Everybody loves a royal wedding, from the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in England to the beautiful ceremony marrying Princess Ayako and Kei Moriya in Japan. But these modern ceremonies (and the everlasting partnerships they confer) are a far cry from royal marriages from history and the beliefs said royals had about said marriages. Royal marriages have often been very confusing behind the scenes, with fights over legitimacy, bitter negotiations for power, strange traditions and interfering diplomats all creating havoc. Much as we might dream of royal weddings, the marriages themselves in European history have often been subject to some truly bizarre beliefs.
Royal marriages have very rarely been about love; they've been about binding together dynasties, creating peace between countries, strengthening alliances, and providing heirs for family names. When you look at them less as romantic undertakings and more as hideously complicated affairs of state, you can understand why matters could get so complex, and so out-and-out weird. Forget the startling oddity of courtiers "witnessing" wedding nights to make sure the parties consummated their marriage — it wasn't even necessary for royalty to be present at their own weddings at all. Turn off the soap opera and prepare to dive into European royalty's beliefs about marriage; I promise it's even more eye-opening and dramatic. Princesses in limbo and accusations of witchcraft, anybody?
Medieval queenship in Europe, notes historian Theresa Earenfight, wasn't just about marrying your spouse; it was about marrying your country. Being a legitimate queen meant going through a process called 'consecration', where a queen went through a "symbolic marriage to the realm, with prayers and blessings, a ring and a crown bestowed as signs of faith". It was basically a wedding, but with the groom as the country.
It was common for royals from the medieval period onwards to be married without ever seeing each other in person. A "proxy" would stand in for them at the wedding ceremony; for Marie Antoinette, her proxy was her brother. They'd then have a second marriage in person once the bride or groom had travelled, in royal style, to their new country. Sometimes the new consort would be greeted in great style, but sometimes they'd be left in the lurch by hostile courtiers — or, in the case of Catherine of Aragon, prodded by her new father-in-law, who demanded to see under her veil before his son.
When you're binding together dynasties, why stop at one wedding? Double royal weddings have happened several times in royal history, and more recently than you'd think; only 200 years ago, in 1818, the Duke and Duchess of Kent and the Duke of Clarence and Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen got married in a double ceremony in Kew Palace. And in the 1500s, the royal houses of Hapsburg and Hungary married two sets of youngsters together, which was understandably seen as a massive coup for the diplomats who'd been going back and forth arranging the matter since the kids were born.
Royal marriages, with their mix of tradition and power, have always been a bit odd. Compared to proxy weddings, left-handed ceremonies and being sent to nunneries, the royal nuptials of William and Harry seem, well, rather quaint.