Thursday, 1 April 2010

New books: Five centuries of Swedish royal weddings

Ahead of the Royal Armoury’s upcoming exhibition on Swedish royal weddings, Lena Rangström, who is a senior curator at the museum, has written the book En brud för kung och fosterland – Kungliga svenska bröllop från Gustav Vasa till Carl XVI Gustaf, which was published in cooperation with Bokförlaget Atlantis on 10 March. By the virtue of its sheer existence this monumental tome will be the standard work on the topic and it is therefore regrettable that, although based on many years of research, it leaves quite a lot to be desired.
To describe all Swedish royal weddings during the last 500 years would be almost impossible to do in one book, and the author has therefore chosen to include only the weddings of the monarchs who have reigned in Sweden since the end of the Kalmar Union (all of whom were married at least once, with the exceptions of Carl XII and Christina). She has composed the book as a marriage-by-marriage account, but not in a strictly chronological order. Rather than arranging the chapters by the years in which the weddings took place, she puts them in order following the line of monarchs, meaning that, for instance, the wedding of Gustaf IV Adolf in 1797 is dealt with before that of his uncle and successor, Carl XIII, in 1774.
With the chapters being arranged as they are the book would have benefited greatly from a final chapter summarising the development of traditions and drawing a larger picture. It might for instance have been interesting if a comparison had been made between the difficulties of the upstart Vasas and Bernadottes in finding royal brides or of how the ceremonial evolved through the centuries. Instead these things are scattered here and there throughout the book. Such a chapter might also have served as a counter-weight to the fact that Rangström’s prose is generally descriptive and very rarely reflective. For instance she observes that the royal crowns were placed next to the altar during the 1976 wedding, but she does not say that this had never happened before and neither does she reflect on what this invention of tradition might have signified. In general there is little reflection on the meaning of ceremonies or what they were manifestations of.
Limiting the scope to the monarchs alone has its advantages as well as its drawbacks. The monarchs are of course the main characters in the history of the Swedish monarchy and one may therefore assume that their weddings were the most important and note-worthy events. But among the consequences thereof are that none of the weddings covered between 1850 and 1976 took place in Sweden, but in the bride’s home country, and that some of the grandest royal weddings Sweden has seen, such as that of Princess Ingrid to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark in 1935, are left out.
The author is also not always consistent when it comes to what to include and what to exclude. There is a chapter dealing with King Sigismund of Poland’s remarriage to Archduchess Constantia of Austria in 1605, several years after he had been deposed from the Swedish throne. When this marriage of a former Swedish king, which has no relevance to Sweden, is included, it would also seem natural if one had included the marriage of Prince Fredrik of Hesse-Cassel, who through his second marriage eventually became King of Sweden, to Princess Louise of Brandenburg in 1700, but this is left out.
While the author includes marital negotiations and plans for bachelor princes and kings which did not result in weddings, the similar stories about widowed monarchs are left out. Thus there is not a word on the widowed Carl XV’s plans to marry the Polish Countess Maria Krasinska, plans which had progressed quite far when the King died. The proposal Crown Prince Gustaf (VI) Adolf made to Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein following the death of his first wife but preceding his remarriage is mentioned, but not the two proposals he made after the death of his second wife.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this book is the illustrations. Here the author and publisher have been able to draw on the Royal Armoury’s international network to obtain a large number of different sorts of illustrations from a wide range of institutions at home and abroad. It is a pity that the same effort has not been put into the text.
With two royal weddings coming up in Sweden there should obviously be a market for a book on the history of royal weddings. But this is not a book for the general reader, and even I, who must be considered more than averagely interested in the topic, found it hard to get through this book.
Although Rangström has brought together much information I was left feeling someone should have reminded her along the way that although the assemblage of facts is all very well, the main purpose of a book is that it should be read. The readability of this book suffers greatly from the extreme obsession with details, which are far too frequently rendered in a rather dry manner. There are, particularly in the chapters on the 16th and 17th centuries, some long and detailed descriptions of ceremonies and celebrations and summaries of bridal inventories which are quite dreary.
