The A to Z of royal weddings

From bridesmaids and kisses to dresses and embroidery, Tracy Borman takes a look at regal marriages through history.

This article was first published in the May 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

Queen Victoria wore white on her wedding day. (Bridgeman Art Library)

A is for Arthur…

The wedding of Arthur Prince of Wales, the eldest son and heir of King Henry VII, to Catherine of Aragon in 1501 proved to be one of the most controversial in royal history. The source of the controversy was exactly what happened during the wedding night. The 15- year-old Arthur boasted that he had spent the night “in Spain”.

He died four months later, and Catherine married his younger brother Henry VIII. When this marriage failed to produce the longed-for male heir, Henry sought to annul it on the grounds that the Bible forbade a man to take his brother’s wife. Catherine insisted that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. The debate still rages today.

 

B is for Bridesmaid…

Queen Victoria set a new trend by having 12 bridesmaids to carry her train, which was 18 feet long. Thereafter, they were an essential part of proceedings. Princess Alexandra, who married the Honourable Angus Ogilvy in 1963, had a train so voluminous that it slowed progress down the aisle to a snail’s pace and her bridesmaids had their work cut out keeping it in order.

 

C is for Commoner…

It was rare for royals to marry commoners. Charles II’s brother, James (later James II), was a rare exception. In 1659, he “entered into a private marriage contract” with Lady Anne Hyde. The marriage produced two future queens, Mary II and Anne. After his wife’s death in 1671, James married Mary of Modena, who bore him a son, James Francis Edward Stewart, later to be known as the ‘Old Pretender’. Commoners now regularly feature in royal nuptials – notably Sophie Rhys-Jones, Mike Tindall and Kate Middleton.

 

D is for Dress...

The choice of white for a dress is a relatively recent tradition in royal weddings. Until the early 19th century, the bride could wear any colour she chose – blue was a favourite, as was black. This changed with Queen Victoria, who wore white so that she was as visible as possible to the huge crowds that thronged the processional route. Her efforts were rewarded. In her diary entry for that day, she wrote: “I never saw such crowds of people… and they cheered most enthusiastically.”

 

E is for Embroidery…

Remarking on her bridal gown the evening before her wedding to Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson confidently claimed that there would “never be a dress to match it”. Designed by relative unknown (at least in royal circles) Lindka Cierach, it was one of the most lavish royal wedding dresses ever created.

Most striking was the embroidery and beadwork with which the 17-feet-long train was decorated. The thistles and bees of Sarah’s coat-of-arms were intertwined with anchors and waves symbolising her groom’s naval career, and their initials were picked out in tiny seed pearls and diamanté.

 

F is for Forbidden…

“She promised to bring into my life something that wasn’t there.” By the time that he wrote these words, Edward VIII had abdicated from the British throne so that he might marry Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee whom he had fallen in love with several years before. His refusal to give her up after he became king in 1936 led to a constitutional crisis that scandalised the world. It was one of the most talked about royal courtships in history, but their wedding was distinctly low-key. They had to wait until Wallis’s second divorce came through before marrying, in June 1937, in a private ceremony in France. 

 

G is for Gold…

At the start of the 20th century, a nugget of gold from the Clogau St David’s mine in north Wales was given to the royal family. From this, the ring of every royal bride from the Queen Mother in 1923 to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 was crafted. The Queen was presented with another supply from the company’s mine at nearby Bontddu in 1986. Rumour has it this provided gold for Kate Middleton’s ring.

 

H is for Henry…

Henry VIII is England’s most married monarch. Although his courtships were the talk (and scandal) of Christendom, his weddings were surprisingly low-key. He led his first bride, Catherine of Aragon, to the altar with as little fuss as he attended a normal church service. His last wedding, to Katherine Parr, was just as discreet, taking place in her private apartments at Hampton Court. Ironically, the only wedding to be celebrated in style was to the bride he liked least: Anne of Cleves, the so-called ‘Flanders Mare’.

 

I is for Indisposed…

Spare a thought for poor Princess Augusta. She was so averse to the idea of marrying the boorish Prince Frederick, eldest son and heir of King George II, that on her way to the ceremony (in April 1736) she clung to the skirts of his mother, Queen Caroline, begging: “Please don’t leave me.” Her husband-to-be made matters worse by bellowing in her ear when she stumbled over the marriage vows. As soon as the ceremony was over, she was promptly sick.

