No one over the age of Disney really believes that being a princess is really all it's cracked up to be, that it is a viable career option, or that Prince Charming is about to come galloping up on a white steed to rescue her from the drudgery of taxes and office work.
Except that secretly, we kind of do. Witness the fascination the world has with commoner-made-good Kate Middleton, wife of Britain’s Prince William; or worse, watch any episode of any bridal reality TV program ever and their parade of unjustified Swarovski crystal-encrusted entitlement. Moreover, the last decade’s pink-and-purple marketing blitz has turned every little girl into a princess, a kind of sparkly juggernaut that most parents can’t avoid even if they try. That the glittery fantasy which toy companies are peddling in no way matches any kind of reality hasn’t exactly put the brakes on its perpetuation.
In my new book, Princesses Behaving Badly, I looked at the lives of 30 princesses whose foot didn’t quite fit the glass slipper. These are (mostly) real women who made good decisions and stupid choices, who loved the wrong people or too many people or not enough people, and on whom a ball gown might just be silly. Some were pretty fantastic, in a warrior princess kind of way, or were driven by a cause greater than themselves; some were creative, clever, and enterprising, free-spirited and willing to flaunt convention to live the life they chose. Others were, according to their times, inappropriately ambitious; others just downright ruthless, with a side of murderous. Still others were petty, mean, vain, and jealous. And some of them just liked to party.
1. Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel: Under-washed and under-clothed
Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, a princess and a daughter of a German Duke, was a straight-up hot mess. She was married to George, Prince of Wales—himself a casually cruel, snobbish, profligate, corset-wearing over-indulger who would later become Britain’s King George IV—but their relationship was fraught to say the least. Upon meeting her in 1795, George ran away, got drunk, and stayed that way until their wedding night three days later; she pronounced him fatter than his portrait.
After only a year of marriage, the two—though they had managed to produce a daughter together—could no longer live under the same roof (and these were big roofs). George would spend the rest of Caroline’s life unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to divorce her, and Caroline would spend it finding new and exciting ways to embarrass him.
She did an admirable job. She wore low-cut dresses that were just a wardrobe malfunction away from real scandal, washed herself and her underthings rather too infrequently, made weird, often sexual jokes, and flirted loudly, inexpertly and obviously. She liked to host parties (where she’d often sit on the floor), but would often disappear for hours with a gentleman friend, leaving her guests to try to politely ignore their absence. By 1814, all good society was pretty much done with her, especially given that her husband made it clear that anyone who befriended her would be on the outs with him. So Caroline, now in her mid-40s, left England on a trip to the Continent, where there was new society to shock. She appeared at a ball in Geneva stripped to the waist; other English travelers reported seeing her in short dresses with “disgustingly low” bodices, and more make-up, topped now with a startling black wig. She traveled with a band of musicians and itinerant show players, having shed most of her respectable entourage early on. Rumors that she was sleeping with everyone from the King of Naples to her valet abounded.
When George became king in 1820, he flat-out refused to have her as his queen. But procuring a divorce was still much more difficult than it looked; finally, a bill to legally dissolve their union was brought before Parliament. Caroline came bustling back to England, all aglow with righteous indignation and excessive rouge, and what followed was essentially a trial—had she actually been having affairs? The answer, for Parliament, however, was no—because however unpopular Caroline was, the British public hated her husband far, far more, and outright rebellion was in the air. The bill was withdrawn.
But even though the couple was still married, George refused to allow Caroline to be crowned alongside him at his coronation; he had Westminster Abbey bouncers deny her entry. Caroline died just a few months later.
2. Charlotte of Prussia: Sex party swinger
The eldest daughter of the Prussian crown prince and princess, Princess Charlotte grew up a rather unloved, oft-criticized girl. She seemed to channel this unsatisfactory home life into making herself the “most arrogant and heartless coquette at court” and a mean girl extraordinaire who would turn on friends in an instant. Even her own brother called her “Charley the Pretender” for her two-facedness. Her marriage in 1878, at the age of 17, left her even freer to pursue gossip (and chain-smoking) with abandon; after her brother became Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888, she became one of the most unpopular popular women at the Berlin court.
