Royal Weddings Are a Fairy Tale. They Used to Be High-Stakes Diplomacy.

Once upon a time, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle would have been instruments of foreign-policy ambition.

Millions around the world will be glued to their televisions on May 19 as Britain’s Prince Harry, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, weds Meghan Markle, an American actress. Royal weddings are designed to be heartwarming fairytales that invite us to forget our everyday trials and tribulations, and this will be no exception. The couple met two years ago on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend and, by official accounts, fell in love almost immediately.

Royal weddings are also showcases of tradition. The British royal family represents ideals of continuity and stability, reflecting a present moment solidly rooted in the past and reassuring us that some things are enduring. In preparation for the event, Markle has already started the process of becoming a British citizen and been received into the Church of England.

But in observing the traditions that are being upheld, it’s also worth remarking upon those that have been discarded. The royal wedding is a national cultural event. There was a time, however, when it would have also been naturally understood as an expression of national interest and international ambition. If the British public hasn’t been thinking of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as diplomatic actors involved in a venture of international relations, that is a sign of their present roles — but also of how much Western diplomacy has changed since the days when royal marriages were major political events.

Above: A copy of a 1558 panel painting shows England’s Mary I, who married her first cousin, Philip II of Spain. The full image shows two chairs of estate, which “indicates the fate of several nations attached to this union,” according to the item description at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. (Image BHC2952, painting by Lucas de Heere/Royal Museums Greenwich, London) Top: The union of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert had royal ripple effects across Europe; Prince Harry’s marriage to American actress Meghan Markle carries far less diplomatic weight. (Rischgitz/Getty Images/GraphicaArtis/Getty Images/Alvin Jewett Johnson map/Buyenlarge/Getty Images/Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

Consider the function of Europe’s royal marriages in the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time, the state belonged to the monarch, and marriage was understood as a way of adding to his territory and cementing crucial alliances with other powers. Marriages have always been a method of securing control over family possessions — it’s just that these possessions used to include the states themselves.

Often monarchs planned these events long in advance. Take for instance the deal struck in 1506 between the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I of Austria and King Vladislas of Hungary and Bohemia, a royal marriage alliance of staggering complexity and considerable risk. According to the plan, Maximilian’s grandson Ferdinand would marry Vladislas’s daughter, Anna, and Ferdinand’s sister Mary, still a baby, would marry the child with whom Vladislas’s wife was pregnant if it turned out to be a boy. Amazingly, it did. All the (mostly unwitting) parties to the agreement survived infancy — by no means inevitable in the dire medical and hygienic conditions of the time — and the marriages were sealed in 1515. Eleven years later, Vladislas’s son, now grown up, was killed in battle without leaving a male heir, and his Hungarian possessions fell to the fortunate Ferdinand. The Habsburgs thus added a huge amount of territory to their realms, and Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary were united, staying together all the way up to the collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the end of World War I.

Like any consequential transaction, there were ways of hedging marriage arrangements with carefully crafted conditions. When King Philip II of Spain married Queen Mary I of England, it was to bolster the international standing of Spain and further the cause of Catholicism in England, reintroduced by Mary after the Protestant regime of her predecessor, the sickly young King Edward VI. The marriage was unpopular, and Philip, though given the courtesy title king of England, was forbidden by Act of Parliament from taking any political decisions without his wife’s consent, a most unusual stipulation in those male-dominated times. Moreover, as Philip’s envoy in London noted, “the marriage was concluded for no fleshly consideration.” Not only did the couple appear to have no personal feelings for each another, they did not even speak the same language. When Mary died without having children, her successor, the Protestant Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen,” was careful not to dilute her own power by marrying anybody, English or foreign, while Philip launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada in an attempt to win back the kingdom he considered was his by right of marriage to her predecessor. Elizabeth certainly had feelings for more than one of her courtiers, notably the Earl of Leicester, but she knew the political consequences of marrying any of them would have been disastrous.

Royal marriages concluded for instrumental reasons were not always successful in nuptial terms. In 1682, Prince-Elector Georg Ludwig, ruler of various small territories in western Germany, married Sophia Dorothea, the only child of his uncle, ruler of the territory of Lüneburg-Celle. As she was forbidden by German law to succeed her father when he died in 1705, his territories went to Georg Ludwig, creating the Electorate (later, Kingdom) of Hanover. Neither of the marriage partners, however, much liked the other. After the birth of their two children, they each took a lover. Georg was not amused, and reputedly had his wife’s lover, a Swedish count, killed, and his body thrown into the river Leine weighted down with stones. The intransigent monarch then imprisoned the unfortunate Sophia Dorothea in a castle, where she was confined until her death more than 30 years later. She was not even released when Georg succeeded to the British throne as King George I in 1714, after which she could have held the title of queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland if her husband had allowed it.

The marriage of England’s Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a member of a minor German princely family, yielded nine children, a source of royal lineage to the many new European nations in the nineteenth century. Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

By the early 19th century, with the rise of the modern state and the end of dynastic accumulations of lands, royal marriages no longer had territorial implications. The French Revolution of 1789 and the impact of Napoleon on Europe changed the nature of sovereignty. Instead of being exercised personally by a monarch who derived authority from inheritance and the divine right of kings, sovereignty was now thought of as residing in the people or the nation, of whom the monarch was the titular and symbolic representative.

