Monday, 10 October 2011

New books: A millennium of English royal weddings

Ahead of the wedding of Prince William of Britain and Catherine Middleton the historians Alison Weir, Kate Williams and Tracy Borman and the journalist Sarah Gristwood teamed up to write the book The Ring and the Crowns, which sets out to chart the history of British (i.e. English) royal weddings since 1066.
The book is divided into four parts, each written by one of the authors. Alison Weir is responsible for the first chapter, which takes the story from 1066 to 1714. Hers is by far the longest period of time, but this is a challenge she takes in her stride. Obviously she can impossibly recount every single English royal wedding over 650 years in forty pages, but her choices about what to include and what to exclude seem wise. Weir also manages to paint a wider picture and draw some longer lines, something which cannot be said about all the authors of this book.
The second part, covering the years 1714-1918, is written by Kate Williams and has been give the odd title “Pomp and Circumstance”. The choice of title is peculiar as this was the era in which royal weddings, as Williams acknowledges, generally took place rather privately and without the pomp and circumstance which only in the twentieth century came to be associated with them.
Williams’s contribution is the weakest part of this book. The chapter is well-written enough and she is on sure ground when writing about the marriages of Princess Charlotte of Wales and Queen Victoria, which is familiar ground for the author of the book Becoming Victoria (2008), but otherwise she makes a number of grave errors throughout.
The wife of Prince Frederick, Duke of York is said to be the “only daughter of King Frederick II of Prussia”, although it ought to be fairly well-known that “Frederick the Great” had no children. She forgets the future James II and Anne Hyde when she claims that no royal had married a subject between 1515 and 1871, she claims that the marriage of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia in St Petersburg in 1874 was conducted by the Duke of Westminster (!), she lets the future Edward VII be accompanied by three sons rather than two to the wedding of one of his sisters, the painter Laurits Tuxen becomes “Tucman” and the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz becomes the maternal grandmother of Queen Mary rather than her aunt.
When she reaches the royal wedding of 1896, she claims that Princess Maud married Prince Christian of Denmark, although she did in fact marry his brother Prince Carl. She goes on to relate how “Prince Christian” “in late 1906 [...] was chosen by a committee of the Norwegian government to become King Haakon VII of Norway”. This took place in 1905 and Prince Carl was in fact elected by Parliament unanimously after winning 79 % of the votes in a referendum. A plethora of such mistakes indicates either carelessness or lack of knowledge.
Sarah Gristwood picks up the story in 1919, when Princess Patricia’s wedding in Westminster Abbey was the first grand public affair of the sort we have become used to, and takes it through to the wedding of Princess Margaret in 1960. This was the age when the royal wedding became “the embodiment of the national fairy story”, Gristwood observes. What one might wish for in this chapter are some reflections on why this was the case, perhaps particularly which role the media played in it, and the crucial developments which meant that the nature of royal marriages changed fundamentally at this time (i.e. that World War I had made it clear that dynastic marriages was of little significance for international diplomacy and that marriages to non-royals consequently become more common). What Gristwood provides the reader instead is mostly a description of each individual wedding.
The final part, by Tracy Borman, covers the weddings from 1961 to 2005, with only that of the then Prince Richard of Gloucester passed over for some unexplained reason. I am somewhat puzzled by the authors’ (or editor’s?) choice to let Gristwood’s chapter end in 1960 and Borman’s begin in 1961, as it appears more natural to consider the wedding of Princess Margaret in 1960 together with the other royal weddings of the 1960s. The line dividing the two chapters would probably have been better drawn in 1947, after which there were no further royal weddings for thirteen years.
Borman reflects how the 1980s “had witnessed an apotheosis of royal weddings”, but centring around ill-fatted marriages. In reaction to these grand weddings ending in disaster, “[a] quieter, more understated tone was called for, and this was exactly what the following two occasions achieved”. However, these two occasions were the weddings of Princess Margaret’s children, whose low profiles are probably better explained by the simple fact that these were not royal weddings, but the weddings of private citizens whose mother happened to be a princess.
The book is richly illustrated throughout, but one might occasionally wish for more information about some of the illustrations. The artist’s name is not always given, nor is one always informed about whether the illustration is contemporary or not. The book offers its readers an accessible but not always entirely reliable survey of how English royal weddings have been conducted through the centuries, but regrettably little on the external circumstances which shaped them.

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