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.
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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
Mary reportedly wept for an entire day after her father, James, the Duke of York (later King James II), told her that she would marry her cousin, William of Orange in two weeks—she didn’t want to live in Holland. King Charles II had hoped that wedding his niece Mary to a Protestant would help the popularity of his Roman Catholic brother James, who was his heir. Mary was popular among the Dutch and devoted to her husband. They had no children, though, and Mary had at least one miscarriage. In 1685, her father became king, but the Protestants were unhappy with him and became worried he would start a Catholic dynasty once he had a son in 1688. They asked William to invade. When he did, James fled to France. William and Mary became joint sovereigns in 1689 under the newly established English Bill of Rights. Mary died of smallpox in 1694, William of a fall from his horse in 1702.
George IV and Maria Fitzherbert
Maria Fitzherbert (born Mary Anne Smythe) was already 28 and a rich widow in 1784 when she met George, a young prince with a penchant for older women. When she declined to become his mistress, George proposed. But Maria again declined on the grounds that he was barred from marrying a Catholic like herself. George stabbed himself and told Maria that only marrying her would induce him to live. Maria agreed but fled to France the next day. However, 15 months later she returned and married the prince. The illegal marriage didn’t stay secret for long, and the prince soon strayed. By 1794, he told Maria that their relationship was over, though he never divorced her and continued to support her. The next year, in deep debt, he married Princess Caroline of Brunswick after Parliament promised to increase his allowance. The marriage was a disaster, and he refused to recognize Caroline as queen when he ascended the throne in 1820.
Victoria and Albert
Victoria met her cousin Albert six days before her 17th birthday and was entranced by the handsome and clever young man. After she became queen in 1837, her ministers pressured her to marry, and she proposed to her love in 1839 (no one could propose to the queen). They wed the next year and though Albert was never made king, their marriage was a true partnership, with Albert acting as regent during Victoria’s nine pregnancies. When he died in 1861, possibly of stomach cancer, Victoria went into permanent mourning, wearing black for 50 years until she died in 1901, Britain’s longest reigning monarch.
Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson
The dapper, charming, partying Prince Edward met Wallis Simpson and her husband in 1931, and by the end of 1933 she had become his mistress. The besotted Edward ascended to the throne in January 1936 when his father, George V, died, but any thoughts he had of making Wallis his queen were soon dashed. The government and church were opposed, and there were fears the people would rise up and dispose of the monarchy entirely if Edward married Wallis, a divorced American still married to her second husband (she wouldn’t divorce him until October of that year). The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, informed the new king that he must choose between his bride and his crown. On December 11, Edward abdicated and six months later, now titled the Duke of Windsor, he married Wallis.
George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
A five-year-old Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon first met the 10-year-old Prince Albert (“Bertie”) at a children’s Christmas party in 1905. She gave him the cherries from her cake. They met again 15 years later, and he proposed in 1921. She turned him down, not wanting a royal life. He persisted, however, and she finally agreed, marrying him in 1923. They unexpectedly became king and queen when Albert’s older brother, Edward, abdicated his throne. The happy family with two young daughters helped to restore public confidence in the monarchy, shaken by his brother’s actions. Albert, titled George VI, died in his sleep in 1952 and his daughter, Elizabeth, took the throne and reigns to this day.
Charles and Diana
The marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer did not have an auspicious beginning: she laughed when he proposed. By the time of their wedding on July 29, 1981, Charles had already been in a relationship with the married Camillia Parker-Bowles for years. Diana would give birth to two boys—William and Harry—and later devote herself to charitable causes. But the marriage fell apart by the 1990s, and Charles started looking into divorce after the publication of a tell-all book by author and Diana confidante Andrew Morton. In 1992 Charles and Diana formally separated, and they divorced in 1996. Diana died the next year in a Paris car crash. Charles married Camilla in 2005. Despite the soap opera nature of the tragic love triangle, the British public still supports the monarchy. However, in a 2010 poll, 45 percent of respondents thought that Prince William should become the next king instead of Charles.