Unlike some observers of the duke and duchess of Cambridge, I am not, to borrow the easy grammar of a Globe and Mail columnist, “conflicted” by royalty. I’m often ambivalent about eating another chocolate biscuit and I certainly have conflicting feelings about whether to get another dog since my husband has said one more and he’s building a house for people, but a constitutional monarchy isn’t something that bothers me. As an organizing principle of society compared to religion or tribal rule it looks harmless.
Royalty may irritate some female columnists given the infernally good-looking crop of princesses these days, all of them young, size four and about six feet tall. As if it were not enough to be sporting about the stunning former Miss Kate Middleton, now we have the wincingly gorgeous South African champion swimmer Charlene Wittstock beaming next to new husband Prince Albert II of Monaco. I saw their wedding announcement in last Sunday’s New York Times.
The Monaco royal marriage did not get the featured spot in the Times’ wedding section, which is called “Vows” and is ever a gold mine of joyous moments in courtship. This week’s “Vows” was given over to Laura Hwang, a classical viola player and former cashier at Blue Apron Foods in Brooklyn who married Steve Rosenbush, a business writer. Steve had to spend up to $100 a visit getting to know Laura because obviously it’s tricky to chat up a cashier with an impatient lineup behind you. They were married by a Universal Life minister, an unfamiliar denomination but apparently used by almost every American Jewish person who marries a non-Jewish person.
The Times announcement of the Monaco wedding was formal, lacking romantic little moments about how when Albert saw her in a swimsuit he knew she was the right stuff and proper future mother of his children—unlike previous flings who have given him two illegitimate ones, possibly a third if DNA tests confirm. (This may have something to do with Charlene’s reported attempts to flee Monaco before the ceremony.) Instead, we had the bride saying she “felt a profound sense of destiny” on meeting Albert, which sounds like George Bush declaiming on a battleship, and Albert reciprocating with “I know the Monegasque population was waiting for this moment,” about as romantic as a BBC announcer covering a royal ship christening. Is this a marriage of convenience or not? At stake here is procreation: the Monegasque constitution requires legitimate heirs and Charlene is clearly the chosen broodmare just as Diana Spencer was for Prince Charles. The New York Times writers were clearly in a royal swoon as well: the Grimaldis are an old distinguished Genoese family who had a good sideline in piracy but had not, as the Times asserted, “held the throne of Monaco since 1297.” They didn’t get continuous control until the 15th century.
Broodmares have been important to both aristocracy and monarchy. It’s a sorry role that jewels may not alleviate. When love is actually part of the equation and sperm and egg either do not meet or produce an XX instead of an XY chromosome, it’s heartbreak. Love gets ruthlessly squashed, as with Princess Soraya of Iran, who got a marriage decorated with 1.5 tonnes of flowers but couldn’t give the shah a male heir. His tears and hers did however beget a French hit pop song, “Je veux pleurer comme Soraya.”
The Japanese monarchy had official concubines to solve matters—far kinder than Henry VIII’s off-with-their-head approach. The concubine became a litmus test of who was to blame for the barren marriage bed: not one concubine pregnant and clearly the emperor’s bits were wonky. That allowed for a backup called a princely “collateral” family to produce heirs. When concubines and collateral families disappeared from Japan, the old pressures returned. In 2004, Harvard-educated Japanese Crown Princess Masako, then 41, under pressure to produce a male heir, was smitten with an “adjustment disorder.”
During Europe’s early Renaissance, mistresses and bastards were all part of the family, giving lots of good candidates to inherit the title. This flexibility led to some odd situations in the various succession battles. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the House of Este (that later produced the Hanoverian line of British monarchs) was ruled for 150 years by only illegitimate princes, causing Pope Pius II to quip, “It is an extraordinary thing about that family…the sons of their mistresses have been so much more fortunate than those of their wives.” This cozy solution was eroded as the Church’s ability to legitimize heirs was sharply reduced. Gossipy historian John Julius Norwich, who knows absolutely everything about anyone in Venice, remarks on the 100 years from 1675 to 1775 in which, out of Venice’s 14 doges, only four ever married. By the 18th century, 66 per cent of Venetian male aristocrats were single, which probably accounts for the large number of courtesans working the canals. This increased bachelorhood was a pecuniary calculation—keep the money in the family by allowing only one son to marry—a mercenary variant on China’s one-child policy. Tough on Venetian upper-class females who, given the husband deficit, had no choice but to get to a nunnery.
Only this week, the duchess of Cambridge mentioned that she hoped to have a family, which got the British press in an uproar over “broody Kate.” If she can put on a bit of weight and avoid amenorrhea (at the nasty expense of going up dress sizes), she’ll probably have no problem conceiving. Of course, the British monarchy has always adapted to circumstance, whether by importing foreign monarchs or discarding infertile ones. If necessary, I wouldn’t be surprised if they extended the broodmare concept to embrace surrogate motherhood. Whatever works. Lotsa luck Kate. Enjoy those bandage dresses while you can.