Later this month, the continent's royalty will descend on London for the party of the year. But who are they, asks Euan Ferguson, and why are they thriving in our apparently egalitarian Europe?
King Harald and Queen Sonja on their wedding day.
So much goes back to Victoria, for good and for ill. Her descendants have sat on the thrones of 10 European countries, and still do in five cases. There are trails of her genes throughout, it seems, about 90% of all European royal lines, including the royal families of Spain, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Italy, and of Austria (Tuscany line), Hesse and Rhine (all three lines, of course). Not to mention the likes of Schleswig-Holstein- Augestenburg, and who could forget, Schleswig-Holstein-Glücksburg.
Many of the living descendants will, as we speak, be calling from royal palaces to secure their EasyJet flights, clutching the Ticket of the Year. You've always got to invite the rellies, sigh.
But if Victoria's genes kept many of these dynasties alive, they also very nearly wiped them out. It was Victoria's haemophilia gene, passed through her granddaughter to the Russian court, which led to Grigory Rasputin being called in to treat Alexei, ailing son of the last empress – Rasputin's subsequent influence over Alexandra led to the fall of the Romanovs, the end of the Russian imperial family, and then their wholesale slaughter in 1918. All over Europe, lesser royal families began to topple: the state of European monarchies one century ago was, as they say in the history books, parlous; as they say in Scotland, their coats were hanging on a very shaky peg.
Today, as much of the world gears up to celebrate, or at least watch, the forthcoming Westminster nuptials, and William's continental relatives clutch those invites with varying degrees of decorum, a surprising number of European royal families have survived, even blossomed. They've survived war, tragedy and nearby revolutions. They've survived scandal – and, believe me, having spent time looking at their rambunctious pasts, our own first family's travails make the Windsors look like the prissy milk monitors of European royalty. They've survived the rise of the tabloid, and of tabloid thinking. They've even managed to mate, properly, for once. After a while continuing to experiment with inbreeding, they presumably grew fed up having to hide away every unlucky son born with seven buttocks and the head of an ant, and married out. Recent European royal marriages have been to the likes of gym instructors, personal trainers or, simply, a nice girl met on a beach.
"Actually, quite of a few of the European royals today seem to be marrying PR girls," says Dr Morris Bierbrier, formerly co-editor of Debrett's. "Which makes a certain sense. They're often quite pretty and know how to present themselves, but, more importantly, they know how to sell, how to display, the couple, and the monarchy, and that's pretty much all it's about these days."
So they'll survive?
"Oh, yes, most European royals will surely still be with us in another 100 years. They've adapted, you see, quite cleverly in some cases. But, also, you have to remember that most of them – well, Monaco's always a bit of a special case, out on its own – most are treated with far more respect than we afford our own royal family."
Why? Do they live less grandly, or less openly grandly?
"Well, no. It's not as if all European royalty is meek, living quietly in a shack, the so-called bicycling monarchs: quite the opposite; just like ours, they've got huge palaces bang in the middle of the capital. But it's partly – actually quite a lot – to do with press privacy laws and, more recently, this disillusion with almost all politicians that has strengthened the case against presidencies. With most European royals, there seems to have grown up a kind of unspoken contract which doesn't exist in Britain – a decent mix of what some would call deference, but you could simply think of as respect. The Queen of Denmark can go shopping in a department store and nobody bats an eyelid. And European royalty, in return, tends to treat the more intrusive press in a different way from here. There was something a while ago about the King of Sweden's mistresses, quite a fuss, but the court chose, far from confirming or denying what was being alleged, to consider it no one's business, far least the press. They simply… ignored it."
And thus, in JUST 90 YEARS, from the brink of extinction, the Euro-royals have in general – Monaco, after Britain, always seems to be the exception – forged a truce with their public, and their press, which Charles would surely kill for. (You have to remember the British royal family loathes the press, all of us, quite viscerally. Forget the chatty Wills helicopter interview, he is his father's son, and that clip of Charles slagging off the "awful" Nicholas Witchell – still my favourite – is the true skull beneath the skin.) Partly, it seems, the Euros have managed this because we simply won't recognise them, when they turn up at the abbey – apart from the BBC man with the cheat list. We don't recognise them (although you will doubtless be grateful to now possess this information thanks to today's guide) and for sure the Americans don't.
