The 8 most famous royal weddings in British history
Following news that Princess Beatrice has married property tycoon Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi in a private ceremony, royal historian and author Carolyn Harris explores eight of the most famous royal weddings in British history – from Prince William's wedding to Catherine Middleton in 2011 to the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert...
18 January 1486: Henry VII and Elizabeth of York
The Wars of the Roses ended and the Tudor dynasty began with one of the most popular royal weddings in history. After Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, defeated King Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, he claimed the English throne. As Henry VII consolidated his power, he received frequent reminders of his 1483 public oath to marry Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and niece of Richard III.
On 10 December 1485, Speaker of the House Sir Thomas Lovell praised Henry’s plans to marry Elizabeth “as consolation to the entire kingdom”. The members of parliament agreed and “thereupon, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in that same parliament, rising from their seats, and standing before the King seated on his royal throne, bowed their heads, made the same request with lowered voice: to whom the King indeed responded with his own voice, ‘According to their desires and requests, he himself was equally pleased to proceed’”.
The wedding ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey, followed by a banquet at Westminster Hall. Elizabeth of York acquired sumptuous gowns in blue, purple and tawny colours around the time of her wedding and one of these may have been her wedding dress. Henry and Elizabeth’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, was born eight months later, on 19 September 1486. Francis Bacon described Arthur as "born in the eighth month, as the physicians do prejudge”, yet "strong and able". It is possible that the infant was conceived before the wedding, as a formal betrothal was considered almost as binding as a marriage at that time.
The final scene of Shakespeare’s Richard III immortalised Tudor hopes for the marriage to result in lasting peace and prosperity for England: “O, now let Richmond and Elizabeth,/The true succeeders of each royal house,/By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together,/And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so./Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace.”
25 July 1554: Mary I and the future King Philip II of Spain
The betrothal of England’s first reigning queen, Mary I, to the future King Philip II of Spain was so unpopular that it prompted Wyatt’s rebellion – a popular insurrection with the goal of replacing the monarch with her younger half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I. English Protestants feared that Philip would bring the Spanish inquisition with him and involve England in Spain’s continental wars. As a Roman Catholic and a daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Mary was favourably disposed toward Spain and regarded her cousin Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, as a father figure. So when Charles proposed that Mary marry his son and heir, the future Philip II, Mary was delighted to accept, especially after she saw a handsome portrait of her future husband. Parliament attempted to persuade Mary to marry an Englishman and when that failed, passed the Queen Mary’s Marriage Act to limit Philip’s powers in England.
Despite the opposition to the marriage, Mary and Philip had a lavish royal wedding that reflected their status as reigning monarchs (Charles V had declared his son Philip king of Naples and Sicily in time for the ceremony so that he would not be outranked by his bride). The wedding took place at Winchester Cathedral. Contemporary accounts record that the cathedral was “richly hanged with arras and cloth of gold”. Mary wore a purple satin wedding dress embroidered with pearls, while Philip was “richly apparelled in cloth of gold”. The ceremony was followed by a banquet at the Bishop of Winchester’s palace and also dancing. Philip and his Spanish courtiers were reportedly “out of countenance” because the English courtiers were better dancers.
The lavish wedding was followed by the longest royal baby watch in English history. Mary displayed signs of what appeared to be pregnancy in July 1554. She went into seclusion expecting an imminent birth in April 1555 and there were repeated false rumours and premature celebrations that she had given birth to a son. In July 1555, Mary emerged from seclusion without having given birth. The marriage remained childless. Instead of a pregnancy, Mary had likely experienced symptoms of ovarian cancer. She died on 17 November 1558, possibly from cancer.
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1 May 1625: Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France
The marriage of King Charles I to Henrietta Maria, the youngest sister of King Louis XIII of France, was controversial because Charles was supreme governor of the Church of England and Henrietta Maria was a Roman Catholic. Charles’s father, James VI and I, who died in 1625, had hoped that a Roman Catholic princess from a major European power such as France or Spain would bring a large dowry to her marriage with his son.
