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A moment of history – the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip

On the morning of Thursday, 20 November 1947, thousands lined the streets of London along the processional route between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey; crowds thronged down the Mall, pressing against the Palace gates. Millions listened to the radio broadcast that was made. Post-war Britain took an enormous interest in the royal wedding and many thousands watched the film of the event which was later shown nationwide at cinemas; in point of fact, King George VI permitted the procession to be filmed and only still photographs to be made during the actual wedding ceremony.

Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret left for Westminster Abbey in the Glass Coach. Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, created Duke of Edinburgh by Letters Patent, had been granted the title of Royal Highness and given the Order of the Garter prior to his marriage; he left Kensington Palace on the wedding morning, dressed in naval uniform. He was accompanied by his Groomsman, the Marquess of Milford Haven, and entered the Abbey by a door near the Poet’s Corner. When the wedding procession reached the Abbey, the bells of St. Margaret’s Church rang to announce the arrival of the Irish State Coach.

In a magnificent bridal gown designed by Britain’s foremost couturier Norman Hartnell in duchesse silk satin, embroidered with white seed pearls, crystal beads and appliqued tulle, Princess Elizabeth had left Buckingham Palace at 11.16 am precisely, with King George VI in the Irish State Coach, for Westminster Abbey. Her star-patterned train was woven in Essex and her bouquet of white orchids also contained a sprig of myrtle from Osborne House, from a bush planted from the wedding bouquet of his eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, in 1858. It was this bouquet which was sent back afterwards to the Abbey, with orders that it should be placed on the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, continuing the tradition begun by her mother, Queen Elizabeth on her wedding as Duchess of York, in 1923.

Her wedding veil was of ivory silk net, embroidered with pearl beads and she wore the diadem of her grandmother, the so-called ‘Queen Mary’s Fringe Tiara’ – lent to her by Queen Elizabeth for the occasion – together with pearl earrings which had belonged to the Duchess of Teck. Queen Mary departed from nearby Marlborough House on the Mall, to drive to Westminster Abbey.

At Princess Elizabeth’s arrival, she was joined by her eight bridesmaids – also in white dresses designed by Hartnell – these were Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra, Lady Mary Cambridge, Lady Elizabeth Lambart, The Hon. Margaret Elphinstone, Lady Caroline Montagu-Douglas-Scott, Lady Pamela Mountbatten and Diana Bowes-Lyon. Her pages were Prince William of Gloucester and Prince Michael of Kent, who both wore tartan kilts.

The service was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but was introduced by the Dean of Westminster and included a short sermon of address given by the Archbishop of York, the text of which has been preserved. The King and Queen took their places near the southern end of the Sanctuary, flanked by visiting royalty. Officials and politicians were seated in the choir stalls, whilst distinguished guests took their places in the nave. The rest of the remaining 2,000 wedding guests sat in the Abbey transept, there being little extra seating available; staff and media sat in the triforium. Perhaps in a sign of post-war austerity, flowers were only in one part of the Abbey – placed in vases at the High Altar – these included white lilies, chrysanthemums, pink carnations, roses, ivy and camellia foliage. The great plate of the Abbey was displayed on the Altar itself, which was hung with white dorsal gifted by George V and Queen Mary in 1911.

The Order of Service for the Royal Wedding is preserved at Westminster Abbey, containing the details for example, of the music which was specially chosen for the ceremony, such as the fact that on the arrival of Princess Elizabeth and her bridesmaids, Princess Elizabeth entered the Abbey to a fanfare composed by Sir Arnold Bax, Parry’s Bridal March and the hymn, ‘Praise my soul, the King of Heaven’. These had been preceded by Elgar’s Sonata in G Major, Widor’s Andante Cantabile, Bach’s Fugue Alla Giga, Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and selections from Handel’s Water Music.

The Sub-Organist of the Abbey played for the wedding service, whilst Dr William Harris played the two anthems; one of which was ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ by Samuel Sebastian Wesley – sung whilst the marriage register was being signed in St. Edward’s Chapel, behind the Altar – and the National Anthem. The register was signed by a gold pen in the form of a quill, presented by the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and is still preserved in the Royal Collection. Following the signing of the register, a fanfare was played and the wedding procession left the Abbey to Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, which had been used for weddings in Queen Victoria’s family – possibly because of the particular admiration that Prince Albert had for the composer, introducing his music to Queen Victoria. Mendelssohn visited the royal couple at Buckingham Palace five times between the years 1842-47.

