Princess Mae of Teck came from a branch of the English royal family who lived under reduced circumstances. Although she was indeed a great granddaughter of George III, her family once had to move to Florence, Italy to save money.
Nonetheless, Princess Mae was selected and engaged to marry Prince Eddy, the heir to the British throne. Eddy, alas, died during their engagement and Mae was quickly re-engaged to Prince George, next in line to the kingdom. Georgie and Mae became King George V and Queen Mary, happily reigning from 1910 until 1936. This was not the only time a princess was hastily re-engaged upon the death of her fiancé. Princess Dagmar of Denmark was engaged to Nicholas of Russia, who should have inherited the Russian Imperial throne from his father Alexander II. Nicholas, a man of much promise, sadly died and his less enlightened brother Alexander became heir to the Russian empire and was speedily affianced to the bereaved Dagmar. They later became Czar Alexander III and Czarina Marie, parents of the ill-fated Nicholas II, last czar of Russia.
These royal personages knew that their lives were not their own and that their marriages would be at the service of the state. Sometimes these unions did develop into love matches like the one King George and Queen Mary quietly experienced. Other times these arranged marriages had disastrous consequences. George I’s wife Sophie Dorothea spent her married life locked in a tower in Germany, while George IV’s wife Caroline wasn’t even allowed to attend his coronation. For royal personages, marriage was first of all an institution and only if they were lucky did it become a love match. Nowadays marriage has become almost entirely a matter of personal relationships. Marriages are supposed to be romantic affairs, or so most of Western society would like to believe. Yet, love as the sole basis for marriage is fairly new in history.
As the popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof” testified, it was the matchmaker who drew couples together in peasant villages. Elsewhere it was parents and property and inheritances and religion and nationality that largely guided the marital destinies of young people. Even within living memory, marriageable children were quietly expected to marry “their own kind” and were gently warned about marrying “beneath their station.”
Marriage is not just a question of love, affection and romance. Marriage is first of all an institution which, couples have to ponder before committing themselves. The old — and never surpassed — homily at Catholic weddings warned of the broader aspects of matrimony. “My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because it is established by God himself and most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future.” The Anglican wedding rite said it equally well: “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.
Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Previous generations esteemed marriage because they understood it to have been instituted by God himself and because they knew it would have ramifications that would affect society as well as themselves. Besides affection, marriage meant religious commitment, child rearing, financial support, home making, social status, physical intimacy, fidelity, compassion during difficult times and perseverance until death. Divorce was a scandal in the not too distant past because it defied the accumulated wisdom of society.
Everyone, not just the husband and wife, suffered from a failed marriage.
Nowadays happiness has trumped responsibility, and marriage, as well as the married couple, has suffered for it.
Queen Mary made the best of her unexpected marriage. Fifty years later, the Duke of Windsor would not share his mother’s respect for matrimony when he pledged himself to the twice-divorced Mrs. Simpson.
Queen Mary’s chagrined words to her prime minister then still make a fitting comment on the sad situation of marriage today: “Well, Mr. Baldwin, this is a pretty kettle of fish!”