How royal alliances sustained diplomacy, gave birth to sickly successors

Royal families have frequently used marriage as a way of consolidating power and expanding their territorial influence

On October 26, Japanese Princess Mako formally relinquished her titles to marry Kei Komuro, a ‘commoner’ according to current succession laws in Japan. The marriage was soon subjected to sharp scrutiny and criticism, given that royals choosing regular people as their partners is still rare for most of the world. In fact, the norm was to use marriage as a tool for diplomacy and alliance building amongst royal families. While the practice is not as common as it was, history is littered with unions designed to consolidate power.

Marriage as a form of politics

In a report for the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, a collection of authors argue that in humans, “the most extreme cases of close inbreeding are frequently found in royal dynasties.” The practice is believed to have started with the Shang Dynasty in 1600 BCE and was favoured by the Egyptian pharaohs, the Roman emperors, and the Persian kings. Requiring royals to marry into royalty stems from the belief that so-called ‘royal blood’ is sacred and designated by God.

In a 1973 research paper on the politics of marriage, Patricia Flemming explains that traditionally illegitimate firstborns of a sovereign have no claim to the throne if their mother is a commoner. Flemming cites the example of Queen Victoria to make her point, noting that Victoria’s father had children older than her with his mistress, but because none of them possessed royal blood, they were not eligible for succession.

Flemming notes that this practice was mainly common among the royal classes and in a survey of royal marriages in Europe, finds that 30 per cent of royals married close kin compared to only 10 per cent of commoners.

This is because the factors behind royal marriages are unique. Flemming states that matches were determined based on a set of criteria ranging from the size of land owned, the stability of the state, equality of rank and religious affiliation. As commoners possessed little political influence and were typically less wealthy, their unions were based on caste and religious lines and were less regulated by their families. Commoners were also exempt from the factional, and at times, hostile politics that dominated relations between royal houses.

Flemming concludes that “royal marriages could be, and frequently were, the means of tying one family directly into a network of relationships with a number of other, often antagonistic, royal families.” However, she also notes that these practices were not always successful, suggesting that “royal marriage seems, as best, a rather unpredictable tool in the political arena.”

Royal marriage was and continues to be, a very popular choice for members of the nobility across the world. In Europe, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, the Bourbons of France and the British royal family, often married cousins. Napoleon as emperor, gave out kingdoms and female relatives to favoured marshals and general officers. In Korea, the Silla Kingdom had a practice that limited the succession of the throne to members with a ‘pure’ royal pedigree. In West Africa, the sons and daughters of Yoruba kings were frequently given out for marriage and in Southern Africa, marriages between the Swazi, Zulu and Thembu royal families were common.

Perhaps no example better represents the practice of inter-marriage better than that of the Spanish Habsburgs. Over the course of 200 years, a total of 11 marriages were conducted by the Hapsburg kings, with nine of them occurring between the degree of third cousin or closer. The process of maintaining diplomatic ties through marriage was so common that the Habsburgs had a famous motto attributed to their tactics, “Let others wage war. You, happy Austria, marry!”

More recently, Queen Victoria of England was assigned the moniker of the ‘Grandmother of Europe’ due to her frequent matchmaking. Victoria had nine children and 42 grandchildren, who, after her death in 1901, continued to rule over large parts of Europe. Even today, out of the 28 remaining monarchies, five are held by descendants of Victoria. The current Queen of England herself is related to Victoria, as is her late husband, Prince Phillip.

The photograph above speaks volumes on the impact Victoria had around Europe. Taken in 1910, at the state funeral of Victoria’s son, it is the only photograph featuring nine simultaneously reigning monarchs. There were supposed to be 10 monarchs, but the Tsar of Russia was unable to attend. All ten sovereigns were related to Victoria. In fact, during the outbreak of World War One, the three greatest powers in Europe, Germany, Russia, and England, were all ruled by grandchildren of Victoria with the German Kaiser once remarking that, if his grandmother were alive at the time, she never would have allowed the War to happen

In India

According to Preeti Prabhat, who wrote a book on marital alliances in India, “matrimonial alliances between royal families to further the power, prestige and influence were a prominent feature of politics in ancient India”. For the Mauryan kingdom, marriage alliances led to expansion and for the Satavahanas, it helped them to retain their independence. More pervasively, marriage alliances between the royal families of Manipur and Tripura were common beginning from antiquity and continuing into the 20 century. Akbar had a particular penchant for diplomacy through marriage and uniquely, allowed members of the Rajput dynasty to marry into his family while retaining their Hindu identity. As newer generations represented a mix of Rajput and Mughal blood, the two families became the strongest of allies with the Rajputs even fighting for the Mughal army during the latter’s conquest of Gujarat. However, Prabhat notes that marriage alliances also created “jealousies and rivalries” between family members and neighbouring kingdoms.

