Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Royal espousals




Ninety years ago, the people of England, from the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury down to the ploughboy and scullion maid, had their heads as full of royal marriages as ours can be to-day. It was the year (1772) of the strongest national excitement about royal marriage that had been known in England since the days of the Tudors. King George III. had known what it was to love, and to be crossed in love by the vigilance of the guardians of royal youth. He had been deeply smitten by the charms of Lady Sarah Lennox, afterwards the mother of the knightly group of Napiers: but his disappointment in being forbidden to prosecute his suit did not soften his heart towards his brothers, but rather caused a reaction of temper, as if he was bent upon not allowing other princes the freedom of which he had been deprived. This reaction carried him further still; and he obtained from Parliament powers which should never have been granted, and should have been long ago abolished.

He was then five-and-thirty, and had half-a-dozen children; so that there was no danger about the succession; yet he required that his brothers, long ago marriageable, should please him in their choice of wives, before thinking of themselves. The Duke of Cumberland had married Mrs. Horton, a daughter of Lord Carhampton, and the Duke of Gloucester was known to have been for several years the husband of Lady Waldegrave, the daughter of Sir Edward Walpole, and to have two daughters living. The Queen’s German passion for immaculate royal quarterings had a good deal to do with the King’s passionate pursuit of his object. His strong self-will was roused; and in 1772 he required of Parliament the passage of a Bill which is the disgrace of our statute-book at this day. Lords Camden and Rockingham, Burke, and most of the chief statesmen of the day opposed it with their whole force; but the Bill was carried with a high hand.

I have just been reading (in the “Annual Register” for the year 1772) the Protests of nine of the peers in one group, and six in another; and it certainly seems to me that those Protests should be studied from generation to generation till the Royal Marriage Act is repealed. The two chief grounds of protest were that the Act violates the great laws of Nature, in the first place, and constitutional principle in the next. It was called from the beginning an “Act for the Encouragement of Royal Vice and Immorality;” and there was no less objection to the unconstitutional powers which it gave to the Sovereign first, and to Parliament afterwards, by which the succession was endangered, and every preparation was made for future discord and disorder. The Act comprehended all the descendants of George II., except the offspring of princesses married to foreign potentates; and, as there were then thirty thousand persons in England, from the peer to the chimney-sweep, who had royal blood in their veins, this law gave the Sovereign power over the domestic destiny of an incalculable and ever-increasing number of his subjects. It was declared to be a radical vice in the law that it imposed no restraint on the marriage of the reigning Sovereign, or of any Regent who should have reached the age of twenty-one. It was declared monstrous that Royal princes should not be of age, in regard to marriage, till twenty-five; and that then they must depend on Parliament for permission to marry, and must wait a full year from the time of petitioning, for the chance of a prohibition by the legislature. Every effort was made to obstruct the passage of the law: the records of the Peers were ransacked: the Judges were invoked: all the forms of both Houses were made use of to obtain delay; but the King put forth his resources also; and by moral and political violence, the Bill was carried in six weeks. At the conclusion of the protest of the nine lords, they claim to be for ever regarded as free from responsibility for the disorders and sorrows which could not but arise from the operation of such a law. Some of them lived to witness what they had foretold; but the King and Queen themselves had to endure the worst of the retribution, in the spectacle of the corruption and blight which they had inflicted on their own children.

Half a year after the passage of the Act, it became necessary to acknowledge the marriage of the Duke of Gloucester, which had taken place five years before. It was done with the worst possible grace; and by this impolicy the public sympathy was directed full upon the pair who had done nothing wrong, but who would have been made to suffer less if their connection had been illicit. A son was born to them four years later; and he was not only made to feel that the shadow of Royal displeasure hung about his existence, but was doomed to have his domestic happiness delayed for twenty of the best years of his life by this cruel law.

