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Royal Weddings: The Wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York

The second big royal wedding of the 1980s was, at the time, seen as a something of a turning point for the Windsors. When Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson in the summer of 1986, the bride was billed as a more relaxed royal who would bring a new outlook to the dynasty while her groom’s service in the Falklands War of 1982 was still fresh in the memory. The handsome hero prince and his fun filled bride were set to open a new chapter in the royal story and their wedding day encapsulated all the hope that surrounded the couple at the time.

Prince Andrew Albert Christian Edward and Sarah Margaret Ferguson had known each other since childhood but romance blossomed in the summer of 1985 after they sat next to one another at a meal during that season’s Royal Ascot. He’d tried to get her to eat profiteroles, she had protested as she was on a diet and that fun flirtation had led to a relationship that both said became very serious around Christmas that year.

The prince proposed during a private visit to Floors Castle in Scotland and the couple announced their happy news about a month later, on March 19th 1986. In their engagement interview, they said that Andrew had gone down on both knees to ask Sarah to marry him, adding that the Queen was ‘’overjoyed’’ at their marriage plans. Andrew also revealed he’d helped design Sarah’s famous engagement ring which featured a large Burmese ruby surrounded by drop diamonds – he said they had looked like rugby balls in his original sketch.

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The date was set for Wednesday July 23rd 1986 with Westminster Abbey chosen as the venue. There was huge interest in the couple and their marriage plans and, even though the wedding wasn’t a public holiday, large crowds gathered in London on the big day itself. The wedding was broadcast on TV around the world with an estimated 500 million people tuning in to see the Queen’s second son and the bride everyone called Fergie become man and wife.

And that big audience got all the trappings of a traditional royal wedding for there was nothing low key about this celebration. The whole Royal Family made their way to the Abbey to join guests from ruling houses across Europe. Among the guests were Sonja of Norway (then Crown Princess), the then heir to the throne of Monaco, Albert, and Henri, then Hereditary Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Prince Philippe of Belgium, then number two in the line of succession also attended as did Infanta Elena and Infanta Cristina of Spain and Princess Margaretha, sister of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. King Constantine II and Queen Anne-Marie of Greece were there with their three older children. The First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, was also on the guest list as were famous names including Elton John and Michael Caine.

The groom, still serving with the Royal Navy, arrived in the ceremonial uniform of a naval lieutenant and his bride gave a nod to his calling by dressing some of her pageboys, including four year old Prince William, in vintage style sailor suits. Her bridesmaids, with five year old Zara Phillips among them, were in pale peach dresses and carried hoops decorated with flowers.

This turned out to be a very floral wedding. Westminster Abbey was filled with 30,000 blooms while the first glimpse of the bride, through the windows of the Glass Coach that carried her from Buckingham Palace to the ancient church, showed that Sarah was wearing flowers in her hair for her big day among them gardenias, her groom’s favourite.

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There were more references to her husband to be and their lives together on the wedding dress which was designed by Lindka Cierach. The gown, made of ivory duchesse satin, featured lots of symbolic embroidery and beading with hearts, anchors and waves represented along with thistles and bumblebees, both taken from the Ferguson family crest. The bride’s 17 feet long train also featured the couple’s intertwined initials, A and S, in silver beads. As Sarah Ferguson began her walk along a blue carpetted aisle to the sounds of Elgar’s Imperial March on the arm of her father, Major Ronald Ferguson, another personal touch on the dress was shown to full effect. The bride had been known for her love of bows in the months before her wedding and the back of her gown featured a huge bow to complete the effect.

The ceremony, in which the bride promised to obey her husband, was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. The Prince of Wales gave a reading while the groom’s younger brother, Prince Edward, was charged with looking after the rings. The service lasted around 45 minutes and while all eyes were on the bride and groom for most of the time, Prince William came close to stealing the show as he pulled faces and teased the other pageboys and bridesmaids.

Just before the ceremony, it was announced that the Queen had given Andrew the title traditionally reserved for the second son of the Monarch. The groom and his bride therefore walked back down the aisle as Duke and Duchess of York and to mark her new royal status, Sarah removed her floral headpiece and now held her veil in place with a diamond tiara given to her by the Queen. The newlyweds rode through the streets of London in the 1902 State Landau and were cheered back to Buckingham Palace where around 100,000 people gathered to see the couple’s balcony appearance where they shared a kiss, following the example of Charles and Diana and so cementing a new royal wedding tradition.

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The reception was held at Buckingham Palace with guests sitting down to a menu that included lamb and lobster. There was also a party at Claridges Hotel before the couple headed off on their honeymoon in the Azores. They returned that summer as a popular young couple, billed more than once as a ‘’breath of fresh air’’ for the Royal Family.

But there would be no fairytale ending. The couple welcomed two daughters, Beatrice (born August 1988) and Eugenie (born March 1990), but their reputation as the fun loving new face of the royals soon ran into trouble with criticisms from some quarters that they were too informal.  Behind palace walls, trouble was brewing, too. The couple began to move apart and they separated in 1992. Their divorce came through in 1996 but they have remained famously close and more than once in the last twenty years there have been rumours that  they are about to reconcile and even remarry.

Later this year, they will stand side by side to watch their younger child, Eugenie, marry at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. It will no doubt bring back memories of their own wedding all those years ago, a day of celebration that promised so much.

Photo credit: Elke Wetzig (Elya) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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