History Stories

Wedding days can make the British royal family’s world look like fairy-tale bliss. But a harsh reality confronts outsiders marrying into the House of Windsor.

No, they no longer face losing their head if they fall out of favor, as some distant ancestors once did. Still, Meghan Markle joins a long line of incoming brides and grooms who, for decades, have faced bruising quests for acceptance—with little to guide them and no guarantee of success. The insular family, never known as a warm and fuzzy bunch, has been famously slow to drop its formidable barriers to commoners, divorcees and even the occasional royal homewrecker.

As a formality, the monarch’s approval must be granted to potential couples, as per the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. The Queen has approved her grandson’s chosen mates, Meghan Markle and Catherine Middleton, without many apparent obstacles. But in 1946, then-Princess Elizabeth herself waited for months as her skeptical father, King George V, deliberated over her engagement to Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. Despite being a third cousin to Elizabeth, Philip was considered an overly progressive outsider. Plus, his German heritage and links to Nazis by marriage were seen as serious liabilities given England’s strong anti-German sentiments after the war.

Philip got the nod, but has chafed under royal life—notably when his wife initially decided their children would have her family’s last name, Windsor, not his. It wasn’t the first time his name had caused a kerfuffle. Before their marriage, Philip gave up his Greek nationality and royal title, which made him technically a commoner in England. To avoid his unwieldy Germanic last name, Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, he took his maternal family surname, Mountbatten. Early in his marriage, he was furious to learn it wouldn’t be used, reportedly telling a friend: “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children. I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.” In 1960, the year their third child Prince Andrew was born, the Queen apparently compromised, decreeing the family surname, when needed, as Mountbatten-Windsor.

Having gotten her own man, Elizabeth later prevented her own sister, Princess Margaret, from marrying her beloved—the divorced Peter Townsend, an aide to the king. The blocker? The Church of England’s strong stance against divorce. Because the British monarch serves as head of the Church of England, accepting a divorced person into a royal marriage, so thinking went, would weaken both the Church and the monarchy.

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson at the Chateau de Conde, France on their wedding day. (Credit: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

King Edward VIII faced this same issue in 1936, when he abdicated the crown in order to marry his beloved Wallis Simpson, an American socialite whose second divorce was in the works as he prepared for his coronation. His decision ignited a national firestorm, as Andrew Morton recounts in The Untold Life of the Duchess of Windsor, The Woman Who Changed the Monarchy, inflaming politicians and royals alike. His younger brother, suddenly thrust onto the throne as King George VI, was so outraged by Edward’s dereliction of duty that he banned anyone connected to the royal family from Edward’s nuptials. And while the couple took the titles the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the King denied Simpson the use of “Her Royal Highness.” And the Palace forced them to live as exiles: The Duke was not invited to Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, and any visits to England had to be approved by the monarchy.

Even those formally accepted for marriage aren’t always welcomed. Sarah Ferguson, who married Prince Andrew, was initially seen as a modern addition to the monarchy, but her spontaneity and poor taste quickly sidelined her: On her wedding day, she tied a teddy bear to the horse-driven carriage. With her husband’s naval duties taking him away, she struggled to fit into the famously frosty family and the marriage fell apart—but there was no coming back after she was photographed having her toes sucked by her financial advisor. “She is simply a vulgarian. She is vulgar, vulgar, vulgar, and that is that,” the Queen’s private secretary Lord Charteris once said.

By contrast, Princess Diana looked every bit the perfect British aristocrat. But her insecurities and naiveté were a toxic match with Charles, who grew up in a stoic family that left him ill-prepared for an emotional partner, according to Penny Junor, a royal biographer. Diana obsessed over Charles’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles, to the degree that it prevented the young princess from settling into their honeymoon at the royal family’s Scottish castle, Balmoral. “She hated the countryside, hated his family’s passion for horses and dogs, hated the rain that poured remorselessly…” writes Junor in her biography of Camilla Parker Bowles, The Duchess.

