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Divorce in history and culture: royal divorces

Divorce in history and culture: royal divorces

In the UK, it’s only a slight stretch to say that our royals invented divorce – while the concept itself wasn’t created by the British monarchy, it was King Henry VIII who changed both state and church to be allowed to marry Anne Boleyn, and though divorce has changed over time, it was his actions that brought British divorces into being.

Though, in a historical context, our most famous royal divorcee is Henry VIII, other countries have had their fair share of divorced monarchs. A few hundred years before Henry VIII brought divorce to England, Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine divorced under similar but far less acrimonious circumstances than Henry and Catherine of Aragon. After producing two daughters the French king needed a male heir, and Eleanor wanted to move to England to be closer to her friend Henry, Duke of Normandy. The divorce was surprisingly amicable, something later rulers didn’t quite succeed in replicating.

In fact, 300 years later, France found themselves with a far more badly behaved king: Louis XII. He was married to his cousin Joan of France at a young age, but when he succeeded the throne he asked for his marriage to be annulled so that he might marry the late king’s widow, Anne of Brittany, and annex her territories to his own. In what has been described as “one of the seamiest lawsuits of the age”, Louis began by insisting he had initially been too young to marry, and, when he failed to get the marriage annulled, accused Joan of being physically malformed to the extent that sex was impossible, and that his own sexual performance had been inhibited by witchcraft. The pope granted him a divorce.

And France isn’t the only country whose royals have a history of divorce. During the 1800s Frederick VI of Denmark had not one but two divorces, from his first wife, his second cousin Wilhelmina in 1837, then again from Caroline of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1846. The marriages lasted nine and five years respectively. Around the same time Princess Marianne of the Netherlands and Prince Albrecht of Prussia were divorced after 15 faithless years of marriage. Albrecht was a known philanderer and Princess Marianne finally left him in 1845 for her former coach driver Johannes Von Rossum, much to the scandal of the court.

Recent royal divorces

While many of these tales are consigned to history, a number of countries are still seeing their monarchs divorce, and none more so than Monaco. The family was supposedly cursed in 1297 after Francesco the Spiteful disguised himself as a monk to gain access to the Grimaldi’s principality, then slaughtered his enemies. According to legend, the family was then cursed never to achieve long and successful marriages. It would appear that the bewitchment is still in effect, with both Grimaldi princesses on husbands two and three, and Prince Albert only marrying a few years ago at age 53.

Back in Denmark, in 2004 Prince Joachim, the youngest son of Queen Margrethe, and his wife Princess Alexandra became the first royal couple to divorce since Joachim’s ancestor Frederick VII. Alexandra, mother of two Danish princes, recently made headlines again when she opened up about her second divorce, this time from retired football player Martin Jørgensen.

Much like the Danes, we in the UK waited hundreds of years before we saw a royal divorce after Henry VIII made it possible. Though divorce has become far more socially acceptable, there was still a media outcry in 1976 when Princess Margaret announced she would be divorcing her husband, the Earl of Snowden. After that there was Charles and Diana, a story almost every Brit is familiar with, and recently there have even been rumours that our newest royal couple, Wills and Kate, would be announcing a split, though so far they appear to have been unfounded.

It’s clear that getting divorced as a royal brings with it difficulties that most of us will never have to face, but thanks to the actions of one British monarch, divorce is something that we all, rich and poor alike, have been given access to.

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