At one time, a future king married a woman not because he loved her, but because of political reasons. He might have married a princess of a foreign country to help forge closer ties between the two countries, especially if they'd spent years warring.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st Century. Prince William's fiancee, Kate Middleton, descends from a line of Durham miners and has a mother who is a former air hostess. Despite her humble ancestry (mostly humble, as she's also a direct descendant of Edward III), one day she will be Queen.
In fact, could this finally be the Windors achieving what they set out to do almost 100 years ago - to make the Royal Family truly British.
In 1917, after having the name for 200 years, Britain's German-descended Royal Family, headed by King George V (Prince William's great grandfather), changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor because, of course, Germany was the enemy.
But their marriage customs also changed. Until that point, the Royal Family married according to the German royal custom - by only marrying royals, and German ones at that, of equal rank - e.g. a British prince could only marry a German princess.
Instead, George V declared that henceforth his children would be able to marry Englishmen and Englishwomen. ‘It was an historic day,’ he confided to his diary.
From then on, the Royals have tended to marry people from this country rather than Germans, making the Royal Family less and less German and more and more British with each passing generation. For example, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI (who became known as the Queen Mother on the accession to the Throne of her daugher Elizabeth II) was Scottish.
And this means, of course, that British Royals now marry people who aren't Royals themselves. Princess Diana was not a Royal, and neither was Sarah Ferguson, who married Prince Edward in 1986.
And this Royal Revolution, with Royals marrying ordinary people, have made Royal marriages more of an occasion. They were once semi-private affairs. But with ordinary people, such as Diana and Sarah, marrying Royals those marriages became to be seen more as national occasions.
And it is this Royal Revolution which allows a descendant of northern coalminers to be the future Queen.
This wedding makes our Royal Family truly British at last. And I’ll raise a glass of bubbly to that!
21st November 2010
By historian David Starkey (David Starkey’s latest book, Crown & Country, is published by HarperPress.)
" As Walter Bagehot pointed out long ago in his masterly analysis of the Victorian Monarchy, Royalty is interesting while republics are boring."
Kate, on the other hand, descends from a line of Durham miners and has a mother who is a former air hostess. The couple met while they were at university together.
And like most of their contemporaries, they have had a shot at being together (and indeed apart) before deciding to get married.
Royal wedding: Kate and William are now the latest stars of that great international circus
How very different from the love story of Charles and Diana, to say nothing of that of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. No wonder David Cameron has embraced their engagement as a sort of Royal deluxe edition of his Big Society.
Despite appearances, this Royal romance is not a new beginning. Instead it is only an important new chapter in the extraordinary story of the House of Windsor which began in 1917.
The First World War was at its height. At home, the mighty fleet had mutinied at Spithead; abroad the Russian Empire was about to collapse and everywhere revolution was in the air.
George V, king-emperor of Great Britain and William’s great-great-grandfather, was the least likely of revolutionaries.
Revolutionaries: King George V, Queen Mary, Princess Mary, Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII)
He was a stiff-backed ex-sailor; punctilious in his dress and formal in his manners, whose only recreations were his stamp albums, his weather-gauge and his coverts of game-birds, of which he slaughtered prodigious numbers.
And yet he had shrewd political instincts and shrewder advisers. Together they decided to fight revolution with revolution.
Their enterprise was no less than to reinvent the British Monarchy.
The first step was to make it British. Ever since the accession of the House of Hanover 200 years previously, the Royal Family had been German – in blood, in its first language and in its name: Guelph or, latterly, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
With Germany now as the enemy, this was impossible and George resolved to change it. After a bit of discreet market-testing, he came up with the quintessentially English name of Windsor. With its echoes of Shakespeare and soft-soap, it was the perfect choice.
But the change of name was only the first step. What had kept the Royal Family German for 200 years were its marriage customs. So George changed those as well. Hitherto, the Royal Family had followed the German practice.
This required members of ruling houses only to marry people of equivalent rank – in other words princes and princesses of other German dynasties. Instead George declared that henceforth his children would be able to marry Englishmen and Englishwomen. ‘It was an historic day,’ he confided to his diary.
