- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

AMSTERDAM — Around Europe, the talk at the palace dinner table may sound different these days, the vowels not quite so round and “cultured.” You might even hear an Australian twang or a Latin American lilt.

And the conversation may be utterly ordinary.

The blue blood of Europe’s royal families is increasingly diluted by the common red variety. Unthinkable before the social upheaval of the world wars of the past century, it is now more frequent than not for royalty to marry commoners.

It’s a sign of changing times in society’s upper crust.

In the days when kings not only reigned but ruled, the palace arranged the marriages of children to seal a political alliance or to shore up the family’s blood line. Domestic satisfactions were resolved through the unofficial institution of the royal mistress.

But now that politics is constitutionally separated from the palace, love is allowed to triumph over duty.

Denmark and Spain last month were the latest to witness the weddings of their crown princes — the future kings of their ancient monarchies — to commoners.

On May 14, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, scion of Europe’s oldest royal house, wed Mary Donaldson, a law-trained businesswoman from Australia.

In Madrid on May 22, Crown Prince Filipe of the Royal House of Bourbon married Letizia Ortiz, a former TV anchorwoman.

They join the list of princes — among them Norwegian and Dutch — who forswore the search for aristocratic matches, found their brides in the ranks of the people, and married them without having to renounce their claim to the throne.

“I can’t predict whether these marriages will work out. But they are breathtakingly different from anything that happened in the past,” said Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke’s Peerage in London, one of the bibles of aristocratic lineages.

Mr. Brooks-Baker thought some of the choices of brides were “strange.”

“Most of these people don’t belong to the aristocratic class, or even to upper-middle-class families. Some are from very obscure backgrounds, and some have controversial pasts,” he said.

The aristocratic crowd may sniff at the new royals, but the young women are popular with the people, and in some cases have thrown open the windows of stuffy old palaces.

Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, the former Maxima Zorreguieta of Argentina — beautiful, vivacious, intelligent — has aroused unaccustomed public enthusiasm for the House of Orange since her 2002 wedding to Willem-Alexander, overcoming the Dutch public’s initial skepticism.

The former international investment banker won Dutch hearts by distancing herself from her father, Jorge Zorreguieta, who had served in Argentina’s Cabinet during the “dirty war” when the military regime killed or kidnapped thousands of suspected dissidents.

Though no one accused Mr. Zorreguieta of being a party to the abuses, the Dutch government sent its foreign minister to Argentina to inform him he would be unwelcome at the wedding.

Norway’s future queen, the former Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, was a single mother when she wed Crown Prince Haakon two years ago. The father of her son had been convicted of drug offenses, and Princess Mette-Marit gave a tearful apology to the nation for her youthful misbehavior.

Crown Prince Filipe’s bride is a divorcee — in a Roman Catholic country where divorce was illegal before 1981. Her mother is a nurse and union shop steward, and also a divorcee.

“Almost all monarchies are suffering from the same problem — the arrival of young people from the bourgeoisie, even from everyday society. In many cases they are contributing modernity to a medieval system. But in others they bring vulgarity,” said Jaime Penafiel, the doyen of royal watchers in Madrid.

In class-conscious Britain, Prince Charles came closest to a union within his own rank when he married Diana Spencer, the daughter of an earl, a descendant of kings, and Charles’ 16th cousin. Charles’ sister, Anne, married a commoner, as did both his brothers, Andrew and Edward. Only Edward’s 5-year-old marriage has survived.

Marriage outside the nobility used to be rare. Among early mold-breakers was Prince Rainier III of Monaco, who opted for Hollywood royalty, marrying Oscar-winning American actress Grace Kelly in 1956. She died in a car crash in 1982 after an unhappy life as Princess Grace.

Norway’s reigning King Harald waited nine years for permission from his father, King Olav, to marry his school sweetheart, Sonja, resisting the old king’s entreaties that an aristocratic bride would secure the young monarchy, which came into existence in 1905.

Some families still uphold strict standards. Prince Johan Friso, Willem Alexander’s younger brother, was stripped by the government of his place in line for the Dutch crown because he and his betrothed, Mabel Wisse Smit, lied to the prime minister about a relationship she had 12 years previously with a known gangster. They married in April.

A storybook romance with a prince might be the dream of many a young girl. But, like any good fairy tale, it is fraught with danger — from TV cameras recording every public misstep, to courtiers selling racy tales to tabloids.

For a professional woman entering the ranks of nobility, “life can be difficult, it can be tragic, it can be traumatic,” said Cor de Horde, editor of the Dutch magazine Vorsten, which means monarchy.

A princess trains all her life for the demanding role of a sovereign’s consort. Commoners have no preparation. The constant spotlight of public attention could strain any marriage, Mr. De Horde said. “They have to give up their identity, their own self.”

Where once royal children were palace-schooled, today they often attend classes alongside ordinary students, travel the world and, not surprisingly, find companions outside their own narrow circle.

Frederik met his Australian love in a Sydney bar. Filipe first encountered Letizia Ortiz at a dinner party. Haakon and Hoiby met at an outdoor rock concert.

More than 20 European monarchies disappeared in the 20th century, leaving only nine in power, said Mr. Brooks-Baker.

Mr. De Horde believes that although mixed marriages bring new blood to inbred families, “The biggest threat comes from within. It is the eagerness of the king or queen to get close to the people. But they have to keep a distance.

“A monarch has to keep in mind what his real function is — to be a head of state.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide