Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Marriages of Princes of Wales


Just now, when the royal marriage is so much the topic of the day, a little gossip, gathered in the byways of history, concerning some other “auspicious events” of the same kind, may not be out of place. These events, however, have been by no means so frequent as one might naturally suppose. The Registrar-General, whose matter-of-fact eye looks upon matrimony as one of the exact sciences, tells us that, when a man is in receipt of a comfortable income, he is pretty sure to marry. But this rule, which is sound enough in regard to Brown, Jones, and Robinson, does not seem to apply to princes of the blood. Of the fourteen Princes of Wales, known to English history, only five married while holding that title. The others, excepting, of course, those who died at a tender age, disported freely in l’école buissonnière, and only consented to range themselves, as a duty to society, when they came to the throne.

The most famous of all the Princes of Wales, Edward the Black Prince, the third of the order, was the first who married as a prince; and few events in English history have taken such a hold on the mind of the people. For centuries it was one of the most attractive tales that could be told at our English fire-sides; and there was no chap-book with which the pedlars drove a better trade than that which commemorated the loves of Edward and Joan. The popularity of the story was no doubt attributable to the fame of the hero, the nationality of the heroine, and, above all, to the union having been a genuine love-match.

When the Prince was “a hopeful young gentleman” of fourteen years of age, there had been some talk of a marriage between him and Margaret of Brabant, an innocent little prattler only four years old. But, somehow or other, the proposal came to nought, probably on account of some question of dower; certainly, we may presume, not because the affections of the lady were pre-engaged.

Afterwards, when the Prince had distinguished himself by his valour and prowess in the field, the daughters of the kings of France and Portugal were successively suggested as suitable brides. But these schemes fell through, too, and when Edward came home, in 1361, from vanquishing the French, and proving what wonders a gallant leader can achieve with a handful of trusty men, he was still a bachelor. It is a question, however, how far his heart was free.

Joan of Kent, the lady to whose charms he now surrendered, must have been known to him from boyhood, for she was a relation of his own, being a grandchild of the same King Edward, whose great-grandchild he himself was. Joan’s early life was somewhat chequered. Betrothed as a girl to the heir to the earldom of Salisbury, she had afterwards married Sir Thomas Holland. Notwithstanding this second alliance, the Earl claimed her as his wife; and the intervention of the Pope was required to decide, authoritatively, to whom the Fair Maid of Kent really belonged. The Pontiff very properly pronounced that the marriage which had been carried into effect was the true one. In 1361, Sir Thomas had just died, and Joan was a widow, with four bouncing “encumbrances.” At this critical period of her fortunes she was fair, fat, and not far off forty (being thirty-three years of age). The Prince of Wales was two years her junior, and, like Launcelot, was one of “the goodliest men that ever among ladies eat in hall.”

Such was the pair. “He,” says the magniloquent old chronicler, “the glory of his sex for military performances and all princely virtues; and she, the flower of hers, for a most surprising beauty.”

But here the chronicle and the chap-book are somewhat at issue. The former represents Joan as a knowing, out-spoken widow, the other as quite a “gushing young thing.” Barnes says that when the Prince first spoke to Joan about love, it was while advocating the suit of another. After several times declaring her indifference to the Prince’s friend, the lady plainly expressed her preference for the Prince’s self, by telling him “with some warmth how, when she was under ward, she had been disposed of by others, but that now being at years of discretion, and mistress of her own actions, she would not cast herself beneath her rank; but, remembering she was of the blood royal of England, was resolved never to marry again but a prince of quality and virtue—like himself.” This was plain and pointed, certainly. The Prince could not affect to misunderstand it, and, being “an admirer of every gallant spirit,” was so pleased with the lady’s courageous candour, that “presently he returns her compliment with an affectionate kiss, and from that instant resolved to be her servant.”

The chap-book[1] gives us a more romantic version of the wooing. On their return from Normandy, the King and Prince of Wales are entertained at a grand banquet at Dover. The Countess Joan is present, and the Prince, fascinated by her beauty, can scarcely withdraw his eyes from her for a moment. Afraid of offending his father by too open a manifestation of his passion, the Prince departs with the royal train, gives it the slip on the road, hurries back to Dover, and seeks a private interview with Joan, which she accords. In a “cool harbour,” he avows his affection, and the lovers plight troth together. Affairs of state call the Prince back to France, but he keeps up a correspondence (not, I fear, to be found in the Record-office) with his fair mistress, “who often bedewed her rosy cheeks for his absence.” The letter of the Prince which is given in the narrative is rather a vapid production for so heroical a personage, and looks as if, in the hurry of a campaign, he had helped himself to a leaf from the “Complete Letter Writer.” The lady’s epistle is equally common-place, merely urging the dear man to take care of himself, and to keep out of danger for her sake, which is just what one might expect Sukey the cook to say to Policeman X. during a garotting epidemic, when bidding adieu for the night on the area steps. Soon after the Prince comes home in triumph, and the King in a fit of good-nature accepts Joan as a daughter-in-law. Although no mention is made of it in this rosy legend, Joan was married to the Prince only three months after her first husband’s death, and in that and some other respects was by no means better than she should have been. The funeral baked meats did not, however, coldly furnish forth the wedding feast, for the nuptials were celebrated with great state and splendour at Windsor.

The next Prince of Wales who married was Edward of Westminster, son of Henry VI. There are some romantic, but rather apocryphal passages in the story of his courtship. It is said that when a fugitive with his mother in Paris, he met the Lady Ann Neville, daughter of Warwick the King-maker, then a little girl of about his own years; that the two playmates conceived a deep affection for each other which did not pass away with childhood; and that Edward, after his return to England, escaped from home, and crossed to Calais to have another interview with his sweetheart, much to the alarm of his mother, who thought he had been spirited away or murdered by some of the opposite faction. The young couple seem to have been very well content with each other; but there is no doubt that the match was made purely for political reasons and to cement the alliance between the powerful earl and the house of Lancaster. The wedding took place at Amboise.

The marriage of a lad of 16 to a girl of 17, in the first year of the sixteenth century exercised, indirectly, a momentous influence on the destinies of this country, and indeed of Europe—that was the union of Arthur of Winchester, eldest son of Henry VII., to Catharine of Aragon. The negotiations in regard to the alliance lasted for eight years, and the boy-prince had no sooner mastered the conjugation amo, than he began, with the help of his tutor, to indite love letters in precise, pedantic Latin to his little mistress, whom he never ventured to address more familiarly than as “most illustrious and excellent lady,” “your Highness,” and “your Excellency.” When at length the terms of the dowry and settlement had been agreed upon by the punctilious and exacting parents, the princess quitted the Alhambra in May to proceed to England, but, owing to stormy weather, did not reach her adopted country till early in the russet days of October.

It was in foggy November that she first saw the capital. The Princess’s attendants made at first a great fuss about allowing the Prince to speak to her, and only conceded an interview after much entreaty. As neither could speak the other’s language, the young pair had to discourse in Latin as best they could, with the intervention of bishops and learned doctors to help them over the sentences. In this way they managed to say very handsome things of each other; and then they plighted troth. A supper and a dance closed the evening; but Arthur seems to have been rather afraid of his intended, for he did not venture to dance with her, but led out his sister’s governess. The marriage itself was celebrated in St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the 12th November, at nine o’clock in the morning. The court, attended by the great dignitaries of the church in “pontificabilus,” and the city authorities, went by water from Westminster Palace to St. Paul’s. The cathedral was hung with arras, and a grand stage was erected for the chief performers in the drama. We are told that it took nineteen bishops and abbots, with the Archbishop of Canterbury at their head, to solemnise the marriage. The Prince and Princess were attired in pure white, and attended by a “great estate” of the first ladies and gentlemen in the land. There were two circumstances connected with the ceremony which were afterwards thought by many to be significant. In order “to do more honour to the said marriage” when the banns were put up, they were denied by a doctor of laws, specially appointed by the King to act as a sort of devil’s advocate; then another “famous doctour” was heard on the other side, and finally the Master of the Rolls gravely gave judgment in favour of the legitimacy of the marriage. The other incident was, that when the ceremony was over, the Duke of York (afterwards Henry VIII.), stepped forward and led off the bride, just as if she had been his own, the real bridegroom walking humbly behind. The rejoicings lasted for a fortnight, Sundays not excepted. During that period there was a continuous succession of magnificent masques, banquets, and tournaments, at which the Prince and Princess had to assist as spectators, and sometimes, too, as performers, for we hear of their dancing “bass dances” in Westminster Hall, to the great delectation of their Majesties and the court. Prince Arthur did not survive the marriage more than five months; but it was not till his brother Henry came to the throne that the Princess Catharine was united to him.

