1. Lie Back and Think of Belgium
The Perils of Royal Marriage
When Idi Amin became President of Uganda in 1971 after a military coup, the Western world was slow to react, believing him to be a harmless, posturing buffoon. It didn't dawn on the international community that he was also dangerously insane until, in the interests of better diplomatic relations with Britain, he volunteered to marry Princess Anne.
Royal fairy tales are brittle to the touch, especially alliances between blue bloods and the ordinary red variety. Until relatively recent times, few people lost much sleep over whether or not their royals were happily married. The success or otherwise of all royal marriages was measured solely by the participants' ability to produce a healthy heir. Until that first great organized cull of European royalty, World War I, for centuries it was more or less taken for granted that royal marriages were dynastic arrangements designed to test the strongest of stomachs. When King George III went mad it was suggested that his condition may have been brought on by the trauma of having sexual relations with his exceptionally ugly German wife. Kings and queens went to bed together not as man and wife, but as country with country. Princesses were culture flasks for royal DNA: heir-producing material, served up as sacrifices to complete strangers as a matter of foreign policy, sentenced to a lifetime of massive privilege and marital misery in equal measure. Marriage for love outside royalty was forbidden. A Saxe-Weimar princess, told by her family that she couldn't possibly marry a Jewish banker, shot herself.
The Bourbon kings of France, as members of the most powerful family in Europe, were forced to endure some of the most dreadful royal marriages of all. The Sun King, Louis XIV, ruled with powers given to him directly from God, but his marriage to the last available sane member of the Spanish royal family was not made in heaven. When he made his vows to Princess Maria Theresa at the Saint Jean-de-Luz near the Spanish border, it was the first time he had ever seen her, and he found her to be obese, dwarfish and almost hidden beneath a forty-foot train of blue velvet. He nevertheless alarmed her by insisting on consummating the marriage that evening. Indeed, although the King was consistently unfaithful to his wife, he made a point of spending at least part of every night in her bed, apparently to keep a promise he had made to his mother. Maria Theresa consoled herself by stuffing her face round the clock with chocolate and garlic sauces. At the age of forty-five, her health impaired by a vitamin-free diet and seven pregnancies, she was bled to death by her enthusiastically incompetent physicians.
Even the ugliest of princesses, who if not for their status would have remained permanently on the shelf, became queens. Princess Agnes of Hesse took ugliness to the extreme—she was lame and hunchbacked—but was widely regarded as the wealthiest catch of all the German princesses of her day. Royal betrothals were a hazardous business, especially as princes were routinely expected to select their life partners without ever having met them in the flesh. Usually a trusted courtier would be sent to view the prospective bride and report back on any obvious defects in character or physical appearance. It was the courtier's first impressions that could either make or break the engagement—some courtiers were blessed with more reliable critical faculties than others.
Louis XIV's son and heir, Louis the Grand Dauphin, inherited more than his fair share of the family eccentricity and could have been even stranger had he lived longer (his Habsburg maternal grandfather, Philip IV of Spain, didn't develop a taste for human breast milk until well into his dotage). The bride selected for the Grand Dauphin by his father was a Bavarian princess, Marie Anne Victoire. Although Marie Anne was perfectly eligible and had all the right bloodlines, the King, recalling perhaps the shock of his own engagement, attempted to spare his son any similarly nasty surprises by sending his ambassador, Croissy, to Germany to get a sneak preview of the prospective daughter-in-law. Croissy filed an ambiguous report. His general impression was favorable: the princess didn't have any obvious enormous physical deformities, he noted, apart from brown stains on her forehead, sallow skin, red hands, rotten teeth and a very large, fat nose. The King dispatched a portrait artist to Munich with instructions that he was to paint a truthful, warts-and-all likeness of Marie Anne. When the portrait reached Versailles, the entire French royal family gathered to pass judgment on it. After much debate, Marie Anne was given the thumbs-up.
