confessed party girl, a lawyer from Tasmania, an economist from Argentina, a speech therapist, and a divorced television newscaster.
This is not the stuff that royalty is traditionally made of. Still, the feared wave of public opposition failed to materialize: even more encouraging, the various weddings drew applauding crowds in the various capitals. And better yet, the experiment has gained wide public acceptance, even popularity, largely because the women in question are mostly brainier than their royal spouses, and in all cases have yet to put a foot wrong.
Princess Mette Merit won the sympathy of Norwegians on the eve of her 2001 wedding to Norway’s Prince Haakon Magnus with her televised confession that she had led “quite a wild life.” The Oslo-born blonde tearfully admitted that she had been at parties where drugs were taken – although she stopped short of saying that she had taken any herself. Her son from a former liaison was a page boy at the wedding.
Despite the princess’s colorful past, polls show that the Norwegians have warmed to the young royal couple, and even make allowances for her embarrassing father. Until he was hospitalized with lung cancer he was notorious for “his high profile partying,” marriage to an ex-stripper, and his willing collaboration with gossip magazines, as the Norwegian paper Aftenpost reported only the other day. In other words, he is happy to blab about his daughter’s private life.
Spanish Crown Prince Felipe followed the group, but by a more circuitous route. Mette Merit introduced him to Eva Sunnum, a shapely, blonde Norwegian lingerie model, and their relationship immediately became fodder for the gossip columns. When the model moved to Madrid, sections of the Spanish press raised the alarm. Spain, they warned, did not want a Norwegian nobody as their future queen.
Under pressure from the media, to say nothing of his parents, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia, the prince – a Georgetown University alumnus – took the highly unusual step of inviting the media to the royal palace and announcing that he had broken off his relationship with Eva Sunnum. The prince was sending a clear message that the Spanish royals pay attention to the sentiments of the people. “Advisers warned the Spanish royals not to repeat the same mistake the British royal family had made by trying to ignore public reaction to Princess Diana’s death, and they took the advice,” a well-informed Madrid source said.
But a year later Felipe thumbed his princely nose at the traditionalists by becoming engaged to, and eventually marrying, Letizia Ortiz, a 32-year-old Spanish television newscaster – a double break with the past since Letizia was not only the granddaughter of a cab driver, but a divorcee in a nominally 100 percent Catholic country, whose king once had the title of His Most Catholic Majesty.
At least the television star was Spanish and represented a new generation of Spanish career women. Now expecting her second child, she slipped easily into her new role of future queen. Continuity is especially important for the restored Spanish monarchy, which was brought back in 1977 after more than 50 years of Franco’s dictatorship and could do with a few more years to become firmly grounded.
You know the rules have changed radically when the heir to the British throne can marry a divorced commoner, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and get away with it. Less than 60 years ago, Charles’ great uncle’s marriage to another nonroyal divorcee cost him his throne. The fact that King Edward VIII’s lover, Wallis Simpson, was a foreigner (American) didn’t help either. Even today British royalty still operates on a grander, more formal scale than any other existing monarchy; Britain’s monarch rides in a Rolls- Royce; her more informal royal cousins in the Netherlands and Sweden have been known to get about on bicycles. But from all accounts, Prince William, the next in line, is planning to take the changes still further by marrying former fellow student, Elizabeth Catherine (Kate) Middleton, 24, whose mother is a onetime airline stewardess and father the owner of a medium size party organizing business called “Party Pieces.”
The British media seem to take it for granted that the six-year on-and-off relationship will end at the altar. For Woolworth’s that had better happen: the store chain has 100,000 William-Kate souvenirs already in production, including mugs, plates, mouse mats and plastic dolls.
The 19th century British economist Walter Bagehot, writing about the British Constitution famously warned, “Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it ... Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon the magic.” But Bagehot was not writing in the age of the blog, the telephoto lens and the other modern techniques of privacy invasion. At a time when we are confronted with royal fallibility in real time the mystique of monarch can no longer lie in its mystery. Europe’s monarchies have survived thanks to a talent for reinventing themselves every couple of generations, and that’s what they are doing now.
Ironically, while the Tom Cruises try to marry behind closed doors, royal weddings are public events with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. They are also tribal gatherings at which, amid the pomp and circumstance, kings and queens have an opportunity to discuss common problems and compare notes. Monarchs survive if they touch the imagination of the people. Today, the idea of the monarch at the apex of a hierarchical society runs counter to most people’s values – hence the trend towards marrying commoners. European monarchs are still reassuring figures of institutional stability. And who could say that the republican alternatives that Europeans see around them – or across the Atlantic, for that matter – are good advertisements encouraging a change of system? True the polls from London to Oslo continue to show only qualified support for the monarchical system in the long term. According to recent British polls, for example, the ruling Windsors will have disappeared in 100 years’ time. Isn’t that what was said when Marie Antoinette lost her head?
At the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, when Prince William (officially listed and addressed as Cadet Windsor), or more likely his younger brother Prince Harry, is faulted on parade he is instructed to run to the statue of Queen Victoria located on the school grounds to “confess and apologize,” and then run back. The ritual goes back nearly a century, but for the young princes it has a somewhat different significance. Victoria is their great-great-great-great-grandmother. But then, almost every member of the royal houses of Europe is in some way or other descended from the formidable monarch whose reign lasted for 64 years (1837-1901). She had four sons and five daughters, and she made sure that they all married other royals; and the result is that virtually every reigning monarch today is in the line of succession of at least the British crown, and in some cases each other’s. For example, Prince Haakon Magnus of Norway descends from Victoria’s granddaughter Maud: he is around number 160 in the British line. That means that 159 descendants with better claims have to be knocked down by the proverbial bus before he can hope to install himself in Buckingham Palace. Sweden’s reigning King Karl XVI Gustaf is descended from another of Victoria’s granddaughters, Margaret. Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, and Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands can also trace back a relationship to Victoria. Prince Felipe of Spain is the great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria’s daughter Beatrice, but is barred from the British line of succession because he is a Catholic. His mother, Queen Sofia is descended in her own right through the Empress Victoria of Prussia, Victoria’s eldest daughter. In addition, platoons of German princelings are also descended from the British queen, most of them called George, Friedrich, or August – or all three.