She’s tall and graceful, with glossy dark hair and a beaming smile. She’s known for her taste in fashion, including the posh hats that British high society prefers. But despite her elegant bearing and movie star looks, the most remarkable thing about Kate Middleton—Prince William’s bride-to-be—might be how very normal she seems. She’s from a small village outside London. Her solidly middle-class parents (neither royal nor aristocratic) run a party-supply business. She’s known for her self-deprecating sense of humour. And now, the prototypical girl next door—and the first commoner in modern times to marry a future British king—is engaged to the most eligible bachelor alive.
It might sound like a fairy tale, but Prince William isn’t the only royal settling down with a so-called commoner. The fact is that royals just don’t marry royals anymore. In Europe, eight monarchies remain (10 if the statelets of Monaco and Liechtenstein are included), but the continent hasn’t seen an heir or king marry a princess since the 1960s, when Greek King Constantine II married Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, and Spain’s Prince Juan Carlos married Princess Sophia of Greece. These days, the royals often don’t even marry into the upper classes—instead, increasingly, they marry for love. While some argue it degrades the monarchy, others believe it makes out-of-touch royal families more accessible. And besides, what child doesn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a princess, or a prince?
Those who marry into royal families don’t just have to meet the in-laws; they need to endear themselves to the public, too. And, just like parents who believe nobody’s good enough for their son or daughter, the public can be picky; while the British people seem to have embraced Kate Middleton, others aren’t so lucky. Take Sweden, a famously egalitarian country, where eyebrows were raised when their Crown Princess Victoria wed Daniel Westling, her former fitness trainer and a gym owner, earlier this year.
Widely mocked for his country accent and scruffy appearance, Westling, who grew up in a village in central Sweden, met the princess at a gym. He underwent years of extensive polishing to prepare him for royal life, including language classes and a makeover. He received a title—he’s now “His Royal Highness Prince Daniel, duke of Västergötland”—and his own coat of arms. Even so, these efforts might not have been enough, at least in the eyes of some critics, who believed that a personal trainer just wasn’t prince material. Still, a gently self-mocking speech he gave following the wedding—in which he said that, before marrying the princess, he’d been “perhaps not a frog,” but “certainly not a prince”—won him some new fans.
Daniel Westling isn’t the only one to face a judgmental public protective of its royals. In 2001, Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon’s choice of spouse, the former waitress and single mother Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, had some people clucking their tongues. Before the wedding, Hoiby publicly apologized for her wild youth, admitting that, in the past, she’d “overstepped the limits.” (She had a four-year-old son by a man with a drug conviction.) Her heartfelt speech seemed to win her some support, much as Westling’s did: afterwards, an opinion poll showed that nearly 40 per cent had a better impression of Norway’s future queen, and 84 per cent thought she’d spoken honestly about her past.
Prince Haakon’s sister, Princess Märtha Louise, went through something similar a year later, when she married an author, Ari Behn. Again, people were critical, with Norwegian media dissing Behn as a party animal: one journalist called him “a bouncer’s nightmare.” Even so, there were no teary press conferences defending Behn’s reputation, but Princess Märtha Louise is known for sidestepping some traditions. After marrying, she kept her maiden name. (She would have been Mrs. Behn.) And earlier, she’d dropped the “royal highness” from her title, as well as her royal allowance.
More European monarchs are marrying commoners, divorcées and single parents, mirroring changes in the world at large. By contrast, the lavish wedding of Prince William’s own parents—whose 1981 nuptials were watched by over 750 million worldwide—look more like a relic of days gone by. Still, Prince Charles and Diana, princess of Wales, went on to divorce, and Charles eventually remarried, to Camilla Parker Bowles. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, another high-profile royal marriage, ended in divorce, and Princess Anne is a divorcée, too. In 2004, in deeply religious Spain, Crown Prince Felipe wed a divorced TV journalist, Letizia Ortiz, making her the first commoner in Spanish history to be in line to be queen. (The reception boasted a two-metre-high wedding cake and 1,000 bottles of champagne.)
Danish Crown Prince Frederik got hitched to Australian-born lawyer Mary Donaldson in 2004, after meeting her at the Sydney Olympics. And in 2008, Peter Phillips, the Queen’s eldest grandson, married Canadian management consultant Autumn Kelly. Even though British media described her as a “working-class girl from a suburban backwater of Canada,” Peter and his sister, Zara, might be the most famous “commoners” in the British royal family. Princess Anne refused titles for them, in order to give them as normal a life as possible. Phillips and Kelly, who hails from Montreal, are now expecting their first child.
Royal watchers are already calling Middleton the “people’s princess,” a moniker that most people would associate with Prince William’s much loved mother. Diana was claimed by regular people as one of their own, but her blood was a deep shade of blue: she had a title, and was descended from Stuart King Charles II. Middleton, by contrast, is upper middle class. The daughter of Michael and Carole, a former pilot and flight attendant, respectively, she’s the oldest of three kids, and grew up in the village of Bucklebury, where neighbours remain fiercely protective of her family’s privacy.
Even her courtship with William sounds remarkably mundane: the two met in university, and apparently broke up at least once, then reconciled. “They make a lovely couple, are great fun to be with and we’ve had lots of laughs together,” Michael Middleton said upon news of the engagement, sounding like any proud dad. “We wish them every happiness in the future.”