The spectacle of a royal wedding may seem archaic, even to those who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool anti-monarchists. But many aspects of the show we know today are a relatively recent invention. If we lived in the 15th century, say, the marital prospects of the monarch and their children really would have mattered to our futures, and we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near as close to the wedding festivities as we do today.
“Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle are hugely grateful for the many good wishes they have received since announcing their engagement. They are very much looking forward to the day and to being able to share their celebrations with the public,” announced Kensington Palace in February, as the royals’ PR team began doling out bits of information about the celebration. They’ve invited members of the public, chosen thanks to their connection with various laudable causes, to greet the newly married couple once they leave St. George’s Chapel. The pair will then load into the Ascot Landau (a particular type of carriage) and process through Windsor, waving to the assembled crowds.
Aside from our more recent traditions, of course, there are weddings that stand out in the historical record as lavish affairs with lots of opportunity for the public to catch a glimpse, or even party in the honor of the bride and groom—although not alongside them. In an email interview, historian and joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces Tracy Borman explained that, “For the marriage of Henry VII’s firstborn son Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon, there were several days of entertainments, jousting, feasts, etc.” Even a commoner could have crowded around to watch the tournament, and “on the big day itself,” Borman said, “thousands of people lined the streets, craning to catch a glimpse of the exotic princess, decked out in ‘costly apparel both of goldsmith’s work and embroidery, rich jewels [and] massy chains’ as she rode on a horse decked with glittering gold bells and spangles.”
Historian and author Alison Weir told me that, for the ceremony itself, in St. Paul’s cathedral, the couple walked down an elevated aisle to make them more visible, and they said their vows on a raised platform in front of the altar. “That is a great wedding, and it also calls to mind the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer,” said Weir. Similarly elaborate were the controversial 1554 marriage of Mary Tudor to Philip of Spain, attempting to realign England with Catholic Europe, and the 1486 wedding between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, uniting two longtime warring factions and putting a capstone on the War of the Roses. Both were statement weddings.
If you were lucky enough to catch one of the great weddings of the Tudor era, even a regular commoner was in for a party. You might find wine flowing through the conduits of London, for instance. “Most people caroused and got rather drunk,” said Weir, adding that there were the equivalent of Tudor street parties, complete with bonfires. “So, yes, if you’re a peasant, you can join in the fun.”
The medieval era had its great royal weddings, too. Weir explained that the centerpiece for the public in that era would have been a procession. (Sound familiar?) Except it would have been on foot, on a carpet specially laid out for the occasion. “The crowds would line the streets to see the couple,” said Weir. “Not all medieval royal weddings were celebrated that way, but there would be a feast afterwards. There might be wine for the people.”
Then, of course, there was the prospect of charity. “Particularly at weddings and great occasions, largesse was always called at the end of the banquet,” explained Weir. Literally: They’d give out money. “It was often thrown in the streets, or given in a purse when the royal person went through London in a state procession.”
But most royal weddings throughout history were private affairs, the guests drawn from among the monarch’s most favored courtiers. The wedding of Matilda of Flanders to William the Conqueror, who kicked off this thousand-year dynasty when he seized England in 1066, was “so secret that to this day nobody knows when or where it took place,” explained Borman—because they were defying a papal ban. And despite the fact that the best-known fact about Henry VIII is that the man had a whole mess of wives, his weddings were comparative quiet (and outright secret, in the case of Anne Boleyn).
Much of the conspicuous hoopla we associate with a royal wedding today actually dates to Victoria’s era. Boston University’s Arianne Chernock explained in an email that the public was very involved in the young queen’s festivities; “crowds swarmed St. James’s Palace (where Victoria and Albert married), hoping for a glimpse of the royal couple. And the press provided very detailed coverage of the ceremony, including information about what Victoria was wearing—down to her shoes.” Victoria and Albert understood that marriages and weddings were one of the handiest tools of influence they had.
In fact, one of the public-facing modern touches that might seem, at first glance, the most medieval—herding the newlyweds out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to wave at the crowds below and, in the most recent generations, having them kiss for the crowds and cameras—actually only dates to the 19th century and Queen Victoria. “On the occasion of her daughter Princess Victoria’s wedding, she took pity on the crowds who had been denied a glimpse of the royal couple, and therefore ordered the royal family out onto the balcony,” said Borman. The tradition stuck, with the later addition of the kiss. “There were no parallel gestures before Victoria.”
The great irony is that as the real-world consequences of a royal wedding have diminished, the public’s sense of intimacy with the event has only grown, as mass media has intensified. Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding was the first to be filmed, and it’s now a done as a matter of course; browsing YouTube turns up newsreels dedicated to members of the family beyond the clustered right around the throne, for instance Princess Alexandra of Kent’s 1963 marriage:
“Before the days of television, all royal weddings of necessity were by invitation only,” Weir pointed out. There might be a photograph, or a painting reproduced as engravings. “You compare that—the chance to see an engraving in a book—with what we have now. Do a google image search for a royal wedding and you’re bombarded!”
“As the monarchy has got less power, so the royal weddings have become more lavish,” Weir pointed out. For all the grand rituals gesturing to ancient tradition and a thousand years of reverence, the royal wedding serves much better as an illustration of the Windsors’ ability to keep the family firm alive in a changing world.