The art, fashion, film and memories of Royal weddings across UK museums and archives

By Ben Miller | 17 November 2010
A photo of a blue-coloured portrait of a King and Queen
The stamp issued to commemorate the marriage of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in April 1948©
As the feverish build-up to the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton reaches its climax, there’s still plenty of time for nostalgia lovers to take a look back at hundreds of years of regal weddings.

This trail of lavish fashions, ornate memorabilia and triumphant film footage reveals how museums, galleries and online archives are great storehouses of Royal glamour and British social history...

Dressed to impress

The bride-to-be was quick to stress her admiration for the late Diana, Princess of Wales. William has given his mother’s engagement ring to Middleton, and she could draw yet more inspiration from the unassuming icon of chic with a trip to The Diana Dresses exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath.

Showcasing the stylish dresses she wore during trips across Canada, New Zealand and the world, designer frocks on show include examples by Moschino, Valentino and Catherine Walker alongside her beloved Dior handbags.

Her last resting place, at Althorp House in Northampton, also holds a six-room exhibition featuring her wedding dress.

If the apple of the Prince’s eye is after wedding dress tips, she might also like to look further back to Queen Victoria who, according to the oracular curatorial overview of the Victoria and Albert Museum, set the trend for white weddings when she got hitched in 1840.

A photo of a wedding dress
The Victoria and Albert Museum's Wedding Dress and Veil (1865) shows the Queen's influence on a move towards the traditional pure white design. ©, bequeathed by Miss H G Bright
Her simple ivory satin dress was contemporaneous to the trends of the day, but it eschewed popular gold and silver embroidery, which had often been weaved into the white or cream symbolisations of purity, cleanliness and social refinement.

An 1865 example in silk-satin, trimmed with machine net, bobbin lace and a flowing veil is just one of hundreds you can see online from the V&A’s collection. There are also photographs such as a facepaint-heavy one used on the cover of New Society in 1981 to accompany a feature on the Royal wedding between Charles and Diana.

Quirkier highlights include The Royal Wedding Charger, an “artist’s toy” made by designer Maggie Wareham in 1981 showing Diana and Charles looking slightly crestfallen atop a magical pony - a firm favourite at the Museum of Childhood.

A black and white photo of two young men smiling while their faces are painted in the colours of the Union Jack
Sarah King's Boys at Royal Wedding (1981) is part of the V&A's pictorial archive. Gelatin silver print©, given by Paul Barker
The House of commoners

Only the most unkind would call Middleton a “commoner”, but that was how Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was labelled when she became the first spouse from outside noble circles in 1923.

Her marriage to Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI) was “a magnificent public event”, according to the Museum of London. It was held in the idyllic surroundings of Westminster Abbey.

In stark contrast to the inevitable media frenzy we’ll all be deluged under for the next year, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused the BBC permission to broadcast it on radio on the grounds that “men in public houses may listen to the ceremony with their hats on.”

Find out more about 20th century Royal hook-ups, from Elizabeth and Philip in 1947 to Anne and Mark in 1973 and Andrew and Fergie in 1986, at the Museum page dedicated to them.

Party time

Back in the 16th century, Henry VIII was “heartbroken”, claim Hampton Court Palace, after being forced to execute the unfaithful Queen Catherine Howard in 1541.

Fortunately, Katherine Parr was willing to become his sixth wife. You can take part in a lively round of entertainments and celebrations to honour the occasion at the Palace, or read all about it and have a joust with the King online.

An image of a craft of a King and Queen on a pony
Picture: Maggie Wareham, The Royal Wedding Charger (1981). Wood, rope, beads, shells and lace© Given by Mr Oliver Heal,
The double wedding of the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) and Edward, the Duke of Kent was a more modest affair. Hosted at Queen Charlotte’s Cottage in Kew Gardens, it was celebrated with generous helpings of tea.

Queen Victoria gave the cottage and its grounds to the public to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee in 1898, so pay it a visit or see it online.

