The Wedding of Mary Donaldson
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Photo Alt Text: Mary Donaldson, now the Crown Princess of Denmark, kisses the Queen on the cheek. The Queen & Prince Frederick are both facing the camera, decorated in jewels & medals, but Mary is facing the other way, her face mostly concealed by the Queen. She is identifiable only by her wedding veil.
May 14, 2004: It was the perfect ceremony, a wedding that had two countries celebrating, one clustered around television screens, one flocking to the capitol. & I flocked, too.
In the heart of spring, in the heart of Copenhagen, Mary Donaldson, an Australian & a commoner, was wed to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, & I, at age six, while my friends in the States were realizing that fairytales were only tales & that Prince Charming was a piece of fiction, was watching his controversial marriage to a woman below his status.
The Crown Prince of Denmark is, in essence, Denmark itself. As the future monarch, he lives his life knowing that he will someday bear the name of his country. & so, to marry Frederik, Mary prepared herself to marry Denmark. She became fluent in Danish, converted to Lutheranism, & relinquished her Australian citizenship. By the end of it, she was no longer the Australian account director who had met a man named Fred in a bar during the Olympics; she was Danish. & that still was barely enough to qualify her, to eliminate the controversy.
I cared little about the controversy at the time; I was simply giddy for the holiday. It didn’t matter that school was canceled since I was "homeschooled" the whole year my family lived in Lyngby, but I could appreciate a holiday as much as any average six year old.
By “homeschooled” I mean I did exactly one half of a worksheet over the course of nine months. My mom emphasized the importance of field trips & relied heavily on them in her curriculum. As part of what we now affectionately call "the Danish homeschooling method," I spent my mornings biking in the royal deer park & swimming just off of the nude beaches among jellyfish & swans in the Baltic Sea. I spent afternoons exploring palaces or the outdoor air museum where, once, some tourists saw me picking buttercups in an empty field &, believing me to be one of the actors, photographed me before moving on to photograph the draft horses & the docked viking ship. Evenings were passed reading stories by Hans Christian Anderson or a Danish storybook about Monet. When I returned to elementary school in Washington, after no “real” school for a year, reality was a disappointment.
Crammed in with the rest of the country, my family rode a train to Copenhagen to witness the ceremony. We watched the tail end of the marriage itself on screens in a crowded second-story McDonalds just above the cobblestone procession route, &, as soon as the party left Copenhagen Cathedral, we rushed down to the packed street. My dad held me up, & my mom hoisted up my three-year-old sister, who lost her pink Care Bear to the force of the ecstatic crowd that day.
Train rides are, stereotypically, romantic. Now I never experienced this romance personally, but I may have inspired the opening scene to the best romantic drama not-yet-filmed during my year in Denmark. My family had spent the day biking in the north through fields of wheat and poppies broken up by those tall trees that are so prominent in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. On the way back from the burial ground that we had traveled so far to see, we passed a grove of wild fruit trees, & we filled the back of the bike trailer to the point of bursting with fist-sized apples & tangy apricots. This bounty proved problematic once we boarded the train which would bring us south & home. We folded the trailer & placed it in the bike car, & I unzipped the back a bit to relieve some pressure. The train left the station, & the fruit rolled out of the bike car. Car after car, the fruit dashed through sliding doors as they opened, & I dashed after it. People laughed & leaned out from their seats to help me, & two strangers reached for the same little green apple. Their hands met, then their eyes did.
There’s something so attractive about romantic tropes like that, something so easy about letting it sweep you off your feet, something that almost makes you forget the other aspects of its character, the expectations that will come with it, that it will sweep you away, too.
Back to May 14th's crowded streets: We watched the royal guard pass in hats that looked like scared black cats clinging to the men’s chins; marching bands played anthems & pop covers; men on horseback performed routines, making their horses trot sideways & moonwalk; foreign royalty slipped by in cars with tinted windows; & the couple waved from a horse drawn carriage. It was a proper parade.
Royal guests had flocked to the wedding from Belgium, Japan, Norway, Bulgaria, Greece, Liechtenstein, Sweden, Monaco, Spain, Luxembourg, Naples, Serbia, Prussia ... even the Romanovs showed up. They remember their history of rule, & they exercise power still, despite being deemed outdated, despite the realization of the people that their power has costs.
There was debate as to whether or not Mary Donaldson should be given the title Crown Princess, even after she had given up her country.