It is not necessary to dwell upon the sins and sorrows of the many children of George III. It will never be forgotten that their family history presented a succession of scandals such as could never have happened if marriage had been within their reach as it is with all other young men and maidens. It has long been known that all the daughters, as well as the sons, were married in one way or another; and there is no more affecting story, in the whole family history, than that of the disclosure to the king, by his dying daughter Amelia, his favourite child, of her long-standing marriage,—by the shock of which his tottering reason was upset. One daughter—one of the most amiable and dutiful, and the most distinguished of all for the perfection of her manners,—the Princess Mary,—waited through long years of deferred hope, and saw the spring and summer of her life pass away before she married at last the object of her affection. Her lover did not fail her. He was steady in his attachment from his youth up; and if they had been but a little older, all would have been happy with them. But they were only one-and-twenty when the Princess Charlotte was born: and, as it was soon evident that the Prince Regent would have no male heir, unless his estranged wife died, the cruel law came in to forbid the marriage of the Duke of Gloucester. The King had first precluded his heir from pleasing himself in marriage, and had thereby driven him to an illegal union with the lady whom society, and finally William IV. acknowledged as his wife; he had then made a marriage for him with his cousin whom he never could endure; and then, when the unhappy pair were separated, he prevented his daughter Mary from marrying her lover, because the Duke of Gloucester must be kept single, in order to marry the Princess Charlotte, in case of the failure of any sufficiently desirable Continental connection. Old gentlemen and ladies of my standing can well remember the vividness of the interest when the time came at last for feeling some hope and comfort in the prospect of domestic life for an English princess. The sympathy of the whole nation was with the Princess Charlotte in her early troubles. Her admirers were noted and watched by every one of us, as if we had a personal interest in her; yet we had some sympathy left too for the Princess Mary, who had waited while her niece was growing up, and who now hung on the chances of her niece’s marriage for the happiness or the doom of the rest of her life.

In 1814, the Prince of Orange was here; and presently his father announced to the world that he was to marry the Princess Charlotte. For a little while the Princess Mary looked bright, and as if, at eight-and-thirty, she was renewing her youth. But the Prince of Orange went away—not to return; and she drooped. We wondered afterwards how much she knew of the young soldier—the obscure young German prince who had been here with the Allied Sovereigns, and who was not forgotten by the Princess Charlotte when he had departed. Within two years we had the pleasure of witnessing a royal love-match—a marriage which gratified the domestic heart of England: and not one only, but two. I was a young reader of newspapers then; but I remember the emotion caused by two lines of the narrative of the wedding. When the young bride was passing to her carriage on that May evening, after the ceremony, she was met and embraced at the foot of the grand staircase at Carlton House by the Princess Mary, bathed in tears. Everybody knew then what to expect; and in a few weeks—in July—the sober couple were married.

There was then a long abeyance of that sort of interest. It was nearly a quarter of a century before there was another royal marriage which could excite national sympathy. The state-marriages which took place after the death of the Princess Charlotte had little interest for the heartsick and mourning nation. They were all entered upon with a view to the succession; and they appealed to political judgment, and not to natural feeling. When the matter of the succession was clear, those who knew the story of the reigns of the two last Georges began to hope that the time was at hand when the fearful Royal Marriage Act would be repealed. When the Princess Victoria became Queen seemed to be the time for action.

There were none left of the old generation who could be in anyway affected by such a repeal; and the thing might be best done before a new generation grew up. The Sovereign was under no restriction from it; and the State had nothing to fear from her two or three cousins. The thing was not done, however; and it is not done yet. Our Royal marriages for nearly half a century have been so unlike those wretched arbitrary alliances of the old King’s time, that the nation has nearly lost the sense of the moral evil and political danger involved in that law: and it may be that trouble may not again arise from it: but nobody can be sure that it will not; and we should have been more secure, and the royalty of England would have been more dignified in all eyes, if we had used our opportunity to rid ourselves of a law suitable only to a long past condition of society.

Since it was enacted, a new view has been opened to us in another direction. We know more than our fathers did of the facts and rationale of human life and health. We understand better than they did the consequences of marriages of consanguinity, and can see how entirely indefensible is any law which restricts the choice in marriage within a narrow field of dynastic connection. Nothing can be more fatal to the stability of thrones and the prospects of nations, in regard to combined order and freedom, than a continuance of the practice of intermarriage between a few families; and, unless the palaces of Europe are to be filled with mere dregs of royal races,—with the halt and the blind, and the deaf and the idiotic,—there must be that obedience to natural laws in Royal marriages which old King George’s home-made law insolently violates. If order is to be preserved throughout Europe, the princes of Europe must be wise and strong, in mind and body: and if freedom is to live and grow, there can be no such close dynastic connection allowed as would be the result of the king-made marriages which George III. and his Queen insisted upon, as a proper field of regal function and prerogative. We know more than they did of the necessity of new blood to sustain both the physical and moral strength of European royalty; and we regard more than they did the political prospects of rulers and of peoples, which are never so dark as when the smallest number of families engrosses the largest amount of the control of nations. If we have among us sufficient political philosophy to apprehend these truths, we shall not forget that the Royal Marriage Act of George III. is still on the Statute book.

