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A Comprehensive History of Hot Royal Wedding Goss

A Comprehensive History of Hot Royal Wedding Goss
27 Apr
4:34

With Prince Harry and Meghan Markle set to tie the knot on May 19, the impending royal wedding offers no shortage of inane yet irresistible details to discuss: A lemon elderflower cake! A non-Westminster venue! I mean, come on—an American divorcée actress bride!

But our collective Anglophilic (and occasionally Monacophilic) drive for hot royal-wedding goss is nothing new (or borrowed, or blue). The American media has been vicariously obsessed with the nuptials of kings, queens, princes, and princesses for literal centuries, with the reporting to show for it. These ex-colonies may have rejected the monarchy, but the spectacle of a royal wedding invites us to have our aristocratic cake and eat it, too—or, depending on the wedding, all 27 of our cakes.

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The Royal Couple Who Served a Thousand Varieties of Cake

Queen Victoria, aged 20—having reigned since she was 18—wed her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gothan on February 10, 1840. According to a newspaper account of the nuptials published across the United States (of which there were, back then, only 26), the “inauspicious” rainy wedding day nevertheless drew “immense multitudes” of wellwishers.

History of Royal Weddings

Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) and Prince Albert (1819 – 1861) in 1854 in a re-enactment of their marriage ceremony; Left: The cake made for the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

Getty ImagesRoger Fenton + Hulton Archive

Victoria wore white, establishing the color as bridal tradition, as well as a diamond necklace and earrings and a wreath of orange blossoms on her head. Her Majesty’s gown’s lace required the labor of two hundred artisans, who had toiled over the fabric from the prior March through November. Following the wedding, to ensure the eternal uniqueness of the Queen’s wedding lewk, the lace designs were purposefully “destroyed.”

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History of Royal Weddings

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from the marriage service at St James’s Palace, London; Right: Engraved portrait of Queen Victoria wearing her wedding dress, 1840.

Getty ImagesS Reynolds

Victoria and Albert’s wedding breakfast supposedly served up a “thousand varieties of cake and biscuits,” though I am genuinely unsure if that figure is romantic exaggeration or actual journalistic fact. The wedding cake itself had a circumference of nine feet and weighed more than 300 pounds, with elaborately sculpted decorations that included but most certainly were not limited to a dog, doves, a shamrock, a thistle, Cupid, the couple themselves, and Britannia personified.

This was the first capital-R, capital-W Royal Wedding Americans had the opportunity to gawk at in the young nation’s history, and they were seemingly undeterred by the fact that they couldn’t exactly watch a livestream of the ceremony. “We hear that the ladies (bless their souls!) complain that our paper is filled with nothing but politics,” wrote the Vicksburg Daily Whig. “Have patience, ladies. We look for the account of Queen Victoria’s wedding by every mail. When it comes you shall have the whole of it.” The Natchez Weekly Courier was downright prickly about the whole thing:

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If anyone of our readers want to know anything about this royal to-do, we just request as a favor, that they will look in some other paper… What is the reason that all the fifteen hundred papers in these republican United States are to be filled with the marriage of a little British cockney girl and her Dutch lover?

Albert was German, not Dutch, but whatever.

The King Who Gave Up His Title to Marry an American Commoner

On December 11, 1936, King Edward VIII publicly abdicated the British throne to wed Bessie Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American-born commoner. (Meghan Markle, for the record, has only been divorced once.) British media outlets would not publish accounts of their relationship out of a sense of decorum; their American counterparts were far, far thirster, writing articles about “Modern History’s Most Famous Love Story” that would be censored across the Atlantic. The Philadelphia Inquirer asked its readers “What Would You Do? If You Were King, If You Were Wally” and printed their responses. Simpson posed for the June 1937 issue of Vogue in a Salvador Dali-designed dress printed with a lobster and parsley. A recipe for the Duke of Windsor-created “Wallis cocktail” (gin, cointreau, peppermint) was printed widely. “‘Wallis blue’ will sway new styles for brunettes,” trumpeted the Tampa Tribune of the color of the blue-eyed bride’s wedding attire. (That’s “an individual shade between medium and pastel,” if you’re curious, her husband’s favorite color.) On the day of, she accessorized with sapphire bracelets and earrings, as well as a straw hat adorned with blue and pink feathers.

