Royal Weddings–A History Centuries in the Making

[Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images] Britain’s Prince Harry and his fiancée, American actress Meghan Markle, pose for a photograph at Kensington Palace in West London on November 27, 2017, following the announcement of their engagement.
Everyone loves a fairy tale. On May 19, 2018, Prince Harry of Wales will marry American actress Meghan Markle in what promises to be a lavish ceremony steeped in the traditions of the British monarchy. In the typical media fanfare of years past, the world has witnessed the buildup to the royal wedding; and this time, a U.S. citizen has won the heart of a prince.  The wedding dress, ring, and the couples’ marriage rituals will be displayed across the glossy pages of magazines, and fashion experts and historians will analyze their symbolism against the couples’ predecessors.

Despite the many entrenched traditions of the royal wedding, British royal marriages can carry a signature of uniqueness. Queen Victoria was the first to wear all white and her engagement ring was a gem-encrusted snake. Queen Elizabeth II purchased the material for her dress using war ration coupons. Princess Diana omitted the promise to ‘obey’ her husband from her vows, as did Catherine (Kate) Middleton when she married Diana’s son, Prince William, three decades later. The annals of royal marriage are anything but dull. 

Read more about how British royal weddings developed through time:

[Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images] Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, return to Buckingham Palace by carriage after their wedding, on July 29, 1981.
A royal wedding in Britain is now a worldwide phenomenon, possibly because the British monarchy is one of the few active constitutional monarchies left in Europe. However, the big public royal weddings in Great Britain, often held in Westminster Abbey, began only in the early part of the 20th century. Before then, the wedding ceremonies of members of the royal family were usually more modest, private affairs that differed little from the weddings of any other citizen.

From Private to Public

Indeed, in 1904, Edward VII ordered that the weddings of the descendants of Queen Victoria should be regarded as domestic and private, not public, events. Only personal friends and people of state importance were usually invited to such events. The ceremony was normally held in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor (about 25 miles from London); Westminster Abbey did not become the default venue for British royal weddings until the marriage of Princess Patricia of Connaught, one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, in February 1919. St. George’s Chapel was found to be structurally unsound and the alternative Chapel Royal at St James’s in London, which had been the venue for the wedding of Queen Victoria, the Princess Royal, and Princess May of Teck, was considered too small and ugly. Because Princess Patricia was popular and as this was the first big royal event since the beginning of World War I (which lasted from 1914 to 1918), Westminster Abbey, which could hold a minimum of 2,500 guests, was the chosen venue. The event was used to boost the morale of the population and also enhance the status of the royal family in a world where monarchs were being toppled and even executed.

Similarly, in 1923, George V thought it politically wise to make the wedding of the Duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon a public event involving the population at large, especially in view of the postwar upheavals in Europe, such as the Russian Revolution, which deposed the Romanov dynasty and heralded the rise of the Soviet Union. However, the king and the organizers tried not to be too fancy because of the postwar frugality still being experienced by the rest of the nation. At this wedding, the bride, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, broke off from her procession down the aisle to place her bouquet on the memorial to the unknown warrior, endearing her to a population still reeling from the effects of the Great War that had cost most families and communities personal losses. She thereby began a tradition observed by subsequent royal brides, although the bouquet is now conveyed to the abbey and laid on the memorial sometime after the ceremony.

This 1923 wedding was also the first time that the ceremony could be broadcast to the nation thanks to the recent establishment of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). However, permission to broadcast live was not given by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster because they were concerned that people might listen in a disrespectful manner, such as while wearing hats or in pubs or bars.

Arranged Marriages

Many royal weddings were arranged to cement political alliances and to produce legitimate male heirs to the throne. Henry VIII (who ruled from 1509 to 1547) was desperate for a male heir and found reasons to divorce or otherwise dispose of wives who did not produce a male child; his divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533 resulted in a split from the Church of Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. But many royal marriages were for political reasons, and it was not always necessary for the couple to be present together to be married. In 1625, Charles I married Henrietta Maria, sister of the French king, by proxy at a ceremony on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Charles was represented at the ceremony by the Duke of Chereuse. Henrietta did not meet her husband until after the celebrations. She arrived in England and met her husband at Dover to journey to London and take part in a feast at the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

[Library of Congress] Portrait of George IV, king of Great Britain (1820–1830).
Neither was it important for the royal couple to actually like each other. When his secret marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic, was declared invalid, George, Prince of Wales, was persuaded to make an advantageous marriage to Caroline of Brunswick only after Parliament promised to clear his many debts. At the wedding in 1795, he was so drunk he could barely say the vows and only just managed to stop himself from sobbing when no one objected to the marriage. He spent his wedding night unconscious from drink in the fireplace at the opposite side of the room from his wife. They obviously consummated the marriage because they had one child, a daughter, but both had a string of affairs. He criticized her level of hygiene, and she was vocal about him being less attractive than his portrait.

The idea of marrying for love became popular toward the end of of the 18th century, but the aristocracy was still expected to marry out of duty and members of the royal family were subject to several acts of Parliament including the Act of Settlement of 1701, which forbade members of the royal family, and especially heirs to the throne, from marrying a Catholic; and the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, which stated that no descendant of George II, male or female, could marry without the approval of the monarch. Any marriage contracted without the approval of the monarch would be declared invalid. This measure was enacted because George III was increasingly upset by the unsuitable and disreputable marriages made by his siblings and indeed his own children, and he also felt somewhat resentful that he had been forced to marry for political reasons. The act is still in effect, although the royal bride and groom do have more choice in selecting marriage partners.


A royal wedding in Britain today is treated as a great display and a public occasion that always creates a great market for the production of memorabilia such as commemorative plates and mugs. However, this is nothing new. Commemorative medallions were produced for the wedding of Mary Henrietta Stuart, the Princess Royal, and William II of Orange in 1640. Similarly, memorabilia such as fans, specially brewed ales, medallions, and tokens were produced for other royal weddings in the 18th century.

About the Author:

George P. Monger, BSc, MA, is a freelance heritage conservation consultant, folklorist, and writer. His published works include the first edition of ABC-CLIO’s Marriage Customs of the World and Discovering the Folklore and Traditions of Marriage. He has contributed to many other publications, journals, and magazines. Monger is a fellow of the International Institute for Conservation, fellow of the Museum Association, and an accredited conservator for the Institute for Conservation (ICON) in the United Kingdom.

Monger, George P. “British Royal Weddings.” World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2018, Accessed 10 May 2018.

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