Weddings at the English Court: between tradition and modernity

Published on : 20 May 20208 min reading time

Wedding at the end of May 2020 for Princess Beatrice, certainly in full preparation, but what are the customs in force at the Court for several centuries?

Sitting in the carriage that takes them back to Buckingham on February 10, 1840, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were astonished to discover the compact crowd that had come to cheer them along the way. The timid Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had initially proposed a discreet wedding within the palace grounds.

Her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, who saw this as a perfect opportunity to establish the young sovereign’s popularity, preferred a ceremony in the Royal Chapel of St. James’s Palace.

It was also decided that the procession would take the Avenue du Mall, which links the two royal residences, so that the British could catch a glimpse of the couple -Albert, who had just arrived from Germany, was a stranger to his new compatriots.

This seduction operation was a huge success with Londoners. Henceforth, the unions of the members of the reigning family would no longer be private affairs, but great popular celebrations during which the public would be invited to share in the happiness of the spouses.

The Marriage of the Duke of York to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at Westminster

On 26 April 1923, the Duke of York – the future George VI – and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a sparkling Scottish aristocrat, united in Westminster Abbey. The Earl and Countess of Strathmore’s parents, the parents of the bride-to-be, hoped to help organise their daughter’s wedding, but their hopes were soon dashed by George V and his wife, Queen Mary.

As the wedding was the first of a king’s son to be celebrated under these centuries-old vaults since 1382, the Lord Chamberlain and his staff took over. In order to keep the cost of the ceremony “under control”, the Sovereign refused to allow additional galleries to be built inside the building to seat more guests.

So many people were left off the list of the happy few for lack of space that it was decided to hold a party – almost three days long – in Buckingham, to avoid offending any sensibilities.

The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana at St. Paul’s…

Almost 60 years later, on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and Lady Diana Spencer, Westminster once again proved too small to accommodate the 3,500 guests expected. The church service was therefore held in St Paul’s, east of London. At dawn, more than 600,000 people gather along the 3.5 kilometres that separate Buckingham Cathedral from Buckingham Cathedral.

Back at the palace, the Prince and Princess of Wales make the traditional balcony appearance and – a first in the history of the monarchy – exchange a kiss to the cheers of a huge crowd. In the Ball Supper Room, 120 people then share a fine meal of brill dumplings in lobster sauce, a Princess of Wales chicken supreme and strawberries in cream sauce.

In the evening, the Queen gives an “informal” party at Claridge’s in London, hosted by her cousin Lady Elizabeth Shakerley. At 6:30 p.m., a cheerful gathering of some 500 representatives of royal and princely families, family members and friends gathered in the hotel’s lounges.

After watching a film of the day’s festivities, guests will dine on simple dishes – sausages, beans in tomato sauce and scrambled eggs – which Princess Margaret will enjoy sitting on the floor with her plate on her lap. The wife of the American Head of State Nancy Reagan and Princess Grace of Monaco will dine at the table of Elizabeth II.

On April 26, 1923, guests at the wedding of the Duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon enjoyed a consommé à la Windsor, Queen Mary salmon supremes, Prince Albert lamb chops, Strathmore capons and Duchess Elizabeth strawberries prepared by the palace chef, Gabriel Tschumi.

24 years later, on the wedding day of the couple’s eldest daughter, the future Elizabeth II, and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, the guests will enjoy a filet of sole… Mountbatten followed by a partridge casserole with green beans and hazelnut apples, before ending with a Princess Elizabeth ice-cream bomb.

Kate and William combine tradition and modernity on their wedding day in 2011

The more recent marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge brings its share of innovations. On 29 April 2011, William and Kate exchange their vows in Westminster Abbey before the eyes of 1,900 guests and over 2 billion viewers worldwide. The young people had dreamed of a simple wedding in the countryside…

Catherine Middleton and Shane Connolly, Prince Charles’ florist of record, chose a hedge of maple trees and hornbeams to give the nave a country look. Carefully chosen by the young woman, various seasonal flowers – lily of the valley, rhododendrons and lilacs, most of which come from the Windsor estate – give the religious building a little English garden feeling in the spring.

In an effort to preserve the environment, the trees will then be replanted in the grounds of the Heir to the Throne’s Residence in Llwynywermod, Wales.

The buffet offered by the Queen to the 650 guests of the Cambridge couple will be of resolutely British inspiration. The 10,000 canapés concocted by the palace’s chef, Mark Flanagan, and his team were prepared with local products, such as mini Yorkshire fillet of beef pudding – raised at Mey Castle, once owned by Queen Mum – and its horseradish mousse, lamb shoulder confit from the Windsor estate, Cornish crab salad blinis and English raspberry financiers.

The wedding cake, designed by Fiona Cairns, a baker based near Leicester, is decorated with 900 sugar flowers, including Sweet William carnations. The Duke of Cambridge also ordered another dessert from McVitie’s. This famous Scottish company, founded in 1830 and already in charge of his grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ wedding cakes, designed a perfect replica of his favourite chocolate cake for him when he was a child.

The private dinner served on the wedding night is signed by starred chef Anton Mosimann.
At 7 p.m., William and Kate meet some 300 relatives and guests for a grand dinner hosted by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, followed by an evening of dancing.

In agreement with the bride and groom, the heir to the crown called upon Table Talk, a private caterer, and the starred chef Anton Mosimann to prepare the menu, which, contrary to tradition, was in English.

All three dishes were prepared using seasonal organic produce – lamb from Mey Castle and vegetables from the Highgrove vegetable garden. After the speeches, the guests go to the Throne Room, which has been converted into a giant disco. A fireworks display will bring the festivities to a close.

The bridal bouquet of the Royal Bride has been laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier since 1923.
The next day, Kate will entrust her bridal bouquet to an officer who will place it on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the entrance of the nave of Westminster Abbey.

This custom had been initiated by Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who, before joining her future husband at the altar, had stopped at the cenotaph to lay her own bouquet of roses, lily of the valley and myrtle – since the mid-19th century, a sprig of this small white flowered plant has been cut from a shrub planted by Queen Victoria in the gardens of her residence at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, for all the brides of the ruling family.

With this touching gesture, entirely spontaneous, the young woman wanted to pay tribute to her older brother, Fergus, who died in France during the fighting in the First World War. Twenty-four years later, the future Elizabeth II will have the delicate bridal composition prepared for her by the florist Longman sent to Westminster.

The wedding of Elizabeth II and Philip of Edinburgh with great pomp but without excess

On November 20, 1947, the union of the heir to the throne and Prince Philip should be celebrated with great pomp, but without excess because of the restrictions still imposed on the British, only two years after the end of the Second World War. 2,000 guests attend the religious service at Westminster.

Constance Spry, a well-known florist, placed vases filled with roses, lilies, carnations and chrysanthemums in the abbey – so many that her colleagues throughout the kingdom would later complain that all they had left to sell to their customers were tulips. She also decorated the lunch tables with white and pink carnations.

Each guest was presented with a small bouquet of myrtle and white heather picked from the Balmoral estate in the Highlands of Scotland.

Things to know about English weddings

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