History of Royal Weddings

Edward VIII of the United Kingdom (1894-1972) and Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), Duke and Duchess of Windsor, at the Chateau de Cande, before their wedding, in 1937

Getty ImagesJack Benton + Hulton Archive +Leemage + UIG

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They wed on the birthday of the late George V, Edward’s father, who strongly opposed their relationship. The Church of England was vehemently against the union, but the couple was able to find a rogue vicar to perform a religious ceremony in a private residence in Monts, France, in tandem with a civil one, officiated by the local mayor. No royals attended and the government “maintained official silence.” There was no such rule in place at the wedding, as the Associated Press reported that the enthusiastic ex-monarch raised his voice so loudly in his vows that he “startled” their 34 guests. Outside, police barred would-be onlookers from coming within half a mile, even though civil marriages are public events according to French law. Among the distant crowds, enterprising salespeople did a tidy business in hawking postcards printed with the couple’s image.

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London’s marriage registry was said to be overwhelmed by couples who wished to marry on the same day. The AP relayed that Wally’s ex Ernest Simpson, a “forgotten man,” ate a lunch of cold roast beef and salad on the afternoon “his former wife and his former king” got married. Ironically, maybe, the happy couple’s six-tier wedding cake decorated with “white frosted forget-me-nots.”

The Wedding That Made 1,000 Spectators Faint

Wrote Ernie Hill of the Chicago Daily News, about the 1947 wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, “A frenzied million Britons yowled themselves hoarse today for the 21-year-old girl who is in line to be their next reigning monarch… More apoplectic than Brooklyn during a world series, London went wild with carnival abandon.” They didn’t just yowl—the United Press reported that more than 1,000 spectators fainted or “collapsed in the crush.” Twenty-three of them were hospitalized. An Associated Press report briefly mentions and then does not at all elaborate on the revelation that “two dangerous mental patients” had escaped from a nearby hospital, but were subsequently apprehended among the wedding-watching throng.

Clockwise: A general view of the enormous crowds that jammed Trafalgar Square as the royal coach bearing King George VI and Princess Elizabeth turned into Whitehall en route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey; Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and the Duke of Edinburgh, Philip Mountbatten pose in their wedding day picture on November 20th, 1947; A a woman is carried away by medical orderlies outside Buckingham Palace during the wedding of Princess Elizabeth

Getty ImagesMirrorpix + Hulton Archive

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Elizabeth did her own makeup, selecting a darker-than-usual lipstick “in order not to appear too pale before the television cameras,” and clutched a bouquet of white orchids. Two hundred million radio listeners heard her vow to “obey” her husband, despite being his sovereign—if they could make her words out over the clacking of telegraph keys in Westminster Abbey, that is. The satin for the future queen’s dress was purchased with rations and her 15-foot ivory silk tulle train “snagged briefly on a huge candelabra.” Despite the thousands of pearls—clustered to resemble flowers and stars—it shimmered with, a palace official insisted that the gown cost less than £600. Reporters were skeptical. The wedding took place on a Thursday; the first American copy of the dress was on sale in New York Monday for $1000.

The nine-foot wedding cake weighed 600 pounds. Stalin pointedly neglected to send a gift. The then-princess brought along her original corgi, Susan, on their honeymoon. (RIP Willow.) Back home, the Associated Press offered this extremely rude summation of the events: “The royal wedding was a women’s show, from the bride in her glittering tiara of diamonds, to the old, Cockney woman, who bedecked her bedraggled self with red, white and blue rosettes.” I would bet 15 feet of ivory silk tulle that the reporter who wrote those words was bedraggled as hell himself, and also probably wore a sweat-stained fedora that stunk of cigarettes.

History of Royal Weddings

A man standing by the nine-foot high wedding cake made at Huntley and Palmers Factory in Reading, Berkshire, for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Phillip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, November 1947.

Getty ImagesWilliam Sumits + The LIFE Picture Collection


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The Wedding That Inspired a Thousand Heist Movies

Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly were the original American actress turned princess. Kelly and Rainier met when she was attending the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1955; after a months-long correspondence, the Prince traveled to the United States and proposed over Christmas. (Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen reported he’d previously had his eye on Marilyn Monroe.) The Oscar winner turned in her Hollywood career in exchange for 138 royal titles. The so-called “Wedding of the Century” was largely stage-directed by MGM, whose cameras were permitted to recorded the nuptials so that Kelly could be released early from her contract with the studio. Before long, the 30-minute film The Wedding in Monaco would be all over local movie listings. The matter-of-fact wedding announcement printed in Variety went like this: “Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier III, April 18-19, Monaco. Bride is film star, groom non-pro.”

