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David Starkey to give a talk on Meghan Markle and the 'misfit' royal family at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

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Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature 2019 - David Starkey. (8810025)
Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature 2019 - David Starkey. (8810025)

One of the country’s leading historians is set to debunk some common misconceptions about the royal family in his upcoming presentation that is sure to be entertaining, entitled A Monarchy of Misfits.

Controversial he sometimes may be, but David Starkey is always one to keenly encourage active, independent thought, and the magnetic author, television and radio presenter and former lecturer will be doing just that when he visits the Arts Theatre later this month.

Using the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – as a starting point, the alumnus of Fitzwilliam College will take the audience on a journey through the history of the royal family, tracing the radically shifting marriage customs of the British monarchy, from the laxity of the Middle Ages, through the stringencies of the Hanoverians, to the House of Windsor and its sometimes contorted adaptations to the realities of modern family life.

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent while on his way to lunch at the National Portrait Gallery, he said: “The predicate of the talk is the enormous fuss about Meghan, about her American-ness, about her mixed race-ness, the fact that she’d been an actress...

"And what this lecture is pointing out is if you go back to the last time the monarchy is really unquestionably English, ie, not Scottish with the Stuarts and not German with the Hanoverians, you come across patterns of royal marriage which are astonishingly similar.”

Dr Starkey continued: “What I do, I begin by looking at the sons of arguably the greatest of the medieval kings, Edward III, who prided himself on having an awful lot of sons, and it’s fascinating looking at whom they marry.

“The Prince of Wales marries a woman who is twice divorced, seduced willingly at the age of 12 and is already a widow with children.

"The fourth son, the Duke of York – in those days the title had no particular meaning – marries a Spanish princess who is half-Moorish and has a claim to be a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.

“The third son, John of Gaunt’s third wife is the au pair – Katherine Swynford.

“So what I try to do is first give a blitzkrieg of extraordinary facts, then I look at why – and the explanation seems to be love.

“The French obviously invent the idea of romantic love, courtly love and all the rest of it, but when it’s adapted into English – Chaucer writes during the reign of Edward III and Richard II – a very interesting change takes place.

“For the first time, romantic love is associated with the idea of marriage. With the French, lots of romantic love, but the idea that you should love your wife is regarded as being positively bad-mannered.

“It’s still the case, but the good old English, us plodding sons of the soil, associate – and I think it remains a very powerful Anglo Saxon characteristic – the idea of love and marriage, and you see the monarchy trying to exemplify that.”

There is also the example of a more familiar monarch.

“Look at Henry VIII, said Dr Starkey. “I always used to point out to my students that wonderful Dr Johnson remark that a second marriage is ‘the triumph of hope over experience’ – what is the sixth marriage? How much experience does hope have to triumph over?

“But Henry is in love with all of his wives, apart from Anne of Cleves.”

David Starkey
David Starkey

Dr Starkey notes that everything changes with the foreign dynasties, first with the Stuarts and then with the Hanoverians.

“With the Stuarts, because they’ve only been the rulers of this petty kingdom of Scotland, they have these fantastic aspirations to legitimate themselves by grand marriages to European princesses,” he said, “which of course are invariably catastrophic, as all the princesses are Catholic and they’re supposed to be Protestant.

“So you get the extraordinary business of Charles I’s proxy being shut out from Charles I’s own marriage because Henrietta Maria regards her husband as a heretic it’s a completely extraordinary pattern.

"Then you have the Hanoverians coming in, and of course the Hanoverians are governed by two sets of laws about marriage.

“Following the overthrow of the House of Stuart, the English insist that all those who are in direct line to the throne must marry Protestants.

"They also observe the German rule of having to marry people of exactly the same social status as themselves, and the result is that whenever any English royal prince wants to marry, there are about two-and-a-half women in Europe that he can marry – and they’re both unattractive.

"I’m expressing this humorously but it’s true.

“You see the princes of the House of Hanover consciously opt out of marriage, and they go instead for these long-term affairs, usually with actresses.”

The effect of this is certainly eye-opening.

“George III had seven or eight sons, and after Charlotte, the daughter of his eldest son the Prince Regent, dies in 1817, there is not a single legitimate grandchild,” said Dr Starkey.

“You then get this race to the altar, which is won by the Duke of Kent, who produces Victoria.

“So what we think of as an ordinary monarchy and an ordinary royal marriage, or whatever, is a totally 20th century creation.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle ride in an Ascot Landau through Windsor following their wedding at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle ride in an Ascot Landau through Windsor following their wedding at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

It has been rumoured that Meghan Markle intends to raise the couple’s child ‘gender neutral’. A little too modern for some people?

“I’m sure it’s far too modern for a lot of people,” said Dr Starkey, “if it’s true. I very much doubt it but, on the other hand, I don’t think they’ll be dressing up their children like William and Kate’s children.

"They won’t be dressed up as royal mini-mes out of the 1950s, which very few children are nowadays.”

He continued: “On the other hand, what’s very striking is how quickly the Queen, who is very shrewd, has jumped on the Meghan bandwagon.

"Meghan and Harry have been made youth ambassadors to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is the only thing that the Queen really cares about.

“She has shown absolute dogged determination to preserve the Commonwealth, and it’s the only sphere that she can act on unilaterally without the advice of British ministers.

"She spotted immediately that Meghan, because of her mixed race background, is a sort of royal modernisation in a nutshell, but in many ways in a very digestible form.

“She’s obviously highly intelligent, used to public performance and I think the Queen shows every sign of being very happy.”

On the suggestion that the royal family have become more like celebrities in recent years, the historian concluded: “They always have been. It’s celebrity culture that’s caught up with the monarchy.

"Even in the 1920s it was said that our royal family were the nearest thing we had to Hollywood film stars.

“Monarchy and the stage have always been very closely associated with each other. A royal event, a royal marriage, a coronation is a piece of theatre.”

A Monarchy of Misfits will be on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on Sunday, April 28, at 7.45pm.

Tickets: £25/£30. All ticket prices include a £3 booking fee per ticket.

Box office: 01223 503333, or cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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