A Royal Crush
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 7/10/13

We get up in the predawn hours to watch princes and princesses-to-be exchange vows, we follow the ups and downs of royal unions in the tabloids, and we even tune in to see Kim Kardashian, the queen of reality TV, mouth an insincere “I do.” It has been said that everyone loves a wedding—all the better if it involves sovereigns, even more so if it’s peppered with a bit of juicy gossip.

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Elizabeth I  (1533–1603 | English monarch)
to  Victoria and Albert  (1819–1901, 1819–1861 | British monarch and consort)

Three years after ascending the throne in 1837 at age 18, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, her first cousin. Until his death from typhoid fever 21 years later, Albert was Victoria’s chief adviser and, from all appearances, devoted romantic partner. Young Victoria gushed into her diary the morning after her wedding night, “He clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again…. Really, how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!” Queen Elizabeth I never married, channeling her energies instead into a reign that elevated England to a major military and political power and saw the flowering of Shakespearean literature. As she wrote in a poem, “Of many was I sought their mistress for to be. / But I did scorn them all.” Among those suitors was Robert Dudley, who likely shared the Virgin Queen’s bed, and several crowned heads of Europe. One who curried her favor, the earl of Oxford, once loudly released gas while bowing to his monarch. The unfortunate fellow left England and traveled for seven years. Upon his return Elizabeth greeted him as an understanding wife might: “Sir, I had forgot the fart!”

Victoria and Albert  (1819–1901, 1819–1861 | British monarch and consort)
to  Charles and Diana  (b. 1948, 1961–1997 | Prince and Princess of Wales)

Although Queen Victoria was Britain’s longest-reigning monarch (63 years) and a model of marital contentment (she mourned her beloved Albert for 39 years), many of her descendants have been far less fortunate with their mates. Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, Margaret, became the first royal to divorce since Henry VIII, when her marriage to Lord Snowdon ended in 1978, and her relatives have been following suit ever since—none more famously than Prince Charles, current heir to the throne. His separation and divorce from Princess Diana (née Lady Diana Spencer) was as much a spectacle as the pair’s 1981 wedding. Public complaints about each other, reported infidelities and embarrassingly intimate details about their private lives enthralled followers of the so-called War of the Waleses. The couple divorced in August 1996, but 1992 was the low point for royal marriages: Prince Andrew, Charles’s brother, separated from his wife, Sarah, the Duchess of York; Anne, Princess Royal, divorced her husband, Mark Phillips; and Charles and Diana announced their separation. The queen went on record as referring to it as an annus horribilis. Victoria, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, probably would have summed it all up with her oft-quoted dismissal of frivolous behavior, “We are not amused.”

Charles and Diana  (b. 1948, 1961–1997 | Prince and Princess of Wales)
to  William and Kate  (b. 1982 | Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)

Twice in recent history British royals have treated us to fairy-tale weddings, complete with handsome princes, pretty brides trailing epically long trains, rides in regal coaches and kisses on the Buckingham Palace balcony. Clearly, we are fascinated with such spectacle: A then-astonishing 750 million television viewers watched Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding in 1981, and an estimated 2 billion tuned in to see Prince William and Kate Middleton say “I do” in April 2011. Charles and Diana’s marriage quickly dissolved into a soap opera; in hindsight, this shouldn’t have been unexpected. Charles, when asked during a premarriage interview if he and his young fiancée were in love, answered lamely, “Whatever ‘in love’ means”—hardly the sort of coo bound to sweep a princess-to-be off her feet. Charles and Diana had been dating for only six months before their nuptials and met barely a dozen times; their son William and Kate Middleton knew each other eight years and lived together. Their royal marriage may well prove, as many a union among commoners has, that when it comes to taking each other “until death do you part,” mutual respect tempered with practicality is a surer bet than fairy-tale romance.

Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly  (1923–2005, 1929–1982 | Prince and Princess of Monaco)
to  Charles and Diana  (b. 1948, 1961–1997 | Prince and Princess of Wales)

Before the nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, the wedding of the century was that of Oscar-winning film star Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. At the time of their marriages, Prince Charles and Prince Rainier, both 32, were under considerable pressure to produce heirs. Rainier was in an especially tight spot—his subjects paid no taxes, but if he were to die without heirs, the Monacans would lose their independence and become tax-paying French citizens. Rainier had described the woman of his dreams: “I see her with long hair floating in the wind, the color of autumn leaves. Her eyes are blue or violet, with flecks of gold.” Blond, elegant and self-possessed, Kelly fit the bill. Shy Diana, just 20 at the time of her short-lived marriage, soon came into her own as one of the most glamorous women in the world. Kelly died after her car careered down a hillside on the Riviera in 1982, and Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997. Grace and Diana ensured the continuation of their husbands’ royal bloodlines and were two of the most alluring brides of the 20th century.

Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly  (1923–2005, 1929–1982 | Prince and Princess of Monaco)
to  Kim Kardashian  (b. 1980 | American reality-television star)

Though Grace Kelly married into royalty and her two ceremonies (one religious, one civil) took place in her groom’s principality of Monaco, the 1956 nuptials were a Hollywood spectacle. Not a single royal attended. Instead, the guest list included such Hollywood luminaries as Cary Grant, David Niven, Ava Gardner and Gloria Swanson, along with the Aga Kahn and Aristotle Onassis (who presented the couple with a yacht on which they cruised the Mediterranean for their honeymoon).

If Kim Kardashian had a soul, she would have sold it to attract such a star-studded cast to her 2011 wedding to basketball star Kris Humphries. Kardashian turned her marriage into fodder for her reality-television show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and MGM cashed in on the Monaco events to release one of Kelly’s last films, The Swan—about a young woman recruited to marry the prince of a small kingdom—to coincide with the star’s wedding day. Art also augurs life in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), in which Kelly cavorts on the Riviera with a suave charmer played by Grant—a sophisticated, glamorous Hollywood romp that set the stage for real-life events about to unfold.

Kim Kardashian  (b. 1980 | American reality-television star)
to  William and Kate  (b. 1982 | Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)

Kate Middleton, the future Duchess of Cambridge, and Kim Kardashian, the self-proclaimed queen of reality TV and star of a widely circulated sex video, made much-publicized matches in 2011: Middleton to Great Britain’s Prince William, Kardashian to New Jersey Nets basketball player Kris Humphries. Both are the daughters of prosperous families: Michael and Carole Middleton amassed their fortune by building a catering empire, Robert Kardashian as a businessman and defense attorney whose most famous client was O.J. Simpson. Both weddings were expensive affairs—$34 million for the royal couple, $10 million for Kardashian-Humphries. More striking than any similarities between the two pairs, however, are their differences. Most notably, the duke and duchess remain married, and happily so, by all appearances. Kardashian and Humphries called it quits after just 72 days, with the groom crying foul. His bride, he claims, concocted the wedding as a money-raising scheme, for which she reportedly raked in an estimated $18 million for TV coverage, photos and product placements. Perhaps comedian Ricky Gervais said it best when he compared Kardashian to Middleton as “a bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker and more easily bought.”