James’s wish came to pass: the wedding ceremony of Charles and Henrietta Maria took place in Paris in front of Notre Dame cathedral, according to the French protocol established for the wedding of the Protestant future king Henry IV of France and Roman Catholic Marguerite de Valois in 1572. This precedent was an unhappy one, because the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants by Catholics followed the wedding of Henry and Marguerite. The marriage was eventually annulled, as the couple were childless and Henry was determined to remarry and father heirs.
There were few English guests at the wedding of Charles and Henrietta Maria. In fact, even the groom himself stayed away: Charles was represented by a proxy, the Protestant Duke of Chevreuse. Charles had visited Paris and glimpsed Henrietta Maria on a previous occasion, en route to Spain, but would have been reluctant to participate in a French royal wedding that included Roman Catholic rites. The wedding breakfast took place at the Archbishop of Paris’s residence followed by further festivities at the Louvre.
Charles and Henrietta Maria met six weeks after their wedding, when the bride, escorted by the Duke of Buckingham, arrived in England with her household. The marriage was consummated in Canterbury, the first major stop on the bridal party’s journey from Dover to London. One of Charles’s grooms of the bedchamber wrote to his wife on 14 June: “This last night the king and queene did lie together here att Conterburie, Long maye they do soe, and haue as manie children as wee are like to haue.” Charles and Henrietta Maria would have nine children, but only two sons – the future kings Charles II and James VII and II – would outlive Henrietta Maria.
The intense public interest in Charles and Henrietta Maria’s contentious royal wedding resulted in the publication of printed pamphlets discussing the event from a variety of perspectives. The clauses of the marriage contract were available for readers interested in the political and religious implications of the match, which included freedom of worship for the bride and control over the upbringing of her children until the age of 13. There were also detailed accounts of the ceremony, the order of precedence and what everyone wore. One pamphlet, titled The Solemnization of the Marriage of the King of Great Britaine, stated: “Then came the King of France, in a garment all embroidered with Gold and Silver, with the Lady his Sister in his right hand, who had a crown upon her head, and her Gown powdered all over with [fleurs-de-lys] of Gold.” Henrietta Maria chose a deep blue wedding dress that set off the fleurs-de-lys, the emblem of the French royal house.
Charles and Henrietta Maria developed a strong personal bond but the marriage remained unpopular. Henrietta Maria was eventually impeached as queen by the House of Commons in 1643 during the Civil War, on eight charges including inciting the Irish to revolt and pawning crown jewels to pay royalist mercenaries. Charles was beheaded in 1649. Henrietta Maria died in 1669.
10 February 1840: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
As a reigning queen, Queen Victoria was obliged to propose to Prince Albert in reverse of the usual custom of the time, but she was determined to ensure that her wedding ceremony would mirror the experiences of other British women. When asked if she wanted the word “obey” included in the vows, Victoria stated that “it was her wish to be married in all respects like any other woman, according to the revered usages of the Church of England, and that, though not as a queen, as a woman she was ready to promise all things contained in that portion of Liturgy”. A royal bride would not omit the word “obey” from the vows until the wedding of one of Victoria’s great-granddaughters, Lady May Cambridge, in 1931.
The wedding of Victoria and Albert took place in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. In contrast to previous royal brides, who had usually worn sumptuous coloured materials embroidered with gold or silver for their wedding dresses, Victoria chose a comparatively simple white silk dress adorned with Honiton lace and orange blossoms. The style was imitated by other brides, beginning a fashion for white wedding dresses that continues to the present day. As a young princess, Victoria had toured Britain, including industrial towns, with her mother, and the plans for her wedding dress were intended to benefit British manufacturing. The silk was woven in Spitalfields, whose silk industry was experiencing a decline, while the lace came from the villages of Honiton and Beer in Devon. Victoria wore her wedding lace on special occasions for the rest of her life and was buried in her veil in 1901.
