God help the Princesses of Wales

Ignored, betrayed, evicted, debarred - Diana's predecessors suffered for marrying the heir to the throne

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Princesses of Wales are actually pretty rare creatures, partly because there have been relatively few Princes of Wales. Many heirs to the throne did not bear the title. Most of the few Princes of Wales either died or came to the throne before marriage was deemed appropriate.

Things didn't start too badly for Princesses of Wales. Edward, Prince of Wales, aka the Black Prince, married Joan Countess, aka the Fair Maid of Kent, when he was 31. Princess Joan had caused something of a scandal before she caught the prince's eye by being contracted to one man and married to another, and then being made to leave the one and return to the other, but nobody seems to have held it against her. Princess Di could take heart from that.

Joan's husband considerately died at much the same time that she and the prince got together, and they thought it best to get married without too much ado - without informing the monarch, for example, and possibly without making sure that the papal dispensation was coming through.

Widowed Joan wasn't much older than our Di, but evidently much more mature. She must have been quite cute; when she was over 50 she was surprised on the road by Wycliffite rebels, who contented themselves with stealing kisses and set her free. No bulimia for her; in middle age she was too fat to move.

Catherine of Aragon was engaged to marry Arthur Tudor when he was one and she was two; married to him and publicly bedded when she was 15. The spouses could only speak to each other through the bishops who translated their Spanish or English, first into Latin for each other, and then back again into English or Spanish for the spouses. At least Di and Chuck speak the same language, though they may not mean the same thing by it.

In those days, there was no Kensington Palace and Highgrove; the Prince of Wales had to live in Wales, so off the two kids went to keep what one imagines was a rather dismal court at Ludlow.

When Arthur died there a year later of the sweating sickness, Catherine, according to her own account, was still a virgin. Then Henry VII's queen died, so he suggested himself as a bridegroom for his daughter-in-law; the poor girl escaped this fate only to be betrothed to Arthur's 14-year- old brother, Henry.

Negotiations were deliberately kept inconclusive as Henry VII looked for a richer bride for his son. Because of problems related to her dowry payments, Catherine had so little money made available to her that she was down to her second-last dress long before Henry VII died and Henry VIII decided that he needed a queen. The rest, as they say, is history.

Princess Caroline of Wales got herself entangled in a religious dispute almost as soon as she reached England. She had to endure her husband's infidelities with practically all of her ladies-in-waiting, but was obliged to leave St James's with him when he was banished by her father-in-law, George I, because the monarch hated her even more than he did his son.

As the feud between father and son intensified the king insisted on taking control of her children, so there is certainly a Hanoverian precedent for that kind of thing.

Caroline did make it to the throne, however, after which she did pretty much as she liked. She said of her son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, that he was the "greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest canaille, and the greatest beast in the whole world", and she, for one, heartily wished him out of it. Nice family.

Among Frederick's crimes was a disastrous attempt to marry a woman called Lady Diana Spencer, fortunately averted. He eventually married the unfortunate Princess Augusta, of whose pregnancy he neglected to inform the monarch and so they were flung out of St James's. Do we really want to know any more about this family?

Though George III may have married one or two people of obscure birth when he was Prince of Wales, there was no Princess of Wales. When George IV was Prince of Wales he went through a morganatic marriage with Mrs Fitzherbert and lived with her openly. The ructions this caused make this Parker-Bowles business look like a storm in rather less than a tea cup.

Then he proceeded to drive his father out of his mind, which proved easier then expected. He had to be bribed to marry, and when he did eventually marry he treated his good-hearted German frau, Caroline Amelia Elisabeth of Wolfenbuttel, with contempt and derision.

Her husband's mistress made the Princess's life a misery; instead of producing the heir plus a spare, which is the Princess of Wales's real job, not opening things and holding hands and reigning in hearts and all the guff, she produced a daughter, whereupon the Prince of Wales abandoned her. She would not be allowed even to bring up her child.

After a formal separation she lived in seclusion, but somehow the word got about that she thought herself pregnant. A commission of inquiry was ordered and she was seen to be innocent, but when her husband became Regent she was ignored. Debarred from court, she returned to Europe, where she allowed herself a James Hewitt or two.

She was offered a reasonably generous allowance, provided she would never expect or make any attempt to be crowned Queen of England. This she refused.

When George III died, she returned to England, and was welcomed with ovations from the populace. But it made no odds being Queen in people's hearts. An Act of Parliament "to deprive her majesty, Caroline Amelia Elizabeth, of the Titles, Prerogatives, Rights, Privileges, and Exemptions of Queen Consort of The Realm, and to dissolve the marriage between his Majesty and the said Caroline Amelia Elizabeth", was brought in the House of Lords. Though the House was furiously divided, though her husband had treated her abominably, though his infidelities had greatly eclipsed her modest attachments, the divorce clause was carried in committee. The vote in the House was prorogued.

Loving messages of sympathy and support flooded in from her loyal public, but when Caroline tried to enter the abbey for the coronation she was simply barred. The firm had closed ranks. Ten days later, Caroline was dead. When the citizens of London mobbed her funeral procession, the Life Guards fired on the crowd.

The people would have crowned Caroline if they could. There is no kingdom in people's hearts. If Lady Diana Spencer had known the record of this family, if she had had a history O-level, she might have learnt that the Princess of Wales is a title written in tears.

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