Royal intermarriage  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Royal intermarriage is the practice of members of ruling dynasties marrying into other reigning families. It was more commonly done in the past as part of strategic diplomacy for reasons of state. Although sometimes enforced by legal requirement on persons of royal birth, more often it has been a matter of political policy and/or tradition in monarchies.

In Europe, the practice was most prevalent from the medieval era until the outbreak of World War I, but evidence of intermarriage between royal dynasties in other parts of the world can be found as far back as the Late Bronze Age. Monarchs were often in pursuit of national and international aggrandisement on behalf of themselves and their dynasties, thus bonds of kinship tended to promote or restrain aggression. Marriage between dynasties could serve to initiate, reinforce or guarantee peace between nations. Alternatively, kinship by marriage could secure an alliance between two dynasties which sought to reduce the sense of threat from or to initiate aggression against the realm of a third dynasty. It could also enhance the prospect of territorial acquisition for a dynasty by procuring legal claim to a foreign throne, or portions of its realm (e.g., colonies), through inheritance from an heiress whenever a monarch failed to leave an undisputed male heir.

In parts of Europe, royalty continued to regularly marry into the families of their greatest vassals as late as the 16th century, thenceforth, tending to marry internationally. In other parts of the world royal intermarriage was less prevalent and the number of instances waxed and waned over time, depending on the culture and foreign policy of the time.

Inbreeding

Over time, because of the relatively limited number of potential consorts, the gene pool of many ruling families grew progressively smaller, until all European royalty was related. This also resulted in many being descended from a certain person through many lines of descent, such as the numerous European royalty and nobility descended from Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom or King Christian IX of Denmark. The House of Habsburg was infamous for inbreeding, with the Habsburg lip cited as an ill effect, although no genetic evidence has proved the allegation. The closely related houses of Habsburg, Bourbon, Braganza and Wittelsbach. The Wittlesbach line suffered from several cases of mental illness, often attributed to their frequent intermarriages. Several family members suffered from mental and physical illnesses, as well as epilepsy also engaged in first-cousin unions frequently and in double-cousin and uncle-niece marriages occasionally.

Examples of incestuous marriages and the impact of inbreeding on royal families include:

  • All rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty from Ptolemy II were married to their brothers and sisters, so as to keep the Ptolemaic blood "pure" and to strengthen the line of succession. Cleopatra VII (also called Cleopatra VI) and Ptolemy XIII, who married and became co-rulers of ancient Egypt following their father's death, are the most widely known example.
  • Jean V of Armagnac was said to have formed a rare brother-sister liaison, left descendants and claimed to be married. There is no evidence that this "marriage" was contracted for dynastic rather than personal reasons.
  • One of the most famous examples of a genetic trait aggravated by royal family intermarriage was the House of Habsburg, which inmarried particularly often and is known for the mandibular prognathism of the Habsburger (Unter) Lippe (otherwise known as the 'Habsburg jaw', 'Habsburg lip' or 'Austrian lip'"). This was typical for many Habsburg relatives over a period of six centuries.

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