Victoria’s journal demonstrated a keen awareness of the public interest in her wedding. She wrote: “I never saw such crowds as there were in the Park, & they cheered most enthusiastically.” Newspapers covered all aspects of the ceremony and festivities. The wedding breakfast took place at Buckingham Palace and included a plum cake that weighed 300 pounds (a slice of the cake was sold at auction in 2016 for £1,500). But Victoria’s taste in cakes changed a few years into her marriage. The invention of baking powder in 1843 allowed cakes to rise higher than previously possible, and Victoria enjoyed this new sponge cake with her afternoon tea. Her new favourite dessert became known as Victoria sponge cake.
Victoria was delighted with Albert but she was determined to place her duties as queen above all personal considerations. She insisted on just a three-day honeymoon at Windsor Castle, so that she would not fall behind on state business.
10 March 1863: The future King Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark
The first royal wedding to take place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle – the venue chosen by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018 – was the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Prince Albert Edward (the future Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. After generations of German princes and princesses marrying into the royal family, the arrival of a Danish princess captured the popular imagination and Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a poem welcoming “the Sea King’s Daughter” as a “joy to the people and joy to the throne”. Alexandra wore white silk trimmed with Honiton lace and embroidered with roses, thistles and shamrocks to symbolise England, Scotland and Ireland.
While the bride was admired for her beauty, fashion sense and unpretentious manner, Queen Victoria’s choice of St George’s Chapel as the setting for her heir’s wedding attracted widespread criticism because of its comparatively small size and its location outside London. Victoria was in mourning for Prince Albert, who had died of typhoid fever in 1861, and wished to avoid appearing in public in the capital. At St George’s Chapel she could watch the ceremony from the seclusion of Catherine of Aragon’s closet – a private recessed balcony above the altar that had allowed Catherine to watch Order of the Garter ceremonies without being observed.
Victoria also wrote the guest list, which consisted of the royal household, royal relatives and political figures, all required to wear half mourning colours of grey, lilac and white. The groom was permitted to invite four friends while the bride’s side was restricted to her immediate family. Only 38 people were invited to attend the luncheon that followed the ceremony, which Queen Victoria herself did not attend (she instead dined privately with her youngest daughter, Beatrice). Victoria considered a large wedding reception to be inappropriate during her mourning for Albert. The other 500 wedding guests returned to London after the ceremony aboard an overcrowded train from Windsor station.
20 November 1947: The future Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
The wedding of Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN (born Prince Philip of Greece) balanced royal ceremonial with postwar austerity. The ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey, which had been revived as a popular setting for royal weddings after the First World War. The couple posed for official engagement photos that displayed Elizabeth’s engagement ring, which was designed by Philip with jewels that had belonged to his mother, Alice of Battenberg. With this engagement ring, Philip set a precedent that would be followed by his grandson, Prince Harry, who would design a ring for his fiancé Meghan Markle including diamonds that belonged to his late mother, Princess Diana.
At the time of Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding, food and clothing rationing was still in effect. The British government provided Elizabeth with the 300 clothing coupons necessary for her ivory silk wedding dress, adorned with 10,000 pearls embroidered into white rose of York designs and crystals arranged as ears of corn. One of the bridesmaids, Elizabeth’s cousin Margaret Rhodes, recalled: “There was rationing of course, and we used up all our clothes coupons.”
The wedding breakfast featured partridges, which were not subject to rationing. The widespread perception that food was scarce in Britain, however, resulted in members of the public in the Commonwealth and the United States sending tinned food to Buckingham Palace. The government of the Australian state of Queensland sent the royal couple 500 crates of tinned pineapple as a wedding gift.
Both the bride and groom had relatives who were left off the guest list because of personal and political considerations. Elizabeth’s uncle, the former King Edward VIII, whose abdication to marry Wallis Simpson had led to the unexpected accession of Elizabeth’s father as King George VI, was not invited. Philip had three surviving sisters in 1947 who had married German princes, some of whom had been involved with the Nazi party. These sisters and their husbands were also not extended invitations to the wedding, and Philip’s family was represented by his Mountbatten relatives on his mother’s side.
