As a girl, I was obsessed with princesses: Mary of Orange, Maria Antonia of Austria, Elisabeth of France. I didn’t find them romantic, but tragic – ripped from their families as teenagers and sent to a foreign land whose language they probably couldn’t speak, pawns in the great game of European power. I imagined myself in their place: surrounded by people they didn’t know, who didn’t care about them, and whose only interest in them was how soon they would provide an heir.
If they were lucky, their husband would be vaguely their own age, so they could grow up together. Not always. In 1514, the 18-year-old Mary Tudor – the youngest surviving sister of Henry VIII – was dispatched to France. Her bridegroom was the 52-year-old Louis XII, who had got through two dead wives already without producing an heir. By the standards of the day, Mary was lucky – Louis died within three months and she secretly married a handsome earl called Charles Brandon, with whom she had been in love for years. Her brother was furious, and the Privy Council demanded Brandon’s execution, but Mary was resolute.
This is what fascinated me about princesses: the raw human exploitation dressed in diamonds and lace. Great wafts of pomp and ceremony were conjured up to disguise the exchange of jewel-encrusted teenage captives. Few of their words survived; instead they gazed out at me, blank-faced and silent-eyed, from portraits commissioned to celebrate their obedience.
Sometimes, the cruelty was so baroque it feels deliberate. When she married the French dauphin in 1770, the 14-year-old Maria Antonia of Austria was taken to a two-roomed tent on an island in the Rhine. There, she was stripped of her clothes, her servants, her name and even her pet pug, Mops. She emerged as Marie Antoinette of France, the dauphine. As a princess, she had to eat dinner in public and stand shivering in her bedroom as the ladies of the court passed her clothes from hand to hand, allowing the highest ranked to dress her. “I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world,” she wrote to her mother three months into the marriage.
The newest recruit to the British royal family, 36-year-old Meghan Markle, might have sympathy with Marie Antoinette’s complaint. In the six months since her marriage to Prince Harry was announced, every tweet she sent, every photograph she posted on Instagram, every risqué screengrab from the TV show she starred in – all of it has been pored over with a scorched-earth intensity. There can’t be a single schoolfriend, old boyfriend or casual acquaintance who won’t have been approached to tell their story. Worse for her, she’s what the TV industry might call a “crossover” star – she’s united one blockbuster franchise, the Windsors, with another, US celebrities.
Ever since the wedding of Prince William in 2011, it’s become clear that America loves our royal family almost more than we do: our gold carriages and improbable hats seem to enthrall even the most hardbitten New Yorkers and Texans.
In 2014, Fox aired a reality series called I Wanna Marry “Harry”, in which 12 women competed for the affections of an initially unnamed ginger posh bloke. In real life, he was a 23-year-old Prince Harry lookalike called Matthew Hicks. It seems improbable that anyone would fall for this, and indeed several of the contestants began to express doubts that the monarchy that has ruled Britain for nearly a thousand years would turn to cable television to offload the (then) fourth in line to the throne. Yet somehow the producers managed it. The winner, Kimberly Birch, later told the website Splinter that the show’s production team “would stand outside your room, when you’d think that they didn’t know you were up. They’d whisper, ‘You have to get him back to Buckingham Palace. The royal family’s very upset. They’re not happy about the show. It’s this new thing they’ve never done before, and they’re trying to be up and up with social media, and the way that the world is.’ They really messed with us.”
In light of this, it’s hard to escape the thought that the US is treating Markle’s marriage like an exciting spin-off from the Netflix series The Crown. America needs Britain to be the Old Country, somehow: it imports our period dramas in bulk, and indulges itself in the fantasy that Britain is barely changed since the days depicted in that gritty ITV documentary Downton Abbey. I’ve lost count of the number of times that friends in the US have cooed over our quaint little rituals, such as Trooping the Colour, or sending Prince George out in public dressed in knee-length socks.
