If the world is on countdown to one event this year, it’s the wedding of His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales to Ms. Rachel Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on May 19.
We know about the engagement ring, designed by the Prince himself using stones from his late mother’s collection and a large diamond from Botswana, and created by the jeweller Cleave & Company, however, many details are still a mystery. Unknown is the seating plan in the chapel, which has a capacity of 800, the identity of the best man, the Duke of Cambridge has yet to be asked, apparently, and the designer of the dress.
On the subject of the bridal gown expectations, royal dressing used to be everything that fashion wasn’t. It was predictable, traditional, and all about precedent rather than innovation. It was always eye-catching, as the Queen herself is said to have put it, ‘I need to be seen to be believed,’ but in a practical sense with those brightly coloured suits. But that has all changed, and now it seems we are taking to the royals for inspiration, with their influence undeniable during the SS18 shows. Virgil Abloh’s entire Off-White collection was devoted to Princess Diana, the jazzy floral print and pretty pearl buttons at Erdem were a direct homage to the charm of a young Queen Elizabeth, who bewitched the famous jazz musician Duke Ellington when they met in 1958, and the Queen’s signature quilted coats and neatly tied silk headscarves made an appearance at Mulberry.
These looks may have been buttoned up for duty, rather than dressed up for fun, well until Kate Middleton came along and took a modern understanding on royal dressing etiquette. She chose Sarah Burton to make her wedding dress, knowing that not only would Burton deliver a gown of exquisite beauty, but the name Alexander McQueen would bring an air of boldness and daring that would add to her wedding.
Now it is over to Meghan whose brand of glamour is California casual, a world away from debutante dressing. As the fashion world is taking bets on who designs her wedding dress and helps create the fashion moment of the year, we look to the other specifics of their big day and the steadfast traditions and protocols the soon-to-be-newlyweds will be following and, in some cases, breaking.
The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 requires all royal descendants to seek the sovereign’s approval for marriage. But the requirements don’t stop there, the 1701 Act of Settlement prohibits royals from marrying Catholics. Royals may legally wed an atheist or someone of any faith other than Roman Catholicism.
The most traditional site for a royal ceremony is the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace, which housed the weddings of Queen Anne (1683), George III (1761), George IV (1795), Queen Victoria (1840), and George V (1893). More recent royal couples have since outgrown the small chapel, which seats 100, as the ceremonies have become more of a public spectacle. For her 1919 ceremony, Princess Patricia of Connaught brought Westminster Abbey back into vogue for royal weddings for the first time in 605 years. Westminster was then chosen for King George V’s daughter Mary in 1922, Queen Elizabeth’s parents in 1923, and the Queen’s own wedding in 1947. Kate and William were Westminster-bound as well, but two alternatives would have been the much larger St. Paul’s Cathedral where Charles and Diana wed or the much smaller St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle where Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles’s wedding was dedicated following a civil ceremony at Windsor’s Guildhall in 2005, and where Harry and Meghan plan to marry in May.
English brides are accompanied by a group of bridesmaids, usually younger girls between the ages of 10 and 12. The Queen had eight bridesmaids, and Diana had five, ranging in age from 5 to 17. Kate’s bridal party was even younger, including Grace van Cutsem and Eliza Lopes, both age 3, Lady Louise Windsor, 7, and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, 8. In a major break with tradition, Kate chose a maid of honour, her sister Pippa.
At an event as exclusive as a royal wedding, the guest list is everything. Fellow royals, foreign leaders, church officials, diplomats and celebrities dot the list along with the couple’s own friends and family. The Royal Family sits on the right-side of the church, unless the groom is not royal, in which case they sit on the left. By the Queen’s command, 1,900 invitations went out to William and Kate’s wedding guest attendees, including David and Victoria Beckham, Elton John, and Guy Ritchie. Male guests are expected to wear military uniforms, morning dress, or lounge suits, while female attire is less specifically outlined, though hats are a must.
The bride gets to choose her own gown, something which causes a lot of speculation before the big reveal, whereas the groom will have to wear his military uniform, a tradition that dates back to Prince Albert’s wedding. In addition, tiaras are a must for a royal bride’s wedding day, a piece of jewellery which won’t have been worn by the bride in public before, as they are typically reserved for married women. The Duchess of Cambridge wore a Cartier Halo tiara from the Queen’s personal collection for her big day, and it’s likely Her Majesty will loan one to Meghan as well.
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, she carried myrtle, known as the herb of love, in her bouquet. After the wedding, Victoria planted a myrtle shrub in her garden at the Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Every British royal bride since has carried a bouquet containing a sprig plucked from the same shrub. Kate carried a small, shield-shaped wired bouquet, designed by Shane Connolly, of said myrtle, lily-of-the-valley, Sweet William, and hyacinth. In an act of love to honour the armed forces, Kate left her bouquet in Westminster Abbey at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, a tradition begun by the late Queen Mother.
Most royal brides arrive to their wedding in horse-drawn regal style, Diana’s chose the 1881 Glass Coach purchased for George V’s coronation in 1911, but Kate instead arrived at Westminster Abbey with her father in the Queen’s Rolls Royce Phantom. Once married, Kate and Will departed the ceremony in the same carriage that transported Charles and Diana, a 1902 State Landau originally made for the coronation of Edward VII.
English brides lead the processional down the aisle, with her bridesmaids in tow unescorted by ushers, who stand at the front of the church with the groom. Kate walked down the aisle to ‘I Was Glad’ by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Some royal wedding staples have been Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, the hymn The Lord’s My Shepherd, and Widor’s Toccata from Organ Symphony No. 5, which was the recessional music at Edward and Sophie’s wedding.
Beginning with the wedding of the Queen’s late mother in 1923, all of the royal women’s wedding bands have contained precious Welsh gold from the same nugget mined in Dolgellau, North Wales, a variety of gold that’s three times more valuable than gold from Australia or South Africa. While the traditional nugget is almost depleted, the Queen has since been presented with another large nugget for subsequent weddings bands, including that of Sarah, Duchess of York and now Kate.
Most British weddings are held at noon and are followed by a seated luncheon called a wedding breakfast. The Queen’s luncheon was held in the Ball supper-room at Buckingham Palace for a small party, as was Diana’s for about 120 guests. Following William and Kate’s 11am ceremony, 600 guests joined the new couple at the Palace for a buffet-style wedding breakfast hosted by the Queen, before 300 of the couple’s closest friends and family enjoyed a dinner dance later in the evening in another one of the Palace’s state rooms. At 1:25 pm, the newlyweds appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony to share a public kiss, a tradition begun by Charles and Diana.
After each royal wedding, the entire Windsor family comes together for an official portrait. With Kate Middleton and Prince William’s baby set to arrive just in time for the royal wedding, perhaps baby number three may make an appearance in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding portrait.
With a few exceptions, women who marry royal male successors assume their husbands’ titles, however the most notable exception is Camilla, who adopted the title Duchess of Cornwall instead of the Princess of Wales out of respect for Diana. If Prince Charles becomes King, Camilla will be the Princess Consort, not Queen Camilla. Prince William and Kate became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It is expected that the most likely contending title for Harry and Meghan is the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.