Royal wedding traditions through history: etiquette, menus and the dress code

Historian Tracy Borman looks back at the history of royal wedding etiquette – from the dress code to the guest list and the bride's wedding gown…

The future Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace following their wedding, 20 November 1947. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The wedding guest list and seating plan

When Prince Harry married the American actress Meghan Markle at a ceremony in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on 19 May 2018, the couple defied royal tradition by keeping political and religious leaders off the guest list. Most royals before them have been obliged to invite hundreds of guests whom they have never met before, in the interests of diplomacy.

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The task of organising a royal wedding falls to the Lord Chamberlain in his capacity as ‘Impressario of Pageantry to the Queen’. Among the myriad duties involved is the drafting of the guest list, and as most full royal weddings involve at least 2,000 invitees, this is no mean feat.

It is also the Lord Chamberlain’s job to arrange the seating plan for the ceremony.  At Westminster Abbey – where Harry’s elder brother, William, got married to Catherine Middleton in 2011 – this is complicated by the fact that only 800 of the 2,000-strong congregation are able to see anything of the procession because of the pillars and other architectural features blocking the view, and fewer still catch a glimpse of the wedding ceremony itself. The worse the view, the less important the guest.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 29: Prince William and Catherine Middleton are seen at the altar during their wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011 in London, England. The marriage of Prince William, the second in line to the British throne, to Catherine Middleton is being held in London today. The Archbishop of Canterbury conducted the service which was attended by 1900 guests, including foreign Royal family members and heads of state. Thousands of well-wishers from around the world have also flocked to London to witness the spectacle and pageantry of the Royal Wedding and street parties are being held throughout the UK. (Photo by Clara Molden - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Only a limited number of the guests at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011 were actually able to see anything of the procession because of the pillars and other architectural features of Westminster Abbey. (Photo by Clara Molden – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Not all British royal weddings were celebrated with the pomp and ceremony that we are used to nowadays. One of the earliest, between William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, was so secret that to this day nobody knows when or where it took place. The couple were marrying in defiance of an edict issued by the pope because they were related within the prohibited degree of kinship. Almost five centuries later, Henry VIII also defied the pope when he married Anne Boleyn before his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been annulled. Meanwhile, Edward IV kept his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464 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 following the king’s death in 1483.

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in secret, probably on 25 January 1533, in his private chapel at Westminster. Their discretion was so successful that even to this day, the date and location of their wedding is not certain. But Henry’s courtiers quickly noticed a difference in Anne’s status because of her clothing. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to Henry VIII’s court from 1529 to 1545, reported to his master, Charles V: “On Saturday… dame Anne went to mass in Royal state, loaded with jewels, clothes in a robe of cloth of gold frieze… and was brought to church, and brought back with the solemnities or even more, which were used to the queen.”

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 in the presence of just a handful of guests. One such wedding was that of James 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.

Even some modern royals have got away with keeping their not-so-big day a similarly intimate affair. The wedding of Princess Margaret’s daughter, Sarah Armstrong-Jones, to her long-term partner, Daniel Chatto, was one of the most low-key royal weddings in history. It took place on 14 July 1994 at the small but perfectly formed Wren 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.

Wedding dress traditions

Think of a wedding dress, and the chances are you’re imagining something white and meringue-like. But the choice of white is a relatively recent tradition in the history of royal weddings. Until the early 19th century, the bride could wear any colour she chose – blue was a particular favourite, as was black. All of 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.”

FF9KK6 VICTORIA & ALBERT, 1854. /nQueen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. Photographed by Roger Fenton in 1854.
Queen Victoria wearing her wedding dress next to her husband, Prince Albert, photographed by Roger Fenton in 1854. Queen Victoria began the trend for white wedding dresses. (Photo by Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

The oldest surviving 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 – the equivalent of around £570,000 in today’s money. The gown is now preserved at Hampton Court Palace as part of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection.

