Being a princess is a kind of romantic fantasy that involves having bags of money, a glamorous lifestyle, rightful privilege, and, of course, a living, breathing Prince Charming. But they can also be the uncomfortable embodiment of the gilded cage.
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Princesses occupy a strange place in Western civilization.
Being a princess is a kind of romantic fantasy that involves having bags of money, a glamorous lifestyle, rightful privilege, and, of course, a living, breathing Prince Charming. But they can also be the uncomfortable embodiment of the gilded cage: In the fairy tales, they're just waiting for a handsome prince to come and rescue them; in the history books, they're often just a footnote, diplomatic cannon fodder married off to suit the geopolitical whims of the kingdom. And these days, there's the whole Princess Industrial Complex: Canny marketing has radically democratized the notion of being a princess, turning something that was once a birthright of a very few into a birthright of pretty much anyone who likes the color pink. Now, the title "princess" applies to anyone with an unjustified sense of glittery entitlement (which goes a long way in explaining every episode of every bridal reality show ever).
But real princesses are, of course, far removed from the cartoon fairy tale, the Prince Charming fantasies, and the glittery bumper stickers declaiming in offensive fonts, "Princess on board!" Real princesses are much, much more complex--because real princesses were actual humans, not cardboard cut-outs.
In "Princesses Behaving Badly" [Quirk Books, $19.95], I took a look at the not-so-Disney lives of 30 princesses, and found a whole world of women whom history had mostly forgotten, vilified, or written off. These are women who took the crown and ran with it--though not always to particularly nice places. They lied, murdered, used sex, or dressed like a man to hold on to power, and weren't afraid to get a little blood on their hands. They're also women who were imprisoned, victims of circumstances entirely beyond their control, or who were forced to make difficult decisions that history still punishes them for. Some were mean, petty, and vain; some drank too much, or gave their affection rather more freely than their contemporaries thought appropriate. Some just wanted to have a good time, no matter how much that unsettled everyone else. And others, of course, were just bizarre and possibly mentally ill- a limited gene pool can be just as corrupting as absolute power. But at the end of the day, they're all real--and isn't that somehow more satisfying than the glittery, pink-and-purple fantasy princess?
Justa Grata Honoria: The enemy of my enemy is... my future husband?
After her brother, western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, executed her lover and tried to marry her off to a boring senator in his pocket, Justa Grata Honoria didn’t wait around for some prince to just happen to rescue her. No, this clever princess got out her stationary set and penned a letter—to Attila the Hun. Yes, that Attila the Hun, the barbarian invader taking big bites out of the once mighty Roman Empire. Justa offered Attila a bit of money and asked for his help; whether she actually asked him to marry her is up for debate, but he certainly took it that way. In 451, he demanded Valentinian III hand over half the Western Roman Empire as dowry; the Emperor was having none of it and married Justa off against her will anyway. Enraged, Attila let loose his barbarian horde through the Roman Empire, demanding his rightful bride. Though they were eventually repulsed before they took Rome itself, the Empire soon got on with disintegrating in earnest and Justa, who didn’t live more than five years after this episode, was forever remembered as the traitorous princess who invited the barbarians in.
Njinga, the Murderous Warrior Princess
She was a Central West African warrior queen who put her lovers to death after they spent just one night with her. Of course, that was according to the Marquis de Sade, so take that with a block of salt. Romantic habits aside, Njinga did kill a few people who stood between her and her throne, and she was a fierce warrior who fought a guerilla war against the Portuguese and the Dutch colonists for control of the regional slave trade and economic resources. She, more than any other regional ruler at the time, forced the colonists to deal with her as an equal: Once, when negotiating with a Portuguese governor, she became enraged when no chair was brought for her to sit on. But with one motion of her hand, one of her maidservants to dove to the ground and she sat on the woman’s back. Check and mate.
Caraboo, the Fake Princess
In 1817, one young woman caused quite a stir in Bristol and notoriously fashionable spa town, Bath, England: Princess Caraboo, the daughter of the ruler of Javasu, a Malaysian island nation. Caraboo was a charming collection of exotic dress, habits and language; she had a lovely figure, fine features, and appeared to understand very little of English culture—when confronted with a bed, for example, she didn’t know what to do with it. So imagine everyone’s shock when it turned out that the captivating royal foreigner wasn’t from as far away as Malaysia—she was barely from as far away as the next county. “Princess Caraboo” and indeed, Javasu itself, was an elaborate fiction created by Mary Baker, daughter of a Devonshire cobbler endowed with a tremendous imagination and a near-pathological tendency to lie.
Pauline von Metternich, the Dueling Princess
Feisty Princess Pauline von Metternich, daughter of one Austria’s foremost statesmen, married her uncle and alternately charmed and alarmed 19th-century Viennese society with her antics—she stood on her head at balls, danced jigs, smoked cigarettes in public. But her most startling escapade came in August 1892, when amused papers across Europe carried a report that she’d been involved in a duel. Pauline, the honorary president of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, and the Countess Kilmannsegg, president of the Ladies’ Committee of the Exhibition, had “a fearful quarrel over some arrangements at the exhibition”. So fearful, in fact, “that it cold only be settled by blood”. The Princess and the Countess faced off with rapiers and by the third round, the Princess took a wound on the nose and the Countess on the arm. Real Housewives of 19th Century Austria?
