A Day In The Life Of A 14th Century Princess Versus A Modern One, From Daily Duties To Meals To Romance
As the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May approaches, the preparations are in earnest. And there's a lot of romantic discussion of "becoming a princess" and how delightful and medieval that sounds (never mind that Markle will actually be assuming the title of Duchess, thank you very much). However, before you get caught up in the drama of princessery, it's worth taking a look at what being a princess in history has actually meant — and the fact is that princesses in the modern era experience life in a very different way to those in the 1300s. And not just because tampons weren't a thing back then.
Being a royal female looks difficult enough in the age of paparazzi, endless public scrutiny and Twitter. In the past, when marriages were political alliances, young women were kept separate from the outside world, and childbirth was frequently lethal, becoming a princess was a much more fraught endeavor. Royal women may have had more power in the 14th century than most princesses do today, but theirs was hardly an existence worth romanticizing, even though we do it constantly. Overall, Markle is in for a much nicer time than her predecessors.
Modern princessery involves charity work, devoting yourself to good deeds and doing some diplomacy. And, of course, there are the notorious etiquette-driven "princess lessons," which non-royal born Princess Mary of Denmark famously endured before marrying Prince Frederick in 2004, and which it's rumored both Duchess Kate and Meghan Markle have received. Fourteenth century European princesses were substantially more restricted, at least on paper — they were usually just educated in the pursuit of a good match, in the ladylike pursuits of music and embroidery, and then expected to produce baby heirs at a rate of knots. However, though men were often left to control most of the decisions, women were also sometimes allowed to do some power-wrangling.
Often, through either their own sons and vassals or their own power, princesses and queens could exercise considerable influence, manage vast tracts of land and armies, and generally work within the trappings of power. Their role was far from symbolic; they were real players on the stage of politics, and could make a serious impact if they wanted to. Joan of Kent, Princess of Wales ruled from behind the throne when her young son Richard became king of England at the age of 10.
These days, the (relatively) rare state banquets at which princesses wear their regalia and tiaras involve dishes being brought out one at a time. (And you can’t possibly sit down at the table until the highest-ranked person or host does, according to Debrett's.) However, that process, known as service a la russe, or Russian service, is actually relatively new-fangled. Before it came into fashion in the 19th century, formal dinners in Europe, including those for royalty, were often constructed differently. They used service a la francaise, in which a lot of dishes were brought to the table at once. And what dishes they were.
The menus for royal feasts from the medieval period would boggle your mind: one course could have upwards of ten dishes, dinners were many courses long, and delicacies included peacock, whale, seal, and porpoise. However, it wasn't the feast of gluttony it appears; diners were only supposed to pick a little from each dish, rather than having an individual portion each. Leftovers were encouraged; they’d often be used to feed servants and other members of the court, or, in the case of seriously lavish feasts like religious festivals and weddings, given out to commoners.
Meghan Markle has a bachelor's degree in theatre and international studies from Northwestern University, while Queen Letizia of Spain has a master's degree in journalism and Princess Mako of Japan a master's in Museum Studies; these days, it's an advantage for a princess to have higher education. In the medieval period, though, princesses were given an education that was supposed to be largely practical and "feminine."
Medieval princesses learned embroidery, spinning and music, but also how to manage large households, because once they were married, they'd be expected to deal with royal courts of hundreds of people, according to historians. They were also often literate and numerate. Many were sent to convents for the beginnings of their education, often staying there until somebody married them — or, like Princesses Clothild and Basina in the sixth century, rebelling against convent leaders and staging a takeover to rule the place themselves. (And if they were widowed or did something disreputable, they'd likely be put straight back in convents again — Eleanor of Aquitaine was imprisoned in a convent for a significant part of her later life for attempting to get too involved in the choice of England's king.)
Interactions With The Public
While modern princesses have to deal with the paparazzi and public handing them flowers, princesses of the 14th century likely had much more limited experiences with the public. We know from 13th-century writer Christine de Pizan that the life of King Charles V and his court was tightly restricted, but that there was a time of day, after the king came out of his prayers in the royal chapel, when people from all over his kingdom could come and supplicate before the king to ask for favors or blessings. It's probable that this was the experience of some of the princesses too — but as women, they were often kept very separate from the wider rabble. Far fewer selfies here.
The proposal heard 'round the world, Prince Harry's declaration of love to Meghan Markle over a roast chicken, made headlines for its charm, but the big distinction between Markle's lot and that of a 14th-century princess was the fact that hers is, above all, a love match.
Fourteenth century princesses expected to be proposed to. A lot. Princesses were dynastic pawns designed to provide alliances between noble families, and there was an "international marriage market", wherein nobles traded their children in marriage across national lines. Princes and princesses could become engaged as children, and their families and minders would get involved from their birth onwards. But it didn't necessarily mean that anybody got married. Isabella de Courcy, princess of England and eldest daughter of King Edward III, once received five proposals at once — and she and her parents rejected them all, in favor of her living independently for fourteen years and marrying her own choice of suitor. (Isabella was a badass.)
Pregnancy & Childbirth
Duchess Kate, wife of Prince William of the UK, famously had hyperemesis gravidarum, excessive vomiting, when pregnant with two of her children. However, she benefited from the ministrations of hospital staff and doctors, while pregnant princesses of the 14th century had to make do with substantially more risky procedures.
Pregnant princesses of the 14th century sometimes had to travel huge distances because of their regal duties; 'touring' your territory was a big part of the job, and if you were pregnant, so be it. Compare that to now, when a pregnant princess would barely be allowed to get on a plane. Death during childbirth was also tragically common: Princess Jeanne of Bourbon, wife of Charles V of France, died in 1378 after contracting a fever during an agonizing four-day labor and being immersed in a cold bath. Life today seems a lot easier and less dangerous.
You don't ever see Duchess Kate or other princesses gallivanting about in groups with other women; if they socialize in public, it's at royal events with other royal partners, and we have only vague ideas about their most intimate friends behind closed doors. Meghan Markle's relatives have been all over the tabloids, but her closest mates have kept very schtum. That's a big change from the 14th century. Princesses of that period went everywhere with their ladies-in-waiting, daughters of nobles who accompanied her to public events, got her dressed, conducted all her duties with her, and would sometimes live in her household even after they'd had their own kids. The world knew exactly who these women were; they'd often been specially selected for the princess before she was born.
Overall, while princesses don't have the same political heft they once did, it's still far preferable to be a princess in the modern era than it was in the 1300s. Much less death in childbirth, more choice in friends, and basically no chance that you'll be sent to a convent for misbehaving.
Bustle’s Royally Fascinated series is all about owning our obsession with princesses — and exploring why that's an empowering thing.