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.
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.