Fergie, Sophie and company. Today they may be considered the less visible royals – and at the moment, everyone is less visible than Prince Harry and girlfriend Meghan Markle – but in their heyday their nuptials were scrutinized by a Fleet Street circus to rival that of royal wannabe Pippa Middleton. “The weddings of royal princesses – like Margaret, Alexandra and Anne – were always a big deal – processions, carriages, the whole nine yards,” said Canadian royal expert Richard Berthelsen. Over the years the particulars of their ceremonies have reflected the changing times and status of the Royal Household.
“When Beatrice and Eugenie get married in due course – and there’s a wedding speculated in at least one of their cases already – they will be closely followed but they won’t be on the scale of past princesses, because their proximity to the throne will be lower,” Berthelsen said.
The May, 1960, wedding of Princess Margaret to society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones came as the supposed happy ending after the high-profile heartbreak of her previous romance. It was the first televised royal wedding and allowed millions to watch the popular party-girl princess glide down the aisle swathed in an of-the-moment organza gown by couturier Norman Hartnell that completed her fairy tale.
Independent-minded Princess Anne married Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey in November, 1973, but 50 million television viewers might have blinked and missed her single bridal attendant. Together with her Elizabethan-style court dress, the details may seem sedate for a princess but reflected her no-nonsense personality – especially compared with her brother’s lavish event the following decade, which was viewed live by some 750 million people around the world.
“There has really never been a wedding like that before or after,” Berthelsen said of the 1981 wedding of the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne, and Lady Diana Spencer, “which was huge not just because of the allure of Diana or that we were in a more media-friendly age.”
It was well-timed to capitalize on both and, unlike previous major weddings, was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, much farther from the palace. That was fitting for the 1980s, as it meant everything had to be bigger. “That increases the size of the guests and the train and the procession by a factor of three or four!” Berthelsen said. “And then you add all sorts of ceremonial – going into the City of London there are observances that have to be taken. And in St Paul’s the camera angles are so grand, and many more members of the public can witness it.”
When Prince Andrew married impish Sarah Ferguson in July, 1986, it was still in the wake of this “huge success of a wedding that really buoyed the Royal Family’s PR and brand, to some extent,” Berthelsen said. Their short engagement did not curb anticipation: The worldwide television audience was robust, with 500 million watching the couple make their getaway with a nod to the Duke of York’s role as a navy pilot, taking off in a royal jet emblazoned with “Just Married.” Such playfulness would have been verboten at the Prince of Wales’s far more earnest occasion or if Prince Andrew had been closer in line to the throne, but by then he had fallen behind his young nephews William and Harry.
The degree of royal wedding formality and fanfare can be determined by proximity to the throne but also takes the fortunes of the family business into account. To understand this varying level of pomp, one must consider the other circumstances.
Take 1992, for example, the year the Queen famously described as her annus horribilis. The year began badly with the separation of the Duke and Duchess of York, continued unabated with Diana’s tell-all to writer Andrew Morton, and then turned truly sour when the decades-long affair between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles was confirmed in leaked transcripts. It was capped off by an extensive fire at Windsor Castle and the Queen’s looming income tax bill (the first paid by a monarch since 1931). Little wonder Princess Anne went under the radar for her second wedding, to Timothy Laurence, in December of that year – within months of her divorce from Phillips and mere days after the Prince of Wales announced his own formal separation. She and Laurence had a private and relatively low-key affair on the grounds of Balmoral Castle – in part because, at the time, the Church of England did not allow marriage for the divorced, whereas the Church of Scotland did.
By the time Prince Edward married in 1999, there had been scandal, divorce, Diana’s tragic death “and all sorts of really big changes, so it begat a much smaller wedding in the Chapel of St. George at Windsor Castle, where space is really at a premium,” Berthelsen recalled. His fiancée, Sophie Rhys-Jones, was a public relations executive, so it was by no coincidence that they eschewed making their wedding a state occasion, which meant the usual protocol of military and political contacts were not invited. Even the couple’s choice of dress code nixed the peacocking and most entertaining staple of any British royal wedding procession: hats. And in yet another departure from formality – and surely in a bid to restore the royal reputation – several thousand random members of the public were invited onto the grounds of Windsor Castle for the day.
When Prince Charles remarried in the spring of 2005, his parents skipped the civil ceremony at Windsor Guildhall and attended only the post-nuptials blessing service in the chapel – the only televised portion of the occasion.
It all harkens back to the most discreet of the modern British royal weddings, the one that took place in the library of a remote Loire Valley chateau. Mere months after his infamous abdication, Edward, Duke of Windsor – the former King Edward VIII – married Wallis Simpson far from British soil. Needless to say, there was no waving to gathered crowds from a Buckingham Palace balcony; the equivalent photo is of the newlyweds leaning on the chateau’s empty stone terrace bannister, staring unsmilingly into the middle distance. A royal wedding in name only, there were just 16 guests at the June, 1937, civil ceremony and no blueblood kin among them.