There have been only four consorts (counting the present incumbent) of reigning English queens. The role is awkward: a 'lot high and brilliant', as Prince Albert himself put it, 'but also plentifully strewn with thorns'. Other states make (or made) sensible provision either to avoid the inherent difficulties or to accommodate them. Most dynasties adopted the so-called 'Salic' law of succession among males only. There have been no reigning French queens. The effort by the German Emperor Charles VI, the last male Habsburg, to arrange for his younger daughter to succeed to his hereditary lands led to Europe's a being turned upside down. Others - the Iberians notably - allowed female succession and fulfilled the logic by granting male consorts equal title and status. The English, characteristically, dodged the issue and defied all logic. The English system consists in essence of allowing female succession (in preference indeed to agnate males) but of hoping against hope that there will be no occasions of it. The first two occasions offered dismal precedents. Mary I's consort, King Philip of Spain, was dangerously powerful in his own right, and only Mary's barrenness saved England from becoming yet another component of the Habsburg Empire. Her half-sister, Elizabeth I, avoided the problem by avoiding matrimony altogether. Anne's consort, the dim Prince George of Denmark, confined himself largely to trying (and failing) to provide a successor to the Stuart crown.
LRB 5 April 1984 | PDF Download