Something old, something new: A brief history of royal weddings

Ahead of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tying the knot this weekend, Dr Ruth Larsen, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, gives a brief history of royal weddings.

The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has generated a great deal of interest. The marriage of a royal prince to an American, the details of the dress, and the idea of a royal love story have been of particular fascination to media outlets in Britain and North America. However, an examination of the history of royal marriages can show how many of the apparent novelties of this match have been seen in previous betrothals.

Ms Markle is not the first North American to marry into the British Royal Family. The engagement and subsequent marriage of Edward VIII to Wallis Simpson created a constitutional crisis in 1936. It was not Simpson’s nationality that caused concern. Not only had there been very many marriages between members of the Royal Family and overseas citizens historically, but in the early twentieth century the practice of British elites marrying American brides had become so notable that the practice featured in satirical writings and music. Instead, it was the fact that it was Mrs Simpson’s second marriage that caused concern; it was not considered suitable by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the monarch to be married to someone who had been divorced and still hold the title of ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.’ The Archbishop’s influence was quite considerable within the inner circles of the Royal Family, and his ongoing resistance was part of the reason why Edward decided to abdicate to allow him to marry, in his words, ‘the woman I love.’

The role of religion

Religious factors used to underpin many of the guidelines about who a monarch, or future monarch could marry. Until recently, the monarch could not be married to a Catholic, for example, a rule that was introduced as part of the Act of Settlement in 1701. Also, for many years, members of the royal family had to get permission from the current monarch before they could marry. This was in part due to the actions of the brothers of George III who formed marital alliances with women who were considered unsuitable. This led to the creation of the Royal Marriages Act (1772). This was repealed in 2015, although the first six people in line to the throne, including Prince Harry, do still need to gain permission to wed.

The Marriage Act

This Marriage Act is believed to have shaped the actions of a number of royal princes in the late eighteenth century. It has been suggested that this legislation meant that the future William IV did not marry his mistress, the actress Mrs Jordan. Believing that permission was unlikely to be granted, they cohabited for 20 years and had 10 children together – a fact which William’s wife, Adelaide, appears to have accepted when they married in 1818. William IV and Prince Harry are not the only royals to have fallen in love with actresses. The future George IV, William’s eldest brother, had a relationship with Mary Robinson in the 1780s and the future Edward VII was associated with the singer Lillie Langtry in the 1870s, reflecting the long term association of royals with the stage.

The dress

Meghan Markle’s wedding dress is one of many royal dresses to be the subject of public fascination. When Queen Victoria married in 1840, she wore a white dress, and images of this were circulated in fashion prints afterwards. Other women followed this trend; in 1843 one of the daughters of Queen Victoria’s Mistress of the Robes wore a white dress at her wedding, something that was commented upon in the newspaper reports of the event. These events seem to have set a new fashion, as before the mid-Victorian period many brides wore heavily embroidered dresses which were often red. More recently, in 1947, the dress of Harry’s grandmother, the current monarch, created a different type of public interest. Because of the continuation of rationing there was some public concern that the then Princess Elizabeth would not have sufficient coupons to have an appropriate wedding dress for a future queen. Members of the public donated their coupons for her to use, although she was unable to use them, showing the ways in which royal wedding dresses could become part of a collective concern for many British people.

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