How Commoners Are Saving the Royal Families of Europe
I. WHEN HARALD MET SONJA
Born on the Fourth of July 1937, at the Red Cross Clinic in Oslo, Sonja Haraldsen grew up to become a lovely 16-year-old, and one day she went to watch a boat race. One of the spectators, a boy her age, Harald Glucksburg, saw Sonja and was lovestruck. He tried to get the girl’s attention; she ignored him.
Or so goes one story of the day Harald met Sonja. Another has the two meeting at a dinner party when they were 22 and falling so crash-bang in love that even if Harald had not been crown prince of Norway and Sonja had not been the daughter of the owners of a women’s clothing store, their instant, mutual, and lasting passion might still have been called a fairytale romance.
Fairytale romance also requires friction in the form of antagonists or obstacles: wicked stepmothers, thickets of thorns. In this story Harald’s father served that function. King Olav V did not want his son to marry a commoner. He wanted Harald to make a sensible match, as the king himself had done with a girl from the royal family next door, Princess Martha of Sweden (who was also his first cousin).
When Crown Prince Harald met non-royal Sonja Haraldsen in 1968, many wondered if the Norwegian monarchy would survive.
By law, the heir to Norway’s throne could not marry without the sovereign’s permission. Olav’s disapproval, however, was less determined than Harald’s devotion. For nine long years Harald and Sonja waited and dated, and at last, love conquered. The king pronounced his blessing. Harald and Sonja married. When Olav died and Harald was crowned, in 1991, the queen of his heart became queen of his land.
II. DUTY & DESIRE
Like moves on a chessboard, marriages between members of Europe’s dynasties were, for centuries, made to establish an advantage in the continent’s balance of power. Some royals did marry nonroyals—a practice known as morganatic marriage— while others wished to but were prevented by law or taboo.
In 1936, after King Edward VIII decided to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, he abdicated the throne to avoid a constitutional crisis. The scandal put pressure on British royals to lead exemplary lives, and when Edward’s niece, Princess Margaret, fell in love with RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was divorced, opposition in Parliament in 1955 forced her to make an excruciating, public renunciation.
In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
To marry Townsend would have meant surrendering her royal rights, duties, and income. Even five years later, when Margaret wed the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, some of Europe’s monarchs did not attend the ceremony. As an observer later explained, “Princesses married princes, not common photographers.”
The restrictions on royal marriage based on social status were slow to erode. In 2011, Prince William married Catherine Middleton, whose parents met while they were working for British Airways (she as a flight attendant, he as a dispatcher). The Middletons, who now run an online party retailer, also have some family wealth and no mean pedigrees themselves; nonetheless, it was the first time a woman without aristocratic lineage had married an heir to the British throne in more than 350 years.
But if you tried to imagine a royal romance that violated every taboo—concerning class, race, religion, gender roles, commercialism, and discretion—you probably would still not have the audacity to imagine the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, an American television actress who is divorced, Catholic, and of mixed race, in addition to being a committed political activist and a sometime clothing designer and lifestyle blogger with an avid social media presence replete with hashtags and emojis.
Kate Middleton was the first woman without aristocratic lineage to marry an heir to the British throne in more than 350 years.
When their relationship began, in the fall of 2016, old proscriptions were triggered in force, but Harry would have none of it. Just one month after the couple were first seen together in public, Kensington Palace issued a statement on the prince’s behalf: “His girlfriend... has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment,” which involved (among much else) a “smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls.”
Movingly, the statement avowed that the prince “knows commentators will say this is ‘the price she has to pay’ and that ‘this is all part of the game.’ He strongly disagrees. This is not a game—it is her life and his.”
That was valor. Which raised some questions: Might there be more at stake in their relationship than the happiness of two people? What might this match between Meghan and Harry mean for society at large?
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in their official engagement portrait.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not mention the freedom of a prince to woo in peace. The Kensington Palace statement, however, almost implied that it should. The statement could even be read to posit that the courtship of the prince and the actress was more democratic than the world outside that relationship. (In the privacy of love they were equals. Only when certain outsiders told the story was she considered less than.) Could that be true? Do royal families endow their members with more democratic dignities—are they able to accept human diversity with greater ease—than the rest of the human family does?
If so, what are the consequences for the rest of us? In an era of unprecedented wealth for a few and restricted social mobility for the rest, Markle represents a fantasy so extreme it might be called existential immigration. But even that fantasy is not entirely a game.