We can no doubt look forward to seeing an array of glamorous outfits at Windsor on 19 May. In this respect, little has changed: throughout history, guests have turned out in their finest attire to celebrate their sovereign’s big day. Elizabeth I’s great favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, once spent more on a magnificent new outfit than Shakespeare did on his lavish new house in Stratford-upon-Avon.  

Food and feasting: the wedding reception

Royal nuptials have changed a great deal over the years, but one feature unites even the most modest of them: the wedding feast. For many hundreds of years, a wedding has provided the perfect excuse for a good nosh-up, and this has been particularly true of those involving a royal bride and groom. Although menus are scarce among the contemporary records, there are numerous descriptions of the “pleasure and magnificence” of the feasting that followed the ceremony.

Take the wedding of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence in 1236, for example. Their meal was so sumptuous that a heavy tax had to be levied to pay for it, which made the couple deeply unpopular from the start. The king, “glittering very gloriously”, took his place with his new wife at the head of the feast, which had been arranged by the Earl Marshal. One eyewitness described the “abundance of meats and dishes, with large quantities of venison and a variety of fish”, which was all served to “the joyous sounds of the gleemen”, or minstrels.

Similar magnificence was observed at the wedding feast of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, and his bride, Elizabeth of York. Although the menu has not survived, it is interesting to speculate whether the royal cooks would have prepared for the newly married couple any of the foods believed to excite lust: chestnuts, pistachios and pine nuts had long been used in folk medicine to stimulate the libido. The consumption of meat, meanwhile, was believed to strengthen the husband’s potency, as well as aiding the wife’s fertility.

An illustration depicting the wedding of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, to Elizabeth of York. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An illustration depicting the wedding of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, to Elizabeth of York. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In between each course the royal couple would have been served with a “subtlety” – a lavish sculpture of marchpane (marzipan) or spun sugar, covered with gold leaf. A popular design for weddings was a model of the new wife shown in the last stages of pregnancy – just in case she was not already aware of what was expected of her!  Neither were the Tudors prudish about phallic-shaped foods like asparagus, or those that could inspire sexual puns, such as “apricock”.

It is difficult to imagine such ribaldry in modern royal weddings. Neither are they always as extravagant as their precedents. When Queen Elizabeth II married Philip Mountbatten in 1947, post-war austerity took its toll on the wedding feast. Guests were served a main course of unrationed partridges, while the cake – which was nine feet tall – was not nearly as sumptuous as it appeared. In fact it had been cobbled together by a selection of different cake-makers working with strictly rationed ingredients. So careful was the royal family to avoid any hint of excess in such straitened times that one loyal fan from Brooklyn, New York, sent the newlyweds a turkey as a gift because she feared that they would go hungry. To avoid such unwanted (if well-intentioned) presents in future, the royal family now invites donations to nominated charities instead. 

Royal marriage consummation: the bedding ceremony

When the last dishes of the sumptuous and protracted wedding feast had been served, the royal couple were escorted by many of their guests to their private apartments for the “bedding ceremony”. The very public beginning to this essentially private event was for a purpose: even after the wedding ceremony had taken place in church, a marriage was not considered binding until it had been consummated.  Sexual failure could have far-reaching consequences for a royal couple, sparking political unrest and even rebellion. It was therefore imperative that members of their court and household be given sufficient reassurance that the act had been satisfactorily performed.

The bedding ceremony was subject to a similarly strict set of rules as the marriage ceremony and wedding feast. The bride would be escorted to her chamber by her ladies, who undressed her and put her to bed. The groom, meanwhile, was stripped down to just his shirt – an undergarment that would have reached to at least mid-thigh. Then, accompanied by his gentlemen attendants, musicians, priests and bishops, he would join his wife in the bedchamber. The clerics would pronounce their blessings, and then a concoction of wine and spices would be served. Known as the void or voidee, this was a mixture of expensive sweet and sharp spices such as pepper, saffron, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. It was thought to be beneficial to health and digestion, as well as sweetening the breath and engendering strength and courage.