 

J is for Joke…

Amid the pomp of a royal wedding, there is still room for the odd prank. Prince Edward was chief suspect behind the model satellite dish and ‘Phone Home’ slogan on his brother Andrew’s carriage after his wedding to Sarah in 1986. Princes William and Harry scrawled ‘Prince + Duchess’ on the windscreen of their father’s car after his wedding to Camilla. Less good-humoured was Charles II’s jest at his niece Mary’s wedding in 1677. Hearing of the wealthy bridegroom’s promise to endow her with all his worldly goods, he told his niece loudly: “Put it all in your pocket, for ‘tis clear gain.”

 

K is for Kiss...

Queen Victoria began the tradition of displaying the newlyweds on the balcony of Buckingham Palace when, after her daughter Princess Victoria’s wedding, she took pity on the crowds who had been denied a glimpse of the royal couple, and ordered the royal family out onto the balcony. Since then, a new element has been added to the traditional balcony appearance: a kiss between the bride and groom.

At his wedding to Diana, Prince Charles reluctantly obliged only after exhaustive chanting by the crowds below; his brother Andrew gave a more convincing performance five years later. But their younger brother Edward refused to bow to public pressure at his Windsor wedding, as did their father when he married Camilla Parker-Bowles. 

 

L is for Lord Chamberlain…

The task of organising a royal wedding falls to the lord chamberlain in his capacity as impresario of pageantry to the Queen. Among his duties is drafting the guest list – most full royal weddings involve at least 2,000 invitees – and arranging the seating plan for the ceremony. At Westminster Abbey, this is complicated by the fact that just 800 of the 2,000-strong congregation are able to see anything of the procession, and fewer still will catch a glimpse of the ceremony itself. Any royal wedding guest should therefore take note: the worse the view, the less important the guest. 

 

M is for Myrtle…

Queen Victoria began another royal wedding tradition when she ordered that a sprig of myrtle (known as the herb of everlasting love) from her wedding bouquet should be planted at her favourite retreat, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. From that small sprig grew a bush that has supplied every other royal bride since then with a cutting to use in their bouquet. Although it is considered a lucky charm, it has not brought all of them the same happiness in marriage that Queen Victoria herself enjoyed with her husband, Albert.

 

N is for Names…

The most nerve-wracking part of any wedding is the exchange of vows. Spare a thought, then, for the royal couples of recent times. Not only have they had the pressure of performing in front of the 2,000-strong congregation but the ceremonies have also been relayed live to up to 700 million people across the globe. Nerves famously got the better of Lady Diana Spencer when she muddled up the order of the names of her husband-to-be, calling him ‘Philip Charles Arthur George’.

 

O is for Old…

The oldest surviving royal wedding dress is that of Princess Charlotte, who married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield in 1816. It was an extraordinarily ornate gown made from silver tissue with a netted silk underskirt, richly embroidered shells and bouquets, and trimmed with Brussels point lace. It was worth in excess of £10,000 – around £400,000 in today’s money. The gown is now preserved at Kensington Palace as part of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection.

 

P is for Proxy…

In the Tudor period, it was common for monarchs to marry by proxy, particularly when one of the parties was too young to travel. This was the case with James IV of Scotland’s bride, Margaret Tudor. Her father, Henry VII, had considered her as a bride for his Scottish rival when she was five and the treaty was concluded when she was 12, in 1502. The ceremony duly took place, but a proxy was sent for the bride and it was another year before she ventured up to Scotland to meet her new husband. 

 

Q is for Quick…

The wedding of Princess Margaret’s daughter Sarah Armstrong-Jones to her long-term partner, Daniel Chatto, on 14 July 1994, was one of the most low-key royal weddings in history. It took place at the small but perfectly formed church of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London, which holds just 200 guests. The ceremony was so quick that it caught the chauffeurs of the guests unawares, and several members of the royal family – including the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Diana – were obliged to make small talk while waiting for their cars to arrive.

