A Brief History of the British Royal Family's Complicated Romantic Entanglements

History has proved on many occasions that when the heart rules the head, trouble can follow. To wit: the reign of Henry VIII of England, during which many such heads were chopped off, including those of two of the king’s wives. For a long time, arranged marriages were considered the most sensible, but nowadays we allow feelings to lead the way. Should you be looking to track the increasingly rapid evolution of such social mores over time, there are few better places to look to than the British royal family, which is currently the focus of intense media attention thanks to the arrival of Meghan Markle.

It is extraordinary that it was as recently as 2005, eight years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that Prince Charles was finally allowed to marry his first love, Camilla Parker Bowles—and even then, not without controversy. Interestingly, the media treated Camilla as the hated mistress until the eve of the wedding. They then assigned her, overnight, the role of supportive wife, which she still enjoys.

Forbidden fruit always tastes better, and rulers have often struggled with ways to address the issue. King George III created the Royal Marriages Act 1772 a year after his brother, the Duke of Cumberland, committed the shocking act of marrying a commoner, the 28-year-old widow Anne Horton. The king told his brother that “he had irretrievably ruined himself” by this “disgraceful conduct.” The act decreed that no descendent of George II—other than children born to princesses married into foreign families—could marry without the consent of the ruling British monarch. Any marriage that disregarded these stringent terms was effectively null and void. Thus his son the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, was deemed to have contracted an illegal marriage with the twice-married Roman Catholic Maria Fitzherbert in 1785; his brother William IV produced some 10 illegitimate children before attempting to create legitimate ones with a Protestant royal wife. Around 1890, Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence (grandson of Queen Victoria and her presumptive heir), seriously considered renouncing the throne to marry Princess Hélène of Orléans—her Catholicism being the issue. Although she was prepared to renounce her faith, neither her father, nor Pope Leo XIII, nor the British prime minister would sanction this union.

Illustration by PTMcG

By 1936, not much had changed. Unmarried when he succeeded to the throne, Edward VIII was very involved with Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American with two husbands still living. No one worried too much about this unfortunate state of affairs until Mrs. Simpson instituted divorce proceedings against Mr. Simpson, at which point there was a genuine fear that the king might marry her just before the coronation, in May 1937. The well-known saga of the abdication followed, and, in December 1936, he set off into voluntary exile. Most people saw the abdication as an obstinate, obsessional, and unpatriotic course of action. The duke saw it as a plunge into the real world, and claimed that he never hesitated an instant in choosing Mrs. Simpson over the throne.

Very much less headstrong than his great-uncle, Prince Charles hesitated about proposing to Camilla Shand, as Camilla was known before marrying the dashing cavalry officer Andrew Parker Bowles, especially because she did not fit the unwritten criterion for royal brides, having enjoyed something of a past. So instead, in 1981, he married Lady Diana Spencer, an innocent, aristocratic girl who had been brought up near Sandringham House. Both her grandmothers and four of her great-aunts were ladies-in-waiting to the Queen Mother.

That was, however, the last time that the status quo prevailed. The queen’s other children wed people of their choice. In 1973, Princess Anne had fallen for a fellow equestrian, Captain Mark Phillips, whom she had met through her love of riding. Both he and Princess Anne were Olympic competitors; she famously joked that when she rode the queen’s horse Goodwill in the 1976 Summer Olympics, in Montreal, it was probably the first time in history that the owner had bred not only the horse but also the rider. Prince Andrew found Sarah Ferguson at Smith’s Lawn, Windsor, in the world of polo—her father managed Prince Charles’s polo schedule, ponies, and equipment. And Prince Edward met Sophie ­Rhys-Jones at a charity event, when she was a PR executive.

By 1992, the year in which Prince Andrew’s marriage fell apart, and Princess Anne divorced her Olympic rider, conventions had definitely evolved. Four decades prior, Princess Margaret, an unmarried princess, had not been allowed to marry Peter Townsend, a divorced equerry. In stark contrast, there was very little fuss when Princess Anne, a divorced princess, married Timothy Laurence, an unmarried equerry. The younger members of the family followed suit. Princess Margaret’s daughter, Lady Sarah, married Daniel Chatto, an actor turned artist; Peter Phillips, the son of Princess Anne, married Autumn Kelly, the daughter of a Canadian executive; and Peter’s sister, Zara, married Mike Tindall, then captain of the England national rugby team. Clearly, the dynamics around the dining room table are now considerably different from what the queen was used to when she was young.

