When the engagement between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was announced there was a fair bit of pearl-rattling at the prospect of an American duchess. Andrew Morton, the royal biographer, advised readers to listen carefully when the couple walked down the aisle “and you will hear the faint sound of the nearby King Edward spinning in his grave”.
He was referring to Edward’s relationship with the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, which led him to abdicate the throne in 1936 when he was forbidden to marry her. Now there was a divorced American woman, and — horrors — an actress, marrying an English prince.
Others pointed out that American women had been marrying into the British nobility for more than a century. Between the late 1800s and the Second World War, so-called dollar princesses flocked to Britain looking for titled husbands. With their sables and silks and cabochons they conquered. In return for titles, they offered the wealth that the aristocratic families desperately needed. Their finances were crumbling and the dowries the bright young American women brought shored up family fortunes. If this sounds like these were cold, hard contracts, they were.
Most of the heiresses were of “new money” families, who had gone in one generation from settler scrabbling to untold wealth. In American society they were seen as parvenus who were not welcome in Fifth Avenue ballrooms. A British title changed that. Mrs Astor, the queen of New York, could hardly refuse to acknowledge a duchess or a viscountess. Put bluntly, it was cash for class.