A Brief History of Royal Marriages

From shrewd political matches to ill-advised love affairs, bigamy to divorce to happily-ever-after, royal marriages in Britain have taken many forms. Here’s our look at some of the most notable that have taken place throughout the centuries.

1. Cnut, Ælfgifu of Northampton (1014) and Emma of Normandy (1017)

Cnut as depicted in a 14th century manuscript.

King Cnut – sometimes transliterated as Canute – was the first Danish king to rule over all of England. His first marriage, to Ælfgifu of Northampton, was fraught with political tension; Cnut’s father, King Sweyn of Denmark (known as Sweyn Forkbeard), had invaded Northumbria where Ælfgifu belonged to a prominent noble family. The marriage was intended to solidify his hold over the country, but it failed; Sweyn died not long after, enabling the King of England, Æthelred, to regain his land, and Ælfgifu and her young son by Cnut were sent to Denmark.
But Sweyn’s son and Ælfgifu’s husband, Cnut, took up his father’s claim to England and by 1016, following Æthelred’s death, had conquered all but the territory of Wessex. To be married to a Northumbrian noblewoman was no longer politically convenient. Æthelred’s widow, Queen Emma, became Cnut’s legal wife, while Ælfgifu was theoretically put aside; yet in practice, Cnut remained bigamously married to both, recognising his children by both women as his legal heirs.

2. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1152)

A romantic depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine; she was a popular subject for Pre-Raphaelite painters.

The union of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine was a turbulent one. Eleanor had married King Louis VII of France in 1137, aged 15, at which time she was considered one of the most eligible brides in Europe. 15 years later, their marriage was annulled, ostensibly on the grounds that they were related (though not closely – she was his third cousin once removed). Just eight weeks later, she married Henry II of England, establishing his claim over lands in France.
The marriage initially went well. They had eight children together, five sons and three daughters, and Henry placed a significant degree of trust in his wife, making the most of her political skills and treating her effectively as his co-ruler. But this trust broke down. In 1173, Henry faced the Great Revolt: a rebellion by his eldest sons and Eleanor against his rule. Henry suppressed the rebellion, but Eleanor was held under house arrest until his death.

3. Edward II and Isabella of France (1308)

Isabella of France shown directing the Siege of Bristol.

Isabella of France, later nicknamed the She-Wolf of France, was just 12 when she married Edward II, then already king aged 24. Edward II was more interested in men than women, and Isabella initially gained power by befriending his lover, Piers Gaveston. But Gaveston was murdered by powerful barons, and Isabella found herself at odds with Edward’s new lover, Hugh Despenser. Relations broke down between Edward and Isabella, and in 1325, Edward and Hugh Despenser had her lands confiscated, her household staff arrested, and her children taken away from her.
Isabella was not a woman to take such treatment lightly. She found herself a lover of her own, Roger Mortimer, and with him at her side, declared war on Edward, deposed him, and put the 14-year-old Edward III – Isabella and Edward II’s oldest son – on the throne in his place. Edward II was murdered, perhaps on Isabella’s orders. But Isabella and Roger Mortimer, the de facto rulers of England, were unpopular. When Edward III turned 17, he had Mortimer arrested for treason and executed. Isabella lived in luxury until her death 28 years later.

4. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (1486)

Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, shown with Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.

Not all royal marriages in the Middle Ages were turbulent and miserable. Henry VII had come to power as a usurper; his weak claim to the throne bolstered by victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. This was the final battle in the decades-long Wars of the Roses that had raged between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Henry was a Lancastrian; to shore up his claim to the throne and to broker peace, he married Elizabeth of York, niece of Richard III, within six months of the Battle of Bosworth.
A marriage between two people whose families had been locked in civil war for a generation could have been a disaster. Instead, it was a great success. Henry fell in love with Elizabeth, and was heartbroken when she died in childbirth in 1503. In 1505, he investigated marrying again, sending out a description of what he wanted in a bride that effectively described Elizabeth. In the end, he opted not to remarry at all.

5. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (1533)

Anne Boleyn painted by an unknown artist.

Henry VIII is famous for his six marriages. His first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, was initially successful by the standards of the time; she was pregnant seven times within their first ten years of marriage, though only one baby survived – the future Mary I. But by 1525, Henry was beginning to fall for one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Anne refused to become his mistress and insisted on becoming his wife instead. Henry was vexed by his lack of a male heir, blaming the fact that Catherine was his brother’s widow. He requested that the Pope annul their marriage, but was refused. Finally, Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and declared that he had the right to annul the marriage himself. He secretly married Anne in 1532, and formally in 1533.
Yet the marriage, which had caused so much pain, was not to last. By 1536, Anne had not yet had a son and Henry had become interested in Jane Seymour. He had Anne investigated for treason. She was tried and found guilty of a series of unconvincing charges of treason, incest and adultery, and beheaded. Henry married Jane Seymour just 11 days after Anne’s execution.

6. Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves (1540)

Anne of Cleves, as painted by Hans Holbein.