The painting, however, was also accompanied by a note from Croissy which hinted that in his opinion the likeness was outrageously flattering. Croissy drew attention in particular to the artist's creative interpretation of her nose. Although negotiations were now at an advanced and delicate stage, the King of France was prepared to abort the engagement there and then. His son would hear none of it. The Dauphin considered ugly women erotic—the uglier the better. The more he heard about Princess Marie Anne, the more excited he became.
When Marie Anne was summoned to Versailles it became obvious that Croissy had not exaggerated, especially the bit about the nose. The Grand Dauphin, however, was more than satisfied with his new bride. Louis XIV let it be known that his new daughter-in-law was to be admired: her nose was never mentioned again. Marie Anne and the Grand Dauphin were married and had three children. When Marie Anne died, at barely thirty years old, Louis took up with her ugliest lady-in-waiting, Mademoiselle de Choin, a huge woman well known for her large mouth, her pendulous breasts, but especially for her huge nose.
Over a century later, Louis XVI's hideously bloated younger brother assumed the title of Louis XVIII after the Revolution and tuberculosis had combined to make him next in line to the French throne. At the age of fifteen he was compelled to marry the none-too-fragrant Maria Guiseppina of Savoy, daughter of the King of Sardinia. Maria was small, dark, ugly, and a complete stranger to personal hygiene. The bridegroom's grandfather, Louis XV, had to beg her parents, the King and Queen of Sardinia, to persuade her to wash her neck and clean her teeth. Her favorite hobby was catching thrushes in nets and having them made into soup. As Louis XVIII was homosexual, impotent and preoccupied with the consumption of food to the exclusion of almost everything else, their bedrooms occupied separate floors.
The last French Bourbon king, Charles X, didn't fare much better than either of his elder brothers. He was married at sixteen to a Sardinian princess, Maria Theresa, daughter of King Victor Amadeus III. The bride was a vacant-looking dwarf with a very long nose. Charles's sense of duty overcame his repugnance just often enough for them to have two sons, and two daughters who died in infancy.
Although even the homeliest of royal princesses were never usually short of willing suitors, Queen Elizabeth II's great-grandmother, Princess Mary Adelaide of Teck, rewrote the rule book. She was born in 1833, the daughter of George III's seventh son, Adolphus Duke of Cambridge, and known as Fat Mary—on the face of it an unnecessarily cruel nickname to inflict on a young girl, but conferred in these circumstances with some understatement. She was extremely short and weighed about 252 pounds. Her favorite pastimes were gluttony and dancing, the two combining with often dangerous results. She would thrash about on a crowded dance floor, squashing any unfortunate prince who got in her way. She alone could turn a quadrille into something not unlike a football-stadium disaster. Fortunately, Mary was not the sensitive type, and was bumptiously oblivious of the stares and sniggers that followed her everywhere she went. When she and Queen Victoria met in 1866, Mary had to be accommodated by two chairs. "Mary is looking older," Victoria bitched in her diary, "but not thinner."
Fat Mary's matrimonial prospects were understandably slim, a situation not helped by the attitude of her absurdly hard-to-please parents, who went about applying criteria for possible suitors as though their daughter was a supermodel. One of the more realistic candidates was Louis Napoleon III's obese cousin, "Plon-Plon." Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, vetoed the love match when it became apparent that Plon-Plon was so dissolute that even the French, immunized by centuries of repellent royals, found him disgusting. Prince Oscar of Sweden was a hot favorite for a while, but his thoughts quickly turned to the first train home just as soon as he saw her. The British Foreign Minister of the day, Lord Clarendon, wondered whether any foreign prince in his right mind would be up to "so vast an undertaking."