Charlotte of Prussia, the Sex Party Princess
The granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Charlotte of Prussia was not, it appears, cast from her grandmother’s formidably proper mould. Charlotte loved smoking, drinking, and salacious gossip; she certainly didn’t shy from being the subject of that gossip, either. In 1891, she threw a swinging sex party for a group of fellow nobles at a secluded hunting lodge outside Berlin. Everyone had a lovely time, but imagine her shock when her guests began receiving anonymous blackmail letters from someone who obviously attended the party. Suspicion first fell on Charlotte herself, but the culprit was later found to be a black sheep relative. However, by the time the villain was exposed, the damage had already been done: One man was dead in a duel, another’s career was ruined, and Charlotte’s already troubled relationship with her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was destroyed.
Clara Ward, the Runaway Princess
American heiress Clara Ward’s continental exploits made her a constant fixture in society columns on both sides of the Atlantic: The daughter of a Michigan millionaire, she was only 17 when she married the older Belgian Prince de Caraman-Chimay, becoming the Princesse de Caraman-Chimay. Six years later, however, after living it up in 1890s Paris, she ran off with a Hungarian Gypsy violinist and began posing in skin-tight, flesh-colored costumes on the stages of the famous Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere. Marriage to the violinist didn’t last, however, and she married a handsome Italian waiter she met on a train in 1904. Finally, after true love proved elusive with the waiter—and he accused her of having an affair with the butler—she divorced and married again.
Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe, the Princess Who Partied For Hitler
A glittering socialite living in London in the 1930s, Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe had access to many of England’s most important aristocrats—making her very useful to the Nazi Party. She used her contacts to get Hitler’s agenda on the pages of Britain’s most popular daily, The Daily Mail, and made sure that Nazi sympathy was well seeded among the elite by mixing praise for the party’s efforts with dazzling cocktail banter. Stephanie was rewarded for her efforts, earning a Nazi Gold Medal of Honor, as well as personal gifts from the Fuhrer, including a signed picture of Hitler calling her his “Dear Princess” and a sheepdog puppy. After Britain entered the war, however, Stephanie found herself unwelcome there and she left the country under a cloud of ignominy in December 1939. Of course, choosing to go to America, where the FBI had been keeping tabs on her for years, was probably not the best choice—she spent much of the war in an internment camp for enemy aliens.
Princess Louise of Belgium, the “Insane” Princess
She wasn’t really insane—maybe a little unstable, and prone to comfort shopping, but certainly not certifiable. But Princess Louise of Belgium, daughter of the truly reprehensible King Leopold II of the Belgians, was given a choice after she skipped out on her dissatisfying 20-year marriage to a fellow noble: Go back to your husband, her father said, or go to an insane asylum. She chose the asylum. After her lover, the dashing Count Geza Mattachich 10 years her junior, broke her out, they spent years on the run, dodging creditors in Europe, before his death in 1923; she died less than a year later, his portrait clutched to her chest.
Srirasmi, the Topless Princess
Nothing about this story makes the slightest bit of sense. In 2009, an Australian TV station got hold of some bizarre amateur video: Princess Srirasmi, wife of Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, celebrating their dog’s birthday in nothing but a G-string and a hat. Notably, everyone else at this large and rather lavish poolside party, including the dog, was clothed. Also notably, George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” is audible in the background. Three years later, Srirasmi again made headlines when she nearly cleaned out an antiques center in England, spending $40,000 in eight hours, mostly on small, $15 to $60 items.
Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, the Erstwhile Punk Princess
Gloria von Thurn und Taxis was one of the most fascinating of the 1980s uber-rich celebrities: She partied with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, threw huge parties at her historic schloss, barked like a dog for David Letterman, dyed her hair every color in Manic Panic’s catalogue, and wore dresses made out of stuffed animals before Lady Gaga was even out of diapers. But the 1990 death of her husband, the equally colorful Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, left her with an estate drowning in debt and massive death taxes; Gloria put away the punk persona and instead, remade herself into a model of how the nobility, an inherently archaic notion in many ways, can survive in the modern era.
Märtha Louise, the Princess Who Talks to Angels
The daughter of Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja, Märtha Louise has always been a bit eccentric—after all, she realized when she was only a child that she was clairvoyant. But it wasn’t until she started working with horses that she discovered that she could also communicate with angels and, happily, the dead. In 2007, she and a fellow spiritualist opened Astarte Education, an English-language school in Norway that seeks to help individuals find their own “spiritual passwords,” create miracles, and “get in touch with angels.” Norway’s religious community is, unsurprisingly, not best pleased that the daughter of the nominal head of the state church is in the spirit-raising business.