Westminster’s Royal Weddings

By Sharon Whitley Larsen ~ Many of us vividly recall the excitement of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s lavish wedding in April 2011.
Who doesn’t enjoy watching the magical ceremony of a royal wedding? Especially in famed, historic Westminster Abbey, where many of Britain’s monarchs have been married, crowned, and buried. Always tops on a London tourist list, over one million visit it annually. It’s open for tours, church services, Evensongs, and organ concerts.
But it’s actually been the scene of relatively few royal weddings.
The 2011 marriage of William and Catherine, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was only the 16th royal wedding to take place in the Abbey, which was founded in 960. Formally titled the Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Westminster, Benedictine monks were established here in the mid-10th century.
Edward the Confessor dedicated the Abbey to St. Peter, and its consecration was held on Dec. 28, 1065. William the Conqueror was crowned King William I in the Abbey on Christmas Day 1066—the first of 38 royal coronations. Queen Elizabeth II’s was the first coronation televised, on June 2, 1953.
Since the coronation of Edward II in 1308, monarchs have been crowned on St. Edward’s Chair—known as the Coronation Chair. The Abbey’s present Gothic-style architecture is attributed to King Henry III, who had much of it rebuilt during the mid-13th century.
The first royal wedding in Westminster Abbey was held on Nov. 11, 1100, when William the Conqueror’s fourth son, later King Henry I, married Princess Matilda of Scotland–for love, they say! Despite the Abbey’s rich history, the majority of the royal weddings have taken place here just during the past century. (Prior to that the ceremonies generally were held privately in palace or castle chapels.) Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Patricia of Connaught, married in the Abbey in 1919—the first royal wedding to be held here in over 500 years!
Four years later, in 1923, Prince William’s great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (then Lady Bowes-Lyon) started the tradition of royal brides leaving their bridal bouquets atop the engraved black Belgian marble of The Grave of the Unknown Warrior. In memory of her brother, killed in World War I, she spontaneously placed her bouquet there following her wedding ceremony to Prince Albert (later King George VI—of “The King’s Speech” fame).
Since then royal weddings have included televised broadcasts of Princess Elizabeth’s (now the queen) to Lt. Philip Mountbatten (later Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) in 1947; Princess Margaret’s to Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon) in 1960; Princess Anne’s to Capt. Mark Phillips in 1973, and Prince Andrew’s to Sarah Ferguson in 1986.
I never tire of touring Westminster Abbey—seeing the gorgeous stained glass windows, magnificent marble statues and art, or the Waterford crystal chandeliers, which were a gift from the Guinness family for the Abbey’s 900th anniversary in 1965. Over 3,000 people are buried here, and there are over 600 tombs and marble monuments—including burial vaults of Edward the Confessor, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. King George II was the last of 17 monarchs to be buried here—in 1760. Due to lack of space in the Abbey, royals now are buried at Windsor.
Several times I’ve attended church services and organ concerts in the Abbey, sometimes sitting in the Nave—or in the Poets’ Corner in the South Transept, gazing at the famous names of those buried here, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling. Once during a Sunday service I luckily sat close to the famed Choir of Westminster Abbey, comprised of 12 adults and some 30 charming young boys who are in residence here, attending the Westminster Abbey Choir School. For those able to attend a church service or organ concert, it’s well worth it—and free.
I often wonder, what is it about the British monarchy—especially the royal weddings–that causes Americans to go nuts with excitement? Our history lessons—rather brief in comparison–remind us that just over 200 years ago we fought England so we wouldn’t have to be ruled by monarchy; we chose to elect our presidents instead.
Nevertheless, there’s still a certain mystique and intrigue that we have with the British royal family—and their 1,000-year history.
I have faithfully followed the British monarchy since third grade, when, following a fairy tale bedtime story, I had asked my mom if there were any real kings or queens or princesses living in the world today.
She told me about Queen Elizabeth II, who had a daughter named Princess Anne, about my age.
So I excitedly wrote the princess a letter, telling her how much I thought we had in common—that I, too, was a Girl Scout and also had a baby brother!
Not long after I had a reply on Windsor Castle letterhead from the queen’s lady-in-waiting, stating that she was writing “at the Queen’s command” to thank me for writing to her daughter.
Well, that did it! That same year, when Princess Margaret, the queen’s younger sister, married at Westminster Abbey, I watched the ceremony on a small black-and-white TV. I was mesmerized by the pageantry and the beautiful bride—just as I was when William and Kate’s royal wedding was held some 50 years later. Throughout the years I’ve watched the other televised royal weddings in Westminster Abbey—and, of course, stayed up all night to watch Charles and Diana’s lavish 1981 wedding in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.
I was lucky to make a pilgrimage to be in London on the actual day of William and Kate’s wedding—joining the million spectators in the city centre. I was struck by the minute precision of the timetable to get the royal family—including the bride and groom–to the church on time. Hand it to the Brits—their plumbing sometimes doesn’t work, but they certainly know how to throw a royal wedding!
I stood in front of Westminster Abbey as the 10 bells began gloriously and powerfully ringing from the bell tower. The Westminster Abbey Company of Ringers, an amazing volunteer group, did the ringing of the full peal by hand, which continued over three hours. Later I stood among the masses in front of Buckingham Palace for the balcony scene and fly-over.
I was struck by the festive crowd of all ages, from all over the world. Some creative ones wore tiaras, royal family masks, wedding dresses, Union Jack face paint. Young children, teens, parents, grandparents—various cultures and languages—all celebrating the joyous event.
With all the problems there are in the world, all the sad things that go on so often, we all still like to have a bit of fairy tale and fantasy left from our childhood. We like to believe in the prince and princess, and the hope that they live happily ever after.
And Britain’s royal family gives us some of that.