By the time Fat Mary had reached her early thirties and almost resigned herself to spinsterhood, a husband was miraculously found in Franz, a prince of Teck. Franz's prospects in the royal-marriage stakes were poor because he was tainted by morganatic blood. His father, Duke Alexander of WYrttemburg, had forfeited his children's rights to the throne by marrying Claudine, a very beautiful but low-born Hungarian countess. Theirs was a blissful arrangement, tragically and abruptly terminated when she was trampled to death by horses at a military review.
Franz's family was also relatively poverty-stricken, which made his eligibility even more flawed. These problems, however, combined to make him ideal marriage fodder as far as Mary was concerned, whose parents' search for a son-in-law had long since passed through a slightly more realistic stage, gone on to a much more realistic phase, and had by now taken on an air of grim desperation. When a union was suggested to Franz, he eagerly agreed, much to the astonishment of everyone, especially those who knew about his taste for willowy blondes. It was, he thought, an end to his financial problems. He didn't find out until it was too late that Fat Mary was also broke.
Franz had plenty of time for bitter reflection on his marriage. After several years of living in his wife's shadow, his behavior became increasingly erratic, and his blood pressure soared higher as his wife's girth expanded. One morning in 1884, he woke up completely paralyzed down one side of his body and unable to speak. His wife diagnosed slight sunstroke and skipped off to a light five-course breakfast. Only after a great deal of persuasion by her doctors did she come round to accepting that her husband had suffered a stroke. From that day on, Franz's mental health deteriorated and, although his wife's cholesterol count ensured that he actually outlived her, he spent the remaining three years of his life in isolation guarded by medical attendants.
THE DRAGON OF THE RHINE
Emperor Wilhelm I and his wife, the Empress Augusta, were locked into Germany's most enduring and most turbulent royal marriage. In 1885 the Empress Augusta lost the use of her legs and was confined to a wheelchair. By this point, the Emperor hadn't seen her legs for forty-odd years.
Augusta, sometimes known as the "Dragon of the Rhine," was highly strung and said to be the most argumentative woman in Europe. She became more unpredictable as she grew older, occasionally making passes at her ladies-in-waiting and often disappearing for months on end. The Emperor and Empress shared a lifelong mutual loathing and it was said that barely a single day of their marriage, which lasted nearly sixty years, passed without a fearful row. On their days off, they simply refused to speak to each other and conducted their arguments via a third party. If Augusta addressed the Emperor, even though he was directly in front of her, he would ignore her and ask some nearby aide to repeat what she'd said. Wilhelm did not even bother to inform his wife when he became Emperor: she got to hear about it from one of her black footmen.
The Empress, once envied for her perfect cheekbones and porcelain skin, was reluctant to acknowledge that the passage of time had long since relieved her of both assets. In old age she invested in vast quantities of industrial-strength cosmetics, with results that became increasingly difficult for squeamish visitors to behold, and a personal wig collection which was considered in some quarters to be the eighth wonder of the world.
The aged Augusta lived on and on, one part human and three parts makeup. No one was quite sure what kept her going. Immobilized by infirmity and the weight of her wig, she occasionally gave out signs that she was still alive by trembling with the palsy. In 1887 the invalid Augusta was wheeled out to break the ice at her husband's ninetieth birthday, looking, according to one of the lucky partygoers, "like someone dug up from the dead . . . something of a skeleton and something of a witch." The only visible parts of her body, her hands, head and shoulders, were so thickly encrusted in white enamel that when she moved some guests thought they were looking at an automaton, presumably one of the Emperor's birthday presents.
Later that year, when the Empress became seriously ill, Wilhelm became visibly upset. A puzzled visitor asked one of the Emperor's aides why this should be so: after all, the constant rancor between the two was common knowledge. "Wait till you have been married for fifty years and have quarreled with your wife every day," explained the aide, "and then, when you are faced with the alternative of this habit coming to an end, you will be unhappy too." Augusta finally expired from influenza in 1890 aged seventy-eight, outliving her husband by nine months.
Excerpted from Royal Babylon by Karl Shaw. Copyright © 2001 by Karl Shaw. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.