The human beings at the centre of things are far too often lost in a flood of dry facts about meals eaten, the number of dresses brought along and the exact date on which Carl XV gave his wife’s wedding dress to the Royal Armoury. It takes the vivacious charm of the teenage bride Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta to bring some life to the pages of this book and by then we have already reached page 282.
While many of the illustrations have been obtained from abroad, the same cannot be said about the sources for the text. With the exception of older German works and some British books on costume, there are hardly any books published outside Sweden included in the list of sources used and this book suffers from such a narrow perspective. We do for example hear about Lady Louise Mountbatten’s secret engagement to Prince Kristoforos of Greece, which is mentioned in Margit Fjellman’s Swedish biography, but Rangström is obviously unaware of her subsequent engagement to a man killed in World War I and thereafter to the artist Alexander Stuart-Hill, who was chased away by her father when it turned out he was gay. The stories of these engagements, told and documented in Hugo Vickers’s excellent biography of her sister, add much of interest and human touches to Louise’s life-story.
The very narrow Swedish perspective is also reflected in the way the union with Norway between 1814 and 1905 is dealt with. The union is often “forgotten” by Swedish writers, such as Eva Helen Ulvros, who in her biography of Oscar I accorded hardly a word to his Norwegian reign, leaving an otherwise excellent book very incomplete. Following the many events and publications five years ago commemorating the centennial of the union’s end, including a major exhibition at the museum where Rangström works, one might have hoped that this would finally have made Swedish writers realise that their royal family was for nearly a century also the royal family of another independent kingdom.
Rangström is aware of it, but generally fails to take the consequences thereof. Thus we too often read about “the Swedish Crown Prince”, “the Swedish envoy” or “the future Queen of Sweden” (she also consequently writes “English” and “England” where “British” and “Britain” would have been the correct terms).
When Crown Prince Gustaf married Victoria of Baden in 1881, the official celebrations of their arrival in Stockholm after the wedding in Karlsruhe were followed shortly thereafter by an official entrance into the Norwegian capitals and similar celebrations there, but this is not even mentioned. It is of course a book about Swedish royal weddings, but the fact that those parts of the celebrations held in Norway are entirely ignored leaves the picture incomplete.
With one single exception no Norwegian sources are consulted, meaning that much relevant information is left out. The events relating to the engagement and wedding of Prince Gustaf (VI) Adolf to Margaret of Britain took place during the union’s last hours, meaning that much of interest about the royal wedding may be found in the published and unpublished diaries of several Norwegian politicians, but these sources are not made use of here.
The author also ignores that there were Norwegian interests to consider in connection with at least some of the weddings described. For instance Rangström makes us believe that Joséphine of Leuchtenberg was number one on Carl XIV Johan’s list of desirable brides for his only son, but actually she was second to a Danish princess. As Norway had been part of the Danish monarchy until 1814, a marriage to one of Frederik VI’s daughters would have helped heal the wounds of that eventful year. The King also let his son know that such a marriage would be popular in Norway. All this is the topic of a separate chapter of Torvald T:son Höjer’s official, three-volume biography of King Carl Johan, a work which is not mentioned in Rangström’s bibliography.
There are also too many factual mistakes. Gustaf III succeeded to the throne not in 1772 but in 1771; Queen Désirée was not the daughter of a silk manufacturer (that her father was a silk merchant is an old myth, that he was a silk manufacturer appears to be a product of the author’s imagination); Bernadotte was not yet a marshal when he married; it is King Olav Haraldsson (St Olav) who is considered the patron saint of Norway, not his Swedish-born wife Astrid; Queen Sophia’s father was not Sovereign Prince of Nassau-Weilburg, but Duke of Nassau; and Prince Carl Oscar died at the age of 14 ½ months, not two years. She mixes up the Dutch kings Willem II and Willem III and although she knows perfectly well that Lovisa Ulrika was not Fredrik I’s daughter-in-law, she refers to her as such twice. She mixes up the legislative and executive powers when she states that Oscar II was deposed by the Norwegian government rather than the Parliament; and she establishes a dynastic link between the Bernadottes and the deposed Gustaf IV Adolf by making his wife Fredrika the aunt of Queen Josephina’s mother although no such link existed as Fredrika was in fact the sister of Josephina’s step-grandmother.
