Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s wedding: everything you need to know
In what was hailed as the wedding of the century, Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles married on 29 July 1981 at St Paul’s Cathedral in front of 2,600 guests and a global television audience of 750 million. Here, ahead of the fourth series of The Crown, which will introduce Emma Corrin as Lady Diana Spencer, historian Tracy Borman brings you everything you need to know about Diana and Charles’s fairy tale wedding…
It was a blisteringly hot July day and I was on my annual family holiday to Dorset. But instead of heading to the beach, as we had every other day, we were clustered around the small black-and-white television in our self-catering flat, eagerly waiting for the wedding of the century to begin. We were not alone. An estimated 750 million people around the world were tuning in, and at least one million more had flocked to London to catch a glimpse of the wedding procession.
The bride and groom of this ‘fairy tale’ wedding were Lady Diana Spencer (affectionately known as ‘Shy Di’) and Prince Charles, heir to the British throne. Their wedding generated a greater swell of public interest than any other in modern royal history. But it also broke with a number of long-established royal traditions. It was held at St Paul’s Cathedral rather than Westminster Abbey – the first time a royal wedding had been held there since Henry VII’s son Arthur married Catherine of Aragon on 14 November 1501. Diana was also the first British citizen to marry the heir to the throne in more than 300 years; the last had been Anne Hyde, who married the future James II in 1660. (Tragically, these two women would share something else in common as both died in their thirties and never became queen.)
When, where and how did Charles propose to Diana?
Charles proposed to Diana on 6 February 1981 at Windsor Castle. Diana thought at first that Charles was joking but nevertheless accepted, and was shocked when she later realised he meant it.
The couple’s engagement was kept secret for the next three weeks, probably to allow time to prepare for the official announcement. Diana later claimed that she and Charles had met only 13 times before they became engaged.
What style was Diana’s engagement ring?
It was a 12-carat Ceylon sapphire stone set with 14 solitaire diamonds and a white gold band. It was created by the then-crown jeweller The House of Garrard and the design was inspired by Queen Victoria’s sapphire-and-diamond cluster brooch, a wedding present from Prince Albert in 1840.
It was one of the few royal engagement rings not to be custom-made and was available for anyone to buy. Although it has been said that Diana selected it because it reminded her of her mother’s engagement ring, another theory is that she was drawn to its large size.
The ring originally cost £30,000 and is estimated to be worth almost £400,000 today.
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What was Diana’s wedding ring made from?
The gold for the princess’s wedding band followed royal tradition and was made from one of the last soft nuggets of Welsh gold, mined at Clogau St David's gold mine, which ceased production in 1998. That same Welsh gold nugget had been used for the wedding bands of Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Princess Anne, among many other royals. Diana’s ring was engraved on the inside with the message: “I Love You, Diana”.
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Why did Diana and Charles decide to get married at St Paul’s Cathedral?
The main reason for the choice was that St Paul’s Cathedral offered more seating – an important consideration given that there was to be a very large number of guests.
How much freedom did Diana and Charles have in planning the wedding?
Because Prince Charles was heir to the British throne, the event was automatically deemed a ‘state occasion’, formally requiring the invitation of the crowned monarchs of Europe and most of the elected heads of state. The ceremony was a traditional Church of England wedding service, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and the Dean of St Paul’s, Alan Webster. The event followed full royal protocol and does not appear to have included many personal touches by the royal couple.
The organisation of royal weddings traditionally falls to the Lord Chamberlain in his capacity as ‘Impressario of Pageantry to the Queen’. Among the myriad and complex duties involved is the drafting of the guest list, which then goes to the Queen for approval before the invitation cards are sent out.
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How much did the wedding cost and who paid for it?
The wedding is thought to have cost £57 million, making it the most expensive in royal history. To compare, William and Kate’s wedding in 2011 cost around £23.7 million and Harry and Meghan’s in 2018 cost £32 million.
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Estimates of security costs for Diana and Charles’s wedding vary wildly from £500,000 to £20 million. More than 2,000 police officers were on duty on the day. All along the two-mile procession route, every room in every building had been checked each day over the previous fortnight, and every person using those rooms had been vetted by the police. St Paul’s Cathedral was searched by police officers and dogs trained to sniff out explosives. Helicopters hovered overhead and there were police watching from rooftops and windows along the route. Armed police disguised as footmen travelled with the Queen’s and Prince Charles’s coaches.
Who designed Diana’s wedding dress?
Diana chose the relatively unknown David Emanuel and his then-wife Elizabeth to design her dress because she was fond of a chiffon blouse they had designed for her first official photoshoot following the engagement. The Emanuels’ professed aim was to create “something that was going to go down in history, but also something that Diana loved”. They were said to have been influenced by Botticelli, Renoir and Degas, as well as photographs of some of the most romantic women in history – including Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1940).
