Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle is exciting because it represents a break from tradition for the royal family. Markle, an actress best known for playing Rachel Zane on the TV drama Suits, is biracial, American, and divorced. However, there is one sense in which the match is highly traditional. The British royal family has a long history of romances with stars.
Since the 17th century, royal patronage of the arts has brought princes and actresses together. Until the First World War, royalty usually married other royalty, so these relationships did not end in marriage. The women who combined a successful career on the stage with a high-profile relationship with a prince, however, became the celebrities of their time, expanding the role of women in public life.
During Shakespeare’s time, acting was not considered a suitable occupation for women. Female roles were typically played by adolescent boys. That changed during the reign of King Charles II. When he became king in 1660, he reopened public theaters—closed while the Puritanical Oliver Cromwell was in power—and encouraged them to cast women in their productions.
Through his patronage of the theater and frequent presence at performances, Charles II met Nell Gwyn, a pioneering comic actress. They began a relationship in 1668 and became the parents of two sons together.
While most of Charles II’s mistresses came from the aristocracy, Nell had humbler origins and never attempted to disguise her background. Nell reputedly claimed to have been “brought up in a bawdy-house” [brothel] serving drinks “to the guests,” then found work as an orange seller in theaters before receiving the opportunity to take to the stage. A theater-goer recorded in his diary, “The King and the Duke of York were at the play. But so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this.” When Nell became the King’s mistress, she was widely expected to retire from the stage, but she returned for a triumphant season in 1670. Charles’s last wish on his deathbed in 1685 was reputedly, “Let not poor Nelly starve,” and she received a pension.
One of Gwyn’s contemporaries, Margaret Hughes (1630-1719), may have been the first woman to play the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello—demonstrating that women could excel in dramatic roles in addition to comedy. Margaret became even more famous when she began a relationship with King Charles II’s cousin, Prince Rupert. Charles appointed Rupert Constable of Windsor Castle, and the couple spent time there. Margaret Hughes’s brother died in a duel fought over the question of which actress was more attractive, his sister, “the handsomer now at Windsor,” or Nell Gwyn, who was championed by one of the king’s courtiers.
In 1779, the future King George IV began a two-year relationship with Mary Robinson (1757-1800), nicknamed Perdita for her role in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Robinson was not only a famous actress but a poet, playwright and feminist thinker, who wrote “A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination,” which stated, “I shall remind my enlightened country-women that they are not the mere appendages of domestic life, but the partners, the equal associates of man.”
George IV’s younger brother, the future William IV, had a longstanding relationship with the actress Dorothy Jordan (1761-1816), which resulted in ten children. Dorothy took charge of William’s dismal finances and returned to her stage career to help pay his debts, amusing theater-goers who observed that the actress was supporting the prince, rather than the other way around.
Queen Victoria was eager to make the monarchy respectable again after the scandalous reputations of her uncles, George IV and William IV. But her eldest son, the future Edward VII, followed in their footsteps by pursuing actresses. The most famous was Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), who began auditioning for plays on the advice of her friend Oscar Wilde in 1881. While her relationship with Edward lasted only a few years, her stage career continued for decades. She founded her own theater company, which toured the United States from coast to coast in 1883, earning Langtry “a fat profit.”
What can we learn from this history? The royal family’s relationships with actresses are typically a sign of social progress. Nell Gwyn and Margaret Hughes pioneered acting as a profession for women, convincing the world that women—as well as men—were deserving of the spotlight. Mary Robinson called for gender equality. Dorothy Jordan and Lillie Langtry were astute businesswomen. Today, Meghan Markle has already established a successful career as an actor and humanitarian. With her marriage to Harry, Meghan will contribute to the modernization of the monarchy in the 21st century.