Queen Victoria famously wrote of her wedding day – 10 February 1840: ‘“Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!”
The day – 10 February – became one which the Queen – so peculiarly concerned with dates and anniversaries – would ever refer to as having been her wedding day, in her great journal; it formed the exact happy opposite to that grief-stricken 14 December, (the ‘terrible 14th’) when Prince Albert died, in 1861.
It was poignant but inevitable that she would do this for example, on 6 July 1893, the day of the wedding of her grandson, Prince George, Duke of York to Princess Mary of Teck – for the marriage was celebrated at the Chapel Royal, St James’s, where the Queen’s wedding service took place. Some smaller objects in the Royal Collection, help to tell in their own way, the story of the wedding day, such as have been preserved.
The description of the Queen that it was the happiest day of her life, means that anything which enriches our understanding of that day, enables us to gain a greater insight into the Queen as a wife, which provides a prism of colour into the previously held monochrome version of Queen Victoria as a royal widow in black mourning, relieved only slightly by the white of her lace cap and the large handkerchief which she always carried around with her – recorded in the portrait of her in 1875 by Heinrich von Angeli, which she described as being ‘absurdly like’.
Of course, we have the Queen’s journal entry for that day – unquestionably the greatest source we have for her feelings about the event. The objects and artworks which were exchanged and commissioned to commemorate this event of such happy significance in the Queen’s life were clearly deemed of particular emotional importance, hence the way in which they were preserved, photographed and stored. She made a quick pen and ink sketch of her bridal headdress – just as she had helped to design the white silk dresses trimmed with white roses for her twelve bridesmaids and made a quick sketch in watercolour in her own hand, which she then gave to her Mistress of the Robes, the Duchess of Sutherland. Each of the bridesmaids at the Queen’s wedding was later presented with a turquoise, pearl and diamond brooch in the shape of an eagle, which Prince Albert personally designed.
A hand-coloured lithograph, ‘Royal Wedding Cake, Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria and His Royal Highness Prince Albert, Married February 10 1840’, showed the circular cake, which was decorated with orange blossom in imitation of the Queen’s simple bridal wreath and was sprigged with myrtle. It weighed an impressive 300 pounds. Remarkably, pieces of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake survive in the Royal Collection; these were distributed at the Wedding Breakfast at Buckingham Palace. The boxes bear the royal crown and read: ‘The Queen’s Bridal Cake, Buckingham Palace, Feby [sic] 10 1840’.
Queen Victoria’s wedding dress of creamy white Spitalfields silk satin, with its customary ‘deep flounce’ of Honiton lace, has been preserved in the Royal Collection. The wedding dress has been displayed on occasion at Kensington Palace, allowing the onlooker a near-to personal experience of that royal wedding in 1840, in the fascinating way that textile makes such a leap of imagination possible, as well as recreating both the Queen’s proportions and height of less than five feet.
The long veil worn by the Queen was photographed in its own right and worn by the Queen subsequently at the christenings of all of her nine children, as well as borrowed by her favourite daughter, Princess Beatrice, to wear at her wedding in 1885. She was the only one of the Queen’s daughters to be accorded that particular honour. This, her ‘dear wedding veil’, was well captured in the portrait made in 1847 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, which was commissioned by the Queen from the artist, as a present for Prince Albert, to mark their seventh wedding anniversary. In it, the Queen wore her original orange blossom wreath, together with her Garter collar and the resplendent sapphire brooch which Prince Albert had given her, which she ever preserved as an item of extreme sentimental significance.
The study also shows the Queen wearing the same earrings and necklace that she wore on her wedding day, which were made from the Turkish diamonds she had received as an official gift from the Sultan Mahmud II, in 1838, the year of her coronation (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 121). The Queen wrote: ‘Dressed… I wore a white satin gown with a very deep flounce of Honiton, imitation of old. I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings, and Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch’ (Quoted in Ibid, 122). It was indeed a ‘very deep’ flounce on Honiton lace – measuring 25 ½ inches in depth (Ibid, 120). The sapphire brooch was given to the Queen by Prince Albert the evening before the wedding – 9 February 1840 – a day which is traditionally known in German as the ‘Polterabend’. Queen Victoria so prized this piece in her personal jewellery that she willed it to the Crown on her death.
The large painting by Sir George Hayter, ‘The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840’, depicts the Queen with the original long train that she wore, which has sadly not survived (Ibid, 122). The use of light on the Queen and Prince Albert (in his British Field Marshal’s uniform and his Garter insignia) emphasises the moment of the exchange of vows, which appears to have been a deliberate choice of the artist, focusing on the actual joining of the hands. Hayter made two preliminary pencil sketches as studies for his painting which show the Queen and Prince Albert kneeling before the altar rails in the Chapel Royal – again, the focus is on the hands. In Hayter’s sketches, Prince Albert holds a dark green velvet-covered prayer book. Touchingly, Prince Albert was given this prayer book on his wedding day by the Duchess of Kent (now also his mother-in-law as well as his aunt) whose book-mark was set with semi-precious stones and the fastening of which – was two gold hands as its clasp.
There are other, smaller objects which have been preserved which have, fortunately, also survived on this theme. Just before the official announcement of her betrothal to Prince Albert, the young Queen was given a beautiful bracelet by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, which contained two hearts entwined, engraved with the date 23 November 1839.
A ring of gold set with rubies and diamonds was given to the Queen by her beloved half-sister, Princess Feodore of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, of two crowned hearts, engraved with the words ‘Unis a jamais’ [United forever]. An embroidered handkerchief held at the Museum of London includes roses, thistles and shamrocks (as would the wedding lace of most of the Queen’s daughters and daughters-in-law), together with the initials of the Queen and Prince Albert in a crowned monogram (Ibid, 122).
These objects then, help to tell the story of that day which Queen Victoria declared had been the ‘happiest’ day of her life.