How long did it take to make? How much would the dress have cost?
Diana’s wedding dress was a closely guarded secret. The Emanuels had a maximum of five months to work on it, given the timing of the engagement and wedding. Due in part to the level of secrecy required, they kept a very small team including two seamstresses. They also consulted Maureen Baker, who had made Princess Anne’s wedding dress in 1973, and commissioned Stephen Walters of Suffolk to weave the silk taffeta.
Fashioned from ivory silk taffeta, the dress was hand-embroidered with 10,000 tiny mother-of-pearl sequins and pearls and fringed with antique lace. There were multiple layers of tulle under the skirt, which contrasted with the fitted bodice and puff-sleeves, and a 25-foot train (one of the longest in royal history). An 18-carat gold horseshoe was sewn into the petticoat for luck.
Antique hand-made Carrickmacross lace that had belonged to Queen Mary [who married the future George V in July 1893] was used to trim the gown, and it was topped off with a 40-foot long veil. The dress cost in the region of £11,000 and in 2019 was valued at £151,000. It is today in the care of William and Harry.
Diana’s wedding shoes were the work of shoemaker Clive Shilton and took as long to create as the dress. They were studded with 542 sequins and 132 pearls, and the soles were painted with a ‘C’ and ‘D’. To complete the ensemble, Diana wore the Spencer family tiara and her mother’s diamond earrings.
Diana had to have 15 dress fittings in total. Before the wedding day her waist size dropped from 29 inches to 23.5 inches and the designers had to sew her into the dress due to the weight loss. Diana is known to have struggled with bulimia, a condition she would be afflicted with for several years.
Diana also had a spare wedding dress, which would have acted as a stand-in if the dress design had been leaked before the big day. The Emanuels didn’t tell Diana about the back-up dress. It was made from the same ivory silk taffeta and had ruffles around the neck but was much less extravagant than the show-stopping gown Diana wore on the day. The Emanuels had also designed a matching parasol in case of bad weather – although in the end Diana didn’t need to use it.
The wedding bouquet, meanwhile, was made up of white and gold flowers, including orchids, lily of the valley and Earl Mountbatten roses. It also contained the traditional sprig of myrtle, symbol of love, taken from bushes grown from cuttings from Queen Victoria’s bouquet. The bouquet was later placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Why was Diana’s dress so wrinkled?
According to writer Andrew Morton, in Diana: Her True Story (1992), the Emanuels realised too late that they had forgotten to allow for the train’s length in relation to the size of the coach Diana and her father rode in to the ceremony. They found it difficult to fit inside, particularly as both Diana and her father were tall, and the train was badly crushed despite Diana’s efforts. This accounted for the visible wrinkles in the wedding gown when she arrived at the cathedral.
Speaking in a 2018 documentary Invitation to a Royal Wedding, presented by Sir Trevor McDonald and Julie Etchingham, David Emanuel admitted: “We did know it would crease a bit but when I saw Diana arrive at St Paul's and we saw the creases I actually felt faint.”
How many guests attended the wedding? What notable figures did the guest-list include?
The wedding of Diana and Charles was attended by 2,600 people. The guest list included numerous foreign royals and heads of state, and notable figures such as Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Charles’s ex-girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles.
Who was in the wedding party?
The royal couple had seven bridal attendants, including two page boys. There were five bridesmaids, the youngest of whom was five-year-old Clementine Hambro, great-granddaughter of Winston Churchill. Princes Andrew and Edward were supporters (the equivalent of best man for a royal wedding) for their elder brother Charles.
What happened on the day?
At 10.22am the Queen and the royal family were taken to St Paul’s Cathedral in eight carriages. The Prince of Wales travelled in a gold-encrusted coach. Diana arrived with her father in the Glass coach (one of the principal State carriages of the British monarch) almost on time for the 11.20am ceremony. As the orchestra played ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ by Jeremiah Clarke, Diana was escorted by her father, John, Earl Spencer, on the three-and-a-half minute walk down the aisle.
After the ceremony, the newlyweds were driven to Buckingham Palace in the open-topped 1902 State Landau. This was a break with tradition because a carriage was more usually employed at the start of state visits to London or Windsor.
Shortly after their arrival, at 1.10pm, the bride and groom, together with members of both families and the bridesmaids and page boys, made the traditional appearance on the balcony of the palace. Later that day, they left the palace for their honeymoon in the Landau, which had been affixed with a ‘just married’ sign by Princes Andrew and Edward.
What changes did Diana and Charles make to their wedding vows?
Diana was the first royal to remove the word ‘obey’ from her wedding vows. This was at the request of both Charles and Diana. It was unprecedented in royal weddings and caused a sensation.
