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Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle: the long history of women being demonised for marrying into the royal family

From Meghan Markle to Kate Middleton, the young women who are part of the British Royal Family deal with huge interest in their personal lives, from both the press and the public. But this (sometimes negative) attention is certainly nothing new, as historian Gemma Hollman, author of Royal Witches, explains…

The monarchy has been at the centre of British society for centuries. 

Even today, when the Queen occupies a largely symbolic role, Brits – and the wider world – are all still obsessed with the royal family. Its members tour the world, head charities, advocate for peace, and act as style icons. No detail is too small, and people still want to know the tiniest facts about the Royals’ lives, down to what they eat for breakfast.

For the women of the Royal Family, however, this attention can be particularly severe. Princess Diana rocketed to fame upon her marriage to Prince Charles, becoming adored for her kindness and activism as well as envied for her fashion. However, she was hounded by the tabloids until her death. Now, her sons’ wives are facing very similar public scrutiny and sparking countless conversations about the treatment of the women of the Royal Family in today’s media-hungry society.

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If you search for “Kate Middleton” online, a slew of positive articles come up. She is described invariably as “graceful”, “elegant” and “loyal”. There are dozens of sites telling you how to get her look, and many more assessing her parenting and the possibility she may be pregnant with a fourth child. Do the same for Meghan Markle, and the results are far more mixed. She is described as a “rebel”, “demanding” and plenty of articles criticise her for her outfits and perceived personality flaws. There are still, however, many more telling you how to dress just like her, talking about her son, or her charity work. 

During her time as Prince Harry’s wife, many have raised the different treatment Meghan receives in the media compared to Kate, often with the suggestion that it could be related to her race, or the fact that she is divorced, or a foreigner who is not part of the aristocracy. Meghan does not fit the traditional mould of a princess of the UK, and she often gets hounded as a result. However, the scrutiny these modern women in the Royal Family face is nothing new, and can in fact be traced back centuries.

Over 500 years ago, in the 15th century, the women in the English Royal Family were also in the spotlight, and the turbulent politics of the century made this very dangerous. Four women in particular stand out, for they were true targets of a witch hunt: Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Woodville. 

Meghan Markle is often the subject of negative treatment by the press and public, but this is not new for a woman marrying into the royal family.
Meghan Markle is often the subject of negative treatment by the press and public, but this is not new for a woman marrying into the royal family.

Joan of Navarre (c.1370-1437) moved to England at the start of the century to marry King Henry IV. She was a Spanish princess who had been Duchess of Brittany, and the country was not necessarily happy to have a foreigner as their new queen. The English rivalry with Brittany meant time and again that Joan’s friends and servants were the target for complaints, and eventually she was made to send them all home to placate the angry commoners.

A few decades later in 1428, her stepson, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, who was a prince of England, married a woman called Eleanor Cobham (c.1400-1452). Eleanor had previously been Humphrey’s mistress and she was a social upstart, rising from the humble daughter of a knight to become one of the most powerful women in the kingdom, to the ire of many. A group of London women presented a petition to parliament protesting her status as an adulteress, and others at court were jealous that a lower-class woman now held so much wealth and power when they wanted it for themselves. Most chroniclers remembered her as greedy and power hungry, bending her husband to her will so that she could be lavished in jewels and gowns.

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Eleanor’s sister-in-law was Jacquetta of Luxembourg (c.1415-1472), another foreign noble who married into English royalty in 1433. She was married to her husband for just two years before he died, and she wisely remained in the background at court with her second husband, giving birth to many children but staying outside criticism. Court had become dominated by favourites of the king who brutally destroyed opponents to their power, and it was best to stay out of their way. She was eventually vaulted into the spotlight when her eldest daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, shockingly married the King of England, Edward IV. 

Like Eleanor, Elizabeth was seen as a social upstart, for her father was just a simple knight, and she was not considered a suitable match for a king. However, she navigated the public eye well, cultivating an image of a chaste mother who understood the common people. Being a mother – especially to children who would one day inherit the throne – gave a queen the greatest power she could have, as she had fulfilled her greatest duty in life. Being seen as chaste helped her avoid criticism for being married previously, and women who could be perceived as being in any way promiscuous were viewed scathingly. It gave her enemies the least opportunity to criticise her.

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Aspects of Diana, Kate, Meghan, and other women in the Royal Family in recent history can be seen in all of these stories. What many do not know, however, is that these four medieval women were all accused of using witchcraft against the kings who were part of their family. Elizabeth and Jacquetta were accused by Warwick, a man trying to seize control of the king, of using love magic to make Edward fall in love with Elizabeth. This supposedly allowed the women to rise to power and ruin the country for their own ends. More nefariously, Joan and Eleanor were accused of using black magic to try and kill the king. Joan was betrayed by her own step-son, Henry V, whilst Eleanor was an easy target for her husband’s enemies at court, who engineered the accusations to create her downfall.

Royal Witches by Gemma Hollman.
Meghan Markle has been subjected to a modern witch hunt. The history of this is explored in the book Royal Witches by Gemma Hollman.

Some of these women may well have been involved in witchcraft, but all of the accusations against them were brought about for political ends, to remove the women and their allies from important positions of influence at court. Some of them managed to escape the consequences, others suffered severely. Joan was released from prison by Henry V on his deathbed, his guilty conscience of the false accusations weighing on his soul. Eleanor was not as lucky, dying alone in a remote Welsh castle after more than a decade of imprisonment. What the charges against all four women showed was that accusations of witchcraft could be a very successful weapon to use against inconvenient royal women who had too much wealth or power.

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In Royal Witches, I explore the lives of these four women, giving them a voice that echoes back to today. How did they rise to power, and why did they have enemies who wanted them removed? Were they really evil witches who were trying to puppet the king to their own ends, or has history been written by the victors? And are there any lessons to be learnt for today’s duchesses in how to navigate the course of public opinion?

What is clear is that women have historically been easy targets for political plots: the women who marry into the monarchy are much easier to attack than the men who are born into it.

Royal Witches is out now (The History Press, £16.99).

Images: Getty, The History Press

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