Ten Royal Weddings to Remember

For centuries, British monarchs have had their marriages tested by war, infidelity, politics and diplomatic intrigue

The marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer did not have an auspicious beginning: she laughed when he proposed. (Wally McNamee / Corbis)

Kate Middleton and Prince William are just the latest young couple to walk down the aisle and into the pages of British royal history. But what she wears and who attends the wedding are merely the beginning of the story. Royal marriages, in particular, are special and the Brits’ and have run the gamut from fairy tale to bigamy to beheading.

William the Conqueror and Matilda

William resulted from an affair between Robert, the Duke of Normandy, and Arlette, the daughter of a tanner. Though he succeeded his father as duke, the first time he proposed to Matilda of Flanders, she refused him, citing his bastard birth. But he courted her for seven years and eventually she relented—stories say she agreed only to prevent a fight between William and her father after William hit her or dragged her from her horse. They wed in 1053. Thirteen years later, William claimed the English throne. Their marriage was tempestuous—he has affairs, she puts one of his mistresses to death—but productive; they had at least 10 children. And when she died in 1083, William reportedly was heartbroken.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor was queen of France and duchess of Aquitaine in 1151 when she met an 18-year-old Henry Plantagenet, then visiting the French court. She had been married to Louis VI since she was 15, but despite bearing him two daughters and accompanying him on a crusade, the marriage was failing. And when it was annulled the next year, she quickly married the much younger Henry, who would become king of England in 1154. Their strong personalities clashed, however, and Henry’s fiery temper and philandering didn’t help. When three of their sons—Henry, Richard and Geoffrey—rebelled in 1172, fighting amongst themselves for their family’s domain, Eleanor took their side. Henry forgave his sons but not his wife; he imprisoned her, mostly at Sarum Castle near Salisbury, until he died in 1189.

Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

According to legend, Edward IV met Elizabeth Woodville, a widow with two young boys, beneath an oak tree in Whittlebury Forest and instantly fell in love, or perhaps lust, on April 30, 1464. After she refused to become his mistress, they married the next day, or perhaps in August (the history is muddled), though the marriage did not become public until later that year. The church and Privy Council did not approve—the couple was mismatched—he a king, she a commoner, the daughter of a lowly knight. And to make matters worse, her family had supported the Lancasters, who Edward had deposed during the War of the Roses. Over the next 15 years, though, Elizabeth would give birth to three sons and seven daughters. Two of the sons would survive until after their father’s death in 1483, but Edward’s younger brother, Richard, convinced Parliament to void their parents’ marriage, depose his nephew Edward V, and make him king. The two young boys would be placed in the Tower and soon disappear.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Henry VIII wed six times, but his marriage to Anne Boleyn stands out. Anne was a member of the household of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1525 when he began his infatuation with her. His quest to divorce Catherine and marry Anne would eventually sever England from Catholicism and the Pope and create the Anglican Church. Henry divorced his queen and married Anne in May of 1533, and she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in September. But the romance would not last. In 1536, Anne was accused and convicted of adultery, incest and conspiring to kill the king. And on May 19 she was beheaded on Tower Hill. Eleven days later, Henry married wife number three, Jane Seymour.

William and Mary

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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