Marriage of state

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A marriage of state in ancient use is a diplomatic marriage or union between two members of different nation-states or internally, between two power blocs, usually in authoritarian societies and is a practice which dates back into pre-history, as far back as early Grecian cultures in western society, and of similar antiquity in other civilizations. The fable of Helen of Troy may be the best known pre-historic tale reporting an incidence of surrendering a female member of a ruling line to gain peace or shore up alliances of state between nation-states headed by small oligarchies or acknowledged royalty.[citation needed]

Early European marriages[edit]

While the contemporary Western ideal sees marriage as a unique bond between two people who are in love, families in which heredity is central to power or inheritance (such as royal families) often see marriage in a different light. There are often political or other non-romantic functions that must be served, and the relative wealth and power of the potential spouses should be considered. Marriage for political, economic, or diplomatic reasons was a pattern seen for centuries among European rulers.[1]

Careful selection of a spouse was important to maintain the royal status of a family: depending on the law of the land in question, if a prince or king was to marry a commoner who had no royal blood, even if the first-born was acknowledged as a son of a sovereign, he might not be able to claim any of the royal status of his father.[1] Throughout history, members of a royal family who are not granted a royal title rarely have much power.

Traditionally, many factors were important in the arranging of royal marriages. One such factor was the size of the tracts of land that the other royal family governed or controlled.[1] Another, related factor was the stability of the control exerted over that territory: when there is territorial instability in a royal family, other royals will be less inclined to marry into that family.[1] Another factor was political alliance: marriage was an important way to bind together royal families and "their countries during peace and war" and could justify many important political decisions.[1]

Importance of religion[edit]

Religion has always been closely tied to political affairs and continues to be today in many countries. Religious considerations were often important in marriages among royal families, particularly in lands where there was an established (official) religion. When a royal family was prepared to negotiate or arrange the marriage of one of its children, it was extremely important to have a prospective spouse who followed the same religion or, at the very least, that the spouse be willing to convert before the wedding. In non-Catholic royal families, there were few things worse than marrying a person who was a Catholic.[1] Some countries barred from accession to the throne any person who married a Catholic, as in the British Act of Settlement 1701. When a Protestant prince converted to Catholicism, he risked being disowned by his family,[1] and often being barred from the throne himself. Some of these laws are still in force, centuries after the conclusion of Europe's Wars of Religion.

Roman Catholic countries had similar laws and strictures. France, for example, effectively barred non-Catholics from the throne. Even if the law did not strictly prohibit marrying non-Catholic royalty, political situations and popular sentiment were frequently sufficient to dissuade princes from so doing.

Early marriage negotiations[edit]

The Habsburg marriage negotiations revolving around the marriage of Queen Elizabeth I show the way marriage was often negotiated in royal families. The first phase began in 1559, with the initiative for a matrimonial alliance between England and Austria.[2] However, the first phase was a failure. Despite the failure, the people of England were relieved to the extent that they feared a foreign ruler coming into their country.[2] The second phase of marriage negotiations came from England.[2] Sir William Cecil was interested and began work on a marriage negotiation.[2] While the first set of negotiations were uncertain this round gathered more support and Elizabeth was eventually in a position to marry that she could not get out of. Negotiations such as this are frequent in royal marriages. Many factors are an important part of negotiations such as the alliances that will be made, the religion, and the opinion of the royal family. Marriage was often based on political reasons, rather than love at this time.

Napoleon, as emperor, gave out kingdoms and female relatives with equal largesse to favored Marshals and general officers. Through most of recorded history state marriage were also common at lesser levels of nobility, and many a lesser marriage of state was consummated and bargained over during all of the Middle Ages and through the middle of the twentieth-century in western society, and the old forms still hold sway in many other cultural contexts today. One famous example of a marriage of state for lesser reasons was that of George II of Great Britain's parents. The Princess Sophia's dowry included properties assuring an income of 100,000 thalers annually, which led to George Louis, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (the future George I of Great Britain), marrying his first cousin Sophia Dorothea of Celle—when both were pressed into the arrangement by his mother— and that German ducal dynastic move accidentally gave the couple the inside track on the Protestant thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland (and later, those of the United Kingdom and Ireland).

Our own modern era has seen the terms meaning drift somewhat to include purely domestic marriages involving prominent figures, especially royalty in those societies still supporting that institution. So recent times have witnessed press spectacles as British royalty paid court and public relations officials maneuvered both behind the scenes and within the public eye in such marriages of state (in the newer Western sense) between Prince Charles and Lady Diana and Prince Andrew and Sarah amongst others.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Fleming, Patricia H. (June 1973). "The Politics of Marriage Among Non-Catholic European Royalty". Current Anthropology. 14 (3): 231–249. doi:10.1086/201323. 
  2. ^ a b c d Doran, Susan (October 1989). "Religion and Politics at the Court of Elizabeth I: The Habsburg Marriage Negotiations of 1559-1567". The English Historical Review. 104 (413): 908–926. doi:10.1093/ehr/CIV.413.908.