This is actually a serious question: Has the world changed so that marrying a prince (or a princess) is the surest way of being treated like a whole person? And if so, how did that happen?
III. TRUE ROMANCE
Over the past 50 years, it has ceased to be exceptional—it has gradually become the norm—for European royalty to marry commoners. (Of the heirs apparent to the 10 surviving hereditary European monarchies, Prince Alois of Liechtenstein is the only one who chose a mate of even approximately equal social rank: the Wittelsbach duchess Sophie, Princess of Bavaria.)
The story of how, in just two generations, nonroyals were welcomed into nearly all of Europe’s royal families follows a pattern common to many stories of social integration. A sequence of private, human choices—in this case, the choice to pursue romantic love—gains symbolic importance when those choices are made public, and that enables more such choices to be made. Love begets love. And as is true of many of the most dignifying reforms of modern society, this one started in Scandinavia.
In Kristiansand, Norway, in the summer of 1999, “a single mother whose son was fathered by a drug dealer” (as one newspaper would later refer to her) went to a concert, where she met a man. The woman, Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, had a three-year-old son named Marius. She did not have a college degree and she had never held a prestigious job. She was pretty, she was sweet, and she liked to have fun, which sometimes involved illegal substances.
The man she met at the concert was Haakon, crown prince of Norway—King Harald and Queen Sonja’s son—and Haakon fell in love with Mette-Marit the way Harald had fallen in love with Sonja: headlong, all at once, and the-hell-with-you-if-you-don’t-like-it. By May of the following year, the crown prince had publicly declared his love for a woman who by traditional standards could not have been more unsuitable.
Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby kiss at the Oslo Cathedral on August 25, 2001, after their wedding.
Haakon’s choice had consequences. In Norway approval ratings for the monarchy were low. In neighboring countries conservatives were concerned. One Copenhagen historian made this analysis: “It may be that Mette-Marit is the biggest threat to the Danish monarchy for many centuries. When the media becomes tough in Norway and Sweden, a front line will open up against the Danish royal family from the north.”
But if skepticism and insurrection were contagious—well, so was love. Haakon had a friend, a few years older, by the name of Fred. Handsome, smart, adventurous Fred had studied at Harvard before he became a naval pilot and special operations officer. Fred went trekking in Mongolia. Fred drove a team of sled dogs 4,000 miles across Greenland. Fred also dated a lot of women, and no one thought he was in much danger of settling down. But Fred was, surely, moved to consider his own position when he saw what had happened to Haakon. And it may or may not have been a coincidence that sparks flew in Fred’s life the very same month that Haakon commenced cohabitation with Mette-Marit.
IV. THE COMMONERS
Fred flew to Australia to watch the 2000 Olympics. He walked into a bar, the Slip Inn, in Sydney. “Fred from Denmark” was how he introduced himself that night to a young woman from Tasmania, Mary Donaldson. Much later Mary would reveal that in the months that followed Fred seduced her with long, handwritten letters. In one he quoted Kierkegaard: “To risk something is to lose one’s foothold for a moment. Not to risk is to lose oneself.”
I don’t think I have ever been so weak or so strong as I am when I am with you. —Crown Prince Haakon to Mette-Marit on their wedding day
The next year Fred—that is, Frederik, crown prince of Denmark, Count of Monpezat, Order of the Elephant, Order of the Dannebrog—stood up as best man at Haakon’s wedding. Afterward, at the banquet, Haakon spoke from his heart to Mette-Marit: “I don’t think I have ever been so weak or so strong as I am when I am with you. I don’t think I have been so full of love as I am when I’m with you. From today you are no longer just my friend, my girlfriend, and my fiance. Today we have married and you have become Norway’s crown princess. I’m looking forward to working side by side with you, and with Marius. I cannot promise life will be without problems and easy,
but it will be eventful and strong.”
By the time Haakon and Mette-Marit attended Frederik and Mary’s wedding, in 2004, matches between royals and commoners were becoming joyful symbols of hope for a better life. “Every time a person’s dreams come true, the world becomes a better place for us all. Your marriage is a gift to the people of Australia,” declared one Sydney newspaper. It was a gift to the Danish monarchy, too: Approval ratings surged to 82 percent the following year.
Prince Frederik and Mary Donaldson on their wedding day in Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 14, 2004.
