Of the nine children of Queen Victoria’s children, one daughter married in London another on the Isle of Wight and one son in St. Petersburg. The remaining six married at Windsor, five at St. George’s Chapel and one in the Private Chapel at Windsor Castle.
The College of St. George was founded in 1348 and is inextricably linked with the Most Noble Order of the Garter, one of the oldest orders of chivalry in medieval Europe, established by Edward III at the same time that he founded the College of St. George, in a later incarnation of his what he had promised four years earlier to be his so-called Order of the Round Table, itself an imitation of King Arthur’s celebrated circle of knights. Because the College of St. George was not founded until the mid-fourteenth century, this meant that the marriage of Henry I to his eighteen-year-old bride, daughter of Godfrey I, Count of Louvain, almost certainly took place at Windsor Castle itself. The choice of St. George’s Chapel became popular during the reign of Queen Victoria, most particularly it seems, as a result of the Queen’s widowhood in 1861.
The eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, The Princess Royal, was the only one of their children, whose wedding Prince Albert attended. This wedding took place at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace on 25 January 1858. Significantly, it was in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace, where Queen Victoria had herself married Prince Albert in 1840; it was for example, also the choice for the wedding of George III and Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Queen Victoria would, in fact, have preferred a more private wedding ceremony, expressing that she had a “horror” of being married before a large assembly and insisting that she would greatly have preferred a simple wedding in a private room at Buckingham Palace instead (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 120, 2000).
The second wedding which took place in Queen Victoria’s family was that of her second daughter, Princess Alice to Prince Ludwig “Louis” of Hesse; the mournful ceremony took place in the Dining Room at Osborne House on 1 July 1862, under the watchful gaze of Prince Albert in the copy of the large painting ‘The Royal Family in 1846’ by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, which hung behind the makeshift altar and today is still above the sideboard, having been hung in this position since Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1849. The wedding was by the Queen’s account – although she would hardly have wished it otherwise – “more like a funeral” and “wretched”, due to the fact that the Prince Consort had died just over six months previously. At Princess Alice’s wedding, the Queen was more or less “hidden from view” (Ibid, Pg 392) and shielded from even the gaze of a private ceremony, by the presence of her four sons, who stood around her. It seems to be this grieving need in the Queen for privacy, which prompted the choice of St George’s Chapel, for the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark.
Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and later of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – the Queen’s second son – married Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander II and Tsarina Marie Alexandrovna, in St. Petersburg on 23 January 1874.
Quite why Windsor had not been chosen since the reign of Henry I is not clear, especially since the founding of the College of St. George with its Chapel existed since Edward III; Edward had married Philippa of Hainault at York Minster twenty years prior to this date. Other medieval wedding venues included the more obvious choices of Westminster Abbey (Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382) and Winchester Cathedral (Henry IV and Joan of Navarre in 1403, Mary I and Philip of Spain in 1554). Charles II’s two wedding ceremonies to Catharine of Braganza were performed at Portsmouth, his father Charles I had married Henrietta Maria of France first by proxy, then at St. Augustine’s Church in Canterbury. Queen Victoria’s predecessor, King William IV, had married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in a double ceremony in the presence of the dying Queen Charlotte at Kew, a ceremony which also constituted the second (English) wedding ceremony of her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent. It was clear that following the death of Prince Albert, the marriages of the Queen’s children were more or less, conducted in private. The wedding of the last child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Princess Beatrice to Prince Henry of Battenberg, took place at St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham; this was the church used for private worship by Queen Victoria’s family when the Queen was residing at nearby Osborne. All the other marriages, as we shall see, were conducted at Windsor.
The exception to the Windsor weddings which were performed at St George’s Chapel was that of the Queen’s third daughter, Princess Helena and Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, which took place in the Private Chapel at Windsor Castle, destroyed by the fire of 1992. For this ceremony, Princess Helena wore a white satin dress, with a flounce of Honiton lace, trimmed with traditional myrtle and orange flowers and a long veil. Her bridesmaids were in white and wore veils of their own, decorated with forget-me-nots, roses and wild heather.
The wedding of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra of Denmark took place on 10 March 1863. For this ceremony, Queen Victoria used the ‘closet’ to attend, which referred to the Royal Closet at St George’s Chapel, also described as the ’Catherine of Aragon closet’ by the College of St. George. The closet was so-named after Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first queen, for whom it was constructed in the 1510s and from which she watched Garter ceremonies. The closet is still emblazoned with her personal badge, the pomegranate. The Royal Closet had been used for Sunday services by George III, Queen Charlotte and the Royal Family when at Windsor.
Queen Victoria’s choice of the closet, enabled her to participate in the wedding being performed in the Quire below, whilst maintaining the privacy she saw as necessary to her state of grief. This was the second wedding that the Queen had attended since the death of the Prince Consort, so perhaps the use of the closet also now underlined her status as a royal widow. The sixth wife of Henry VIII, Queen Catherine Parr, used the Royal Closet in her immediate widowhood, to observe the funeral service of Henry VIII. The figure of Queen Victoria can be seen in the painting made of the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, by the artist William Powell Frith, pictured high up in the right foreground of the painting, wearing her black silk dress and widow’s cap with a white veil, together with her own Garter badge and a miniature of Prince Albert. This reinforced the feelings she expressed prior to the ceremony at St George’s Chapel, of being “too desolate” even to attend dinner. Even the route she chose to reach the Royal Closet was by way of a covered walk from the Deanery over the leads.
