Here she explores troublesome royal in-laws through history – from the murderous Woodvilles to the meddling mother-in-law Queen Victoria…
Prince Harry’s bride, the American actress Meghan Markle, earlier this year married into one of the world’s most famous families. Yet it is her family – namely her father, Thomas – who has been the subject of intense press interest. First there were the paparazzi shots of him getting fitted for a suit for the wedding, then his absence from the big day due to poor health; a few ill-advised comments about his new son-in-law’s thoughts on Donald Trump; and now rumours that he is about to launch a new clothing line. All potentially embarrassing for the newlyweds. But Prince Harry can take comfort from other royal in-laws through history…
Take William the Conqueror, for example. When he married Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, in around 1050, he must have thought he had won the lottery. Flanders was one of the richest and most strategically important duchies in Europe, and therefore a powerful ally to his native Normandy. But while Matilda proved an excellent wife, bearing him at least nine children to bolster his dynasty, her father left something to be desired. When William began preparing to invade England in 1066, confident that he could rely upon Count Baldwin’s considerable military might, his father-in-law proved so slow to assist that he – literally – missed the boat.
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Fast-forward 400 years and we have another embarrassing set of in-laws: the Woodvilles. Prince Harry resembles the popular Yorkist king, Edward IV, in more ways than one. Tall, athletic and with a restless energy, Edward was gregarious and charismatic. And, like Harry, he chose a commoner as his bride and married her after a whirlwind romance. But he soon found that the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville came with a set of not inconsiderable baggage in the form of her ambitious parents and siblings, as well as her sons from her first marriage. Before long, Edward’s entire court was staffed with Woodvilles. Her sisters, meanwhile, were married into the most notable families in England. Although Edward himself, besotted with his new wife, was content to promote her relatives in this way, it sparked a great deal of jealousy and resentment among his other courtiers, especially Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the so-called ‘Kingmaker’), who soon began plotting to oust them.
Elizabeth Woodville had some cause for complaint about her in-laws, too. Her brother-in-law George, Duke of Clarence, conspired with Warwick to have her mother accused of witchcraft. Then, when her husband the king died, leaving his throne to their 12-year-old son Edward [Edward V], her other brother-in-law, Richard of Gloucester [the future Richard III], seized it for himself and took both Edward and his younger brother Richard to the Tower [of London]. The boys – aka the ‘princes in the Tower’ – disappeared soon afterwards. Richard also had Elizabeth’s son Richard Grey and brother Anthony arrested and executed on charges of treason.
Elizabeth’s eldest daughter and namesake went on to marry Henry VII, the first Tudor to rule England. This Elizabeth also had in-law trouble, in the shape of her husband’s indomitable mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Intensely pious and fiercely ambitious, Margaret had spent many years conspiring to put her cherished only son on the throne. When her dream was finally realised and Henry was proclaimed king after triumphing at the battle of Bosworth in August 1485, she was transported with joy.
But it soon became clear that Margaret’s efforts on her son’s behalf had not been entirely selfless and that she intended to take a generous slice of power for herself. She made sure that everyone referred to her as ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ and she changed her signature to ‘Margaret R.’ – the ‘R’ may have stood for Regina (Queen). When her son married Elizabeth of York [in 1486], Margaret had no intention of ceding authority or precedence to the new queen consort. She wore robes that were the same quality as her daughter-in-law and walked only half a pace behind her in courtly processions. Elizabeth could not look to her husband for support: he was utterly in thrall to his mother and consulted her on all matters. Being queen of England had come at a high price: the mother-in-law from hell.
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Another rapacious set of in-laws came to prominence during the reign of Henry and Elizabeth’s son, Henry VIII. When the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to give him a son, he began to look elsewhere – and his lustful gaze soon alighted upon Anne Boleyn. He already knew her father, Thomas, an ambitious courtier who was gradually working his way through the ranks. Noticing the king’s interest in his daughter, Thomas began conspiring to put her on the throne. He was supported by Anne’s brother, George, who also had an eye to personal gain. Beguiled by Anne’s charms and manipulated by her ambitious relatives, Henry VIII resolved to marry her at any cost.
