Royal wedding: What past events were like

A montage of notable royal weddings (includes footage courtesy of Pathe)

When Prince William marries Kate Middleton, all eyes will be on every detail of their day. Is there a pattern set by previous royal nuptials - and what are the traditions?

The groom in uniform, bedecked with medals. The bride dressed by a British designer, her flowers containing sprigs of myrtle cut from the same bush used for Queen Victoria's bouquet. And cheering crowds.

This is the template for a royal wedding, as celebrated by William's great-grandparents, his grandparents, his father and mother, aunts and uncles.

More recent nuptials - Edward and Sophie's, Charles and Camilla's - have been modest affairs by royal standards, with buffet-style wedding breakfasts and intimate ceremonies in Windsor.

A history of royal weddings

Elizabeth and Philip at Buckingham Palace after their wedding, 1947
  • Find out more about how royal couples met
  • And what their weddings were like, from the Queen Mother's in 1923 to Prince Charles' weddings in 1981 and 2005

Were these a break from, or a return to royal tradition?

Modern royal weddings - those in the past 90-odd years - mark a significant break with the past, says Fiona Macdonald, author of Royal Weddings: A Very Peculiar History.

"Until the 19th Century and early in the 1900s, the pattern had been largely the same for the past 1,000 years. Royal weddings were usually arranged for political, dynastic and empire-building reasons, and the bride and groom were always of mutually royal rank.

"Marrying a commoner was exceptionally rare. The most famous example was Edward IV marrying Elizabeth Woodville in the 15th Century."

That was just what Prince Albert did, marrying Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of a minor Scottish aristocrat, in 1923 at Westminster Abbey.

As the second son, Albert had somewhat more freedom of choice than his brother Edward.

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon emerges from her home to be married, 1923 The Queen Mother's wedding day

But Edward abdicated to be with Wallis Simpson, a divorcee, and so Prince Albert became King George VI, his wife became Queen Elizabeth, and their daughter Elizabeth became heir to the throne.

When she was 11, five possible future bridegrooms from four foreign families were under consideration, including the man she eventually fell in love with - Prince Philip of Greece. He renounced his own titles in order to be her consort, and the future queen married the Duke of Edinburgh at Westminster Abbey in 1947.

A very British church

William and Kate will also become man and wife at Westminster Abbey. Yet it only became the venue of choice for royal weddings late in its 1,000-year history. Prior to World War I, kings and queens, princes and princesses married in private in royal chapels or palaces.

The war meant the royal family was keen to play down its German heritage, and to strengthen its rapport with the British people. King George V changed the family's Germanic name to Windsor.

Well-wishers on why they come from far and wide

"He also encouraged the use of Westminster Abbey for royal weddings. It was the great British church, founded by a king and where kings and queens were traditionally crowned," says Macdonald, adding that its size meant a wider circle of guests could be invited.

"Throughout the 20th Century, grand processions through the streets were a feature of almost all royal weddings. There were also street decorations, and sometimes street parties. These were a very powerful way of allowing ordinary people to share in the royal ceremony."

The venue, the national mood of celebration - no wonder the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip was the definitive modern royal wedding:

  • She wore a gown decorated with patriotic symbols, made from silk from Chinese silkworms - just two years after WWII, Japanese or Italian silkworms were out of the question
  • He wore his naval uniform, with medals earned on active service
  • She laid her bouquet of seasonal flowers, with sprigs of myrtle, on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, just as her mother had done
  • They waved to crowds of well-wishers from the Buckingham Palace balcony
  • They then feasted on French-style dishes named in their honour
  • And, for the first time, the wedding was broadcast live to an international radio audience

In another first, newsreel cameras were allowed into the Abbey itself, although those watching the wedding film only saw the backs of the happy couple at the altar.

History of royal wedding feasts

Cake ingredients donated by Australian Girl Guides

Wedding feasts are shows of wealth and power. Highly ornamented foods such as gilded peacocks were common on medieval tables, but the most imposing feature of any modern wedding is the cake.

When Victoria married Albert in 1840, one of their cakes weighed in at 300lb, while that of Prince Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923 was almost nine feet high. Our own Queen sent pieces of her cake all over the UK, linking her subjects to her in a rather special way.

Royal weddings first became public spectacles in the later half of the 19th Century, with the advent of mass media such as daily newspapers.

"Once reliable telegraphy was up and running, British royal events became news across the Atlantic and throughout the Empire," says Ms Macdonald.

In 1923, the Archbishop of Canterbury vetoed live radio coverage of Prince Albert's wedding, who feared men would listen in pubs, while still wearing their hats. Instead, a silent newsreel was shown in cinemas worldwide.

The first royal wedding to be televised live came when Princess Margaret married Lord Snowdon in 1960. But TV audiences did not witness an exchange of vows until 21 years later, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer.

"By the time of Edward and Sophie's, and Charles and Camilla's weddings, there was a mingling of old and new royal wedding traditions - televised, but more intimate and less stately occasions," says Ms Macdonald.

When William marries Kate in April, intimate is unlikely to be the adjective of choice. For it will be the wedding of a future king and queen.

Sue Lawley visits Princess Anne's hairdresser in November 1973

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