 

R is for Reluctant…

In the past, royal weddings were made more for policy than for love. Not everyone was prepared to accept this, and George IV was one of the most reluctant grooms in history. Madly in love with Maria Fitzherbert (whom, it was rumoured, he had wed in secret), he refused to marry Caroline of Brunswick, the bride his father had chosen. Upon meeting her, he had been so horrified that he spent the next 24 hours in a drunken stupor. The marriage proved a disaster, and George and Caroline separated after the birth of their only child, Charlotte.

 

S is for Secret…

Not all royal weddings were celebrated with the ceremony that we are used to nowadays. One of the earliest, between William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, was so secret nobody knows when or where it took place. They were marrying in defiance of a papal ban. In 1464, Edward IV kept his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville a secret because he did not dare to tell his own council that he had married a widow and, worse still, a commoner. He only admitted to the marriage five months later, and it aroused such opposition that it was declared invalid after his death in 1483. 

 

T is for Turkey...

What do you give the couple who have everything? A turkey, apparently. A woman in Brooklyn sent this bizarre gift to the future Queen Elizabeth II on her marriage to Philip Mountbatten in 1947 because she thought the princess was going hungry during food rationing in postwar Britain. To avoid such unwanted presents in future, the royal family now traditionally invite donations to nominated charities instead.

 

U is for Undressed…

The consummation of the marriage was by no means as private an affair in the past as it is today. At the end of the wedding day, the ceremony of undressing would begin. Once she had been disrobed by her ladies and put into bed, the bride would be joined by her husband, who in turn was led in by a group of rowdy, drunken friends. This is when the party really started. Everyone would drink the ‘benediction posset’ of hot wine mixed with milk, eggs, sugar and spice, and then play a game of ‘fling the stocking’ – a little like throwing the bouquet today. When the couple were at last alone, they would be serenaded with a repertoire of lewd songs from the other side of the door, often until the following morning.

 

V is for Virgin…

Elizabeth I was having none of this wedding caper. She had witnessed the disastrous marital history of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and then the string of unfortunate women who had taken her place. Thomas Seymour, whom her last stepmother, Katherine Parr, married after Henry VIII’s death, tried to seduce the teenage Elizabeth while she was staying with them. And then there was the ill-advised marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to her cousin Darnley. Little wonder that Elizabeth resolved to remain a virgin, famously declaring: “I am married to England.”

 

W is for Westminster Abbey…

Founded in the mid-tenth century and rebuilt by Edward the Confessor almost a hundred years later, Westminster Abbey is steeped in royal history. As well as being the traditional venue for coronations, it also soon became a popular choice for royal weddings. The first royal wedding to take place there after the Norman conquest was that of Henry I to Matilda of Scotland, and the most recent until the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton was Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson in 1986.

 

X is for Xenophobia…

Mary Tudor was so intent on marrying Spain’s Philip II that she rode roughshod over her subjects’ objections to a foreign king. It was love at first sight, even though she had only seen his portrait. She was besotted when she met the man himself, and married him two days later, on 25 July 1554. The marriage was deeply unpopular. Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion against it even before Philip had set foot on English soil, and it remained a cause of simmering resentment throughout her ill-fated reign.

 

Y is for York…

Although Westminster Abbey is the more famous wedding venue, there have been some notable royal nuptials at York Minster. The first was between Edward III and Philippa of Hainault in January 1328. The couple were not put off by the fact that the minster was still being built and the nave was lacking a roof. True to form, the British weather spoilt the day and the ceremony was conducted in the midst of a heavy snow storm. Six centuries later, the Duke and Duchess of Kent chose the more sensible month of June for their wedding at York.

 

Z is for Zzzz...

It is only since Victorian times that royal weddings have been held during the day. Before then, they were always evening affairs, conducted in private with just a handful of guests. One such wedding was that of James VII and II’s daughter Mary, who married her first cousin, Prince William of Orange, in 1677, in a ceremony that took place at 9pm in her bedchamber at St James’s Palace, London. The lateness of the hour is something that could never be repeated by any future royals  – at least, not without a change in the law. 

 

Test your knowledge of royal weddings by taking Tracy Borman's quiz!

Borman is co-author of The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings 1066–2011. Her new biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant, was released in January 2015. To find out more, visit www.tracyborman.co.uk.

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