- The lost heirs of Henry VIII: Alison Weir on Catherine of Aragon’s failed pregnancies
- Henry VIII’s six wives in a different light
- 11 facts about Anne Boleyn
This cost proved high indeed. When the pope would not sanction an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, the king broke from Rome and sparked one of the most turbulent periods in our history, the Reformation.
Henry’s in-laws had done very well out of it all, though. Even before he married Anne, the king had made his future father-in-law Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond; her brother George, meanwhile, was created Viscount Rochford. Soon it seemed that the entire court was in thrall to the Boleyns. But when Anne, like her predecessor, failed to bear Henry a son, the writing was on the wall. She was eventually convicted on trumped-up charges of adultery with five men, including her own brother George, who was executed in May 1536 two days before his sister. Although Henry spared the life of his father-in-law, Thomas was stripped of most of his titles and privileges and retired to a life of relative obscurity.
Two centuries later, the Hanoverians produced a fair few troublesome in-laws themselves, as Princess Augusta found to her cost when she married into this most dysfunctional of families in 1736.
Her groom was Prince Frederick, eldest son and heir of King George II. To say that Frederick did not get on with his parents would be an understatement. They had left him behind in Hanover when travelling to England with George II’s father, George I, to claim the throne in 1714 and had been less than welcoming when he had finally joined them 14 years later. His arrival was greeted with none of the ceremony that would be expected for a royal prince, and instead he was obliged to enter St James’s Palace by the back stairs. His father the king proceeded to ignore him at court gatherings, passing by him as if he were a “ghost”. His mother Caroline, meanwhile, once remarked that her son made her want to vomit.
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Things hardly improved after Frederick’s marriage to Augusta. She fell pregnant a few months after the wedding [which took place on 27 April 1736], but her husband only informed his parents in June 1737. He also lied about the due date, telling them it was October, when it was fact much earlier.
Augusta went into labour in July 1737 while she and the prince were staying at Hampton Court. Determined that his parents should not be present for the birth, Frederick bundled his labouring wife into a carriage and raced over to St James’s Palace. Poor Augusta was forced to endure the 13-mile journey while being jolted all the way and suffering labour pains. But by the time they reached St James’s, her mother-in-law had heard the news and set off in hot pursuit. Upon arriving at St James’s, she noted with barely concealed glee that her daughter-in-law had given birth to a “poor, ugly little she-mouse” rather than a “large, fat, healthy boy”.
Queen Victoria was hardly a more supportive mother-in-law. Although she had engineered the match between her eldest son, Albert (‘Bertie’, the future Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, she had second thoughts before the wedding took place in 1863. This was on account of the fact that most of her relations were German, and Denmark was then at loggerheads with Germany over some disputed territories.
But the marriage went ahead on 10 March 1863 in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, now famous for being the venue for Harry and Meghan’s wedding. The queen attended the ceremony in full mourning dress (her husband, Albert, had died some 15 months earlier, in December 1861) and she refused to set aside her widow’s garb even for the day. Although Bertie and Alexandra were happy, Victoria still had misgivings about the match and was particularly disapproving of the couple’s socialite lifestyle. She proceeded to dictate to them on various matters, even down to the names that they should give their children.
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The Queen was no less meddlesome with her other eight children. When her beloved daughter Louise married John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne, in March 1871, the couple escaped Victoria’s clutches for a four-day honeymoon at Claremont in Surrey. But even then, the groom’s new mother-in-law couldn’t leave them alone. She paid them a surprise visit, giving the excuse that she was curious to hear her daughter’s views on married life. The couple had been happy at first, but they gradually grew apart – thanks in no small part to Victoria’s continued interference.
Compared to historical in-laws such as these, Thomas Markle’s new clothing range and the odd throwaway remark about President Trump perhaps doesn’t seem quite so bad after all…
Tracy Borman is a royal historian and author specialising in the Tudor period. Her new book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November.
This article was first published by History Extra in September 2018