ro·mance \roˉ -‘man(t)s; r e; ‘roˉ\
a. A love affair.
b. Ardent emotional attachment or involvement between people; love.
c. A strong, sometimes short-lived attachment, fascination,
or enthusiasm for something.
2. A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.
ro·manced, ro·mancing, ro·manc·es
v. tr. Informal
1. To make love to; court or woo.
2. To have a love affair with.
In fairy tales, royal romances are those happily-ever-afters that involve an unmarried pair of lovers, big dresses, shimmering jewels, and nights of untold ecstasy, although you won’t find that last bit in any of the Disney adaptations.
Real-life royal romances, however, are somewhat different: same gowns and jewels, same nights of fevered passion—but rarely enjoyed with one’s own spouse. Indeed, many of the royals featured in the fourteen romances profiled in this volume fell in love with someone else after they were already married to their consort or to the reigning monarch. In this book, there are a couple of exceptions: Louis XV of France and Russia’s Catherine the Great were widowed at the time of their respective liaisons with the comtesse du Barry and Grigory Potemkin. Rare indeed is the marital love match, such as the union of George VI and Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, the parents of Queen Elizabeth II (and featured in the 2010 film The King’s Speech), and that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William of Wales and the former Catherine Middleton.
One of the romances profiled here was a great affaire de coeur that may have crossed the line into the realm of the physical. The nature of their relationship remains hotly debated, with many historians insisting that it was no more than a chaste and pure, unconsummated passion in the grand tradition of medieval chivalry. Scholars can agree on one point, however, which is that Axel von Fersen more than once risked his life to save Marie Antoinette’s.
At the other end of the sexual spectrum, some of the monarchs whose romances fill these pages were serial debauchers, the Bourbon kings Louis XIV and his great-grandson Louis XV being legendarily priapic. Louis XV even took his pleasure with nubile young girls in a mansion kept strictly for their own amusement known as the Parc-aux-Cerfs. But few of these bed warmers had the staying power of a Madame de Maintenon or a Pompadour. For that, a royal mistress needed brains and talents that could be plied beyond the bedchamber. She had to amuse the king, she could never appear tired or bored in his presence, and she had to be a true partner in every way—a meeting of minds and hearts, bodies and souls.
In a world where marriages were arranged for political and dynastic reasons, the lover in a true royal romance is the person the sovereign or consort would likely have selected as a spouse, had he or she been permitted the choice. Yet in one rare instance, the relationship between Louis XIV and the marquise de Maintenon resulted in a marriage, albeit a morganatic one—a legal union where the lover remained uncrowned and any children would have no rights of succession.
It is also believed by many historians that Catherine the Great clandestinely wed Potemkin.
Several of the paramours in Royal Romances were perceived as the powers behind their respective lovers’ thrones. Agnès Sorel was a beautiful blond medieval life coach, less famous than Joan of Arc, but more effective in spurring Charles VII to victory over the English. Diane de Poitiers cosigned state documents with Henri II. Madame de Montespan was nicknamed “the real queen of France.” And to be a “Pompadour” referred to a royal mistress who appeared to be running the country. Caroline Mathilde was the youngest sister of George III of England, dispatched to Denmark at the age of fifteen to wed a king who was madder than her brother ever would be. She eventually embarked on a torrid romance with a commoner, her husband’s physician; the pair of them seized the reins of power and overhauled the kingdom. And the overweening influence of the tempestuous dancer Lola Montez toppled the monarchy of Ludwig I of Bavaria.
As for the two marriages profiled toward the end of the book, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, who became queen of England in the wake of a constitutional crisis and boosted British morale during the kingdom’s darkest hours of the twentieth century, was far more than a mere consort. She was her husband’s full partner and an indispensable and indefatigable helpmeet. Prince William’s wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, with her beauty, elegance, and charm, in addition to her education, appears to have been cast in the same mold.
The lovers, mistresses, and wives in these pages are graced with a combination of qualities that rendered them utterly irresistible to their royal paramours. The romances are of the passionate, heartstopping, I-can’t-live-without-you/you-are-the-air-I-breathe variety. However, the adulterous liaisons caused no end of heartbreak to the third wheel in the relationship—the straying sovereign’s spouse. The queen was invariably left embarrassed by the public role played by the royal favorite and by her husband’s passion for her. Queens were traditionally expected to produce an heir to the throne and to remain quiet, pious, philanthropic, and to stay out of the limelight. But Catherine de Medici, in particular, was one consort who was pathetically in love with her husband, Henri II. She was deeply humiliated by his outsize devotion to his much older maîtresse en titre, or official mistress (a formal role at court that the French invented), the cool blond Diane de Poitiers.
Sometimes, what was good for the gander was good for the goose—or so the goose thought, until she got cooked! Sophia Dorothea of Celle was the wife of George Ludwig of Hanover, the future George I of England. He was enjoying two simultaneous affairs, so Sophia Dorothea indulged in a lurid romance of her own with a dashing Swedish mercenary, Philipp Christoph von Königsmark. Things did not end happily for either of them. But many of the royal romances featured in this book infuriated, upset, mortified, and disgruntled more than the sovereign’s consort.
From Potemkin to Lola Montez, and several others in between, including the bewitching (literally, perhaps) Athénaïs de Montespan and Mesdames de Pompadour and du Barry, these lovers captivated their royal paramours to such an extent that the power they wielded, over both sovereign and kingdom, became immense. And from the monarchs’ ministers and courtiers to their relatives to his subjects and the country’s often hypocritical clerics came the hue and cry that the royal favorite’s influence with the ruler was the ruination of the nation. Sex as a weapon was never perceived as more dangerous, or more alluring.
But there is also something to be said for the maternal “Don’t worry, darling; I’ll never let you down” kind of love as well; for that, too, has its appeal. Henri II, who never knew a mother’s affection, fell passionately in love with Diane de Poitiers, a woman nearly twenty years his senior. The marquise de Maintenon had a few years on the Sun King, and, although she was hardly old enough to be his mother, had a maturing influence on him. Potemkin was a decade younger than the libidinous Empress of all the Russias. And Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, though five years younger than the Duke of York, the future George VI, was a steadying influence on her spouse, who had never wished to assume the throne.
Catherine Elizabeth Middleton’s marriage on April 29, 2011, to the dashing Prince William was of historical significance; she was the first true commoner (one not of noble birth and aristocratic lineage) to wed an heir to the English throne since Anne Hyde clandestinely married the Duke of York in 1660. The story of William and Kate is a genuine royal romance for the twenty-first century, a modern fairytale absent cynicism and brimming with hope for the future, where the girl gets her prince and becomes a fully respected partner in his life. She shops for her own big dresses, sometimes on the High Street with discount coupons, and even wears them more than once, just like the rest of us.
As for the shimmering jewels . . . well, one day the duchess will have access to the rather glamorous collection in the Tower of London. The pomp and circumstance connected with centuries of tradition does have certain undeniable advantages.