The last major Windsor wedding of the 20th century became something of a turning point for The Queen and her family. It wasn’t just that this royal celebration was more informal and more relaxed than the spectacular ceremonial of previous royal marriages. The wedding of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, on June 19th 1999, seemed to mark a change in direction following a tumultuous decade that had at times seemed to cast a long shadow over the House of Windsor itself.
Much of the royal romance of Prince Edward Antony Richard Louis and Sophie Helen Rhys-Jones had been played out against the backdrop of that turbulence. The couple’s relationship began in 1993, at the height of the very public fallout of the end of the marriages of Edward’s brothers. Romance blossomed after Edward attended a real tennis event that Sophie, a PR expert, was working at.
When news of their relationship began to circulate, the prince wrote to newspaper editors requesting they be allowed a private life. Edward and Sophie’s romance became an accepted fact, but as time went on, questions began to arise as to whether the couple would actually wed. They provided an answer just when no one expected it.
On the morning of January 6th 1999, Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones announced their engagement and appeared before the media soon afterwards in the gardens of St James’s Palace. The Prince confirmed he’d surprised his bride to be by proposing just before Christmas 1998 and presented her with an engagement ring featuring a two-carat oval diamond flanked by two heart-shaped stones set on white gold. The Royal Family finally had something to celebrate.
Soon afterwards, it was confirmed that this celebration would take place at Windsor Castle, the ancient location that had given the dynasty its name and whose destruction in a fire in 1992 had seemed so symbolic of the traumas surrounding The Queen and her family at the time. Now newly restored, it would take a starring role in a royal wedding that would allow the Windsors to step into the 21st century on a positive note.
Not that controversy completely disappeared. There was some debate over the decision of Edward and Sophie not to invite any politicians to their marriage – a royal wedding without the Prime Minister present was something of a rarity in modern times. In another break from recent tradition, the wedding was held on a Saturday and in the afternoon (a 5 pm start) while the dress code was more relaxed with evening gowns for the women attending and no hats, apart from the Queen Mother who stayed true to her own style.
The final guest list numbered around 550 with European royal relatives including Felipe of Spain, then Prince of Asturias, and Prince Joachim of Denmark in attendance. But it was the celeb factor that really set this royal wedding guest list apart. Edward’s previous career in the arts meant he and Sophie said their vows in front of some of the biggest names in showbiz including John Cleese, Sir Billy Connolly, Sir David Frost, Stephen Fry and Lord Lloyd Webber, the Prince’s former boss. Eight thousand local people, chosen at random, were invited into the grounds of the castle to watch the wedding close up.
They saw a much more relaxed royal event unfold in front of them. Edward, with his brothers, Charles and Andrew, strolled to the church to wait for his bride who arrived in a Rolls-Royce, slightly late. Sophie had said she was concerned she might trip up the long staircase that led to St George’s Chapel, Windsor but on the day she stepped up it smoothly on the arm of her father, Christopher Rhys-Jones. Waiting for her were two pageboys and two bridesmaids, all in outfits inspired by the Order of the Garter which is so central to Windsor.
The bride had been dressed by Samantha Shaw who had designed a coat dress in ivory silk organza and crepe covered in over 325,000 hand sewn glass and pearl beads. The slightly flared skirt and sleeves had a hint of the medieval about them as did the black and white pearl necklace which had been designed for her by Prince Edward as a wedding present. The Queen lent Sophie a diamond tiara for the wedding while the bride received a ring made of Welsh gold during the service.
That ceremony, conducted by Peter Nott, Bishop of Norwich, lasted around 45 minutes with the bride choosing to promise to ‘’obey’’ her husband. For all the informality of this Windsor wedding, it was still a major royal event, televised around the world with an audience of around 200 million tuning in. There were also big crowds in Windsor itself to see the newlyweds take a carriage ride around the town in the midsummer sunshine. They returned to the castle for their reception where the tiered wedding cake featured tennis racquets – a nod to the beginnings of their romance.
The couple were now the Earl and Countess of Wessex after The Queen surprised many by not making her youngest son a duke on his wedding day. It was also announced that their children wouldn’t use the HRH titles that would come to them automatically as children of a monarch’s son. In time, it was planned that Edward would succeed to the Dukedom of Edinburgh, but for now, they and their future family would be known by titles with links to the past and nods to the future.
Edward and Sophie’s gentle determination to do things their way has had a happy ending. The couple has two children, Lady Louise (born in 2003) and James, Viscount Severn (born in 2007) and carry out a wide range of public engagements.
There was much about this royal wedding that was familiar, but it was also a move away from a recent past where regal romances had ended up as anything but fairytales. It brought down the curtain on a century where love had caused the House of Windsor more than its fair share of issues, but the wedding of the Earl and Countess of Wessex has proved, in many ways, to be a cornerstone of the modern royal family.