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Secret, Public, Proxy, Scandal: Royal Weddings Through History

The recent wedding of Prince William and the then Kate Middleton was watched on television in Britain by 24 million people. Worldwide it is estimated that two billion were glued to their screens for the event. It was decorous, romantic and enormously colourful, the processional routes to and from Westminster Abbey lined by hundreds of thousands more. It has not always been so with our royal weddings.

Recent big production weddings have more in common with those of medieval days than what went on for many centuries until the 19th: William I’s was supposedly a splendid affair, though it occurred in 1053 long before his conquest of England. Given Matilda had previously refused him very rudely, and he in turn had assaulted her outside a church, the success of their wedding and indeed marriage may have been surprising.

Westminster Abbey, founded by Edward the Confessor, witnessed its first royal wedding in 1100 when Henry I married Matilda of Scotland, but such public displays were for a time abandoned after Richard II’s wedding there in 1382. Henry VII very much desired his wedding to be a public affair, given his marriage to Elizabeth of York cemented the alliance of Yorkists and Lancastrians, and – he hoped – brought an end to the previously interminable Wars of the Roses.

Such was the success of Henry VII’s reign that his son Henry VIII had no need of public display: all of his six weddings (seven if you count his first secret ceremony to wed Anne Boleyn) were held in private, attendance limited to the favoured few. Henry’s older brother had married Katherine of Aragon in St Paul’s, good reason surely for the younger brother not to marry the same woman in such a public ceremony.

And Henry felt no need to conform to the old tradition of bedding (putting the couple to bed before witnesses), perhaps because his prowess early on was undoubted, and his girth later ridiculous. Mary Tudor felt the need for greater ceremonial in her 1554 union with Philip of Spain: they were married in Winchester Cathedral, perhaps chosen partly for its symbolic status as the church of ancient kings. Theirs was a grand affair.

Many royal weddings of course took place not just in private, but also by proxy, with bride and groom in different countries – such were the problems and dangers of travel that envoys would stand in for one of the parties, as was the case with both Charles I and his son Charles II. Father rushed to marry Henrietta Maria – the ceremony conducted before Notre Dame in Paris – to avoid Parliament preventing the union. Son married Catherine of Braganza in her country’s capital of Lisbon, the king represented by his portrait: there were fireworks, a great procession, even a bullfight – a pity that Charles missed it, the man loved a party.

One of the odder weddings in our history was that of Charles II’s daughter Mary, the future Queen, to William of Orange. He is thought to have been predominantly gay, and unlike his father-in-law was no oil painting. Mary cried throughout the proceedings, creating an atmosphere that Charles attempted to dispel with jokes and quips. He failed.

Worse still, surely, perhaps the most disgraceful in our history, was the wedding of the future George IV in 1795: he was only marrying at the insistence of Parliament, as part of a deal to clear his massive debts. The bride, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, had chosen a dress even less practical than Diana’s in 1981 – it was so heavy that she could barely stand. The groom was so drunk that he had to be held upright; he never looked at his intended, but focused on one of his mistresses who was in church; at one point George III felt the need to get on with things; and it is alleged that the groom made a despairing attempt to escape in mid-ceremony. Now that’s a royal wedding I would buy the video of.

Victoria’s wedding was far more decorous, and it was also the start of the public being granted a glimpse of royal events. Not only were huge celebrations organised in London and beyond, but press reports were sent around the world by telegraph, and the royal couple even posed sometime after the event in their wedding clothes for a photographer. As another article in this section details, Victoria set the trend for white wedding dresses – she had been supposed to wear her full royal regalia and robes, but refused. And the cake was the first atop which models of bride and groom appeared.

Westminster Abbey came back into fashion as the venue for royal splicings in 1919 when Victoria’s granddaughter Patricia of Connaught married – whisper it gently – commoner Alexander Ramsay there. Four years later Bertie, second-in-line to the throne, married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, of minor aristocratic lineage, in that same church. It was felt expedient that the day be a splendid one of ceremonial and pageantry to try to life the national mood, still trying to recover from the horrors of WWI.

Communications technology having moved on the couple was filmed for newsreel showings at cinemas, though only their backs were pictured. It had been suggested that a live radio broadcast of the vows be made, but the Archbishop of Canterbury – not the first nor the last of that office to be out of touch – forbade it, famously worried that men in pubs would be listening, perhaps even with their hats on.

Queen Elizabeth’s Westminster Abbey wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1947 took place in times more austere than our own. Clothing was rationed, so the then Princess had saved her coupons for the material used by designer Norman Hartnell – hence no vast train as has in recent decades become the thing. Still no live television broadcast, but the day was filmed in colour, again for newsreels in the cinema. An intriguing sideline to this wedding was that immediate post-WWII sensibilities demanded that the silk in Princess Elizabeth’s dress not be made by ‘enemy’ silkworms – that is neither Japanese nor Italian, and it was made clear to the nation that friendly Chinese larvae had been used.

In 1960 we finally had a televised royal wedding, that of Princess Margaret to Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The audience appetite was there – around the world 300 million witnessed another Westminster Abbey union, though they were not allowed to see the vows – for that we had to wait until 1981.
When the Queen’s daughter Anne married in 1973 the country was again troubled, this time by internal strife – strikes, economic worries and political uncertainty, and her big day was rather toned down accordingly – and to suit the wishes of the Princess herself, never one to keep her opinions under wraps.

Of course the royal wedding, until very recently at least, was that of Charles to Diana at St Paul’s in 1981. She got his name wrong, he looked less than delighted, and we got to see the dress as she exited the fairytale glass coach – 750 million people wondering if they forgot to iron it. And it was indeed a fairytale marriage as time would tell.
Sarah Fergusson and Prince Andrew in 1986 reverted to Westminster Abbey for their choice of venue. Like Diana she got her spouse’s name wrong. And though she promised to honour and obey in her vows watched by 500 million viewers worldwide, she was later caught on camera honouring someone else’s toes, and it all ended in tears, quite often for the TV cameras.

Prince Edward in one of his more sensible moves chose to marry in less grand style, at St George’s Chapel in Windsor. It was 1999, just two years on from the death of Diana that had brought the monarchy’s stock so low in the public eye. Prince Charles’s second wedding, to Camilla Parker-Bowles, was a civil affair held in even less august surroundings, at Windsor Guildhall.

So William and Kate it seems decided, or were influenced to decide, on a return to the grand, the pageantry, the colourful and public. As we noted at the beginning of this piece, it is thought two billion watched their big day. That is some pressure to perform. Good luck to them.

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