Amy Odell, who edits the New York Magazine's fashion blog, The Cut, is charmingly unknowledgeable. "I mean, we're all wild about Kate. I'll be up at dawn to watch. But the other European royals? I don't think so. I mean, sometimes. There was one, recently, a princess got married, from I think Sweden, whatever. That was kind of nice. But just for one day. We kind of forgot which country the next day. There's a bit of interest in Princess Letizia of Spain, and in Carla Bruni, though I suppose she's not actually royalty."
It is as hard to generalise about European royals as it is about any group of humans. There are ones who do tremendous good works, often quietly. Then there are what you could call the Ferrero-Rocher royals, often the ones dispossessed of kingdoms – officially, a royal family is still classed as one ruling a sovereign country at the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, whether or not said country has ceased to exist, and there are 21 of these. Many of these people live in New York and feature in lists of eligibles. There are more worthless lives, I suppose.
But who, I ask Dr Bierbrier, is top dog, head honcho, grand fromage, among the European royals? Our own family, which basically bred them all? "I don't know, honestly. There are some monarchies which are grander, stand on ceremony, more than here. Our queen is friendlier with some more than others. Often, it depends on just whether they're a close relative. She's very good friends with the Queen of Denmark, who loves to leave the palace and go shopping in Harrods – because she can, because no one knows.
"But it's a nebulous thing, the grandness – mysterious, silent, unknowable. I always remember the tale of Victoria entertaining Napoleon III. It was noted, by those who note, that at supper Victoria and Albert simply walked to the table and sat without looking down, so certain were they that the chairs would have been pushed in behind them. Napoleon and his wife looked down."
Don't look down, Kate.
Norway: King Harald V and Queen Sonja
A member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, now better branded as the involuntary noise your glottal-stop produces when confronted with the price of a coffee in Norway, King Harald is today seen, generally, as a Good King. One of the best. In 1968, he married Sonja, daughter of a "wood merchant". It's probably a better word in Norsk, something along the lines of "fjellskeller". This was the last time there was a real European row – I mean serious, as row-y as Norway can get – about royalty and class. The whole European media – all eight reporters, some even with cameras, what times – moved in to cover a story about a non-royal marrying into royalty. But they're still together, even though as the picture shows she insists on moving around on castors hidden inside a Milky-Bar chocolate fountain.
Young Harald had had long enough to practice, though. Born in 1937, he endured some hair-shaking childhood voyages while Germany (and various quisling bits of Sweden) attempted first to kill grandpa King Carl. Harald, despite having served as the Deputy of the King from his 18th birthday, in 1955, didn't accede until 1991. That's a long wait. Can't think of another heir-in-waiting who's been left hanging until their hair's pretty much gone. Oh… yes I can.
Sweden: Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, Crown Prince Daniel
Last June, "Crown Princess" – I'm sure that means they'll take over when Daddy dies, particularly in Sweden, where they've wisely waived the laws of primogeniture, otherwise known by mad royal brothers as "the law of I'm mad and younger, but I've got a willy so na na [poss. mistranslated from the Swedish/Latin, but you get the point] – anyway... Princess Victoria of Sweden, who shall be Queen, married her personal trainer. There wasn't that much of a kerfuffle. Daniel Westling, her groom-to-be, was "once photographed crossing a street against a red light in order to avoid a camera." Oh, those crazy Swedes. But, again, they were very much in love and have so remained. Despite having to do things such as visit a Swedish arthouse and pretend talk to a man wearing, quite unaccountably, an elk-antler codpiece. That's why we chose this photo, obviously. Did you think we'd just dropped it in for fun?