It is no reason for carelessness about this fact that we have had no occasion to trouble ourselves about the law in the present reign. It had no bearing, as I have said, on the Queen’s own choice: and the marriages of her two eldest daughters have thoroughly satisfied us all. After the dreary matrimonial proceedings of the elder generation, the rational happiness of our Royal household has been a refreshment to the heart and conscience of the nation. It seems but the other day that the citizens were speaking to one another of the comfort to us all of our young Queen having a real home, and an equal companion,—a good man to repose her faith on,—an intelligent friend to counsel her,—a cultivated man to fill her opening mind, and to give her the privilege of revering and deferring, like other young wives. The public anxieties then arising made us rejoice all the more in the marriage; and though we were far from anticipating what we might one day think of Prince Albert, we felt that there was no drawback but that of consanguinity. Now that their daughters have risen up to claim our sympathy as brides, the feeling of national satisfaction is, as far as I know, absolutely unmixed. We are glad that the Princess Alice is not quite so young as her sister was: but we had not an objection to make when the Princess Royal appeared before us,—so sensible and quiet, while so happy,—so unaffected in the enjoyment of a blissful first love which all the old folks in the kingdom enjoyed with her. We were all anxious to be certain that her Prince fully understood the worth of his prize; and I believe we had no misgivings whatever after the delightful outpourings of frank confidence and joyful emotion on his arrival for his wedding, which made a friendship at once between the Crown Prince of Prussia and all who cherished England’s Eldest Daughter,—that young creature to be so called!

It would have surprised us then to be told that we should feel far more deeply and more strongly upon occasion of the marriage of the second daughter. We should have thought it impossible; yet, unless I am much mistaken, so it is. Many influences have combined to create a singular emotion in us towards the Princess Alice. From the time when we first heard of any distinctive traits of character in her, we have been aware of a great general superiority,—a strength, both of heart and head, an energy and devotedness, belonging only to a high nature; and a strong and severe discipline of circumstances has brought out all this power, so as to make it clear to all eyes.

First, we thought of her as very happy in her young love,—her parents being so happy in it, with and for her. We take her Prince upon trust, with all confidence and pleasure, because of her wise father’s satisfaction with his intended son-in-law. Then, when the engagement had already lasted long enough to show a wise precaution against a too early marriage, began the sad series of postponements which must have tried that young heart very sorely. Little may have been said about that result of the Queen’s afflictions in the loss of her mother and her husband; but it has not been the less felt. There has been hearty sympathy with the Prince of Hesse and his betrothed, while the expression of sorrow has been naturally loudest in regard to the bereaved Queen. It was really a general comfort when it was found that the marriage was to take place privately during the year of mourning. The devotedness of the daughter was, it appeared, to be repaid by the self-denial of the mother; and the consequence is that that quiet wedding at Osborne—quieter than the middle-class weddings of every day—is hailed with a deeper emotion than even those espousals of the Princess Royal which were a brilliant national festival.

The bride of this week is greeted by a homage as hearty as the nation’s sympathy. It is not often that a young creature has occasion or opportunity to show such qualities as command the highest respect while winning admiration and love. The Princess Alice has, in one word, always been equal to every occasion, under trials singularly severe for one so young, and not the eldest of the family. Power, heart, conscience, and judgment have all sufficed for her needs, and for those of her parents, in their hour of dependence upon her. Therefore it is that when we have said, “Poor Prince Louis! how very hard are these disappointments for him!” we have added, “But they show him what a treasure it is that he is waiting for.”

And now the waiting is over. There were anxieties and doubts to the last, from the visitations of sickness and death on every side. Whatever might have happened, everybody hoped that the young people would be sanctioned in making their grave and simple marriage; and now that it is done, they will be at rest in each other—strong enough to bear, or free to enjoy, whatever may betide in that human fate of whose uncertainty they have had such strong admonition. They have all the world for well-wishers; and they are really making a whole people happy (and perhaps the oldest most) by the proof that a Royal marriage may be as natural and single-hearted, and therefore as holy and as safe, as any in that temperate zone of social life in which all natural ordinances are supposed to work most perfectly. The nation’s blessing is upon them.

From the Mountain.