Different story: The love affair of William's parents Charles and Diana was played out very differently
It was. It sounds so simple. And yet the seed of everything that has followed, right up to the marriage of William and Kate, is there.
Once the brides were English and pretty, the floodgates of schmalz opened.
They did most conspicuously in the case of William’s great-grandparents, the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), who were married in 1923.
The relationship was even on-off, since Elizabeth refused George’s first proposal.
After she had accepted his second, the media storm broke.
The newly-illustrated popular Press and women’s magazines featured endless photographs of the bride and her family. Her trousseau and clothes were scrutinised, as were the interiors of the couple’s new home at 145 Piccadilly.
If Kate really wants to know what lies ahead, she could do worse than flick through those yellowing cuttings. There was even the same interest in the choice of wedding venue.
In the Hanoverian centuries, and under the Stuart dynasty before that, Royal weddings were semi-private affairs. They were held, almost invariably, in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. The Chapel would be magnificently decorated, but nothing could disguise its mean interior.
The Royal revolution of 1917 changed this, too. A Royal wedding was now a national wedding. Everybody was interested and everybody – metaphorically at least – was invited.
Only one building was big enough or symbolic enough: Westminster Abbey. George VI and Elizabeth were married there, as were Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
But not even the Abbey was big enough for the expectations aroused by the marriage of Charles and Diana, and St Paul’s Cathedral (which has a capacity of 3,500 to Westminster Abbey's 2,000) was chosen instead.
The marriage of William’s parents, famously described as ‘a fairytale wedding’ by Archbishop Runcie in his sermon at St Paul’s, also illustrates the great problem of the settlement of 1917. The Monarchy was now a Family Monarchy, which presented itself as embodying the best of British family values.
So long as its leading members were able to embody those values – or at least to appear to – it was a source of huge strength. In particular, it enabled the Monarchy to appeal over the heads of the aristocracy, who had rarely attached much importance to marital fidelity, to the great mass of the respectable middle and working classes, who did.
And this, on the other hand, is why, when Charles and Diana’s fairy-tale marriage dissolved into a nightmare, the damage was so great, not simply to the couple and William and his brother Harry, but to the institution of Monarchy itself.
But times and values have changed, not least thanks to Diana herself. William, as his re-use of his mother’s engagement ring shows, is profoundly attached to Diana’s memory. And he seems to have found a kindred spirit in Kate. The result is that their relationship, in this regard at least, appears profoundly different from any previous Windsor couple.
There is not a trace of high romance or grand, Mills and Boon-style passion. Instead, it is pragmatic, remarkably equal, and based (so they have told us) on a shared sense of humour. It has also already lasted some eight years.
Despite this good, level-headed beginning, they will be under enormous pressure to turn into figures from a romance and become Prince Charming and Cinderella in Jimmy Choos. The Press wants it; the people want it; the world wants it.
It will be very difficult for them to resist. But it will be greatly to their advantage if they do. It will also be to ours since it will help us to admit that family values have indeed changed and that high romance and the workaday reality of marriage – even princely marriage – have very little to do with each other.
They will be under another pressure too: to put on a good show. This is because a People’s Monarchy is part of popular entertainment.
On the other hand, siren voices have been raised to tell them to cut back. Remember the recession, says one Gradgrind; away with flummery, demands another killjoy. This is very strange. The most ordinary couple try to make a bit of a splash with their wedding. How much more is expected of a Royal union?
For this is the real point. As Walter Bagehot pointed out long ago in his masterly analysis of the Victorian Monarchy, Royalty is interesting while republics are boring.
This is why that great republic, America, despite having got rid of George III, can’t get enough of the British Monarchy. ‘Kate and William are HUGE news here. Is anything else going on in the world?’, an American friend asked me.
Kate and William are now the latest stars of that great international circus. There are terrible dangers, as William knows only too well from his mother.
But, helped by Kate, he shows signs of having learned that he must do things a bit differently and pour the wine of new, more modest values into the old bottle of the Windsor Family Monarchy.
Let’s hope that it turns out to be champagne and doesn’t go flat too quickly!