Today officially marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. There isn’t a lot left to say that hasn’t already been said this summer, but I thought I would cover off on the question of where Diana fits into the historical record at this point. Last month, her sons, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, spearheaded a documentary on her charity work and her role as their mother, indicating part of their efforts were meant to address the fact that younger generations didn’t really know her.
Today, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry toured the memorial garden designed at Kensington Palace in honor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Featuring white roses, narcissi, daisies and forget-me-nots along the Palace’s recognizable sunken garden, the landscape and foliage were chosen in homage to memorable moments and images of the Princess’s life, such as her iconic white Catherine Walker dress.
Finally, the slow royal month of August is almost over. Kensington Palace tweeted that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry were due to begin a busy autumn, focusing on their charity work and continuing their advocacy on mental health issues. We expected September to be a big month for the younger trio, particularly in light of William and Kate’s “move” to London, but I was still half-surprised to see KP double down on this point so literally.
On Sunday, we examined the religious friction that defined the Stuarts, finally prompting the Glorious Revolution. The story ends with the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the end of the Stuart line, but it’s worth zooming in on this time and examining how extraordinary the beginning the House of Hanover truly was. Echoes of it, further cemented by anti-German sentiment in the 20th century, can still be heard today in how we talk about the House of Windsor and its members, from Prince Philip joining the British Royal Family in 1947 to Earl Spencer’s eulogy of his sister in 1997. So, here’s what happened.
We’re not going to get too in the weeds here on the actual divorce, because good God, I am starting to get burnt out by the ceaseless tabloid coverage of the late Princess of Wales. To be clear, I am all for commemorating her life as we approach the 20th anniversary of her death, but the dredging up of her marriage to the Prince of Wales and the constant speculation about her personal life – none of which is new – is a bit much. Nor can I imagine any of this is particularly helpful to her remaining family.
But the fact of the matter is, the attention Diana received stemmed from her marriage to Charles and that marriage ended 21 years ago today. Not all divorces are made equal and this one was certainly one of the most controversial of the last century. Simply put, it was unprecedented and you know how much I love unprecedented royal events, so here we go.
The Stuarts’ relationship with Catholicism is fascinating, but not wholly surprising. The founder of the royal House in England was James I, who succeeded the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, in 1603. He originated in Scotland, the great-great-grandson of Henry VII and son of Elizabeth’s bested rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s Catholicism – alongside her poor marital choices, gender and foreignness – lost her her crown and James’s Protestantism, even if sincere, was hardly a choice.
His faith ensured his place in the English succession, a point he reinforced by marrying the Protestant princess, Anne of Denmark, thus ensuring a Protestant heir. It spoke to anti-Catholic feeling in England – and Scotland, for that matter – but it’s worth noting the larger power balance in Europe. France and Spain, England’s true peers on the continental stage, remained Catholic. England was continually in and out of war with Spain, wounds which were very much wrapped up in the Reformation, from Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, to the earnest desire of their daughter, Mary I, to marry King Philip II and deliver England back to Rome. Elizabeth I began her reign with tolerance, but as the decades wore on, she moved further and further away from appeasement, religion the source of nearly every plot and rebellion against her.
Last week we addressed the question of when Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn began, but today we jump forward seven years to the final stages of Anne’s preparation for marriage – in other words, how exactly Henry made her queen. The evolution of their relationship – from Henry wanting her as a mistress, then a wife – held within it the destruction of the Tudor family. By 1532, Katherine of Aragon had been physically removed from court, out of sight, if not out of mind. Princess Mary, loyal to her mother and her birthright over her father’s “happiness,” found herself firmly out of favor for refusing to accept Anne.
Through history, the British Royal Family has lost any number of men to active combat, but it’s a number that has dwindled considerably in more recent centuries. The last king to die in battle was Richard III in 1485; the last king to actively participate in one was George II in 1743. Since then, the trend has been to preserve monarchs and from there direct heirs to the throne. Younger sons have a bit more wiggle room, most recently evidenced by the top secret deployment of Prince Harry last decade.
The most recent war casualty of a senior British royal was Prince George, Duke of Kent, fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary, during World War II. Aged only 39, George died from an airplane crash near Caithness, Scotland on August 25, 1942 during non-operational duties.
Recently we discussed changes to the succession laws in 2013 that allow the eldest child, not just the eldest male, to inherit the crown. Because the rules aren’t retroactive, Princess Charlotte is the first female member of the British Royal Family to directly benefit from the rule change, meaning that even if she is followed up by a younger brother, he won’t trump her in the line of succession.
So, in honor of that, we’re going to go back and look at the elder daughters who could have ruled if absolute primogeniture had been in place from the get-go – well, from the Norman Conquest.
A few weeks ago we covered the bizarre six-year period during which the Princess of Wales (Caroline of Brunswick) left England for Italy, living a life of excess and scandal, while her husband, the future George IV, tried to launch a case for divorce against her. Part of what made that so notable is how relatively rare it is for senior members of the British Royal Family to live abroad – save foreign marriages and official positions, historically, those instances are almost always driven by political necessity.
We’ve talked about Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France before, but we focused on their first five years of marriage when the two were at odds and in the middle of petty power plays. By the dawn of the 1630s, their home life was a happy one, and over the subsequent decade they produced seven children, settled into domesticity and were seemingly besotted with one another. The same can’t be said for Charles’s public life, which is to say his rule.