History of Royal Weddings

Clockwise: Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly (1929 – 1982) sit before the altar during their wedding ceremony at the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, Monte Carlo, Monaco, April 19, 1956.; Portrait of Rainier III, Prince of Monaco and Princess Grace on their wedding day; The royal couple in Rolls Royce following the ceremony.

Getty ImagesThomas McAvoy+The LIFE Picture Collection + 3777 + Gamma-Rapho + Hulton Royals Collection


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Monaco became the setting for the greatest heist movie never made during the wedding, when $100,000 of paintings were stolen from a doctor’s home in Monte Carlo and $60,000 jewels from guests at the Hotel de Paris. The vaguely Central Park-sized principality was besieged by an estimated 1,800 reporters for the occasion. The entire army (65 soldiers) and fire department (30 firefighters) of Monaco joined the royal wedding parade. Kelly and Rainier did not share a public kiss at the ceremony, but they did take an official state joy ride in a Rolls-Royce afterwards. The four-foot-high cake had a gold and red candy crown topper and was sliced with a ceremonial knife bearing bows of both country’s flags.

History of Royal Weddings

Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace Kelly are shown in the palace during the reception following their marriage. Their multi-tiered wedding cake can be seen in the background.

Getty ImagesBettmann


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Kelly’s dress—made of 125-year-old lace and 100 yards of ivory silk, among other glamorous insanities—was designed by MGM costumer Helen Rose (and assembled over six weeks by 35 members of the studio wardrobe department), who was also responsible for the wedding gown the actress wore on screen in High Society. “The three exquisite petticoats beneath each would have made a dress for a queen,” gushed the United Press.

The Prince Who Married His Ex’s Younger Sister

The subject of whether or not 20-year-old assistant kindergarten teacher Diana Spencer had any sexual partners before marrying her 32-year-old fiancé Prince Charles was of particular morbid fascination in the United States. “…liberated Yanks may laugh, but the question of Diana’s virginity—and it is a question—is the talk of London,” explained the Universal Press Syndicate. Columnist Jim Fitzgerald argued, oddly, that Charles should “cement the friendly relationship” between our countries by marrying self-professed virgin Marie Osmond.” Anyway, the Prince proposed to Diana, his ex-girlfriend’s younger sister, in a cabbage patch, with this question: “If I were to ask you, do you think it might be possible?”

Clockwise: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales leave St. Paul’s Cathedral following their wedding July 29, 1981; A view from the ceremony; Formal portrait of Lady Diana Spencer (1961 – 1997) in her wedding dress designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel.

Getty ImagesAnwar Hussein +Tim Graham + Hulton Royals Colleciton + Fox Photos

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Diana’s dress was initially rumored to be a nonstandard color, perhaps “pale pink.” The designers, husband and wife team David and Elizabeth Emanuel, announced that they’d made three alternate garments as secrecy-ensuring decoys, though they later admitted this was a lie. Her actual ivory taffeta gown was encrusted with pearls and mother-of-pearl sequins and trailed a 25-foot train. Only 14 people had laid eyes on it before the ceremony. Within five hours of its public unveiling, a London design firm had made a copy, which went on sale (rendered in polyester) for $800. Madame Tussauds managed to outfit Di’s wax figure in a replica dress the day after the wedding.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles ride in a carriage after their wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral July 29, 1981

Getty ImagesAnwar Hussein + WireImage

The plastic cover was still on the red carpet by the time guests began to arrive to St. Paul’s Cathedral; a worker wearing jeans and an Adidas T-shirt had to scramble to remove it. Then-First Lady Nancy Reagan, minus her husband (and minus the Secret Service), watched the proceedings from the sixth row. Our good pal Princess Grace was also in attendance. The bride nervously addressed the groom as “Philip Charles” rather than Charles Philip in her vows. The choirmaster accidentally knocked a lampshade over while conducting. Twenty-seven cakes were served at the reception, with the most extraordinary being a six-foot-tall, hand-painted fruitcake. The Detroit Free Press ran a Q&A with 22-year-old Tim Mucciante, a recent college grad from Michigan who snagged an invite thanks to his internship with a member of Parliament. Of his fellow guests, he said, “[The Queen Mother] was the only one that smiled. People there were so glum.”

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