Diana, who biographer Andrew Morton described as prone to paranoia, depression and self-harm, also developed a severe case of bulimia—and found it used against her. According to Diana in the documentary “Diana in Her Own Words,” the Queen viewed the eating disorder as “the reason why our marriage had gone downhill… It made me realize that they all saw that as the cause of the marriage [problems], not one of the symptoms of the marriage.” After the births of their children, Diana and Charles’s marriage deteriorated irrevocably. The Prince admitted to adultery in a television interview. Diana hit back in her own interview, saying: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

Prince Charles Wedding Day

Charles with Diana (L) after their wedding day in 1981, and Charles with his wife Camilla on their wedding day, 2005. (Credit: Lichfield/Getty Images & Burnand/Pool/Getty Images)

The Queen ended the facade. After consulting with the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, she took the unusual step of writing letters to Charles and Diana “asking them to put the country out of its uncertainty and to divorce as early as practicable,” writes Junor.

The outsider to face the highest hurdles may well have been Camilla Parker Bowles, who married Prince Charles in 2005. The two dated in the early ’70s, but couldn’t marry because she was not sufficiently aristocratic—or virginal. They remained friends, then lovers while he was married to Diana, who cast Camilla as a homewrecker. Their romance became public again years after Diana’s death, but it took delicate maneuvers to bring Camilla into the family fold. Adultery and divorce were embarrassing enough, but scandals like the recorded private conversations that captured Charles wishing to live in Camilla’s trousers were hard to recover from. “The Queen had wanted her gone before Diana’s death and felt no differently after it,” writes Junor. “It was Camilla who had been responsible, wittingly or not, for all the disasters that had befallen the prince since his marriage.”

The Queen met with Camilla in 2000, allowing for a thaw. Still there were noticeable slights. At the monarch’s Golden Jubilee concerts at Buckingham Palace in 2002, Camilla was forced to sit two rows behind Charles, writes Junor. That same year, the Palace refused to pay for the renovations of a two-room suite for Camilla at Clarence House, where the couple eventually took up residence together. At the time, she feared being “frozen out” by some of Charles’ staff.

Kate Middleton and Prince William

Kate Middleton and Prince William on the day of their graduation ceremony at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, 2005. Some say that Kate, while a commoner, has integrated into the Windsor family more successfully than some other royal spouses. (Credit: The Middleton Family/Clarence House/GettyImages)

Today, the monarchy’s standards are much less strict. Prince William and Prince Harry have been allowed to marry commoners. And Meghan Markle will become the first divorced, biracial American to be referred to as Her Royal Highness. The Queen’s approval came quickly, it seems: After Meghan met Prince Harry in July 2016, Markle was invited to meet the Queen for the first time in October 2017. The young TV actress is said to have prepared by learning about afternoon tea at the Rose Tree Cottage in Pasadena, Calif., according to Andrew Morton in his biography Meghan.

Apparently, she passed the test: Their engagement was announced that November. And by Christmas, the Queen bent the rules for the couple, writes Morton: “The monarch was impressed enough to waive long-standing rules that only the royal family gather at Sandringham for Christmas. She extended an invitation for Harry’s fiancee to join the clan.”

Markle has made sacrifices. Her privacy, and that of her friends and family, has been violated. She has been subjected to sexist and racist online comments so virulent that Prince Harry put out a statement defending her. But in the weeks leading up to the wedding, members of her family were seen as a embarrassment to the Palace, which takes a dim view of anyone within its orbit having unscripted press interactions. Some uninvited relatives, publicly decrying the snub, took paid roles on TV coverage of the event. And after a brouhaha arose over her father’s accepting money from a photo agency to stage pictures of himself preparing for the event, it was confirmed that the ailing Mr. Markle would not attend his daughter’s wedding or walk her down the aisle.

It remains to be seen how such drama will affect her prospects of blending in with her insular and highly image-conscious new family. Still, Morton speculates that when Meghan, an American commoner, marries the man sixth in line to the throne, she will be given the title Duchess of Sussex—an outcome that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.

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