The first royal wedding to take place in public was the marriage of the Prince of Wales, to Catharine of Aragon, in 1501 at St Paul's Cathedral. The bride went in procession through London, to the cheering of vast crowds, and was then escorted to a platform built in front of the cathedral, where she and Prince Arthur took their vows. As was the custom before the Reformation, the bride swore to be "bonair and buxom in bed and at board", and the royal party and their guests proceeded into the church for the nuptial mass. This was followed by a splendid feast, after which the young couple were publicly bedded together in front of many witnesses.
Henry VIII may have been married six times, but every one of those six ceremonies took place in private. His marriage to Anne Boleyn was secretly solemnised before dawn in a turret room of Whitehall Palace; not even the Archbishop of Canterbury was certain of the date.
In the 17th century, during the time of the Stuarts, royal weddings once again became private affairs. George III and George IV met their brides only a day or so before their weddings. George III's marriage to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz proved successful and produced 15 children, but George IV took one look at the rather malodorous Caroline of Brunswick and called for a glass of brandy. His bride recorded that he spent his wedding night lying drunk in the fireplace.
George V had been married privately in the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace, but three of his six children were the first of the modern generation of royals to have public weddings. The Princess Royal, the Duke of York and the Duke of Kent all went in procession to Westminster Abbey, and their nuptials were the subject of intense public interest. It was the newly married Princess Royal who, in 1922, began the tradition of making an appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
The development of the media in the 20th century has enabled the public to participate as never before in the celebrations of royal weddings. The first royal wedding to be televised was that of Princess Margaret in 1960. This was followed in rapid succession by the wedding of the Duke of Kent. Royal wedding fever reached its height in 1981, with the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. Never had media and public interest in a royal wedding been so intense, and it has been estimated that a hundred million people world-wide watched the event on television.
There was a similar response when Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson. During the following year, however, adverse publicity attached itself to both these marriages and, when they both broke up in the early 1990s, public disillusionment set in. The happy endings promised by the fairy- tale weddings had been an illusion; when Prince Edward announced his engagement to Sophie Rhys-Jones, it was felt that the time for change had come. Wisely, the engaged couple have opted for a more muted ceremony. They have returned to the tradition established by their forebears in an age when marriage was taken more seriously.
It is encouraging that, in an era obsessed with the superficial, Edward and Sophie have indicated their wish to accord substance precedence over style, and are perhaps setting a new trend for royal weddings.
Alison Weir is the author of `Elizabeth the Queen' (Pimlico, pounds 8.99)Reuse content