I want to be angry, and then I remember how much we collude in this nonsense, as the price of generating millions of pounds in tourist income. If we want to sell ourselves to the world as a living museum – sorry France, Italy and Greece, it’s too bad that you decapitated or defenestrated your lot – well, then, we can’t complain when they take us up on the offer. Good luck keeping your commemorative plate industry afloat.
Detached from reality: lookalike Matthew Hicks and his 12 potential brides in I Wanna Marry “Harry”. Credit: Fox
We didn’t talk much about sex in my Catholic family, but from the history books I learned that princesshood isn’t about pink frocks and parties. It’s about sex. Well into the 18th century, both English and French royals were expected to consummate the marriage on the first night. Sheets were inspected the next morning; words of advice were whispered by relatives and ladies in waiting as the bed curtains were drawn. When the 14-year-old Anne of Austria married Louis XIII of France in 1615, two nurses reported back that they had had sex twice. (This seems optimistic, given that Louis a) was shy and gay, and b) refused to eat a meal with Anne again for the next six months.)
Royal births were equally keenly watched, in case an impostor was smuggled in to replace a stillborn child. When the Catholic James II’s equally Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, was accused of switching her dead baby for a live one using a bed pan, the king’s response was to summon 40 witnesses who were also present at the birth.
Thank God we’ve given all that up, right? Ha. I thought back to Mary of Modena the first time the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, gave birth at the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. The atmosphere was like a circus, with fake aldermen dressed in Union Jack suits and photographers on stepladders, determined to get the best shot.
Nothing could have more perfectly symbolised our weird fetishisation of royalty: the same papers who regarded Hilary Mantel’s essay on royal bodies as a grave act of lèse-majesté were nonetheless keenly awaiting the Ceremonial Opening of the Cervix.
It was then I concluded that there is no way to de-yuk the monarchy, to turn it into something laid back and faintly modern. As Mantel noticed, royalty cannot be uncoupled from a prurient focus on the human body – women’s bodies in particular, and women’s reproductive systems in even more particular. “Royal persons are both gods and beasts,” she wrote in the London Review of Books. “They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.” The same misty-eyed traditionalists who demand deference to the royals are joyfully upholding an institution based around fertility, which inevitably involves heavy scrutiny of their most intimate activities.
When Kate Middleton got pregnant again, in 2014, there was less attention: this baby would be the “spare” after all, not the heir. I wondered aloud if there was a law of diminishing returns on interest in royal children. “Only until five, after that it gets more interesting again,” came the reply. (She is currently on three, which is quite posh in itself; the government will only support two through the benefits system.)
Some of her predecessors really were reproductive machines: Queen Anne, who inherited the throne because her sister Mary was infertile, had 17 pregnancies, 12 of which ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. None of her children lived to adulthood. George III’s queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had 15 children, with a shower of glorious 18th century names: George, Frederick, William, Charlotte, Edward, Augusta, Elizabeth, Ernest, Augustus, Adolphus, Mary, Sophia, Octavius, Alfred and Amelia. All except two survived to adulthood.
Inevitably, these endless pregnancies took their toll. We might now think of Twitter as a reservoir of unkind comments on women’s appearances; that function was fulfilled in the 18th century by songs and pamphlets circulated around cities such as London. Queen Anne’s increasing fatness provided rich material (she did not, as Mail Online likes to put it, “show off her post-baby body” but instead flaunted her steadily expanding curves).
Caroline of Ansbach, the wife of George II, suffered an umbilical hernia with the birth of her eighth and last child. Thirteen years later she woke one morning to find some of her small intestine poking through it. Out of delicacy, she didn’t mention the condition to her doctors for some time; eventually, it burst. The incident prompted professional poet and keen amateur misogynist Alexander Pope to write an epigram:
Here lies, wrapt up in forty thousand towels
The only proof that Caroline had bowels.
Even after death, a royal woman’s body was not her own. It belonged to the public.