On the day, both Diana and Charles made mistakes in their wedding vows: Diana accidentally referred to her husband by the wrong name, calling him Philip Charles Arthur George instead of Charles Philip Arthur George, while Prince Charles told his princess he would offer her “thy goods” instead of “my worldly goods”.
What food was served at the wedding?
In keeping with royal wedding tradition, the dishes served at the wedding breakfast bore the names of royal family members. ‘Supreme de Volaille Princesse de Galles’ (‘Princess of Wales chicken supreme’) was the main course, consisting of a chicken breast stuffed with lamb mousse. The traditional British summertime favourite, strawberries and cream, was served for dessert.
There were a staggering 27 wedding cakes. The main one, created by the Naval Armed Forces, was five feet tall – it reportedly took half an hour to crack all the eggs required.
This special cake featured the initials ‘C’ and ‘D’; the prince's coat of arms; and the Spencer family crest. Each tier was decorated with plaques showing places and motifs connected with the couple. According to tradition, the top tier was saved for the christening of their first child. On the wedding day the cake was sliced by Prince Charles with a ceremonial sword.
The Naval Armed Forces made two identical versions of the main cake in case one was damaged. Numerous slices of the couple's wedding cake have since been auctioned off, the most recent being in Bristol in 2016 where it fetched around £1,500.
Among the wedding gifts that arrived from all over the globe was a brass paperweight from Dartmoor Prison in the shape of a ball and chain.
Did Charles and Diana invent the Buckingham Palace balcony kiss?
Diana and Charles made a traditional appearance on a balcony of Buckingham Palace at 1.10pm and delighted the crowd when they kissed, initiating the tradition. It was said that this was because Charles had forgotten to kiss Diana at the end of the ceremony, but it was not part of royal protocol to kiss the bride at the end of a royal wedding.
What song was played for the couple’s first dance?
This has never been confirmed, but we do know that they hired Lester Lanin, an American jazz and pop bandleader, and his orchestra to get the party started. Lanin had also performed at Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly’s engagement party in 1956. According to the New York Times, he wrote ‘My Lady Love’ for Charles and Diana’s wedding.
Did anything go wrong on the day?
Diana spilled perfume – Quelques Fleurs – on her gown when she went to apply it to her wrist before the ceremony, forcing her to cover the spot with her hand while walking to the altar.
But the creasing of her dress was the most famous – and noticeable – mishap.
Where and when Diana and Charles go on honeymoon?
At the end of their wedding day Charles and Diana were driven to Waterloo Station, where they caught the British Royal Train to Romsey in Hampshire to begin their honeymoon. They then travelled to Broadlands, where the Queen and Prince Philip had spent their wedding night in 1947. After three days they flew to Gibraltar, where they boarded the Royal Yacht Britannia for an 11-day cruise of the Mediterranean, before joining a royal family gathering at Balmoral Castle.
Even before the wedding, cracks had begun to appear in Charles and Diana’s relationship. Diana knew about her fiancé’s history with Camilla Parker Bowles, and according to royal biographer Penny Junor, both Charles and Diana probably knew they were making a mistake when they walked down the aisle.
How was the wedding covered on television? How many people watched?
BBC television coverage began at 7.45am, presented by Angela Rippon and Peter Woods, with separate commentary on the carriage processions and marriage service. Simultaneous coverage on BBC Two provided live subtitles for hearing-impaired viewers, the first big outing for the Palantype system. Radio coverage was also extensive, with commentators such as Terry Wogan on Radio 2 capturing the mood on the streets. The wedding remains one of the most-watched programmes on the BBC.
It was not the first royal wedding to be televised, however: that was the wedding of Princess Margaret to Antony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon, on 6 May 1960.
Diana and Charles’s wedding was seen by a global television audience of 750 million in 74 countries. In Britain, where a public holiday had been declared, 28.4 million watched on BBC and ITV – the majority on the BBC.
To compare, estimated figures for William and Kate’s wedding in 2011 include a peak audience in the UK of 26.3 million viewers and a total of 36.7 million watching at least some part of the wedding coverage. The global audience has been estimated at 162 million. In addition to the television audiences, the ceremony attracted 72 million live streams and a reach of 101 million streams on YouTube across 188 countries, earning it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Harry and Meghan’s wedding attracted about a third less (18 million) UK viewers, but won the ratings war in the US thanks to Meghan’s nationality with 29 million (versus 26 million for William and Kate’s wedding). The wedding was also streamed live online on YouTube via the British Monarchy’s official channel.
Tracy Borman is a royal author and historian specialising in the Tudor period. She co-authored The Ring and the Crown: a history of royal weddings, 1066–2011 (Hutchinson, 2011)