The Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace has provided the setting for many historical events, most particularly royal weddings and christenings, most recently that of HRH Prince George of Cambridge in 2013; it is only ever open to the public for religious services. To enter the Chapel Royal though is to walk in the footsteps of at least four royal brides and to process up its aisle is to retrace the steps of these brides and is, therefore, a unique and suitably majestic experience. We might imagine ourselves within the frames of Sir George Hayter, John Phillip, or Amédée Forestier, for example, who were among those artists who recorded some of these weddings, in paint. We could recall the journal entries of Queen Victoria, who described in characteristic detail, three of these marriage services, the first of which was fittingly, her own.
When Queen Victoria wrote the ecstatic words in her journal for 10 February 1840 – her wedding day – ‘Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!’, she was walking in the footsteps of her paternal German grandmother, Queen Charlotte, who as Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had processed up this aisle to marry George III in 1761, two weeks after which, the coronation took place. Queen Charlotte’s finger ring – which was a prized item of personal jewellery and set with an enamel miniature of George III – was presented to her by the King on their marriage day in 1761. It re-entered the Royal Collection in 1909 (George III & Queen Charlotte, Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, Royal Collection Enterprises, pp. 362-3).
The ring was part of a jewellery group which George III gave to Princess Charlotte on the day of their wedding – 8 September 1761 – and included a ‘particular present’, ‘a diamond hoop ring of a size not to stand higher than the wedding ring, to which it was to serve as a guard’ (Quoted in Ibid, 362). There was a smaller ring which was given to Princess Charlotte ‘to wear on the little finger of the right hand on this auspicious day’ (Quoted in Ibid; Papendiek 1887, I, pp. 12-13) as well as ‘a pair of bracelets…both set round with diamonds; necklace with diamond cross; earrings, and the additional ornaments of fashion of the day…’ (Quoted in Ibid). The marriage was celebrated at 9 p.m. and was officiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Secker.
When Queen Victoria’s turn came, she walked up the aisle to Prince Albert, the scene was later recorded in pencil sketch studies as well as a large painting by Sir George Hayter, showing the young couple before the altar. To retrace the steps of Queen Victoria on her wedding day is to walk up the aisle of the Chapel Royal and remember the accounts that were later written of the event, a remarkable revisiting of royal history. The Queen was led to the altar by her uncle, the Duke of Sussex and the simple wreath of orange flower blossoms that she wore on her head, shook due to her nerves (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 121). When she attended her daughter’s wedding in the Chapel Royal, St James’s, on 25 January 1858, she wrote that it was like her wedding day all over again only that this time, she was much more nervous. The visual proof of this is the grainy daguerreotype made on the wedding day of the Princess Royal, which shows the Queen and Prince Albert with their eldest daughter; the Queen’s figure is blurred, by her own admission because of her nerves.
The Princess Royal stood where Queen Victoria had stood nearly eighteen years earlier, dressed in a white silk moire wedding gown, sprayed with orange blossom and myrtle (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 215). When Princess Mary of Teck, Queen Victoria’s future granddaughter-in-law, married Prince George, Duke of York on 6 July 1893, in the Chapel Royal, she was escorted up the aisle by her father, the Duke of Teck. Queen Victoria, perhaps significantly, stood close to where Prince Albert had stood back in 1840 when he wore the uniform of a British Field Marshall.
We might imagine the processions of each of these four royal brides on what was at least in Queen Victoria’s case, the ‘happiest’ day of her life. To walk up the aisle of the Chapel Royal is to retrace the shoes of Queen Victoria – presumably made by the firm (Richard) Gundry & Son, who held the royal warrant during her reign, as Boot and Shoemakers to the Queen – as well as those bridal shoes of Queen Charlotte, the Princess Royal (later Crown Princess of Prussia and German Empress) as well as Princess Mary of Teck, the future Queen Mary, in 1761, 1858 and 1893, respectively. The aisle therefore at St James’s Palace’s Chapel Royal, is a marble timeline across two centuries of British royal marriages. Predictably in the Queen’s case, she recalls in her journal entry for 6 July 1893 – the wedding day of Prince George, Duke of York and Princess Mary of Teck – her wedding in 1840.
Significantly, Prince Albert had attended the wedding of his eldest daughter, the Princess Royal in 1858; it was the only wedding of his children which he lived to attend. But at the marriage service of the Duke and future Duchess of York, Queen Victoria stood alone as a widow, in the Chapel Royal of St James’s, where her wedding had taken place – fifty-three years earlier, as she noted poignantly, in her journal.