The marriage between Henry and Jane Seymour was happy but brief; Jane died from complications from childbirth eighteen months after the wedding, having given Henry the male heir he craved – the future Edward VI. Henry stayed unmarried for three years, but as a king with just one legitimate son, it made sense to remarry. Diplomatically, the Protestant Duke of Cleves was an important ally in case the Roman Catholic powers in Europe decided to attack England; Anne of Cleves was his 25-year-old sister. A portrait of Anne was painted by Hans Holbein, so Henry could assess her looks. They were then engaged without having met.
The way the story is usually told from here is that the portrait was too flattering, and when Henry met her in person, he was disappointed, saying, “She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported” and seeking to end the engagement. In reality, the portrait was probably accurate as Henry continued to favour Hans Holbein as a painter; the stumbling blocks instead were Henry’s growing attraction to the 17-year-old Catherine Howard, and his pivot away from full-blooded Protestantism, which made the Duke of Cleves a less convenient ally than he had previously been. Henry’s marriage to Anne had not been consummated, and was annulled on those grounds. Anne didn’t contest the annulment, and was given the title of the King’s Beloved Sister, as well as generous financial support. She remained in England as a powerful independent woman, and outlived Henry, Edward VI, and all of Henry’s other wives.

7. William III and Mary II (1677)

Mary painted by Jan Verkolje in 1685.

Though many royal couples in British history effectively ruled jointly, William and Mary were the first to do so officially. Mary was the daughter of James II, and William was her first cousin, the Stadtholder of Holland. Mary wept when told she was going to be married to William, but became a devoted wife. By the standards of the time, William seemed to have been equally devoted to her, having only one mistress during the course of their marriage.
Religious tensions were high in Europe in the 17th century; William and Mary were both Protestants, but James had converted to Catholicism in the 1660s. James became king on Charles II’s death in 1685, and faced rebellions almost immediately. His promotion of Catholicism in what had become a staunchly Anglican country only made matters worse. In 1688, matters came to a head. William began considering an invasion of England from April of that year; in June, prominent Protestant nobles formally invited him to come with an army to oust James II and defend the Anglican faith. Instead of facing the army, James fled to France, and William and Mary jointly assumed the throne.

8. Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1840)

Victoria and Albert with all nine of their children.

Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had been planned as a match for Victoria before she even became queen. The pair were formally introduced in 1836, when both were 17, and Victoria liked Albert much more than any of the other bachelors to whom she had been introduced, writing to her uncle, “He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has besides the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see.” Even once she became queen in 1838, as an unmarried woman her freedom was considerably constrained, and that encouraged her to marry. In 1839, she proposed to him, and they married four months later.
Marriage with Albert delighted Victoria. Her diary is full of rapturous praise for him. Though Victoria hated being pregnant and disliked babies, the couple had nine children in their 21 years together. But in 1861, disaster struck when Albert fell ill and died of typhoid. Victoria was disconsolate, avoided public occasions for the next five years, and wore mourning for the rest of her long life – she lived another forty years after Albert’s death.

9. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson (1937)

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson on holiday together,

Edward VIII met Wallis Simpson, an American socialite, before he became king and while she was still married to her first husband, Ernest Simpson, in 1930. The pair rapidly fell in love. Edward became king in 1935, and in the summer of 1936, they went on a cruise together. By autumn of the same year, Wallis Simpson divorced her husband, and Edward made it clear he intended to marry her.
The news caused an immediate scandal. Their affair had been reported internationally, but kept quiet in the British press. Remarriage after divorce was forbidden in the Church of England, and Edward, as king, was head of the Church as well – courtesy in part of his ancestor Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Edward had three options: he could choose not to marry Simpson, he could marry against the wishes of the British and Commonwealth governments, or he could abdicate. He wasn’t willing to leave Simpson or cause a constitutional crisis, so he chose abdication – to the horror of his family. The pair married in 1937, and were devoted to each other until Edward’s death.

10. Elizabeth II and Philip of Greece and Denmark (1947)

Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1953.

Anyone who has been watching the Netflix series The Crown knows about the marriage of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The two met several times as children; even at the age of 13, Elizabeth had fallen in love with him, and the two began to exchange letters. Their engagement was officially announced when she was 21 and he was 26. It was a controversial match: Philip was thought by many not to be good enough for Elizabeth, being a penniless foreigner who converted from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism in order to marry her. Her parents reportedly found him loud, boisterous and blunt.
But despite the misgivings of family, the marriage has endured more than 70 years. The Queen’s cousin said in 2012, “In Prince Philip she found her true love and the Queen has often acknowledged the tremendous support he has given to her – her ‘rock’.” And Lord Charteris, her former private secretary, gave an alternative into what makes their marriage work: “Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being. I think she values that. And it is not unknown for the Queen to tell the Duke to shut up.”
Image credit: CnutEleanor of Aquitaine; Isabella of FranceHenry VIIAnne BoleynAnne of ClevesMary IIVictoria and Albert; Edward and WallisElizabeth and Philip; Harry and Meghan