During ancient times, the way to ascend the established social ranks was to become ennobled by the reigning monarch, i.e. granted a noble or aristocratic title.
For many of the original nobles, this meant being a valued confidant, advisor, or supporter of the king or queen, or a notable military champion who has proven themselves on the field of battle.
The rewards for such devoted service were aristocratic titles such as Duke, Baron, Earl, Count or Lord.
In more recent times, reigning monarchs are less inclined to ennoble their common subjects, making it almost impossible to achieve an aristocratic rank through merit alone.
Yet there is still an avenue to the highest echelons of society that’s as accessible today as it has been throughout the many centuries of the aristocracy – that of an opportune marriage.
While it’s still a relatively rare, maybe even fairytale, path to the nobility, it’s no doubt possible for those of ordinary birth to marry into even the highest-ranking families, and this route to social attainment is not limited to the nobility and the aristocracy.
Whereas in times past, the royal families of the world would prefer that the marriage candidates came from well-born families and blue-blood relations, these days there is hope for those without the requisite lineage.
Numerous royal couplings of recent years have illustrated that even the highest-ranking royals do sometimes choose to marry based on love and affection rather than social status or political advantage – selecting their husbands and wives from all levels of society.
Here are a few examples of those who achieved the ultimate example of marrying up – stories of normal people who become royalty by marrying into the royal family, either within their own country or, perhaps even more remarkably, joining the royal families of a country other than their homeland.
Perhaps one of the most famous and glamourous examples of a non-royal marrying into an established monarchy was the marriage of the American film star Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier III in 1956.
The Prince was the sovereign monarch of the principality of Monaco, a tiny state nestled between Italy and France on the northern Mediterranean coastline, a country renowned for its affluence, favourable tax laws and legendary casino.
Upon her marriage, Grace Kelly’s new title was Princess of Monaco, and she was regarded as an official member of the royal family, with all the privilege and esteem inherent in that status. Though she had come from a relatively affluent family in America, as well as having attained fame and fortune in her career as an actress, Grace had no noble lineage and so was considered a commoner, i.e. not belonging to royalty or the aristocracy.
Given her Hollywood success and global fame, Grace Kelly may not have been a typical example of a normal person, but in royal circles, her background would not usually have made her a strong candidate for marrying a sovereign prince.
Yet, her charm and beauty were clearly enough to convince the Prince to defy convention and choose his new wife from beyond the usual noble candidates. After a spectacular fairytale wedding, watched by millions around the world, Grace and her prince remained married until her death in a tragic car accident in 1982.
Bessie Wallis Warfield may not be a name familiar to many people, but this unassuming American commoner went on to become one of the most famous women in the world.
Not only did Wallis Simpson manage to climb her way up to the highest social circles of the British aristocracy during the 1930s, and not only did she manage to catch the eye of the Prince of Wales, the heir to the British throne, she also became the central figure in one of the most controversial royal marriages of recent times that shocked the world and shook the very monarchy itself.
Unlike previous commoners to marry into royalty, Wallis Simpson was twice divorced, and this background precluded her from ever being Queen Consort i.e. the wife of a reigning king. And yet the Prince of Wales, who would go on to inherit the British throne upon the death of his father King George V, was determined to marry his beloved American divorcee.
The marriage resulted in the abdication of King Edward VIII after only a few months in the role, before he had even been officially crowned as King of England. As a result of the controversy, the couple were effectively exiled from Britain, spending much of their marriage living in the Bois de Boulogne area of Paris, France.
Despite the scandal, the couple were still effectively royalty and were regarded as such on their many travels and engagements around the world. Though Wallis Simpson would never attain HRH status, or even a royal title, she was the wife of an English prince, though after the abdication the couple were to be styled the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Antony – or Tony as he was usually known – is another example of a normal person marrying into royalty. In fact, Tony Armstrong-Jones attained one of the ultimate levels of social status when he married Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of England.
Although his mother would go on to become a noble in her own right, marrying into the aristocracy and becoming a Countess upon her second marriage, Tony Armstrong-Jones was born to commoner parents.
Through his work as a renowned portrait photographer and his social connections in London, he made the acquaintance of Princess Margaret, the younger sister of the queen.
Upon their marriage, the couple became one of the most popular and highest-ranking members of London high society, and Tony enjoyed a new status as a prominent member of the British Royal Family. Although the union ultimately ended in divorce, the couple were married for 18 years and had two children together.
Courtesy of his ascension to royal status, Tony was titled the 1st Earl of Snowden and his children inherited high-ranking titles within the British aristocracy, his son being an Earl and his daughter a Lady.
Stories of normal people who become royal are far less common than the usual noble choices for royal marriage partners, and that’s perhaps what lends these romances their inherent fascination.
People everywhere have always enjoyed rags-to-riches tales, so it’s not surprising that some of the royal marriages to commoners have become some of the most historic and legendary tales of love conquering all, even if they didn’t always lead to a fairytale ending.