What does the arrival of Meghan Markle – mixed-race, divorced, older than her husband, independently wealthy and famous – mean for the Royal Family? The temptation is to do what feminists are never supposed to do, and turn the whole thing into a competition. Comparisons with the royal formerly known as Kate Middleton are almost impossible to resist. The Duchess of Cambridge appeared, by the time of her first public appearance as Prince William’s fiancée, “to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”, as Mantel put it. Her aesthetic is part Home Counties mum, skinny jeans and wellies, and part unthreatening middle-ranking corporate lawyer, in LK Bennett heels and knee-length coats.
I loved the Yves Klein blue of the Issa dress she wore to show off her mother-in-law’s sapphire and diamond engagement ring, but the accessories were safe enough to have been worn by HM herself: nude tights and court heels.
Middleton, as I still think of her, has reacted to the floodlight scrutiny visited on her by retreating into the same bland inscrutability that has served her grandmother-in-law so well. Is there anyone in recent history quite like Elizabeth II, whose image is so recognisable, and yet whose speaking voice is so rarely heard? (Well, only one: early-1990s Gerry Adams.) Perhaps Middleton makes prank calls from Kensington Palace late at night, revelling in anonymously ordering unwanted pizzas to the addresses of girls who wronged her at school. Then again, I doubt it, because she seems happy in her suffocating life of privacy-free privilege. I hope she is.
By contrast, Markle is an actor, and she has brought Hollywood glamour to her royal photoshoots (and, unlike Grace Kelly in Monaco, without having to be reborn as a virgin). Her engagement pictures found her in illusion netting with strategically placed arms covering her chest: in the runway version of the £56,000 Ralph & Russo dress she wore, you could see the model’s nipples.
For that reason, I cherish a secret hope that her wedding dress will be the opposite of the beautiful but traditional white lace McQueen gown her sister-in-law wore in 2011. Let there be a mullet hemline or cut-out panel. Oh God! Let it be a Bianca Jagger-style trouser suit. Let her wear comfortable Converse for the evening do, have a best woman, and make a speech herself over pudding. Tap another tiny crack in the unyielding edifice of the wedding-industrial complex. Unlike “Waity Kate”, who appeared to have spent her pre-prince life in vacuum-packed storage, Markle has a past – a past that is easily accessible via Google, not just through scans of dog-eared photographs from schoolfriends. She ran a lifestyle blog, The Tig, and starred in a television legal drama called Suits. She has even (gasp!) publicly ventured the opinion that Donald Trump might be a bit of a wrong ‘un. It’s refreshing.
A month before Kensington Palace announced the engagement (but after the question had been popped) Markle posed for a Vanity Fair cover story, even if she did restrict her observations in the accompanying interview to matters such as the crust on her homemade bread: “It’s that perfect crunch and then the softness. They call it the ‘crumb’, all of these little holes – oh!” Afterwards, Prince Harry continued the new mood of speaking out by issuing an unprecedented statement about press intrusion. Markle had been “subject to a wave of abuse and harassment”, it said, including “the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments”. Mr and Mrs Spare will have more freedom of speech than the heir; I hope they use it well.
What I like about Markle is her apparent determination to treat princessdom (not that she will technically be a princess, unless she uses her husband’s title) as just another role. Think of it as The Method: over the coming years, she will act the hell out of waving from cars, opening garden centres and taking bunches of violets off faintly snotty children. For all the Home Counties vs Hollywood overtones of her relationship with Kate, they have something in common: she is going into this with her eyes open.
More than anything, this helps reconcile me to the idea of princesses, for all that they are absurd in this day and age. Unlike spoiled, friendless Maria Antonia, Markle is no one’s pawn; unlike cloistered, deceived Diana, she is not naive about what her choice entails. (Wouldn’t Prince Charles have been much happier if he had just married his real love to start with? At least Harry gets to marry his Camilla; that’s progress.)
If we are going to indulge our fawning, prurient interest in a single family, let’s make sure the women who join the circus know exactly what they’re letting themselves in for.
Long live Meghan, duchess of whatever random county is left to hand out. All the tiaras in the world wouldn’t make me envy you. Being a princess is a terrible job, but apparently – and inexplicably to me – someone has to do it.
This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war