Two years ago, serendipitously, the Bodleian Library offered the Jagiellonians Project (which I lead) a spring 2018 slot for an exhibition about a Renaissance royal wedding. As the Bodleian staff, my co-curator Katarzyna Kosior and I hurried to write captions, secure an object loan, design flyers and pick 9 objects to mark the 500th anniversary of the 1518 wedding of King Sigismund I of Poland and the Italian princess Bona Sforza, the media grew steadily more excited about preparations for the British royal celebrations. As we held a conference on Renaissance Royal Weddings, from Paris to Constantinople, the imminent Windsor wedding moved higher and higher up the news agenda. And the parallels between 16C and contemporary royal nuptials are rich.
The British royal wedding this weekend boasted impeccably 21stcentury features: the digital clock on Windsor Council’s website, A-list celebrity culture, the tens of thousands of tweets generated. But, like royal weddings across time and space, the event was at heart a symbolic performance. It was thus in the Renaissance, when princes put on treasury-draining, eye-poppingly spectacular festivities for their nuptials. It was thus in imperial nineteenth-century Britain, when the royals invented a new traditional-looking pageantry to awe onlookers. Historians know that royal weddings perform identity because they are a chance for princes, and their subjects, to stage who think they are - or who they might like to be.
When the bride is a foreigner, from a distant land, this effect is heightened. Meghan Markle is the first foreign bride for a senior British royal since, whisper it, the abdicated Edward VIII took the American socialite Wallis Simpson as his wife. Historically, a royal marriage to an overseas bride was proof of a country’s essential cosmopolitanism – its diplomatic connections, its international power, and also of the prince’s good cultural taste and broad horizons. When, 500 years ago this spring, King Sigismund married Bona Sforza in Cracow, he was reinforcing his own reputation as a leading enthusiast for the Italian Renaissance and all its heady glamour. Prince Harry too was showing us a more global, forward-looking British monarchy, open to the future.
But a prince’s foreign spouse has also consistently been a touchstone for anxieties about national identity and belonging, galvanising local anger. In 1554, for example, the English noble Thomas Wyatt led a rebel army to London, to prevent Mary I from taking a foreigner, Philip II of Spain, as her husband. In Poland, the teenage Bona Sforza immediately became the subject of obscene verses, lambasted for bringing with her Italian ‘sodomites, patricides and epicureans’ who stole jobs from honest Poles. Meghan Markle, even before the wedding, became the target of hate mail. At a country house outside Reading this weekend, I heard visitors (racism alert) grumbling out loud, as they tucked into their picnic, about the inclusion of a Gospel choir in the royal wedding service because this ‘wasn’t British music’.
Foreign brides for princes have, for centuries, highlighted and even inflamed tensions between a country’s local and cosmopolitan identities. Royal weddings thus show us a society in microcosm. Royal nuptials hold up a mirror in which historians catch a glimpse of past identity crises; and in which we can today catch a bracing glimpse of Britain, with all its fissures, in 2018.