The onlookers were often slow to leave. Sometimes, they demanded to see the naked legs of the couple touching, which in some cases was accepted as a sign of consummation. Others expected to witness the royal newlyweds kissing or embracing. 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. All of this served as a crude reminder that a royal body was the property of the state, and its functions were of great interest to the people of the realm. In this respect, the king and his wife were poorer than the lowliest of their subjects. The latter may not have enjoyed the array of comforts that came with royal blood, but they at least had the luxury of a private life in its true sense.

The earliest record of an English royal bedding ceremony was between Henry V and Catherine of Valois on 2 June 1420. Although their union was later romanticised by Shakespeare (in Henry V, believed to have been written in around 1599), the reality was the result of hard bargaining between the English king and his French counterpart. After the couple had been put to bed, their courtiers and attendants left them to consummate the marriage. But Henry and Catherine enjoyed only fleeting privacy because later that night their guests formed a great procession and came to their bedside carrying wine and soup to fortify them after their ‘exertions’.

Henry V married Catherine of Valois on 2 June 1420. Theirs is the earliest record of an English royal bedding ceremony. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
Henry V married Catherine of Valois on 2 June 1420. Theirs is the earliest record of an English royal bedding ceremony. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Undoubtedly, the most controversial wedding night in history was that of Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son and heir of King Henry VII, and the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon in November 1501. Even though the couple adhered to the traditional bedding ceremony, whether or not they consummated their union has been the source of intense speculation ever since. The morning after their wedding, Arthur, a frail 15-year-old, emerged from the chamber calling for a drink for he had spent the night “in Spain”. For her part, Catherine insisted that the marriage had not been consummated. Her husband died just four months later, and Catherine later married his younger brother Henry ­– the future 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. He called upon witnesses to testify that the marriage had been consummated – something that Catherine continued to stoutly deny. Who was telling the truth? The debate still rages today.

Marrying a foreigner

Prince Harry followed centuries of royal wedding tradition by choosing a foreign bride. Traditionally, marriage between royal families was one of the most effective ways of cementing international alliances. For example, the marriage of Henry VII’s firstborn son, Prince Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon brought Henry a powerful Spanish ally. Thousands of people lined the streets, craning to catch a glimpse of the exotic princess, who was decked out in “costly apparel both of goldsmith’s work and embroidery, rich jewels [and] massy chains” as she rode on a horse decked with glittering gold bells and spangles. Unusually for the time, both Catherine and her groom were dressed all in white. The bride was led into the church by her soon-to-be brother-in-law, the 10-year-old Prince Henry. Already, young Henry had the charisma and presence that his elder brother and father notably lacked.

Another Tudor, ‘Bloody’ Mary, was in 1554 so intent upon marrying Philip II of Spain that she rode roughshod over her subjects’ objections to a foreign king. It had been love at first sight for Mary, even though it was only his portrait that she had seen. She was no less besotted when she met the man himself, and married him two days later, on 25 July 1554 at Winchester Cathedral. But the marriage was deeply unpopular with her xenophobic subjects, who did not want a foreigner as their king and thought England would be dominated by Spain. 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 Mary’s ill-fated reign.

Circa 1554; Philip II, (1527 - 1598), king of Spain from 1556, with Queen Mary I of England, (1516 - 1558), (Mary Tudor); they married in 1554. Original Artwork:Engraved by Joseph Brown after the drawing by G P Harding of 1812, after the painting by Antonio Moro. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The marriage of Mary I and Philip II of Spain was deeply unpopular with the queen’s xenophobic subjects. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But what of American brides? Undoubtedly the most famous – and notorious – was Wallis Simpson, for whom Edward VIII gave up his crown. The king’s obsession with a woman who had two living ex-husbands sparked a constitutional crisis and led to his abdication in December 1936 to marry “the woman I love”. Although Meghan Markle is also a divorcee, the rules have been relaxed in recent years, so there is no question of Prince Harry giving up his place in the succession in order to take her as his bride.

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Tracy Borman is an acclaimed author and historian. She co-authored The Ring & the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066-2011. Her debut novel, The King’s Witch, is out in June.