Clarence and Edward were officially married at Kew Palace, which is full of stories to enjoy, and there are all sorts of spin-offs to consider. Check out the Royal cake boxes, made by Mansell’s manufacturers in Southsea and on display as part of the BBC’s A History of the World project, or the ancient, unbreakable coins struck for the marriage of King Charles and Henrietta Maria in 1625.

There are also coins marking the wedding of King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1761 and the matrimony between Napoléon and Marie Louise of Austria in 1810, which are all held by Cambridge’s brilliant Fitzwilliam Museum.

Back to the 20th century

The Museum of Brands and Packaging reckon it’s 1947 again, noting the similarities between Wills and his grandmother, whose marriage 63 years ago also came a year before the Olympics and in a financial climate so downtrodden she had to save rationing cards in order to afford the silk required for her dress.

Double wedding dream Queen Charlotte's Cottage
Thousands lined the streets to celebrate a bash commentators lauded for bringing renewed hope and optimism to Britain, and the highly-popular museum is crammed with memorabilia from centuries of Royal occasions, featuring a Royal scrapbook you can buy. Visit it online.

The Queen’s silver jubilee postcard is held by Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, but it’s relatively tame compared to some of the gems they’ve got floating around. Look out for Jubilee milk bottles daubed with green writing and a copy of the Daily Mail reporting on the Silver Jubilee for King George V in 1935. Browse the vaults online.

Stamps have always followed hot on the heels of any Royal soiree, although the Royal Mail set issued for the Silver Wedding of Elizabeth and George VI was actually a response to widespread criticism after planners failed to produce ones for the alliance itself in 1947. Take a look at some more in The British Postal Museum and Archive’s online collection.

An image of a gold cup
Welsh gold is the material of choice for Royal wedding rings © National Museum Wales
Living in the present

Few would credit it, but the wedding rings of today’s British Royal family are made from Welsh gold from the gold rush of 1862. See the solid gold cup given to Queen Jane Seymour by Henry VIII in 1536 – standing 40 centimetres high in 22 carat gold – and forage through the rest of the National Museum Wales treasures online.

That wasn’t the only gift Henry gave to Seymour, who also nabbed an ornately designed cup off the bloodthirsty King on their wedding day in May 1536. Made by Hans Holbein the Younger to reflect “the magnificence of the occasion”, it came complete with an anti-feminist manifesto, repeating the Queen’s motto, “bound to obey and serve”, on the lid. See it at the equally magnificent Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Giftwrap was also on the mind of the Emperor Napoleon, who rewarded the Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria with a decadent silver-gilt tea service when she became his second wife in 1810. These days it’s shared between the Louvre in Paris and National Museums Scotland, but you can eye it up online.

It would require almost as much time as the Prince needed to propose to really appreciate all the artwork Royal events have inspired. Even the most indifferent onlooker could acknowledge the ability of the monarchy to spur artists, from hundreds of masterpieces held in The Royal Collection to Edward Fisher’s black and white portrait of a bridesmaid circling the God of Marriage at George III’s 1761 wedding to Queen Charlotte (Tate Britain).

A portrait of Charlotte, held at the National Gallery and made by Sir Thomas Lawrence in the autumn of 1789, saw the sitter in unwilling mood after undergoing the shock of George’s first attack of apparent insanity.

The pearl bracelets on her wrists were part of the mad monarch’s wedding gift to her, although both the King and Queen were unimpressed by the portrait, which remained in the artist’s possession until it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790.

Finally, for those glorious and cringeworthy clips of hitches from history, take a look at the Scottish Screen Archive. The more unusual videos are among the highlights here – watch factory workers from H Morris & Co make a fitted bedroom suite for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Mountbatten in 1949 and there are views from the wedding of the 4th Marquess of Bute in 1905, and a feature on a young Falkirk couple who were to be married on the same day as the Royal wedding of 1973.

Comparing their wedding plans to those of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, the humble duo prove that the latest Royal pairing won’t be the first to sweat about looking good on their big day.

Other interesting links:
Historic Royal Palaces 'Other Royal Weddings' blog
Norman Hartnell’s dress designs for Princess Margaret (Kensington Palace)
Queen Elizabeth II’s ceremonial robe designs
Wedding memories (National Museums Scotland)
Say Cheese (The National Archives)
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