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Royal wives no longer blue bloods

Saturday Europe holds its biggest royal wedding in 25 years

By Geoff PingreeContributors to The Christian Science Monitor, Lisa AbendContributors to The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2004


She hasn't a drop of aristocratic blood. She has spent most of her adult life working her way into the unforgiving world of broadcast journalism. Years ago, when she was quite young, she wed her high school teacher, and then quickly divorced.

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On Saturday, in Europe's biggest wedding celebration since Prince Charles exchanged vows with Diana Spencer in London more than 25 years ago, she will marry again - but this time her groom is Prince Felipe de Borbón.

When Letizia Ortiz marries the heir to the Spanish throne this weekend, she will join the ranks of a new generation of royal wives - modern women with university degrees, professional careers, and complicated romantic pasts. They are women who once would have been mere "commoners." And their entrance onto the royal stage confirms both the social advances women have made in recent decades and the democratization of European monarchy.

"Letizia Ortiz is a journalist; Maxima Zorreguieta, who married Prince William of Holland, is an economist," says Paloma García-Pelayo, director of Madrid's Korpa News Agency, and coauthor of "You Will Be My Queen," a book that traces Felipe and Letizia's romance. "They have degrees and careers. They're women of the 21st century - not traditional maidens who stay inside their palaces all day."

Indeed, last week Denmark was captivated by the union of Prince Frederick and Mary Donaldson, an Aussie real estate broker. Matilde d'Udekem worked for years as a speech therapist before marrying Prince Philip of Belgium in 1999. Mette-Marit Tjessem was a single mother and former waitress when she wed the Prince of Norway in 2001.

But if regal marital rules have changed, royals' subjects hardly seem to care. The jubilant public mood that has settled over Spain as the country prepares for its royal wedding suggests that in Europe, at least, romance has not gone the way of global peace. Each night during the past two weeks, state television has broadcast specials on the wedding, including lengthy biographies of the bride and groom.

A wedding souvenir shop that sells everything from T-shirts bearing the couple's image to replicas of Letizia's engagement ring, opened a few months ago on the city's central artery Calle Mayor. It has been packed with eager customers every day, says saleswoman Siaham Hassan.

At age 36, Prince Felipe is the last of Europe's heirs to the throne to wed, and, like most of his contemporaries, he has chosen to marry for love rather than for political expediency or to preserve bloodlines. He will be the first royal heir in Spain's long history of monarchy to choose a commoner for a bride yet retain his title. His love story, like those of his peers, suggests that one of Europe's most exclusive institutions is becoming more democratic. Carmen Iglesias, director of the center for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid, says that anointing a commoner as the future queen points to positive societal shifts.

"The educational opportunities and social mobility that exist today," she says, "have made the levels of social and cultural education, once the privilege of a small minority, available to society as a whole. The excellence of character [required to be a queen] can be found in many places."