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The first royal wedding at Windsor

Windsor’s first royal wedding took place in the twelfth century. What do we know about this wedding and why exactly did it take place at Windsor Castle?

It was the second marriage of the third Norman King, Henry I (r. 1100-35). His thirty-five-year reign was one without revolt in English history, suggesting greatness in his understanding of how to govern a kingdom (Ed. Antonia Fraser, The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, Pg 35, 1975). Built by William the Conqueror and completed in around 1086, Windsor Castle was not occupied by him, its royal purpose being defensive as opposed to domestic.

Henry I was the first English king to actually live at Windsor Castle and use it as a royal residence, its proximity to the Thames and surrounding hunting forests emphasising its undeniable appeal. Henry had already established living quarters at Windsor by 1110, at which time he may also have celebrated Whitsuntide at Windsor Castle. I wonder, where the King’s marriage could have been performed. Certainly, there would be a “large, new chapel” built at Windsor Castle, enclosed within a courtyard, although this was only established much later, during the reign of the early Plantagenet King, Henry III (r.1216-72). Similarly, the College of St George with its chapel, the spiritual home of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, was not founded until 1348, in the reign of Edward III, although this is to anticipate its building by over two centuries.

It was during the reign of Henry I’s grandson – Henry II – that Windsor Castle was transformed into a palace with two sets of royal apartments with the King’s own private quarters in the Upper Ward. This means that the first royal marriage at Windsor must have, therefore, taken place in Henry I’s domestic quarters.

His wedding to Princess Adeliza of Louvain, daughter of Godfrey I, Count of Louvain, was performed at Windsor Castle on 24 January 1121. It quickly followed in the wake of the tragic sinking of the White Ship on 25 November 1120, in which Henry’s sole male heir by his first queen Mathilda of Scotland, William Adelin, drowned. Although it is not clear whether plans for the marriage had already been underway, the death of William Adelin would unquestionably have brought forward any existing negotiations. The standard practice of remarriage to secure the succession with further children was now transformed into a desperate need to provide new legitimate heirs, in the dead prince’s place.

The wedding to Adeliza did not produce any children, let alone a longed-for male heir, provoking instead the period in early English history known as ‘The Anarchy’, its bloody conflict literally a royal battle over blood, between William Adelin’s elder sister, Henry I’s daughter, Empress Mathilda and Stephen (of Blois). The royal marriage, which appears to have otherwise been successful, failed in its ultimate aim – for Queen Adeliza to produce a child.

In 1138, three years after Henry’s premature death, Adeliza married William d’Aubigny, 1st Earl of Arundel, by whom she would have – in striking contrast to the sad infertility of her first marriage to King Henry I – seven children. Those seven included four were sons. Her second husband, therefore, siring the quiverful of heirs which King Henry had himself so fervently desired and which would have averted the royal succession crisis that ensued between Henry’s only other legitimate child and King Stephen (r. 1135-54).

After this early royal marriage at Windsor Castle, there was a decided lapse in its being selected as a residence in which to marry, being instead associated with royal worship, the Order of the Garter and also, royal burial. This was something which did not properly change until the widowed Queen Victoria popularised the choice of St George’s Chapel as a place to celebrate weddings within her family, beginning with the first marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 and continuing throughout her reign, with the last royal wedding at St George’s in her lifetime being that between her granddaughter, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein and Prince Aribert of Anhalt in 1891. Since Queen Victoria’s death, St George’s Chapel has provided the setting for seven marriages within the Royal Family, that of Princess Alice Mary of Albany and Prince Alexander of Teck in 1904, to the most recent of Peter Phillips and Autumn Kelly in 2008.

A tradition, therefore, which began at Windsor Castle in 1121, will see its continuance celebrated in the first of this year’s two royal weddings at St George’s Chapel, on 19 May 2018.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
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.