Philip’s cousin David Mountbatten was his supporter, and another cousin, Pamela Mountbatten, was a bridesmaid. Pamela recalled that when the wedding party appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace: “We were met by an incredible sight: the police had been holding everyone back around the Victoria Memorial but when we came out, they let them go and we could see – and hear – a sea of people surging forward. Every time the newlyweds waved, the volume of cheering increased. We were later told that while they were waiting the crowd had been singing ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’.”
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in 2017.
29 July 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer
Prince Charles once mused in an interview “30 was a good age to get married” and public interest surrounding who he would marry reached a fever pitch by the time he reached his early thirties. The young Lady Diana Spencer captured the popular imagination as “Shy Di” , posing for photographs with Charles but evading questions about her relationship with him. The wedding was a global television sensation, with more than 750 million viewers around the world watching the ceremony. Some 600,000 people lined the procession route to catch a glimpse of the royal couple on their wedding day.
The wedding took place at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and was attended by 2,700 guests. Political considerations affected the guest list because Charles’s status as heir to the throne made his wedding a state occasion. In addition to Commonwealth governors-general and heads of government, European royals and political leaders were also invited to the wedding.
A few invitations were declined for political reasons: King Juan Carlos of Spain made headlines around the world when he stated that he and his wife, Queen Sofia, would not attend the wedding because Charles and Diana would be boarding the Royal Yacht Britannia in Gibraltar for their honeymoon. Spain had ceded Gibraltar to Britain according to the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but 20th-century Spanish leaders disputed Britain’s claim to this overseas territory.
The Spanish royal family were not the only absent invitees. The president of Greece, Konstantinos Karamanlis, also declined his invitation because Charles’s second cousin, former King Constantine II of Greece, had been invited as “King of the Hellenes”. In 1974, Karamanlis’s government had held a referendum that confirmed the abolition of the Greek monarchy and the establishment of a republic. The president of Ireland also declined to attend the wedding.
Diana wore a silk taffeta and antique lace wedding dress – designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel –with puffed sleeves and a full skirt. The glass coach that transported Diana and her father to St Paul’s Cathedral was not large enough to accommodate the 25-foot train – bridesmaid India Hicks (the daughter of Pamela Mountbatten) recalled “trying as best as I could to de-wrinkle the situation” as Diana stepped out of the carriage to enter the cathedral. The dress set a trend for elaborate wedding dresses that continued throughout the 1980s.
Charles and Diana separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Diana died in a car accident in Paris in 1997.
29 April 2011: Prince William and Catherine Middleton
The wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton combined centuries of royal tradition with 21st- century innovations. William was the first direct heir to the throne to marry a bride from a middle-class background since the future King James VII and II married Anne Hyde in 1660. In contrast to previous royal couples, who had experienced comparatively brief courtships and engagements, William and Catherine had met in university and been in a relationship for years before announcing their engagement. Catherine had gradually become familiar to the public as William’s girlfriend – though William never made a public statement to that effect, in the same manner as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
The wedding took place at Westminster Abbey, which the couple customised with English maple trees along the aisle that were replanted at Prince Charles’s Highgrove Estate after the ceremony. Catherine wore an ivory satin dress with lace appliqué designed by Sarah Burton, the creative director at the Alexander McQueen fashion house. The style was compared to past wedding gowns including those of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II and Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. William and Catherine had a maid of honour, the bride’s sister Pippa Middleton, and a best man, Prince Harry, in addition to young bridesmaids and page boys.
While previous royal couples expected (and sometimes displayed) a wide variety of gifts, William and Catherine encouraged well-wishers to donate to one of a recommended list of charities. This raised the profile of charity gift registries as an option for other couples and set a trend for subsequent royal couples, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The wedding of William and Catherine was credited with increasing interest in the monarchy among younger people – a trend that continues with the wedding of Harry and Meghan.
Dr Carolyn Harris is an instructor in history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the author of three books: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada; Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette; and Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in May 2018