When royals marry ‘commoners’: a brief history

On Saturday 19 May Prince Harry will wed the American actress Meghan Markle, in a marriage described by some as "groundbreaking". But the Suits star isn’t the first ‘commoner’ to marry into the royal family. Here, historian Helen Carr considers other instances in history when royals have married outside of ‘blue blood’…

Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV

In England in 1465, there was a coronation of a new queen. The young king had recently ascended the throne, bringing peace in time a war, and promised a reign of glory and prosperity to the English people. He was nicknamed the “Sun of York” and the future looked hopeful. His new queen was an English woman, exceptionally attractive and certainly appeared the part of queen. She was however, a commoner, a widow with two sons, and her previous husband was a traitor. Her name was Elizabeth Woodville.

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The future Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace following their wedding, 20 November 1947. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For centuries, there have been certain members of the monarchy who have married for love, despite their choices not being conventional. Since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement, many have commented that this union is, in some way or another, changing history, and according to Time magazine, the union is “groundbreaking”. Meghan Markle is admittedly not the traditional choice for Prince Harry; she does not come close to English aristocracy, she is American, mixed race and had a Catholic education. However, this non-conformist choice of royal wife is not a new one. Arguably ground has been broken on this subject centuries before, even before Elizabeth Woodville tempted the gregarious and hot-headed Edward IV into matrimony.

 

John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford

In 1396, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, third surviving son of Edward III and the wealthiest magnate in England, chose to marry his children’s governess, Katherine Swynford. Katherine was a widow and had previously been the wife of one of his retainers, Hugh Swynford. Katherine’s mother remains unknown and her father was a herald called Paon de Roet, from the Belgian province of Hainault. Katherine grew up in a small nunnery on the island of Sheppey in Kent, before she was placed at court in the household of Queen Philippa of Hainault with her sister Philippa.

A portrait of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster.
In 1396, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, third surviving son of Edward III and the wealthiest magnate in England, chose to marry his children’s governess, Katherine Swynford. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Her background was far from noble, but at a young age, around 16, she made an advantageous marriage to Hugh Swynford, a knight from Kettlethorpe Manor who was part of the Lancastrian Retinue and fought for Edward III during the HundredYears’ War. Katherine had two, possibly three children by Hugh Swynford, and subsequently became attached to the Lancastrian household through her role as governess to John of Gaunt’s two daughters with his first wife Blanche of Lancaster – Philippa and Elizabeth. The relationship between Katherine and the royal family must have been close, for Katherine’s own daughter was named Blanche after the duchess, and John of Gaunt stood as the child’s godfather. Blanche of Lancaster died in 1368, at which point John of Gaunt and Katherine embarked on a long-term love affair, quite possibly even before the death of her own husband Hugh Swynford in 1371. Katherine remained John of Gaunt’s mistress throughout his second marriage to the Infanta Constance of Castile, and gave birth to four of his children. As a woman of little social significance, of low birth and a widow, Katherine eventually became John of Gaunt’s third wife, after a decades-long romance. Their children were legitimised under the name ‘Beaufort’, and the Beauforts went on to found the most famous dynasty in British history: the Tudors.

 

Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

During the Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth Woodville allegedly attracted Edward IV for the first time by waiting for him under an oak tree in Whittlebury Forest. She was desperate; left a widow during the war, she intended to beg Edward IV for her marital lands and the lost inheritance for her two sons. As legend relates, Edward fell in love with her and was determined to make her his queen, despite the controversy and outrage this would cause. Elizabeth was not only far from royalty, her father being only a knight, she was a woman whose husband had died fighting for the Lancastrian cause, and whose family were also previously loyal to Henry VI. Needless to say, she was not the obvious choice for a bride for the young king of England, bringing with her to the new royal family: two sons, whose father was a Lancastrian patriot. They married in secret at Groby Chapel, with the attendance of her mother Jacquetta, Countess Rivers, and two ladies. It was possible that the marriage was a hoax meant only to seduce Elizabeth; however, Edward proved true to his word and in 1465 she was crowned queen, to the disgust of the Royal Council.

An illustration of Elizabeth Woodville with Edward IV, c1464.
An illustration of the widowed Elizabeth Woodville begging Edward IV for her marital lands. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

 

Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor

Edward IV was not only male royalty who chose their spouse for love. Catherine of Valois was the French wife of Henry V, and it was their alliance which secured Henry his desire to be named heir to the French throne through the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Henry contracted dysentery in 1422 and died, leaving Catherine a young widow with an infant son. Catherine was still young and as a dowager queen; she was in an incredibly powerful position and would have been a desirable wife for any nobleman. However, after having little choice in her previous marriage, Catherine decided to take the matter into her own hands.

Catherine of Valois
As a young dowager queen, Catherine of Valois was in an incredibly powerful position and chose to marry Welshman Owen Tudor. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Owen Tudor was a Welshman, previously employed by Henry V’s steward Sir Walter Hungerford. and later became part of the infant Henry VI’s household. Catherine, possibly attracted to Owen Tudor at this stage, employed him into her service as her Clerk of the Wardrobe, and so their love affair began. When Owen Tudor was in her service at Windsor Castle, she became pregnant. The couple left court and likely married, although there is no contractual evidence of this. They had three sons, Edmund, Jasper and Owen, and a daughter, Margaret. They remained together until Catherine’s death in 1437. Despite all odds, a queen married a clerk and, even in the 15th century, they lived together in relative peace, and through their union, a new royal dynasty was born: the Tudors.

These examples are only a few in the grand scope of historical royal matrimony. In the 16th century, Henry VIII defied the pope and reformed the church in a bid to marry the woman he loved, Anne Boleyn. In the 17th century, Charles II’s brother James entered into a private marriage contract with Lady Anne Hyde. In the 20th century, Edward VIII famously abdicated the throne in order to marry the love of his life, Wallis Simpson, saying: “She promised to bring into my life something that wasnt there.” Wallis Simpson was an American divorcee whom he had fallen in love with several years before. A constitutional crisis arose when he refused to give her up and it later became one of the most controversial unions in British history.  

The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson at their marriage
The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson at their marriage in June 1937. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

England’s most famous dynasty, the Tudors, was forged on both sides with the uncompromising love between a royal and ‘commoner’. It’s a dynasty which we, as a nation, are proud of. Katherine Swynford and Owen Tudor were not English, and Elizabeth Woodville brought two sons with her into her marital union with Edward IV, but they were absorbed into the royal family nonetheless, and have played a crucial role in our history. With this in mind, the union between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle should not be considered controversial or ‘groundbreaking’; it is simply another example of a member of the royal family exercising choice, and this should be something else to make us, as a historic nation, proud.

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Helen Carr is a cultural historian, writer and presenter.