Tag Archives: Marriage

The Politics of Medieval Marriage

Thanks to Walt Disney and the many fairytale versions of life in a castle, many of us played princess or prince as children. Life in a castle was painted in a such a romantic and glamorous fashion that it held an irresistible lure. But real life princesses didn’t enjoy the life many of us imagine.

Yes, they had luxuries the common folk could not even dream of—fine clothes and jewels and sumptuous meals accompanied by imported wine—but they had very little freedom. Privacy was almost unheard of—they shared a bedroom with others, including their personal servants, and rarely went anywhere without those same servants in tow. And when it came to marriage, the notion of wedding the person you loved was a far-fetched dream. Marriages were the underpinnings of great alliances. Most princesses were married to whomever the king needed as an ally or to whomever he owed a heavy debt of gratitude.

The hit TV series Game of Thrones has made much of the importance of political marriage this season. Since the show takes place in a fantasy version of a medieval world, I thought this commentary was very  apropos:

In the world of 13th century Scotland, arranged marriages were very much the norm, especially for princesses. Most notable in the later part of the century was the marriage of Princess Margaret, the daughter of King Alexander III. Scotland had long endured conflict with the Vikings, and although King Alexander defeated the Norse at Largs in 1263, keeping peace with them was an important part of ensuring his country prospered. To that end, in 1281, at the age of 20, his daughter Margaret was shipped off to wed the 13 year old king of Norway, Eric II.

It was hardly the marriage of romance novels. Their age difference would have made it difficult to bond, and Margaret would have known little if any Norwegian. Imagine yourself married to a boy much younger than you, in a strange country where you cannot speak the language. And lest you think the marriage was platonic, Margaret gave birth less than two years later to a baby girl who became the Queen of Scotland upon King Alexander’s death in 1286. Sadly, Margaret died giving birth to that child, at the tender age of 22.

Times have certainly changed. In England, royal marriages are less about political maneuvering and more about love—as witnessed by the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Marriage Cambridge

My own parents married for love, so I prefer to write my medieval stories with less grim reality and more romance than the life led by real nobles in medieval times. Not entirely accurate perhaps, but definitely a sweeter read.