In the first decade of the 21st century, matches between commoners and royals were made all across Europe. Like airplanes speeding past circles of latitude, royal loves crossed social boundaries abruptly, embracing the vulgar—in the sense of that word’s Latin root, vulgaris, the common people. The more flawed the match (compared with traditional ideal royal mates), it sometimes seemed, the more attractive it was.
Haakon’s older sister, Princess Martha Louise, lost her royal income when she married an artist, the Norwegian writer Ari Behn, who was best known for a short story collection titled Sad as Hell. (The couple divorced last year.) The Prince of Orange, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, married Maxima Zorreguieta, an Argentinian whose father was a government minister in that country’s violent, corrupt military regime. (Willem-Alexander’s mother Queen Beatrix allowed the match on condition that Maxima’s father not attend the wedding.)
In Spain, Crown Prince Felipe de Todos los Santos announced his engagement to Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, a divorced TV news broadcaster who has had multiple plastic surgeries. Sweden’s Princess Victoria—the heir to the throne—started dating her personal trainer, Daniel Westling, in secret; then she married him.
And that’s only a partial list. “Human affection will always cross boundaries; designing rules it must adhere to will never work,” wrote one English newspaper columnist after Haakon’s wedding to Mette-Marit. “Modern Britain is a place where being from a dysfunctional or ‘different’ background does not prevent you from leading a happy, fulfilled life. It’s time for another royal wedding, and my feeling is that Camilla’s would give more real people real hope than any fairytale wedding ever could.”
When it happened, that prediction came true. The public came to love Camilla Parker Bowles, in part because she and Prince Charles persevered in their love in spite of life’s whole mess.
Mette-Marit has a past that, it seems, will never go away. Compromising photographs from her wild days were published. Her alcoholic father married a stripper half his age. Yet she and Haakon built a family; in addition to Marius they have two children of their own, whose arrival the country greeted with celebration. Their firstborn, Princess Ingrid Alexandra, is Norway’s heir apparent. She will someday be the country’s first female monarch since the 15th century.
By coincidence Mette-Marit also played an important symbolic role in the darkest moment in Norway’s recent history—when her stepbrother was killed in the mass shooting by Anders Breivik in 2011. Her loss made Mette-Marit a symbol of the people’s solidarity with the monarchy. The next year she put her penchant for risk-taking—even heedlessness—to virtuous use. On behalf of a gay palace employee who had trouble getting a visa, she secretly traveled to India to care for his newborn twins, born to a surrogate mother. There she spent several days incognito with the babies in a medical center, where the staff assumed she was a nanny.
V. A ROYAL WEDDING, SPRING 2018
What would have happened if Harald and Sonja hadn’t fallen in love? They set an example for Haakon, who set an example for Frederik, which created an atmosphere in which almost anything became possible—even an American TV star in a wedding dress waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
At a time when a crisis of legitimacy attends the very concept of authority, these couplings have strengthened bonds between sovereigns and subjects. The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, like all the status-discordant pairings described here, will have one main political effect. The coming of the commoners inoculates European monarchies against that form of government’s greatest contemporary vulnerability: popular resentment based on perception of unjust advantage.
However thorny their pasts, all these commoners appear to be worthy of luck—the extraordinary luck of winning the existential immigration lottery, on top of the more common luck of romantic love. One of the most striking things about this chapter in the history of royal marriage is how sturdy the matches have proved to be—maybe because they’re unsuitable, not in spite of it. These loves began with the embrace of imperfection; the reasons for their durability and popularity may not be much more complicated than that.
In 2017, when King Harald and Queen Sonja both turned 80, polls in Norway indicated that 81 percent of Norwegians supported the monarchy. In 2018 the couple—and the rest of the country—will celebrate 50 years of marriage. Deep inside one of the mailbags full of cards and letters that will be delivered to the palace in Oslo, perhaps the ladies-in-waiting will find one postmarked London, with Kensington Palace as the return address.
In the last in-depth interview Meghan Markle gave before she began dating Harry (it was published in Good Housekeeping), she said she liked to write handwritten notes, which she called “a lost art form.” In that interview, as in the last one before her betrothal (in Vanity Fair last summer), she recalled struggling to earn a living in her early days as an actress. She said that she learned calligraphy and made extra money by writing names and addresses in beautiful script on other people’s wedding invitations.
She did not say, but it is hard not to imagine, that from time to time her hand got tired and she would pause to daydream for a minute, imagining the loves of those brides and grooms, hoping that such happiness one day might be hers.
This story appears in the February 2018 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE TODAY
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.