Rangström dedicates some space to jewellery, but does not always get it right. She tells us that the famous Leuchtenberg parure, arguably one of the most beautiful works of art and craftsmanship to be found among royal jewels, came to Sweden “through inheritance to Crown Princess Josefina”. Josephina had in fact been queen for several years when she inherited the parure upon the death of her mother.
The diamond tiara with hanging pearls now in the possession of the Danish Royal House is generally considered to have been inherited by Queen Lovisa from her mother, Princess Louise of the Netherlands, shortly before her own death and therefore most likely never worn by her before it passed on to her daughter in Denmark. Rangström claims that the tiara and other pieces of matching jewellery were parts of Lovisa’s trousseau already when she came to Sweden in 1850, but does not back it up with any sources. Thus it is not possible to know if this is a new discovery or simply a misunderstanding of Rangström’s.
There are also occasions when the book would have benefited from the author taking more time to look properly into the things she writes about. When Crown Prince Gustaf (VI) Adolf married Lady Louise Mountbatten in 1923, a professor of law raised the question about whether Louise’s status really complied with the Act of Succession’s provision that a prince could not marry “a private man’s daughter” without forfeiting his right to the throne. Rangström argues that George V’s consent to the engagement made Louise a member of the British royal house, that Queen Mary of Britain had a similar family background (!) and that George V told the wife of the Swedish ambassador that “what’s good enough for England is good enough for Sweden”, but these arguments are all utterly irrelevant and of no concern to the Act of Succession. The relevant arguments, namely Louise’s position in the British line of succession and that a British peer, as her father had been, was not a private man, go unmentioned.
Another weakness is that the closer we come to our own days, the more discreet Rangström becomes. The marriage of Gustaf V and Victoria is described as “a with the years increasingly unhappy marriage”, which is quite an understatement for Victoria’s extramarital affairs and suicide thoughts and the alleged homosexuality of King Gustaf, which goes entirely unmentioned – also when the author observes that there was apparently “not the slightest hint of any romance before he met Victoria”.
When the future Gustaf VI Adolf remarries Louise Mountbatten, we learn that the situation “naturally” felt “odd” for his five children, “but from the very beginning they could, with relief, note that ‘aunt’ Louise was kind”, Rangström enthuses. She does acknowledge that “it would be several years before the elder children fully accepted her”, but one need not have read much about the future Queen Ingrid of Denmark’s relationship with her stepmother to realise that this is an understatement. It is interesting to observe that Rangström as her source for this uses the memoirs of the youngest child, Carl Johan, who was only seven and has said he was probably the least affected of the siblings because he had no memories of his mother. The autobiography of his elder brother, Sigvard, is more informative and candid about the situation, but is not listed among Rangström’s sources.
Upon reaching the wedding of the current King and Queen, the author throws all restraint overboard and gives us a fawning ladies journal’s account of the wedding. “So then she comes, beautiful as a fairytale queen”, she gushes of the bride, having already assured us that “everybody at once liked her and fell for her wisdom, intelligence and charm”.
I had great expectations of this book, but sadly it did not live up to them. If I were a publisher and received this as a manuscript I would have returned it to the author with the comment that there was much of interest in it, but that she would need to work more on it in order to make it more readable, eliminate the factual mistakes and rethink her methodology. As it stands, En brud för kung och fosterland is one of those books of great promise whose strengths are undermined by its weaknesses.

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