Princess Elizabeth’s wedding ring – in contrast to her engagement ring of diamond and platinum, designed by Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten – was of Welsh gold, from a nugget which had also been used to make Queen Elizabeth’s wedding ring on her marriage to the future George VI at the Abbey in 1923. In memory of their marriage, the then Duke and Duchess of York gave a pair of silver candlesticks to Westminster Abbey, which were placed in the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor.

The future Queen Elizabeth II witnessed the Coronation of her father at Westminster Abbey in 1937; her own Coronation was performed at the Abbey in 1953.

Her Majesty The Queen and Prince Philip have attended Services of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey to celebrate their Silver Wedding Anniversary, Golden Wedding Anniversary and Diamond Wedding Anniversary.

Over 2,500 gifts were sent to Princess Elizabeth on the occasion of her marriage to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, created Royal Highness on the morning of his wedding as well as Baron Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth and Duke of Edinburgh that same day. These gifts were put on public display between November 1947 and March 1948 and were seen by over 200,000 people. They constituted an outpouring of affection in textile and manufacture both at home and abroad, showcasing remarkable examples of both regional trades and skilled craftsmanship, celebrating the cultural traditions of the countries sending them as gifts, along with the 10,000 telegrams of congratulation which were received by the royal couple on their wedding on 20 November 1947. The gifts themselves ranged from the magnificent to the very modest, from the Sevres porcelain dinner service given by the Government and people of France down to a box of Kentish apples, from the exotic 1935 diamond and platinum Cartier Berar necklace from the Nizam of Hyderabad, to a single bath sponge. Some of these were detailed as part of the exhibition ‘A Royal Wedding’ in 2007 to commemorate the Diamond Wedding Anniversary of Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace, on which I have based this article.

Post-war Britain still had rations in place for food and clothing at the time of the royal wedding, which was one of the reasons why the ingredients for the Wedding Cake were sent in boxes from the Australian Girl Guides Association. Nor were these the only food gifts sent from Australia; the Governor of Queensland sent 500 tins of pineapple. Like the Wedding Cake, these were also expected to be distributed throughout the United Kingdom, to certain charities of which Princess Elizabeth was patron. Sugared almonds and tins of salmon were also among the edible wedding gifts which were sent. Similarly, the items of clothing which were given to Princess Elizabeth were handmade in Britain and included, according to the Royal Collection, “131 pairs of nylons and 17 pairs of silk stockings, 38 handbags and 24 pairs of gloves”. The gifts from Great Britain were sent both collectively and individually and included many practical and exquisitely crafted items, including gifts on behalf of important British societies and boards of manufacture. A gold snuff box was the gift from the Royal Society of Arts, for example. The carpet company Shroffs, established in Bhadohi in 1944, sent 101 carpets to couples who also got married in the royal wedding month. According to Shroffs Carpets, the company was given permission to distribute free carpets to the parents of children born on the Royal Wedding Day.

Silver appears to have been a popular choice; a silver tea caddy came from The Iron and Steel Board. Lieutenant Colonel and Mrs Harold Phillips sent a silver beaker and a silver cream jug; they apparently also sent a pair of muffineers to The Princess Royal on her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973. Sir Henry “Chips” Channon gave a silver cigarette case. Princess Elizabeth also received a set of 17th-century ‘apostle’ spoons, made in Exeter. Silver gilt milk churns were sent by the Citizens of Guernsey and Alderney, whilst rather charmingly, a silver bread basket was sent from the girls of Twickenham who were called Elizabeth, Alexandra and Mary, Princess Elizabeth’s full baptismal names. The Lord Mayor and Citizens of Norwich presented Princess Elizabeth with a silver and ivory casket engraved with the arms of the city of Norwich; whilst the Princess’s friends made her the gift of a pair of 18th-century silver-gilt candelabra as well as a Rockingham dinner service. Sir Malcolm Sargent sent a radiogram from His Master’s Voice.

