A curious history of royal weddings

As Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s big day approaches, Mark Mason uncovers the unusual stories behind British royal nuptials

In the build up to their grand wedding, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are probably too busy to read up on trivia about previous royal weddings. Which is a pity, as they might get some tips on things to include (such as rich tea biscuits) and things to avoid – like spending your wedding night drunk on the floor by the fireplace…

2011: Prince William and Kate Middleton

Having chosen the same date for their wedding as Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun (April 29), Wills and Kate tied the knot at Westminster Abbey. She omitted the promise to ‘obey’ her husband (just as his mother Diana had done at her wedding in 1981). The military uniforms worn by William and his brother included specially-tailored sweat guards to keep them dry under the TV lights. David Beckham entered the abbey wearing his OBE on the wrong lapel (that is, the right) – someone must have had a word, because he left the abbey with it on the left lapel. Guests departed to enjoy a wedding cake containing 1,700 rich tea biscuits, a favourite snack of the groom.

2005: Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles

Guests included Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley and the bride’s ex-husband Andrew Parker Bowles – but not the groom’s mother. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Queen is forbidden to attend the wedding of a divorcée.

1994: Sarah Armstrong-Jones and Daniel Chatto

Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones might have thought they were keeping it low-key with their 1999 ‘no hats’ edict, but five years earlier Princess Margaret’s daughter got married so quickly that the chauffeurs were caught unawares. Guests at St Stephen’s Walbrook church in the City of London –including the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Diana – had to make small talk until the cars appeared.

1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer

Still the biggie – the last ‘fairytale’ royal wedding, before the Queen’s children started getting divorced and public deference disappeared over the horizon for good. Although Diana herself never signed up to the fairytale in the first place: the wedding was only her 14th meeting with Charles, and at the rehearsal two days before she had broken down in tears. (The BBC crew kept that a secret, making sure the footage never emerged.) On the morning of her marriage Diana sang Just One Cornetto as she sat in her dressing gown having her make-up done. Then she accidentally spilt perfume over her dress – she had to hold the folds in her hand to cover up the stain. During the service she got Charles’s names in the wrong order, putting his middle name Philip first. Prince Andrew later teased her that she’d married his father instead.

David Beckham getting his OBE medal in a muddle at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (Getty)

1973: Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips

The Queen’s second-oldest had a wedding cake that was exactly five feet six inches tall – because so is she.

1947: Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh

The Queen (as she then wasn’t) had her wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell – and paid for it with ration coupons. Hundreds of people sent her their own coupons to help out: but this would have been illegal, so she returned them all. The bride did her own make-up. As she got dressed for the service her tiara snapped – the court jeweller was given a police escort to his workshop so he could repair it in time.

1923: Prince Albert and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

On her way into Westminster Abbey, the future Queen Mother unexpectedly laid her wedding bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. This was in memory of her brother Fergus, who had been killed during World War One. Subsequent royal brides at the Abbey – including the Queen and Kate Middleton – have kept up the tradition. Though the first anyone knew of the Queen Mum’s gesture was in subsequent reports: the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to let the wedding be broadcast on the newly-invented wireless, in case men listened to it in pubs.

1840: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Previous royal brides had tended to favour blue or black wedding dresses, but Victoria (by then the reigning monarch) chose white so crowds along the processional route could see her clearly. Her decision is credited with spreading the modern tradition of brides wearing white. (She also banned her wedding guests from wearing the colour, and had the pattern for her dress destroyed so that no one could copy it.) Among the couple’s wedding presents was the largest cheddar cheese ever made. It contained the milk of 750 cows from Somerset, weighed 88 stone and had a circumference of over nine feet.

1795: Prince of Wales and Caroline of Brunswick

The future George IV and his cousin Princess Caroline weren’t a match made in heaven, but a match made by his father George III. Seeing her for the first time, the prince said: ‘I am not well, pray get me a glass of brandy.’ His bride-to-be was equally unimpressed, telling a friend that George was very fat and ‘nothing like as handsome as his portrait’. After their wedding George got stupendously drunk and spent the night lying on the bedroom floor by the fireplace.

Princess Anne and Capt Mark Phillips pose on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after their wedding in 1973 (Getty)

1736: Prince Frederick and Princess Augusta

The Prussian princess was just as reluctant about her marriage as Caroline had been about hers. On the way to the wedding she clung to her mother, begging ‘please don’t leave me’. Though she did it in German – she didn’t speak a word of English. Unsurprisingly this made the ceremony a bit of a challenge for her: a less than sympathetic Frederick shouted her lines into her ear so she could repeat them phonetically. As soon as the proceedings were over Augusta was physically sick.

1501: Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon

Catherine would go down in history as the first of Henry VIII’s wives, but she had first married his elder brother Arthur. Her vows included a promise to be ‘bonny and buxom in bed and at board’, while her wedding night included a ‘bedding ceremony’ that was often practised back then. Catherine was undressed by her ladies-in-waiting and laid on the bed, which had been sprinkled with holy water. Arthur was accompanied into the bedroom by his male colleagues, as music was played on viols and tabors. The Bishop of London blessed the bed and prayed for the marriage to be fruitful, after which the couple were left in peace. The next morning Arthur asked a servant to bring him ‘a cup of ale, for I have been this night deep in Spain’. Catherine later disputed this. Arthur died the following year.

1468: Charles the Bold and Margaret of York

Charles, Duke of Burgundy, married the sister of Edward IV and Richard III in Bruges. The celebrations, which included jousting and feasts, went on for 12 days. This was longer than had been planned, and at one point workers from nearby cities had to be rushed to Bruges to help serve the food.

1328: Edward III and Philippa of Hainault

Proof that even the royal family can have problems with wedding venues. York Minster was still being built when Edward and his bride got married there. The nave didn’t yet have a roof, and as it was January the couple had to say their vows in a snow storm.


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