And then, the sex party. In November 1891, Charlotte threw a party for a select group of nobles at a palatial hunting lodge just outside of Berlin. But the next day, after the cavorting nobles had all departed with fond memories and who knows what else, they all began receiving anonymous blackmail letters threatening to reveal just what they’d gotten up to that night. The letters helpfully included pornographic drawings, just in case the swingers couldn’t remember. Suspicion immediately fell on Charlotte—she was just catty enough, everyone agreed, to have thrown the party herself to entrap the nobles. Charlotte wasn’t the blackmailer (she was bad, but not that bad), but the investigation into the letters took years, ruined one man’s reputation, left another dead in a duel, and fully destroyed Charlotte’s relationship with her brother, prompting her de facto exile to a quiet German backwater.
3. Christina of Sweden: The cross-dressing princess
Christina of Sweden wanted to be the kind of queen who shaped the course of history, whose opinion mattered not only in her own kingdom but everywhere else in Europe; she wanted to be taken as seriously as she took herself.
Except, not really. After spending nearly all of her early life preparing for the role, she only sat a few years on the throne before realizing that being queen was a lot less fun than she’d thought. In 1654, she abdicated the throne to her cousin and cleared out of town before the banquet dishes were even cleared. Christina took off for the Continent dressed as a man, with newly shorn hair; perhaps more galling to her Lutheran former kingdom, she also went as a newly converted Catholic.
Catholic or not, queen or not, her behavior was, for the time, shocking. She cursed like a sailor, dressed like a man, and, when she did dress in skirts, didn’t let the underwear-less fashions of the day stop her from putting her legs up wherever she could. She made rude, sexual jokes and gleefully fueled speculation that if she wasn’t a hermaphrodite, she was at least a lesbian—she once embarrassed an ambassador at court by declaring that her favorite lady-in-waiting, a beautiful woman with whom she shared a bed, was just as beautiful on the inside. And she didn’t mean her personality. (Notably, Christina’s naughty talk probably was all talk—there’s really no evidence that she had sex with anyone, much less her lady-in-waiting.) She had a habit of talking in church and a somewhat irreligious affection for nude paintings and sculptures. She spent buckets of money on everything from fine art to hiring a troupe of actors to perform just for her every night for a month; by the time she reached Rome, her servants had taken to stealing the silver in lieu of a salary. You can’t necessarily blame them: She had a tendency to smack them around, a violent habit that proved fatal for one man in her employ—though she was a queen without a kingdom, she had him executed after believing him to be betraying her confidences.
But Christina found that life as a kingdom-less queen also wasn’t nearly as fun as she thought it was going to be, and she involved herself in several plots to either take back her throne or find another to occupy for a while; these all came to nothing. By the end of her life, she was still wearing her men's clothes, but the zeal with which she’d pursued bold, shocking behavior had certainly diminished.
4. Srirasmi of Thailand: The birthday party in her birthday suit princess
Nothing about this story makes any kind of sense whatsoever. Princess Srirasmi is the wife of Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and, as evidenced by one of the weirder videos to ever surface on the Internets, has lovely breasts. In 2009, a lucky Australian TV station got a hold of footage from a lavish poolside birthday party the crown couple hosted for their dog, Foo Foo. Princess Srirasmi is clad in naught but a G-string and a hat; everyone else, including the dog, is clothed. Meanwhile, strains of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” are audible in the background. Another thing to note: Foo Foo evidently holds the rank of Air Marshal in Thailand.
5. Gloria von Thurn und Taxis: The original punk princess
In the 1980s, Gloria von Thurn und Taxis was a hard-partying German princess with a pronounced flair for making it onto the pages of glossy entertainment rags. She was all about excess, partying with princes and Prince, barking like a dog on David Letterman, and dyeing her hair every shade in the Manic Panic catalogue. She threw her husband, the Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, a million-dollar, three-day, lobster-laden birthday party that saw celebs like Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall dressed as the doomed aristocracy of 18th century France and drinking from champagne fountains in rooms decorated with links of German sausage (really). Gloria, of course, dressed as Marie Antoinette, complete with a pearl tiara once owned by the doomed French queen herself, without so much as a whiff of irony.
But while the comedown from the greed-is-good decade wasn’t nearly so devastating for the likes of Gloria as it had been for the French nobles, it wasn’t easy. Gloria’s husband died in 1990, leaving her with an estate in debt and death taxes to pay; Gloria’s response, however, wasn’t to retreat. Instead, the punk princess quit partying, traded in her chainmail mini-dresses for Chanel suits, taught herself corporate law and economics, and dragged the centuries-old Thurn und Taxis estate into the 20th century. By the end of the decade, and after selling off millions in art, family treasures, and wine, as well as opening up the family schloss to renters and the public, the estate was finally in the black.
For more princess stories, order Linda's new book, Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings.