Book review: The Ring and the Crown by Alison Weir, Kate Williams, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman

When Prince William marries Kate Middleton in the grandeur of Westminster Abbey later this month, it will be the culmination of a much-hyped royal romance.

But marriage has not always been a happy affair for one of the world’s most colourful monarchies; in fact, the handsome future king will be one of the few British heirs to the throne to have enjoyed the luxury of choosing his own bride.

Over the last 1,000 years, the marriages of most of Prince William’s predecessors have been principally decided by political, state and dynastic matters rather than by affairs of the heart.

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Not only that, the prince certainly didn’t have to defy a feudal overlord, fight a war or even circumvent witchcraft to claim his bride and it’s unlikely that Kate Middleton will feel the need to hide in a cupboard on her wedding night.

Intrigued? A fascinating and beautifully illustrated history of royal marriages from 1066 to 2011 goes behind the scenes and even into the royal bedchambers to unearth some of the most extraordinary wedding stories.

Four of Britain’s top writers and TV presenters, known collectively as the ‘History Girls’, have pooled their research and knowledge to present all the extraordinary love, hate and drama of regal romances.

Using historical fact and contemporary anecdotal detail, there are stories here ranging from amusing and bizarre to bawdy and breathtaking.

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One of the earliest royal brides was Matilda of Flanders who famously rejected a marriage proposal from the future William the Conqueror on the grounds of his ‘bastardy’. It was only when he retaliated by beating her and rolling her in the mud that she fell for his macho charms and immediately accepted.

The marriage of the first Plantagenet King Henry II to the brazen and beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine was very much a clandestine affair, mainly because Eleanor had recently divorced the King of France and was being hotly pursued by a string of other suitors.

Their youngest and most rebellious son, King John, was a notoriously bad husband. He grew to hate his second wife, Isabella of Angoulême, so much that he had her lovers ‘strangled with a rope on her bed’.

The youngest royal bride and bridegroom were Edward IV’s son Richard, Duke of York, and Anne Mowbray, both aged five, who were married in 1478 in a wedding that cost a staggering £200,000 and included enough ladies-in-waiting to fill 12 carriages.

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The most embarrassing wedding night must surely belong to warrior king Henry V and Katherine de Valois who were visited in their bed by a constant stream of guests armed with food and drink ‘to fortify them after their endeavours’.

One of the few real love (or maybe lust) matches was the marriage of handsome and promiscuous King Edward IV to the beautiful commoner Elizabeth Wydeville in 1464 which caused a scandal of such epic proportions that it nearly cost him his throne.

Perhaps one of the most pitiable brides was Anne of Denmark who visibly flinched when she caught first sight of her husband-to-be, the Stuart king James I who was well known for his ‘ungainly walk, protruding eyes and slobbering mouth’.

And the fat Prince Regent, later George IV, was said to have looked ‘like death’ at his marriage to the detested Princess Caroline of Brunswick. He was so drunk on the wedding night that he fell into the fireplace and stayed there all night.

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Mary II, meanwhile, is reported to have cried all through the service when she was married against her will to William of Orange in 1677. In a quirk of fate and against all the odds, their marriage turned out to be one of the happiest in royal history.

Her sister, who became Queen Anne, did not fare so well. Her gregarious uncle Charles II famously observed of her husband, the rather dull George of Denmark: ‘I’ve tried him drunk and I’ve tried him sober, but there’s nothing in him.’

The wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840 set the precedent for many modern royal weddings - for the first time there was a large wedding guest list, the marriage took place in the daytime rather than the evening to enable crowds to watch the bridal procession and the bride herself wore white rather than colourful court dress.

The Ring and the Crown brings to life all the passion and pathos of royal weddings but also reminds us that however modern the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton might appear, it will take place in a historical context based on the traditions of thousands of years of monarchy.

(Hutchinson, hardback, £20)