Friday, June 13, 2014

Marriage and Monarchy

Recently, in the oldest monarchy in the world, that much-maligned “bastion of conservatism” the Imperial Household Agency announced the engagement of HIH Princess Noriko of Takamado. Some people were surprised to hear that the Princess will be giving up her title and imperial status because of her marriage to a commoner, in accordance with Japanese law. Obviously, this is not the first time this has happened, the most famous case probably being that of the only daughter of HM the Emperor, Sayako Kuroda, formerly HIH Princess Nori, who gave up her status to marry a commoner in 2005. I have occasionally been asked what I think of this regulation and my answer is that, in the first place, it is not at the top of my list of priorities of things I think that need to be changed (or most often ‘changed back’) with the post-war Japanese monarchy and, secondly, I am less distressed by this regulation than I am that it is not applied equally to all. HIH Crown Prince Naruhito and HM the Emperor both married commoners even though adjusted to imperial life proved extremely difficult for both (and in the case of HIH the Crown Princess perhaps insurmountable). It seems to me that there is ample evidence of why it is best for birds of a feather to flock together and perhaps that more of it should be encouraged rather than being viewed as an aberration.

It still manages to make the headlines, whenever a royal marries a commoner, because of the fairytale image of it. However, there are some rather obvious flaws in this supposed fairytale. One is that it has a rather sexist nature since a female royal marrying a male commoner never elicits the same response and secondly; it really is nothing special anymore. The exception has become the rule. The current King of The Netherlands married a commoner, the Crown Princes of Norway and Denmark married commoners, the Crown Princess of Sweden married a commoner and the Prince of Asturias married a commoner. This is simply not the same world as that which forced King Edward VIII to choose between his throne and his beloved. In his day, marriage to a commoner and a divorcee was all but unthinkable; today the Crown Prince of Norway can marry a commoner who was also an unwed mother with ties to the illicit drug scene and not have his succession rights called into question. People became so obsessed with the image of ‘royal marrying commoner’ that they applied it to cases in which it obviously had no merit such as when the Prince of Wales married Diana Spencer. Some people seemed to like Diana so much that they wanted to make her ‘one of their own’ when, as most monarchists surely know, she was the daughter of the eighth Earl of Spencer and her maternal grandfather was the fourth Baron Fermoy; she was hardly “common”.

If anything, today it seems rather taken for granted that royals almost have to marry commoners or expect a backlash with accusations of being elitist and ‘too good for the rest of us’. These are the same romantics who used to rail against true love being thwarted by the requirement to marry someone of equivalent status yet who are now applying the same sort of restriction in the opposite direction. The fact of the matter is, although this will certainly be unpopular, that the traditional norms regarding royal marriages became the traditional norms for some very good reasons. There are also, as unpopular as this is nowadays as well, perfectly good reasons for while the royal succession, in the vast majority of nations and cultures all over the world, was restricted to males or at least gave males preference. To think otherwise is to very arrogantly assume that all of our ancestors throughout the whole of human history were simply ignorant savages who were nowhere near as intelligent, enlightened and mature as we are today. This is the sort of astonishingly ignorant sort of arrogance that can look back at the people who invented philosophy, deductive reasoning, built the pyramids and the coliseum, established world empires and conquered continents and still manage to look down your nose at them. These people were not stupid just because they lived at a time before we did and it would not hurt us to at least consider that they might have known what they were doing on a few things.