When marriage alliances failed, they often led to embarrassment and shame for the families involved. For example, in 1911 Indira Raje, daughter of the Gaekwad of Baroda, was engaged to the Maharaja of Gwalior, a union that would bind together two of the most powerful Maratha houses. However, soon after, Indira met the heir assumptive of Cooch Behar and made the bold move of writing to Gwalior, saying that the wedding was off. When her parents realised that she may run away and cause even more humiliation, they reluctantly signed off on her engagement and Indira ended up marrying the heir of Cooch Behar in a small civil ceremony in London.

Even today, marriages between royalty are common in India. After the abolishment of the monarchy, the heir of Jodhpur, Shivraj Singh, decided to stick to tradition and marry a princess from Uttarakhand. Additionally, the current maharaja of Gwalior, Jyotiraditya Scindia married the Priyadarshini Raje of Boroda.

Consequences of marriages within royalty

When a child is born, they contain a mix of genetic material from their parents. When the gene pool in two people are very similar, there is a higher chance that the child will inherit something dangerous. Inter-marriage often leads to reduced fertility in females, increased mortality of offspring, slower development rates in infants and increased chances of physical and mental disabilities. Haemophilia is also common, with it being so prevalent in the royal families of Europe that it was once known as the ‘royal disease.’

In ancient Egypt, inter-marriage was so common that children were often born severely disabled. One of the more famous pharaohs, Tutankhamun was so sickly that he suffered from numerous bodily deformities including necrosis and eventually died at the young age of 18. The last male of the Spanish Empire was infertile due to inbreeding and could barely speak or walk. Charles the Second, who had an inbreeding coefficient of 0.25, which is about the same as the offspring of two siblings, was consequently known as “El Hechizado’ or the bewitched. The Habsburgs were also infamous for their ‘Hapsburg Jaw,’ a condition where the lower jaw protrudes to such an extent that is significantly larger than the upper jaw. An analysis published by the Annals of Human Biology found that the distinctive Hapsburg jaw most resulted from inbreeding. According to another study by the University of Santiago, inbreeding likely diminished the Hapsburg children’s chance of survival by as much as 18 per cent.

Morganatic Marriage

Traditionally, for a royal family, morganatic marriage, or the marriage between a royal and a commoner, means that neither the bride nor any of her children can have a claim on the bridegroom’s succession rights. According to Max Radin, an American legal scholar, in Greece, they even had a term for illegitimate offspring known as epigamia. He writes that the concubine could not take her husband’s rank, and her children, while granted all legal rights, were lowest in terms of succession.

Moreover, if the commoner happens to be a foreign citizen, they often have to renounce their citizenship before marriage, as the American socialite Hope Cooke did when she married the prince of Sikkim in 1963. Also, once you become a member of the royal family, a commoner is expected to give up her career, as both Meghan Markle and Grace Kelly did when they married into the British and Monégasques royal families respectively. There have also been instances where commoners have been criticised for actions they committed in the past. For example, Princess Sophia of Sweden faced strong public criticism when she married the Prince of Sweden, over her participation in a reality show during her past career as a model.

Members of the royalty have also been forced to renounce their titles if they chose to marry a commoner. While this was usually done by royals low on the rank of succession, in one particularly extreme case, a sitting monarch was forced to abdicate the throne in order to marry the woman he loved. In 1936, King Edward of England informed his Prime Minister that he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite. However, because as king, Edward was the head of the Church of England, which did not recognise divorce, he was told that his union with Simpson was forbidden. The same year, he formally abdicated the throne, stating, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

More recently however, royals have increasingly chosen to marry for love and not duty. The integration of commoners into royal life has often been successful, as is the case with Kate Middleton, but at other times, like with Meghan Markle, the response has been less than positive.

One exception is Queen Raina of Jordan, a former Palestinian refugee, who went on to become a powerful icon of integration in the Arab world, fighting for women’s rights and youth education. Just a few generations ago, however, the situation was markedly different. Famously, Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, was prevented from marrying a divorced commoner. The Queen’s son, Charles, was treated  harshly by the press for his decision to marry Camilla Parker Bowles. It is said that the Queen reluctantly agreed to her son’s union but refused to attend the ceremony herself.

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