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)

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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

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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