Retracing royal weddings through history

14 May 2018

Historian and author Ted Powell retraces the paths of royal weddings been and gone to offer interesting insight in to how Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding day will compare

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When Meghan Markle steps into St George’s Chapel in Windsor on 19th May, she will enter the very heart of the British monarchy. Not only will she be met by the current members of the Royal Family, she will also be surrounded by the ghosts of monarchs past. Several kings are buried there, including Henry VIII. The hand of history will lie heavy on her shoulder.

As a successful actress and media star, Meghan Markle is well prepared for her new role as a royal princess. The same could not be said of Princess Diana, who stepped into the full glare of global media attention when she married Prince Charles in 1981. The ceremony was watched by  an estimated global audience of 750 million. Diana’s wedding train was so long that it barely fitted into her carriage. The wedding cake was five feet tall and weighed 225 pounds. In retrospect the fairytale wedding atmosphere raised impossibly high expectations of Charles and Diana’s marriage, which were brutally dashed within a few short years.

The first modern royal marriage took place in April 1923, when Prince Albert, the future George VI, married Elizabeth, later to become the Queen Mother. It was very much a public event, designed to lift the morale of the nation after the horrors of World War One. An estimated one million spectators lined the processional route, and for the first time the proceedings were filmed for the newsreels. As Elizabeth entered the Abbey with her father, one of the clergymen in front of them fainted. While the procession paused for a moment, she suddenly stooped down, and laid her bouquet of white roses on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. In doing so, she established a tradition which continues to this day. 

The wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip of Greece 24 years later was also designed to raise public morale in a post-war atmosphere of gloom and austerity. They were married on a foggy day in November 1947. Rationing was still in force and Elizabeth had to be given an extra allocation of clothing coupons for her wedding dress. Nevertheless Norman Hartnell managed to design something beautiful: an ivory silk gown sewn with 10,000 seed pearls imported from America. The British public remained rather suspicious of Prince Philip. His German relatives were not invited, and he was given a British makeover. He took the surname Mountbatten, and King George gave him the title of Duke of Edinburgh. On the day he wore his Royal Navy uniform and ceremonial sword, and looked every inch the consort of the future Queen.

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How will Harry and Meghan’s day compare with the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011? All the signs are that it will be a more informal, relaxed occasion. William and Kate’s marriage was a State ceremony, and it was attended by royalty and presidents from all over the world. With fewer constraints on the guest list, the congregation is likely to be more representative of modern British society.  As she watches from the front row, the Queen will perhaps wonder at the changes that the monarchy has undergone in her lifetime and continues to go through with new generation of Royals. 

Ted Powell is a historian and author. His forthcoming book King Edward VIII: An American Life, is available to pre-order from Oxford University Press now, priced at £25 in hardback and ebook.

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