To symbolize this change, the old diplomatic convention by which all international treaties lapsed on the death of the king or prince who had signed them and had to be renegotiated with his successor, was silently abandoned; treaties were held to be concluded between states and continued in force until they were formally abandoned by one side or the other. The monarch, as the Prussian King Frederick the Great had already put it in the late 18th century, was now no more than “the first servant of the state.”

Royal marriages were still restricted to a relatively small circle of European royal families, since the line of succession to the throne in most people’s view should not be diluted by the admission of people of lower status. This convention was reinforced by the determination of civilian governments to use royal marriages as instruments of their international diplomacy, a policy that could sometimes lead to disaster.

King George III of England’s eldest son, also George, who served as prince regent during his father’s mental illnesses, was betrothed as an act of policy to Princess Caroline of Brunswick, a neighboring state of Hanover in Germany that belonged by inheritance to the British crown. The couple had never met, however, and almost as soon as they were married, they began to hate each other with an intensity that became legendary. When the prince regent became King George IV on his father’s death, he had Caroline turned away from his coronation by troops wielding bayonets; there were mass demonstrations in her favor, and George became one of the most unpopular monarchs ever to sit on the English throne.

The marriage of George IV’s niece Queen Victoria to another member of a minor German princely family, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, however, was an undoubted success story — though it had not been arranged as an act of diplomacy, as the marriage had been Queen Victoria’s choice, and the two young people had been given time to get to know each other before the wedding. Albert, however, did not become king — he was known by the title of prince consort, to avoid anyone thinking the alliance had any real political significance. By the time of his premature death in 1861, the couple had had nine children, who over time provided a convenient source of kings and princes and their spouses to the many new nations that emerged in Europe during the 19th century. Among their 42 grandchildren were the kings of Greece, Norway, and Romania, and numerous German princes and grand dukes. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, and King George V of England were all first cousins, all descended from Queen Victoria. The German kaiser and the Russian tsar corresponded regularly in English (“Dear Willy,” “Dear Nicky”), and cordial personal relationships were obtained across the whole of the vast European royal cousinage.

But World War I demonstrated how little significance royal marriages now had in the larger scheme of international relations, as Britain and Russia became bitter enemies of Germany, and members of interrelated royal and aristocratic families quickly had to bow to the imperatives of their respective governments and choose on which side to fight. German princes such as the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (another descendant of Queen Victoria), who was Duke of Albany in Britain, had to give up their English titles and vice-versa. Marriage to a foreign prince or princess now carried serious political risks: The fact that Russian Emperor Nicholas II’s wife, Princess Alix of Hesse (another grandchild of Queen Victoria), was German was a factor in gradually persuading the people that he was not the right man to lead a war against Germany. Almost nobody tried to stop him being effectively deposed when the February Revolution broke out in 1917.

Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles ride in a carriage after their London wedding on July 29, 1981. Diana was deemed more worthy of Charles than lesser aristocrat Camilla Shand, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1996 after affairs on both sides. (Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

Royal marriages effectively ceased to be instruments of international diplomacy after World War I. This was partly by necessity, because there were many fewer reigning royal families from which to choose a spouse. World War I destroyed many of Europe’s empires and kingdoms, including not only the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, but also the many German principalities that had provided such a fecund source of sovereigns for nations like Romania and Bulgaria in the 19th century. Marriage to an exiled or deposed royal was out of the question for political reasons. It therefore became acceptable to reach outside the magic circle of European royal families in search of a spouse.

Social status, however, remained a crucial factor in royal marriages. The days when Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria had refused to recognize the marriage of his designated successor, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to a mere countess and barred their children from the line of succession, might have been over, but it was still out of the question for a royal to marry a commoner. When in 1936, King Edward VIII of England insisted on marrying a woman, Wallis Simpson, who was not only a commoner — and an American one at that — but also a divorcée (twice over), the British political establishment stepped in and forced him off the throne. The monarch was officially the supreme governor of the Church of England, which did not allow divorced people to remarry if their previous spouse was still alive, so if the couple had children, they would be considered illegitimate in the church’s eyes, as well as socially inferior because their mother was not of noble birth. Edward’s younger brother, who then became King George VI, was fortunately married to a member of not one but two British noble families, and so was widely accepted as an adequate defender of the family’s social status and perceived dignity.

But even this final political consideration has gradually fallen away during the reign of the present queen, George VI’s daughter Elizabeth II. At the outset of her reign, the rules formulated after World War I remained. Thus, when the queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, signaled her intention of marrying a commoner, the Royal Air Force captain Peter Townsend, the Church of England again stopped the wedding because Townsend was, like Wallis Simpson, divorced. Only after the queen had given birth to three children, which meant that Princess Margaret was no longer in the direct line of succession to the throne, was she permitted to marry a commoner, the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. Even then, he was elevated into the aristocracy following the marriage by being made Earl of Snowdon, thus retrospectively satisfying the traditional criterion of high social status.