Dinner services and plate was another favoured choice of wedding present – the Brigade of Guards (Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh) sent a Royal Worcester porcelain desert and dinner service engraved with the crests of their respective regiments; a porcelain dinner service was given by President Chiang Kai Shek on behalf of the Chinese Republic, with motives which symbolized joy. An 18th-century Meissen set of chocolate cups, complete with covers and saucers, was the gift of Pope Pius XII.

The Steuben Glass Works produced at least three official American gifts, namely the glass bowl from President and Mrs Truman, he pair of candlesticks from Mr Averell Harriman, Secretary of Commerce for the United States of America, as well as the set of twelve glass plates engraved with birds from Ambassador and Mrs Douglas of the United States of America. Nor was British glass ignored – a glass goblet engraved by the poet and glass engraver, Laurence Whistler with a commemorative verse by Thomas Campion for the marriage in 1613 of another Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I and future ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia, was the present from Mr Mark Bonham-Carter.

There were also more unusual, touching presents. A shawl, woven from yarn by Mahatma Ghandi, was among these. A wooden writing desk was sent from the Government of New Zealand, whilst an ivory table was the gift of the Maharaja of Patiala.

Princess Elizabeth of course, also received items of jewellery on the occasion of her wedding. The most magnificent of these from Great Britain was arguably the early 19th-century diamond, silver and gold necklace known as ‘The Queen’s City of London Necklace’, because it was the wedding gift from the City of London. A brooch in diamond and platinum by Cartier and supposedly containing the finest pink diamond in the world, was the present to Princess Elizabeth from Dr John Williamson, the Canadian geologist. A pair of pearl and diamond earrings was given by the Sheikh of Bahrain. King Farouk of Egypt gave a gold and jade necklace.

Then of course, there were the gifts from the Royal Family. These included items of great personal significance for both Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip; one of these is now known as ‘The Queen’s Wedding Bracelet’ and was a wedding gift from Prince Philip to Princess Elizabeth, which included brilliants from one of the tiaras that had been owned by his mother, Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece. King George VI gave his daughter a 19th-century necklace of diamonds and sapphires, which he bought from Carrington & Co; Queen Elizabeth gave a diamond and ruby necklace by Boucheron, whilst the King and Queen gave jointly a pair of Cartier diamond and platinum earrings. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester sent a French snuff box.

There were connections with other previous royal weddings too – Queen Mary gave her granddaughter a cluster of wedding gifts which she herself had received on her own marriage to the future George V, then Duke of York, in 1893; these included a pair of diamond, gold and silver Indian bangles, which had been given to her by the Presidency of Bombay, the diamond tiara from the ‘Girls of Great Britain and Ireland’ (E. Wolff & Co. for Garrards), a bangle with diamonds and rubies from the County of Cornwall, her diamond ‘Bow Brooch’ from the County of Dorset and a pair of pearl and diamond earrings, from the Ladies of Devonshire. To these was added a ‘stomacher’ of diamonds, pearls, gold and white gold, was made up from diamonds from two of her other wedding presents, another stomacher and the so-called ‘Town of Swansea’ crescent.

Other royal gifts included a tortoiseshell, silver-gilt and enamel box with a mechanical singing bird from Queen Helen of Roumania.

These gifts offer a fascinating insight into the personal and official gifts given to mark a royal wedding, setting them within the unique context of their time – in this case a post-war Britain – which influenced a great deal concerning both their selection and method of production, as well as telling us much about the considered thought behind the choice of every present, as being representative of the country or giver. Each gift was chosen with care from, from the box of Kentish apples to the Wedding Bracelet. No detail was too small to be left out, whether it was the gifts from the Girl Guides of Australia or the City of London. In true post-wartime spirit, Britain sewed some of the gift items of clothing by hand. They were each to form a collection of unique gifts from home and overseas, a token of love for a British princess on her wedding. And just as this collection was in itself, the amassed gifts of many thousands of people, including the Royal Family, individuals, governments, foreign royalty, ambassadors, counties, cities and associations, so it was enjoyed again by 200,000 people in turn, who visited St. James’s Palace to view them during the four months between November 1947 and March 1948, that they were on public display.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018-19.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.