Luxembourg: Grand Duke Henri
Weird one, this. Handsome and wears the right buttons. But his son's wife, Tessy, had to wait three years before she was accorded the title of Princess. Can you imagine the histrionics elsewhere, the years, the sofa tears? Henri had had to "think about it". For three years. And it's Luxembourg, half the size of Walsall, and he only technically runs the country, perhaps in the way Gordon Brown technically ran our country, and he's only technically a Grand Duke, not really a king. He exerts some influence on his parliament, I'm told, but nothing like Albert II, King of the Belgians (I do love the kingship of the people, not the country) who has, according to Dr Bierblier, "knocked heads together with tremendous satisfaction, and results". Belgium hasn't had a government for three years, and yet thrives. Hmm. Among the many things which have happened, however, in Luxembourg is Henri calling a press conference hosted by his wife to denounce his own mother. Henri's is the roughest, maddest, poshest, most thoroughly enjoyable, of the pompous lines available. Good if this one died out.
Monaco: Pierre Casiraghi
IDK why they include him and not Andrea but I guess everyone knows Andrea already. Also he's not married, so here's a pic of him with a girl lol.
The younger son of Princess Caroline and thus the grandson of – gulp – Grace Kelly, Pierre smokes, plays the sax and is by many accounts a decentish chap. If a little, can we say… lucky. Here is a sentence written about him. "After his mother's remarriage to Ernst August V, Prince of Hanover, the family moved to Fontainebleu, to be nearer to Paris and Rome." Now imagine the words changed. "After his mother's remarriage to Barney Cluck of Ohio, the family moved to Skinflats, to be nearer to Grangemouth and the Falkirk World of Leather."
The current ruler, Sovereign Prince of the House of Grimaldi, is Albert II, only son of Grace and Prince Rainier, which makes him Pierre's uncle. Albert is not married, although he has "acknowledged" two illegitimate children by different mothers. If he doesn't have legitimate ones soon, it'll revert to Caro and thence to smoking Pierre. But Albert is due to marry, in July, a swimmer named Charlene Wittstock. I am indebted to my mother for this information, even though it scares me that she possesses it. She helps out in homes for the terminally ill, honestly, and there's nothing there but Hello!
Spain: Crown Princess Letizia
It is not often that Carla Bruni is upstaged, especially not from behind. (Can you tell which one she is? We'll come back to that.) Crown Princess Letizia of Spain, a former TV journalist who has reportedly done much to promote Spanish fashion worldwide since marrying Felipe, Prince of Asturias, heir to the Spanish throne – no, we don't know what he saw in her either – did quite a lot of fashion upstaging of the French First Lady during a recent meeting, too. But that's nothing as compared to the so-called War of the Infantas.
Crown Princess Letizia had been married once before (only a civil ceremony, therefore the Vatican was able to dismiss it as nugatory and allow full-on bells-and-smells wedding) and will, when Felipe ascends, become the first commoner – gosh, how I'm learning to loathe that word – to share the Spanish throne. She has apparently been very busy in the past few years upsetting Felipe's sisters, the Infanta Elena, 46, and Infanta Cristina, 45. There have been spats over a visit by Michelle Obama (the sisters postponed their arrival until Letizia had left) and apparent snubs about minor aspects of hospitality. The row was said to be the talk of the beaches in Spain last year, although presumably most conversations were relatively short and along the lines of "The sisters are 91 years old collectively. Crown Princess Letizia is young, common yet doe-eyed and going to be Queen. Of course they'll get along." Oh, Carla's on the right.
Denmark: Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Elizabeth Donaldson
One that should give hope to William and Kate watchers. Mary Donaldson was a 32-year-old Tasmanian estate agent when she met the heir to the Danish throne at a beach-bar in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. And she even looks a little like Kate, and very happy. Still, I've no idea what Kim Woodburn from How Clean is Your House is doing in the background.
The remarkable thing, or more pertinently the unremarkable thing, is that the engagement and wedding were greeted without a twitch of snobbery. In the past few years, the Crown Prince of Norway married an ex-drug addict with an illegitimate child, his counterpart in Holland wed an American investment banker – and in none of these cases was there anything more than mild and rare sniffing from a few thoroughly mad people. Certainly not the acres of newsprint devoted to the ugly SW3 sneering at Kate Middleton's ancestry, the "doors-to-manual" joke repeated by some newspapers with an explanation as to why it was "funny".
I made the photos wedding themed :) Heh, I always wanted William to marry Madeleine, Victoria
sister. She's pretty and one of the few he's not related to lmao.