First of all, royals marrying other royals or at least members of the high aristocracy should really be seen as even more common-sense these days when arranged marriages are no longer the norm. The most obvious danger to a royal marrying beneath their station is that of being taken advantage of by a very ambitious social climber, who is marrying them simply to achieve “royal” status and for no other reason. For anyone who thinks this is a trivial danger, one need look no further than the flood of fame-hungry young girls who practically stormed the gates of St Andrews University in Scotland when it was announced that Prince William would be attending classes there. Just imagine how many celebrity-obsessed, gifted little actress bullets he dodged there. In addition, there is the general benefits that everyone used to consider simple common sense. Someone from a similar background would have less trouble adjusting to royal life, they would already understand the pressures and expectations and would probably have similar interests and a similar worldview making compatibility all the more likely. It is also worth remembering that these standards were put in place in countries where women had more rights and a more privileged status than in others. It was important because the royal spouse was expected to have at least some share in the power and duties of her husband. In contrast, most of the concubines in the vast harem of the Ottoman Sultan had the status of slaves and far from being of any royal or noble lineage, many were foreign girls who had been taken captive (often Russians). In East Asia, while the primary consort or empress was required to be of sufficient rank, secondary consorts and/or concubines could be of the most modest backgrounds.

Obviously, these were cultures that were different from the Christian west which embraced monogamy but it is also just as significant that concubines or harem slaves had no reasonable expectation of ever being anything else. Occasionally, a woman from the harem might come to have some influence but such cases were the rare exception. When it came to someone who was expected to be a full consort, an empress, someone of appropriate rank was always sought after and for the same, common sense, reasons. In addition to those listed above, one should also consider how, on a very basic level, this works to the benefit of the common man. What poor ploughman could ever compete with a prince for the affections of the local  bar wench or farm girl? A common man could hardly compete for the hand of a high-born or royal lady and yet, without the traditional restrictions, a royal man could have his pick of royal, noble or common ladies, intruding into the only pool of potential mates the common man has to try his luck in. It also cut down on the difficulty (seen more than once in the history of various countries across the globe) of the families of relatively modest means who attain status by the marriage of their daughter to a royal house to then cause a scandal by their effort to enrich themselves and take full advantage of their newfound status. These people are most likely to see such status as an advantage to exploit whereas those born to such status are more likely to see it as an imposition that must be born dutifully.

The reasons behind male preference in royal successions also ties in, somewhat, with why there has traditionally been a rather different attitude on marrying commoners depending on whether one is speaking of a man or a woman. One of the most fundamental reasons for this, surprisingly, is one of the most often overlooked. It goes back to the nature of marriage itself, deeply rooted in the Christian history of the western world and even pre-dating Christianity to the family structure found in the Old Testament of the Bible. The traditional teaching, since time immemorial, has been that when two people marry it is the wife who leaves her family and joins the family of her husband. This is why a wife has traditionally taken the surname of her husband and why some, up until fairly recently, would even use the name of their husband entirely (z.b. “Mrs. John Smith”); because he did not join her family, she joined his. Today, male or female, blood or marriage, we tend to have a rather loose definition of “family” but in the past (and I mean all of it) this was not the case and a female monarch meant that, effectively, a new dynasty would take over the country as the law of God said that when she married, she would become a part of her husband’s family and all that belonged to her would belong to him.

Today, of course, we have abandoned most such notions but it would be a mistake to think they no longer matter at all. Even today, something tends to change with a Queen and a Prince consort that does not change with a King and a Queen consort. The consorts in Britain and Denmark, Prince Philip and Prince Henri, for instance have both been given assurances that the Royal Family names will be changed to recognize them. No one would come right out and say it these days of course, but effectively it means that the House of Windsor (formerly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha since the time of Prince Albert) will be no more and it will now be the House of Mountbatten or whatever they choose to call it; it is the family of Prince Philip. It is not unnatural for a people to wish their monarchy, and so their country, to remain in one family and certainly the monarchies that have been the most revered in history have been those that have remained steadfastly in the hands of one family as much as possible. And, even if we were to disregard the traditional, Christian understanding of marriage (though it is certainly not limited to Christianity) we would still have the same problem. When two people marry they must belong to one family or another and if the husband joined the family of his wife, rather than the reverse; how is that better?

