Prince William and Kate Middleton Engaged: Commoner’s Touch

Historian Andrew Roberts applauds William’s choice of future wife saying that commoner wives have worked wonders in other European royal families and the Windsors could use some fresh blood.

Michael Dunlea / AP Photo

Historian Andrew Roberts applauds William’s choice of future wife saying that commoner wives have worked wonders in other European royal families and the Windsors could use some fresh blood. Plus, full coverage of William and Kate.

The news that Prince William of Wales is to marry Miss Kate Middleton next year will delight true monarchists, while infuriating snobs. The House of Middleton is unknown to Debrett’s, the bible of the upper classes. Of the 25,000 people who appear in it, no mention is made of Kate, who comes from a resolutely bourgeois background. Her father owns a mail-order company, her mother is a former airline hostess. Yet these solid, respectable, good-natured, and hitherto private people might well be the saving of the House of Windsor, bringing just the kind of homely values into the royal dynasty that will reinvigorate the institution in the 21st century.

Gallery: Photos of William and Kate in Public

For Kate will become one of the very few genuine commoners in history to marry a future king of England. The last time it happened was in 1660, when Anne Hyde, daughter of the politician Edward Hyde, married James, Duke of York, the future King James II. She turned out to be an excellent wife for him, and she ran his political and economic affairs adroitly. Samuel Pepys might have complained in his diary that “The Duke of York in all things but his amours was led by the nose by his wife,” but she led him well. Had it not been for her tragically early death in 1671, aged only 34, James might not have been overthrown in the Glorious Revolution 17 years later.

Gallery: Photos of Kate Middleton and Other Commoner Royal Wives

Otherwise the consorts of British kings have almost uniformly hailed from the smallest gene pool in Europe—namely other European royals—and although there have been some successful marriages that have arisen from this process, with Prince Philip of Greece’s marriage to Queen Elizabeth II as the best exemplar, very often it has led to disaster. Haemophilia, inherited lunacy—during the Napoleonic Wars there were no fewer than four crowned heads of Europe who were certifiably insane—and facial deformities such as the Hapsburgs’ were common throughout the half-millennium when royal cousin routinely married royal cousin.

When the British Royal Family has gone outside the European royal DNA for wives, looking to their domestic upper class, as when George, Duke of York (later King George VI) married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mother), and when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, it brought mixed results. Both were the daughters of earls, but whereas the Queen Mother slotted naturally into the life of the Windsors, Princess Diana clearly did not. For all that Diana was dubbed “The People’s Princess” by Tony Blair after her death, it is really Kate Middleton who has led a far more representative life to normal people.

The European royals have long known the advantages of mixing their blue blood with middle-class blood, in a way that Prince William will next year. The Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, and Spanish crown princes have all married non-royals, usually very focussed career women with university degrees, and sometimes even divorces. These marriages have each proved successful, happy and—very importantly for any royal house—highly productive in terms of children for the next generation.

When I sat next to Crown Princess Maxima of the Netherlands at a dinner party recently, I was struck by the ease with which she combined the grace of royalty with the down-to-earthiness of the New York investment banker that she had been before she married Willem-Alexander, the Prince of Orange and heir to the Dutch throne. Their marriage is a strong one, and they have two children. Similarly, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway married a university graduate, Mette-Marit, who had had a son outside wedlock with another man.

Crown Princess Mary of Denmark is Australian, born in Hobart, Tasmania of academic parents who were themselves born in Scotland. She has a degree in law and business and had a successful career as sales director of the Belle Property real estate company before she met her husband. The most impressive European royal spouse, and someone for Kate Middleton to hold up as a role model for herself, is Letizia, Princess of the Asturias, the next Queen of Spain. Before she married Crown Prince Felipe, this eldest daughter of a (divorced) journalist and registered nurse took a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in audiovisual journalism. She then worked for the Spanish equivalent of Bloomberg and for CNN Plus. As anchor for TVE, Spain’s most widely viewed newscast, Letizia covered the 2000 American presidential elections, ground zero after 9/11, and reported from Iraq after the 2003 invasion. She was also married before, but divorced in 2000.

These royal dynasties have learnt that middle class blood reinvigorates the institution of monarchy, because people can relate to someone who is, at heart, rather like us in every way except that she has a handsome, good-natured prince clearly very much in love with her.

At present, most people would see this marriage as a gargantuan social advance for the Middletons, in that they will be providing 50 percent of the gene pool of a future British monarch. In fact, however, the Windsors should be thanking them, for infusing a healthy and overdue dose of bourgeois common sense into an institution that needs it more than most.

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Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the UK in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.