IF a bride is a sign of her times, is a royal bride even more so? The wedding today of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – a divorced, American, mixed-race former actress and blogger – is proof that the Royal Family is not as rigid as it once was on the traditions of marriage and duty and who a royal can marry, but some of the traditions are still very much in place.

READ MORE: Harry becomes the Duke of Sussex and the Earl of Dumbarton

Mark Smith looks at eight royal weddings over the last 180 years with the historian Dr Harshan Kumarasingham, and the writer Fiona Macdonald, author of Royal Weddings: A Very Peculiar History, and discovers that who the royals have married reflects how much the monarchy has changed, but also how much it has stayed the same.

VICTORIA AND ALBERT: February 10, 1840

The words of Queen Victoria after her first sight of Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha say it all. His eyes were large and blue, she said, his nose beautiful nose and his mouth sweet– he was delightful in every way and the man for her. But this was also a marriage with a mission – brokered by Victoria’s German uncle, it linked Victoria with many of the royal families of Europe, and in that sense it was in the tradition of all the royal marriages that had gone before it.

Dr Harshan Kumarasingham, political historian and lecturer at Edinburgh University, says Victoria and Albert married when dynastic ties meant something. “Through that marriage and their children,” he says, “Victoria became the grandmother of Royal Europe by being related to all the royal houses.” In other respects, he says, they were pioneers – it is through Victoria and Albert, says Dr Kumarasingham, that we get our modern perception of what royalty is meant to be: the strong family promoted through art, photographs and engagement with public events.

Fiona Macdonald, author of Royal Weddings: A Very Peculiar History, says Victoria and Albert also helped establish the idea that marriages should be romantic, and based on love, but only within certain limits.

“When it came to choice of husband,” says Macdonald, “Victoria was free to choose (like later royal brides), although from a very limited selection, compared with the freedom royal brides have today. Victoria was introduced to a number of foreign princes, chosen by her advisors and close family members. She was given to understand that she could choose a husband from among them. She was very impressed with Albert’s personality, intelligence and good looks and soon fell in love. Because she outranked him, she had to propose to him – though he knew the proposal was coming.”

The influence of Victoria and Albert’s wedding lingers in another way – it was Victoria who popularised the choice of white as a colour for a wedding dress. Until that point, most women had worn bright and colourful dresses to their weddings.


It might seem like a strange use of the word “commoner”, but the marriage of Prince Albert, second son of King George V, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mother) in 1923 was the first between a royal and a commoner for hundreds of years. In fact, Elizabeth was the daughter of a Scottish aristocrat and spent much of her childhood at Glamis Castle in Angus, but she was not a royal and Dr Kumarasingham believes that, in this respect, the marriage was one of the first to truly break new ground.

“Victoria’s son Edward married the daughter of the king of Denmark,” says Dr Kumarasingham, “and George V married a German countess and it’s only Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon who breaks that. In some ways it’s revolutionary, but in some ways it’s not because, of course, he was the second son so freer to do what he wanted.”

In other ways, the wedding proved that the establishment was still resistant to change. It was proposed, for instance, that the wedding might be broadcast on the radio, but the plan was vetoed because there was a concern that men might listen to the wedding in – God forbid – public houses.


One of the greatest social shifts in the last 100 years has been attitudes to divorce and here, perhaps, is where it began. Edward, Prince of Wales, the heir to George V, was in a relationship with Wallis Simpson, who was not only (very) unroyal and (dear God) American, she was also divorced (twice), which left Edward with a choice after he became king and expressed a desire to marry Mrs Simpson: it was Mrs Simpson or the crown. He chose Mrs Simpson

Fiona Macdonald says it is hard to realise just how scandalous divorce was in the 1930s, especially for women. “It was seen as a sign of moral failing, even if the woman was the innocent victim of her husband’s infidelities or violent behaviour,” she says. “People said things like ‘she must have driven him to it’. And Mrs Simpson was twice divorced.”

Macdonald believes another scandal as far as the royals were concerned was Edward’s public display of emotion and in this, she believes a comparison can be drawn between Edward and Princess Diana.

“From the traditional royal perspective, Edward and Diana were putting individual hopes and fears and feelings above what might be good for the monarchy and for the nation,” says Macdonald. “Additionally, Edward and Diana were following a different emotional rule book to many other royal family members. They valued emotional honesty and openness. This was a modern idea, at odds with royal traditions and with the royal understanding of marriage. Diana’s death changed all that, of course and royal advisors (and presumably some royal individuals) became more sympathetic and understanding.”


In many ways, this is where the modernisation of the royal wedding truly began – newsreel cameras were allowed into Westminster Abbey for the first time and the ceremony was broadcast on radio. However, the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip had been carefully arranged. In the 1930s, the teenage Elizabeth was introduced to several suitable young men and, allegedly, courtiers had a list to work from. She met Philip, a distant cousin, at a wedding when she was only 13 and it is said she fell in love with him then.