One of the most remarkable courting expeditions in which a prince of the blood ever engaged, was probably that which took Charles the First (when Prince of Wales) to Spain in 1623. Negotiations for a match between him and the Infanta had been going on for six years before: but, discontented with the delays of diplomacy, the ardent young Prince resolved to try the effect of a personal application. So Charles and Buckingham, under the names of John and Thomas Smith (not the last, if it was the first time that royalty assumed that illustrious nom de voyage), accompanied by a few gentlemen of the court and Archie Armstrong, the King’s fool, but, as has been justly said, “not the least sagacious member of the party,” set off for Madrid. The Prince was well received at the Spanish court, splendidly lodged, and superbly fêted: but little encouragement was given to his suit for the Infanta. At first he was allowed to see her only at a distance, “she wearing a blue riband about her arm, that the Prince might distinguish her, and as soon as she saw him her colour rose very high.” Afterwards he was permitted to speak with her, but only in the presence of others. He would watch for hours in the street to meet her. Once he leaped over the wall of a garden where she was walking, and would have addressed her, had not the old marquis who was in waiting thrown himself on his knees and solemnly protested that his head would be in danger if the Prince spoke a single word to his fair charge. In order to gain favour in the eyes of his mistress, Charles rode at the ring and distinguished himself in the tilting-ground “to the glory of his fortune and the great contentment both of himself and the lookers-on.” He also lavished presents on the Princess and the chief personages at the court. Jewels, over half a million in value, were consigned to Spain for this purpose. But, notwithstanding all the exertions of “Babie Charles” and “Steenie,” the love-mission did not prosper. The Spanish King was insincere, and the people both of Spain and England were against it on religious grounds. After six months’ philandering, the Prince bet the English ambassador at Madrid 1000l. against a “fair diamond” that in three weeks he would be out of the country, and won the wager. Prince Charles did not marry till after he was crowned.

The fourth Prince of Wales who, in that degree, entered the married state was Frederick, the eldest son of George II. His bride was Augusta of Saxe-Coburg, a pleasant, good-natured girl, if not very brilliant or beautiful. Lord Delaware brought her to Greenwich on the 25th of April (St. George’s Day), 1736. It was a Sunday when she arrived there, and only a few ladies and gentlemen of the court were in waiting to give her welcome. The citizens, however, turned out in large numbers, and greeted her with enthusiastic cheering. The Princess was lodged in the Queen’s House in the Park, where Prince Frederick came to pay his respects to her. The young couple dined and supped in public—that is, with the windows of the apartment open, so as to “oblige the curiosity of the people.” They also made an excursion up the river in a gaily decorated barge, amid salvos of artillery and musketry and the blowing of many horns. On the Monday she proceeded to St. James’s, being carried in a coach to Lambeth, in a boat across the river to Whitehall, and thence in a sedan-chair to St. James’s, where she was introduced to the King and Queen. Next day the marriage took place, after a state dinner, in the chapel of St. James’s. The bride was “in her hair,” and wore a crown with one bar as Princess of Wales. Her robe was a “virgin habit of silver,” over which was thrown a mantle of crimson velvet, bordered with row upon row of ermine, and with a train attached. The bridemaids, four in number, were also attired in dresses of silver tissue, and, like the Princess, were covered with a profusion of jewels. The booming of cannon announced to the world the completion of the ceremony. Immediately afterwards a drawing-room was held, at which the King and Queen gave the young couple their blessing, and at half-past ten there was a very jolly supper-party. Next followed the state reception in the bedroom. The bride and bridegroom, splendidly arrayed, the former one in superb lace, and the other in “silver stuff,” sat bolt upright in bed, while the King and Queen and lords and ladies in waiting filed past before them, offering their congratulations. His Majesty, we are told, wore a dress of gold brocade, turned up with silk, and embroidered with large flowers in silver and colours, with a waistcoat of the same, and buttons and star blazing with diamonds. Most of the peers were similarly dressed, it being worthy of note that nearly all the stuffs “were of the manufactures of England and in honour of our own artists.” Queen Caroline had on a plain yellow silk robe, with abundance of pearls and diamonds. This must have been among the last occasions when a bedroom reception was given. It soon after became a fashion of the past.

Of the last marriage of a Prince of Wales, when George IV. espoused Caroline of Brunswick, there is little to be said. The cold winter journey of the Princess to England, under the charge of Lord Malmesbury, who was always lecturing her on the untidiness of her dress and the freedom of her manners; her reception at Greenwich by her sneering rival, Lady Jersey; the silent ride to London, without a cheer from any one on the road; the mutual disappointment of the affianced pair at their first interview; the Prince’s demand for “A glass of brandy, Harris,” and his precipitate retreat; the Princess’s doleful exclamation, “Mon Dieu, qu’il est gros!” and the ill-omened nuptials, at which the bride was sulky and for which the bridegroom had fortified himself by somewhat too liberal libations—all these incidents combined to form a fit prelude to the unhappy drama which ensued.

It is pleasant to turn from this sad story to the marriage on which the hopes of the nation are just now fixed, which combines all the elements of happiness and all the omens of good, and which is, no doubt, destined to form one of the brightest episodes in the story of the wooings and weddings of the Princes of Wales.

J. H. Fyfe.

  1. “History of Edward the Black Prince, together with the Conquest of France.” Printed and sold in Aldermary Churchyard, Bow-yard. London. [No date.]