We also often overlook the negatives while focusing on the real or perceived positives of this system. Mostly, this is due to feminism which came to believe that everything about the world prior to their arrival was male-dominated and thus whatever position men held must have been the superior position. They never gave serious consideration to the idea that women of the past may have been just as clever (if not moreso) than themselves and did not start the feminist movement much earlier because they came to a thoughtful conclusion that their place in the world was not such a bad one and that of men was not so enviable. In the past, remember, one of the primary duties of a King was to lead his troops in battle, something women have traditionally been sheltered from and which even today woman generally agree that absolute gender equality should stop short of women being liable for conscription. It is also noteworthy that even the most famous female monarchs of the past often considered their position less than ideal. Queen Elizabeth I famously said, “To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it”. Queen Victoria wrote, “I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights,” with all its attendant horrors…” and the formidable Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi supposedly said on her deathbed, “never let a woman rule”

By not having the top job, queen consorts have often been more popular than their husbands, both because they are not the ones responsible for unpopular policies and because they had more time to devote to charitable activities which had the added benefit of winning over hearts and minds. Today, of course, monarchs nor even generals lead armies onto the battlefield from horseback and a female monarch can fulfill the duties of a male monarch. However, when it comes to doing away with male preference in the succession, one is still left with the same predicament of wives joining the families of their husbands and with the impossibility of changing the fact that sometimes there is no third option. So, for example, even if male preference were done away with, it would only replace a gender preference with an age preference. Just as one can ask, “why should he be first in line to the throne just because he is a boy?”, one could also ask, “why should she be first in line to the throne just because she was born first?”. Husband or wife, male or female, a choice still has to be made. History along with nature in regarding men as more disposable than women, came to a system that seemed to work in making such choices. It remains to be seen if tinkering with the traditions of centuries will be an improvement. Personally, I have my doubts as anytime the popular mindset becomes obsessed with “fairness” and stamping out “discrimination”, I cannot see it being beneficial to the idea of monarchy in the long-term.


  1. Thank you, MM. I always wondered why HM The Queen Mother was called a "commoner". Her father was an Earl.

    To my knowledge the last commoner queen was Elizabeth Woodville. And you hit the nail on the head w/the conniving, power hungry family! Though Sir Anthony Woodville was unjustly murdered, the rest of the family, & Elizabeth too, didn't care abt King Edward V, or Duke Richard for that matter, and only what yhey would lose.

    1. It can be a bit frustrating since aristocratic titles are handed down to sons, the daughters themselves do not have titles but they are hardly Laverne and Shirley types. As for families trying to cash in, I actually had some Asian examples in mind but that works too.

    2. Um...Elizabeth Woodville wasn't *commoner* per se. Her father was a baron. And her mother was a princess from the house of Luxembourg, with connections to the ruling houses of the Holy Roman Empire, France and Bohemia.

      But that's semantics.

      Also, one only has to look at Anne Boleyn and how she acted as queen-consort (because she wasn't brought up to it), compared to Catherine of Aragon. It was so bad that at one point, her own uncle described her as talking to Henry VIII (who admittedly isn't my favorite person (monarch or otherwise)) as "one would to a dog". She very nearly persistently reminded Henry that she was smarter than he was, threw hissies about his affairs, etc.

    3. Erm...Elizabeth Wydeville wasn't *commoner* per se. Yes, her father was from amongst the gentry or lower nobility (as were Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour's) but her mother had been born a princess of the house of Luxemburg - ruling family of the Holy Roman Empire, the kingdom of Bohemia and related to the kings of France.

      As to lower-borns marrying into royalty, Anne Boleyn is a prime example of it. She wasn't conditioned to deal with the stress of her new status. Where Katherine of Aragon had turned a blind eye to Henry VIII having a mistress(es) and been the dutiful wife, Anne pitched fits about it and near constantly reminded Henry (who just BTW is not my favorite person, royal or otherwise) that she was smarter than him. Her uncle had said that she spoke to the king "in a manner not to be used to a dog". But, give me Anne any day over the mild-as-milk Jane Seymour.

  2. I quite agree. This trend of marrying commoners is very worrying. I was disappointed that our Prince of Wales did not marry a princess, even if the wedding boosted the monarchy's popularity.

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