Matters were very different with the queen’s eldest son, Prince Charles, who was, and still is, first in line to the throne. The Royal establishment disapproved of his relationship with Camilla Shand, even though she was descended from minor British nobility through her mother. The future queen of England and, it was hoped, mother of another future king or queen, had to be from the higher aristocracy. More importantly, she had to be a virgin. The Royal Family’s search ended with Lady Diana Spencer, who fit the bill in both respects. The marriage of Charles and Diana on July 29, 1981, in Westminster Abbey, was watched live on television by 750 million people worldwide, and a crowd of over half a million people lined the streets to watch the couple pass by.

But the 13-year age gap between the two, and their widely divergent interests and opinions, soon led to Charles taking up with Camilla again (with the compliance of her husband), while Diana also had extramarital affairs. They stayed together, she later admitted, so as not to disappoint the public, but as their relationship deteriorated, the queen advised the couple to part, which they eventually did in 1996. This added to a rash of royal divorces, including those of Princess Margaret from the Earl of Snowdon, and Charles’s brother Prince Andrew and sister, Princess Anne, from their respective spouses. In an age when the eyes of the world’s media were constantly upon them, the royal family and political establishment were looming over them, and the public was engrossed with their every action, the stresses and strains of royal marriages were hard for royal couples to withstand.

In the last few years, however, the situation seems to have improved, not least because the expectations placed upon the latest generation of British royals have been more relaxed. They have been more able to follow their personal inclinations when it comes to choosing spouses, rather than political considerations, and this seems to have made for more stable and more lasting relationships. Prince William, heir to the throne in succession to Prince Charles, encountered no objections when he married a commoner, Kate Middleton, whom he met at university (not an institution with which any of his forbears, except for his father, was familiar), and their marriage looks to be a successful one. They have established a family and have succeeded in winning the affection of the public.

The British royal family has settled into an established role, with charitable patronage at its center, thanks not least to Prince Charles and his many philanthropic activities. Previous heirs to the throne, especially those who have had to wait for decades to succeed, have been notoriously irresponsible: Queen Victoria’s eldest son, who succeeded as Edward VII in his 60th year, spent his time gambling and drinking and entertaining a string of mistresses, while Edward VIII, who waited over a quarter of a century to come to the throne, never learned any kind of adult sense of responsibility at all. Prince Charles has done better. And the example of Princess Diana in carving out her own independent pattern of activities, leading campaigns against landmines — much to the discomfiture of the British government of the day, engaging early on with helping the victims of HIV/AIDS, and working on other controversial causes, has enabled the younger generation of royals to do the same.

Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle attend an official photo call to announce their engagement at The Sunken Gardens at Kensington Palace on Nov. 27, 2017, in London. (Steve Back/Getty Images)

Meghan Markle will have no difficulty in fitting in to this pattern of activity. She has already engaged in charitable work of various kinds and no doubt will relish the opportunity to extend her remit through her membership of the British royal family. Does it matter that she is divorced? Not really. Prince Harry is only sixth in line to the throne, preceded by his father, Charles, his elder brother, William, and William’s three children. He is unlikely ever to become supreme governor of the Church of England, and in any case the church is more relaxed about divorced people remarrying these days. Oscar Wilde famously remarked that a second marriage is “the triumph of hope over experience,” but both partners in this case seem mature enough to cope.

Nor does it matter either that Markle is American, or that she is of mixed race. Britain today, as the London Olympics in 2012 vividly illustrated, is a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, and for all the rantings of xenophobes and Brexiteers, it is likely to remain so. The latest royal marriage symbolizes rather neatly the openness and inclusiveness of modern Britain. As a professional actress, Meghan should have no difficulty in playing the part of a member of the British royal family to perfection, but she has also made it clear that she is determined to be her own woman, much like Diana was — and that’s no bad thing either.

And politics? The present queen, Elizabeth II, has been extremely careful to keep the monarchy as far as possible away from the political world, apart from her constitutional duties, in which she has followed a code of rigid and undeviating political neutrality. Twentieth-century monarchs who get mixed up in politics have too often ended up being deposed and their country turned into a republic when their political opponents come to power, as Umberto II of Italy and Constantine of Greece were. Prince Charles has been less circumspect, sending lengthy (and inevitably leaked) memos to government ministers on a whole variety of political issues, from fox hunting to alternative medicine. The prospect of his succession is viewed by some with a palpable degree of disquiet. If the British monarchy takes sides, it is bound to suffer. The queen is admired and beloved not least because she can claim to represent people of every shade of opinion.

Charles’s sons are more careful. Prince William’s opinions are largely unknown, though he has followed his mother Diana in many of his charitable activities. As for Harry and Meghan, they have advertised the now wholly unpolitical significance of their marriage by refusing to invite any politicians to it, not even the British prime minister. The world and its global media are interested in them because they are celebrities, because they are young, wealthy, good-looking, and glamorous, not because they are identified with any particular political cause — nor even, really, with the international interests of any particular country, including their own.

Richard Evans is a British historian of 20th-century Europe with a focus on Germany and World War II. His latest book is, “The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914." (@richardevans36)