You can’t deny the British royal family knows how to put on a wedding. From luxurious locations to showstopping gowns – by way of the odd scandal – British royal weddings are never without interest.
As we prepare for the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, we take a look back at some of the most important royal weddings in British history and the love stories behind them. Taking you from Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 to the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton just seven years ago, this is the ultimate guide to Britain’s most iconic royal weddings.
1. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1840
The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which was the first marriage of a reigning English queen for almost three centuries, was as lavish an affair as could be expected. The Queen wore diamonds and sapphires and carried a wreath of orange blossoms: a symbol of fertility (which seems to have worked, as the pair went on to have nine children). Victoria chose a heavy silk satin dress and lace veil, both in white, which is believed to have started the now ubiquitous trend for white bridal gowns. Theirs was a marriage of true love: ‘Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!’ wrote the queen in her diary that night. On Albert’s untimely death at the age of 42, Victoria went into mourning for the rest of her life.
2. Prince Albert, Duke of York and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, 1923
At the time of his wedding, the future George VI (father of Britain’s reigning queen, Elizabeth II) had no idea he was to become king. The then Prince Albert was instantly taken with Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the charismatic daughter of a minor Scottish aristocrat, and proposed to her repeatedly (three times in all) until she finally accepted. Their marriage was, unusually for the time, a public event at Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth’s gown was typical of 1920s bridal style, while Albert wore full RAF dress. The shy and retiring prince became king upon his brother Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936. He and his family’s dignity and patriotism during the events of the early 20th century won them the love of the nation.
3. Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, 1937
By the time of his marriage, the Duke of Windsor’s brief reign as Edward VIII was already over. He came to the throne on 20 January 1936 but abdicated in the December of that year in order to marry, in his words, ‘the woman I love’. Edward had met Wallis Simpson in 1931 and fallen deeply in love, but her status as a double divorcee outraged politicians and threatened a constitutional crisis. Realising he could not marry Simpson and remain on the throne, he abdicated, proving that he really would go to any length to be with the woman he loved. They married just one month after Simpson’s second divorce was made final, at the Château de Candé in France. The crown passed to Edward’s younger brother Albert, who became George VI.
4. Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, 1947
As anyone who has watched TV drama The Crown will know, Britain’s current monarch Queen Elizabeth II was lucky enough to marry for love. She first met Prince Philip – then of Greece and Denmark – as a child, and the pair fell in love when she was still in her teens. They exchanged letters for years before formalising their engagement in July 1947 and marrying that November. Theirs was a lavish wedding fit for a future queen, with large carriage processions escorting prestigious guests to Westminster Abbey. However, Britain was still in the midst of rationing, and even Elizabeth was not immune: she required coupons to buy the material for her dress. She accessorised the beautiful ivory gown, which featured floral embellishments, with a tiara.
5. Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1960
The marriage of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister, to Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Earl of Snowdon, was the first royal wedding to be broadcast on television. It reportedly attracted 300 million viewers worldwide. Margaret wore an unfussy white gown with a huge veil and striking tiara; as at her sister’s wedding, there were eight bridesmaids who also dressed in white. Though the public showed a great enthusiasm for the marriage, most foreign royals did not, as before the wedding Armstrong-Jones was not gentry but an untitled photographer. Queen Ingrid of Denmark was the only foreign queen to attend the ceremony.
6. Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, 1973
Princess Anne and Mark Phillips met through a shared love of equestrianism. They were first introduced at the Munich Olympics in 1972 where Phillips won a gold medal; Anne would go on to become the first British royal to compete in the Olympic Games, in Montreal in 1976. Their wedding, in November 1973, was televised across the world. In the UK, the day was declared a public holiday and huge crowds flocked to the capital to celebrate in the streets. The Princess wore an embroidered Tudor-style gown with a high collar and medieval-style sleeves. Mark Phillips wore the full dress uniform of his regiment, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards.
7. Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, 1981
The wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer was widely billed as the wedding of the century. So large was the party who came to see the British heir apparent wed that the ceremony was held not in Westminster Abbey, the traditional site of royal weddings, but in the larger St Paul’s Cathedral. Around 3,500 guests made up the congregation for the event, which was televised worldwide and watched by an estimated 750 million people. Lady Diana arrived in the Glass Coach, one of the royal family’s most famous state carriages, and emerged wearing the now iconic ivory silk taffeta dress. Designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel, it was decorated with lace, hand embroidery, sequins and pearls and had a 25-foot train. Prince Charles wore his full dress uniform as a naval commander. There were 120 guests at the wedding breakfast after the ceremony, at which 27 wedding cakes were served.
8. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, 1986
Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson became the Duke and Duchess of York upon their marriage in 1986. Andrew, the third child and second son of Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, wore the ceremonial attire of a naval lieutenant, while his bride wore an ivory silk gown by designer Lindka Cierach. On their way to their honeymoon, the couple travelled to Heathrow Airport in an open carriage to which Prince Edward had jokingly attached a papier-mâché satellite dish and a sign reading ‘Phone Home’. Though the pair are now divorced, they remain good friends. The Duchess, who has two daughters with Prince Andrew – princesses Beatrice and Eugenie – has since become a celebrity in her own right.
9. Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles, 2005
The 2005 wedding of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowles, now Duchess of Cornwall, formalised a relationship that had already lasted for many years. Having dated briefly in the 1970s, the pair reunited officially in the 1990s after his divorce from Lady Diana. The Queen acknowledged the pair’s relationship in 2000, and though she and Prince Philip did not attend Charles and Camilla’s civil ceremony, they were present at the service of prayer and dedication at St George’s Chapel which followed, and held a reception afterwards for the couple at Windsor Castle.
10. Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton, 2011
The eyes not just of Britain but of the whole world were on Prince William and Catherine Middleton in the lead-up to their beautiful 2011 wedding. Now the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine was previously a commoner; the pair met while studying at the University of St Andrews. The story of an ‘ordinary’ girl meeting and marrying a handsome prince captured hearts the world over. Around 26 million Brits were glued to their screens that day to watch the events unfold (with estimates for worldwide viewers ranging from 300 million to 2 billion). The white lace Alexander McQueen gown worn by the Duchess is now one of the most famous wedding dresses of all time, while the groom looked every inch the Prince Charming in his scarlet Irish Guards colonel’s uniform. The image of the pair kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the ceremony has become iconic.