Most prospective brides worry about pleasing the parents of their loved one: Mary had to agonize over the approval of the Queen of Denmark & the Council of State. They were the deciders of her eligibility, her marriageability, her eventual name. Her identity & future were determined by them. &, luckily, they ultimately voted in her favor.
The engagement of Crown Prince Frederik to Mary Donaldson was announced immediately after a meeting of the council, during which approval was finally granted. The couple emerged onto a balcony & let the adoring crowd below cheer upon seeing the engagement ring: a diamond caught between rubies. It was patriotic, glistering with the colors of the Danish flag in a rare ray of sunshine.
The estimated cost of the ring is 86,700 kroner (12,300 USD), which is not much compared to the overall cost of the wedding: 155 million kroner, or about 34 million USD. As figures representing a country, they had to host a wedding representative of and fulfilling all expectations, one that cost quite a few figures. They booked the biggest cathedral, had the most elaborate floral arrangements, & spared nothing when it came to Mary’s dress.
The marriage ceremony of Mary Donaldson and Crown Prince Frederik was a hyperbolic sort of perfect. &, in that way, it was unsettling. Every expectation of society was fulfilled on the grand scale, a scale large enough that, for the first time, even at the meager age of six, I became aware of those imposed standards. This marriage represented, to me, the demands of weddings themselves.
Mary’s dress, with a six-meter-long satin train & heirloom lace peeking out from between satin panels that split at the hips, is the work of Danish designer Uffe Frank. It is simple, elegant, & modest with sleeves that opened at her elbows like lilies---a style which Frank calls calasleeves
Traditionally, lilies are associated with humility & devotion, traits that are generally attributed to the feminine & are of high value in a young woman. White lilies, in particular, symbolize chastity & virtue, prerequisites for a bride.
---& it contains a touching detail. Allegedly, Mary had her late mother’s wedding ring stitched inside the dress just above her heart, &, after the wedding, instead of throwing her bouquet, or throwing it away, Mary had the flowers sent to Scotland to be laid on her mother’s grave. She was the ideal daughter, & it was a sort of final goodbye, because anything the Crown Princess wears belongs to the state, so, by having the ring sewn into her dress, she lost it.
I’m sure the procedure was much more formal, but I can’t help but picture Mary on her wedding night, letting the gown crumple to the marble floors in Fredensborg Palace, the floors I had walked on during field trips so many times before, &, just after she has left the room, a museum curator stealing in, gathering it up in their arms, & taking that final piece of her mother from her.
Traditionally, women of most societies have always lost their families on their wedding nights, given them up in place of their husband & their husband’s family. Mary’s wedding, despite its grand scale, was not so different from the average ritual after all. In subtle ways she, too, gave up her family. &, like those before her, she had given up her tribe.
That same crowd that flooded the streets, that cheered, that watched & watched & watched at Mary’s wedding, is made up of those people who will see me & anticipate mine, who will watch each of my choices, too. They will wait for me to find my true love & marry him because I must love, & I must love a man, &—if I love him—I must marry him.
They will expect a public event.
They will expect my father to walk me up the aisle & sacrifice me like Isaac at the altar.
They will look for the moment that my language becomes submissive & my religion bends to my partner’s & I give up my country, & they will be disappointed.
If I'd been born a boy, my parents would have named me Isaac. I like the sound of that: the sound of laughter. Isaac had reason to laugh; he was ultimately spared. The next biblical son to be notably sacrificed was Christ. No one talks about the sacrifice of daughters: the way we sacrifice the idea of a female body to the idea of a daughter and that idea to the idea of a wife.
Maybe it's the Danish homeschooling method talking, but I want a space in my fairytales for such gappy, fantastical, off-worksheet disappointments. For a body not quite female, for a female body that doesn't become a daughter, for a daughter who never becomes a wife. Because if magical transformation works one way---an Australian princess---why can't it work in others? I learned a lesson from that exaggerated practice of social roles, that royal wedding: I learned what was expected. But I also learned that every step along the way was uncertain, and that same potential to fail or disappoint is a potential to change.
I learned, as all my peers back in the States learned that fairytales are make-believe, that we enact them everyday. That there are things we're made to believe that could very well be otherwise. We could be otherwise.
Lots has changed since 2004, & even since 2016, when I wrote this essay (well, the first few drafts). I decided to go into anthropology, for one. I recognized my own otherwise, for another. Maybe you saw those hints here. Or maybe, like me, you'll just spend the next few years obsessed with Uffe Frank & calasleeves; fairytales may be functional, but there's no shame in being enchanted.