Marriage by proxy

What do Marie Antoinette, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Charles I, and Napoleon have in common? All of them were not in the same location as their partner when they married.

Proxy marriage of Maria de' Medici
Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The picture above portrays the marriage of Marie de’ Medici to Henry IV, King of France. It is one of a series of twenty-four paintings of the Queen of France, all created by Peter Paul Rubens and all today hanging in the Louvre. This picture, chronologically, is the fifth in the cycle. The seventh in the cycle portrays the first meeting of Marie and Henry, two months after they were married.


The gentleman in the painting above is not the groom. It’s actually Marie’s uncle, Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. This was not an error or a joke by Rubens – Marie really did have a marriage ceremony with her uncle; she did not meet her husband until they had already been married for two months. Ferdinando was standing in for the French king in the rather peculiar tradition of proxy marriage.

Getting everyone together for a marriage is a hassle, particularly when noblemen and noblewomen of different countries were getting married. So, sometimes, royalty got married without being actually present at the marriage. And this was surprisingly common.

Marie Antoinette married Louis while he was in France and she in Austria; her brother stood in for the absent spouse. Lorenzo the Magnificent apparently married Clarice Orsini the same way, although they had a proper wedding once they finally met in person.

Charles I, the doomed king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, married Henrietta Maria by proxy. The marriage was already controversial, given that she was Roman Catholic; I suppose they didn’t want to add fuel to the fire? When Charles was crowned his wife did not even attend the ceremony.

Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, wasn’t in the same city as her husband until sixteen days after they married; upon meeting her husband of two weeks, she apparently said “you are much better looking than your portrait.” (A wise and diplomatic first comment.)

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