Dr Kumarasingham says there are some ways in which the marriage was unusual. “It’s unusual in the sense there was love involved – it wasn’t just an arranged marriage,” he says. “And it’s unusual in that Philip wasn’t independently wealthy and didn’t bring power to a royal marriage. But it’s usual in the sense that nonetheless he was still a royal; he also had a traditional occupation of being in the navy and having a military background. They also have an appreciation that the marriage isn’t just about them in a way that you can’t imagine so much William and Kate thinking, let along Harry and Meghan.”

CHARLES AND DIANA: July 29, 1981

There’s no doubt that Princess Diana did more than perhaps any modern royal to popularise and modernise the monarchy, but her marriage to Charles also demonstrated how royal unions had changed. For hundreds of years, royal marriages were in effect arranged with other royals but by the time of Charles’s wedding, the idea of marrying foreign aristocrats had died out.

However, as Fiona Macdonald points out, the marriage still had several traditional features. “As late as the 1980s,” she says, “the choice of Diana as a bride for Charles was still out of step in several ways with how ordinary people behaved. Diana was much younger than the typical 1980s bride; she had little experience of the adult world and no expectations of a career other than marriage. There was a fairly big age gap and gulf in experience between her and Charles. And she hardly knew Charles, compared with many other young women of the 1980s, who lived with their boyfriends before marriage.”

Diana did, however, break with royal tradition in one way, says MacDonald. Like most other young women of the 1980s, she refused to include the word ‘obey’ in her marriage vows. She was the first royal bride to do this.


Famously, the first the public knew about the relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles was when Princess Diana referred to it during her 1995 Panorama interview. “There were three in the marriage,” she said, “so it was a bit crowded.” It meant that while Diana was the self-declared Queen of Hearts, Camilla was a figure of hate or at least suspicion.

The marriage of Charles and Camilla in 2005 was the end of the long campaign to change that, with the couple appearing in public for the first time in 1999. It was also a sign of how attitudes to divorce had changed profoundly, both among royals and the public, since the days of Edward and Mrs Simpson.

“For ordinary people, attitudes to divorce changed dramatically during the 20th century,” says Fiona Macdonald. “The Church of England, and most other Christian denominations, relaxed their views to take a more charitable and realistic approach to marriage breakdown. And royal views simply had to change also; it’s part of the purpose of a monarchy to uphold high ideals, but those ideals have to ‘belong’ to the people a monarch rules. Otherwise the monarchy becomes irrelevant and devalued.”

WILLIAM AND KATE: April 29, 2011

William and Kate were different, weren’t they? They met at university, like so many couples do, and Kate was from a middle class, albeit a well-off, upper middle class, family. They also lived together before they got married. They looked and sounded modern.

However, Dr Kumarasingham believes that in one important respect very little had changed from the marriage of Victoria and Albert 178 years ago and that royal weddings are still being used as a political device

“It’s much more nuanced now and less explicit in terms of the constitutional aspect,” says , Dr Kumarasingham. “It used to be in terms of making a dynastic marriage, in terms of, say, increasing the British empire or getting more possessions here and there, like, famously, Charles I’s through his marriage to Catherine of Braganza, got Bombay as a dowry gift. Whereas now it’s all about promoting, as they say, the Firm.

“It’s also a way of showing monarchy’s connection with society – it’s obviously a major publicity event and from the Queen’s perspective, you could say that as she and Prince Philip get older and Charles and Camilla too, it’s now showing the new generation and their engagement with youth – if the Crown doesn’t engage with youth and get their support, they won’t survive."

HARRY AND MEGHAN: May 19, 2018

At 1pm today, the latest royal newlyweds will embark on a carriage procession through Windsor, seemingly a symbol of how modern the royal family has become, how differently royal relationships work, and what a royal bride has to be like.

“Could you imagine,” asks Dr Kumarasingham, “Theresa May telling Prince Harry you can’t marry Meghan, she doesn’t have the right colour skin or she’s not English, or the wrong religion or class or divorced? But that’s exactly what happened with Edward VIII – the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said the church, the parliament, the cabinet, the commonwealth won’t have it.”

In other ways, though, Dr Kumarasingham says things are as they always were. “There might be a change in who the partner is, but otherwise the monarchy carries on as before. It’s not like, suddenly, they’re going to live in East London and run a corner shop or something.”

READ MORE: Harry becomes the Duke of Sussex and the Earl of Dumbarton

As for Fiona Macdonald, she thinks that, in the end, the marriage of Harry and Meghan does represent a positive change. “Yes, royal marriages are still about promoting the monarchy,” she says. “But not entirely so. Because of greater freedom of choice, the chance to make mistakes, divorce and marry again, and changes to the way in which royal marriage partners are allowed to find each other, today’s royal brides and grooms have a better chance than most of their forbears of finding someone who they truly love and want to spend the rest of their lives with. That’s surely what we all want, too?”

Royal Weddings: A Very Peculiar History is published by Salariya at £8.99