All of which brings us to Prince William and Prince Harry. The royal wedding of 2011 caused a huge sensation, as it would lead to a future queen, and another generation of the royal family. But there was an additional element. The last time people had thought about Prince William, he was a forlorn teenager following his mother’s coffin. In the intervening years, he had finished school and university, not gone off the rails, and had complete freedom of choice in finding a bride. ­Catherine Middleton was a lovely girl, with a university degree and roots in a sound, middle-class family. This was not a dynastic marriage. She arrived on the scene, as it were, fully baked, and she has not changed a jot since then. Whereas there had been grave, if largely unvoiced, concerns when Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, Prince William’s wedding day was a huge success because the transparent happiness of the couple permeated the whole occasion.

Illustration by PTMcG

Prince Harry’s problem was to find a girl prepared to take him on with all the pressures involved, and who would be compared, almost certainly unfavorably, to his sister-in-law. He made a contrasting impression on the public mind. Gallant service in Afghanistan was matched with bad-boy antics, most notably when he was photographed romping about in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Paradoxically, in the end, this served to give him pop-star status: Girls pressed against crowd barriers to see him, just as others had clamored for the Beatles in the 1960s. He was publicly linked to a pair of beautiful blondes, but these relationships never went anywhere—and then Meghan Markle appeared. She had already had a solid career as an actress and was immensely popular in the USA Network series Suits, as paralegal Rachel Zane. It was by no means a conventional choice. Many expected Prince Harry to settle down with an upper-class girl like Cressida Bonas, whom he had dated for a couple of years, and who was more in the British royal orbit. But, interestingly, Markle’s career as an actress could be considered better training for a royal spouse in the current era.

In the 19th century, in order to cement relations between great European nations, the royal policy was to create alliances with German royal houses; after the First World War, when it became clear that marriages with Germany were no longer feasible, the royal family gravitated toward Scottish aristocracy, or Greek and Danish, in two memorable instances. (There was a collective sigh of relief when the Duke of Kent married Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, in 1934, for she was infinitely more appropriate than other potential brides such as the fast and worldly Poppy Baring, the ragtime pianist Edythe Baker, and Kiki Preston, whose nickname, “the girl with the silver syringe,” said it all.)

Nowadays, however, geopolitical and even social considerations are less of a concern than is popular perception. Markle is used to dealing with fans on the red carpet and answering questions from provocative TV hosts. (When one of them asked her on air about having interracial parents, she replied that it’s a shame we should live in a world where anyone would focus on such things and discriminate because of them.) She was already known for charity work on a global level and had publicly embraced issues such as gender equality, the empowerment of women, and combatting modern-day slavery.

Challenges await the star as she merges into the hierarchy of the British royal family, whose members are there to support the queen and to undertake various royal duties that the queen simply does not have time to do. Some of them, such as presiding over the openings of factories, schools, and hospitals, are somewhat less than glamorous. Therefore, in a sense, Markle will have to step down to the role of “extra” or “supporting actress.” This was clear when she appeared with the royal family outside the church at Sandringham at Christmas. A large crowd had gathered, primarily for a glimpse of her, but she had to defer to the queen, as evidenced by her elegant curtsey.

Wisely, Markle has already closed down her various social media accounts and ceased blogging about fashion accessories and travel destinations. But unlike any previous royal bride, we already know about her from late-night chat shows, and we can see her in action in Suits. She is well-spoken, in control, and clearly not afraid of raising middlebrow brows, as when she wore a $75,000 ensemble with a sheer top for her official engagement portrait. (But then, for the most part, it is her money that has earned her expensive clothes.) It has been hinted that she wants to make a speech at the wedding reception, which would be a break with royal custom. She’s the first royal bride ever to have addressed the United Nations, and it appears that Prince Harry enjoys the public’s interest in her—for once he is not the center of attention. As for his bride, the question will be whether someone trained to steal the spotlight will be able to retreat from it readily—or at least step into the shadows when the occasion demands.

Related: A Letter of Condolence to Meghan Markle, Whose Own Extended Clan May Be Even Nuttier Than the Windsors