Fittingly, the Prince of Wales wore his Garter robes for the ceremony, which was attended by eight bridesmaids and conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Princess Alexandra of Denmark wore a white court dress made out of English silk, full-skirted and trimmed with Honiton lace, with decorations in the shape of thistles, roses and shamrocks. Honiton lace incidentally appears to have been widely used by the brides in Queen Victoria’s family, Princess Alice having had a wedding dress with “deep flounce” of Honiton lace, as had Queen Victoria’s in 1840. A flounce from her wedding dress is preserved in the Royal Collection. A Brussels lace lappet, given to Princess Alexandra by Leopold I, King of the Belgians as a wedding present, was made to hang down from her headdress. The dress worn by the future Queen Alexandra is still preserved, in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, as is that of Queen Victoria.
Princess Alexandra’s white wedding bonnet was photographed in its own right, as was the Royal Wedding Cake, a magnificent confection of iced flowers and towers. The Princess of Wales was photographed with the Prince and alone in her wedding dress, images of which feature in the so-called ‘Album of Important Occasions 1837-1885’. The badge of the Order of Victoria and Albert, which she wore pinned to her wedding dress, has also been preserved. Nothing was too small to be commemorated; even a sprig of the artificial orange blossom from Princess Alexandra’s wreath was kept in an envelope, autographed by the Queen. It still exists to this day in the Royal Collection.
Queen Victoria had been extremely keen to secure Princess Alexandra of Denmark as a daughter-in-law and as a wife for the Prince of Wales, writing “May he only be worthy of such a jewel…” As if to emphasise the need for the Prince Consort at the wedding at which he would be absent, Queen Victoria significantly had the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore opened the day before the wedding and joined their hands inside with the words “HE gives you his blessing”.
During the ceremony at St George’s Chapel, Queen Victoria was “profoundly melancholy” (Hibbert, Pg 304), something which was observed by all present, including Benjamin Disraeli, who committed the faux pas of raising his eye-glass upwards in the Queen’s direction. A Chorale was sung as the bridal party approached the altar, which had been composed by Prince Albert, again as if to include him in the wedding ceremony. The four-year-old Prince William of Prussia, the future Wilhelm II, showed his disdain for the sacredness of the occasion by biting the legs of his uncles, Princes Alfred and Leopold.
Prince Leopold’s wedding at St George’s Chapel – to Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont – took place on 27 April 1882. Perhaps significantly, Queen Victoria wore her own wedding veil – not worn since 1840 – for this ceremony, a sad symbolism of her widowhood, which she wore draped over her mourning weeds. (Wedding veils in Queen Victoria’s family had strange but fascinating lives of their own, being photographed even without their respective royal bridges. The veil of Princess Alice became a family heirloom but was famously lost in the tragic plane crash which killed many members of the ducal family of Hesse and by Rhine at Ostend in 1937). Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont’s dress was of white satin with silver lilies and trimmed with Brussels lace as opposed to Honiton, and she wore a tiara of diamonds in the shape of flowers and a veil of white tulle, held by eight bridesmaids. This ceremony featured Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus and the couple walked out to the Wedding March by Mendelssohn, the composer who had been so greatly admired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Their wedding cake was also photographed at Windsor, a spectacular creation which featured iced flowers, swans and children as allegorical figures.
The penultimate wedding to take place of the Queen’s children at St George’s Chapel was that of Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia, which was celebrated on 13 March 1879, attended by some fourteen clergies, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of London and Winchester. The ceremony featured the Hallelujah Chorus and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Unusually, Queen Victoria’s did not record what Princess Louise Margaret wore and instead described the bride’s appearance generally, so we are forced to rely instead on the photographs that were made instead afterwards; these show that she wore a wedding dress with short sleeves, trimmed with flowers throughout and a bridal wreath and long, sweeping train. The images made of their wedding cake are preserved in the Royal Photograph Collection, showing a domed cake, with four tiers.
The wedding of Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise to John Campbell, the 9th Duke of Argyll was performed on 21 March 1871 at St George’s Chapel by the Bishop of London, standing in place for the Archbishop of Canterbury and again featured Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus as it was finished, because of Prince Albert’s high opinion of the piece. Princess Louise wore a wedding dress of white satin with the favourite Honiton lace, trimmed with myrtle, orange blossoms and white heather, with a long veil which again was held by eight bridesmaids. Importantly, there is no mention of the Royal Closet any more than there had been at any of the other previous ceremonies, with the exception of the marriage of the Prince of Wales.
The Queen only specifically mentioned using the closet at this one wedding in 1863, describing on other occasions as processing herself up towards the altar at St George’s Chapel, thereby actively participating as opposed to simply attending. Princess Louise’s wedding cake was also photographed for posterity; in the shape of a tower and topped with a female figure – appropriate enough, given Princess Louise’s distinguished later career as a sculptor. A piece of Princess Louise’s bridal wreath was also preserved at the time of her wedding, in a locket which she gave to the Queen; again, similar to the piece of Princess Alexandra of Denmark’s bridal wreath. (Clippings from royal wreaths was again not unusual in itself; on a sadder occasion when Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse died in 1878, her second daughter, Princess Elizabeth, sent Queen Victoria a sprig of the memorial wreath, still, today kept it its own envelope).
The last of the royal weddings which would take place at St George’s Chapel, in Queen Victoria’s lifetime was that of Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein to Prince Aribert of Anhalt on 6 July 1891. Following the Queen’s death in 1901, the first wedding to be celebrated at St George’s was Princess Alice Mary of Albany and Prince Alexander of Teck, later Earl of Athlone on 10 February 1904.
Following this, six more wedding ceremonies within the Royal Family would be performed, with the service of prayer and dedication following the marriage of The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall being celebrated at St George’s Chapel on 9 April 2005.
St George’s Chapel added another wedding to its history of royal marriages, on 19 May 2018 – that of Prince Harry of Wales and Ms Meghan Markle.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018-19.