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Welcoming a Royal Bride to England

Eleanor of Provence. By Unknown author -, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

It was not simply the wedding but also the welcome attending the arrival of a future royal bride in England which came to be the subject of public interest; it provided after all, the first glimpse of her in the country in which she would be princess and of which in some cases, she would be Queen, and therefore, the supposed mother of the continuing or new, royal dynasty.

Catherine of Aragon had been greeted and extolled by Thomas More for this very reason: ‘She is descended from great kings… and she will be the mother of kings as great as her ancestors’. There were also English (and British) Prince Consorts, who were welcomed to England as the husbands of its respective regnant Queens, such as Prince George of Denmark – spouse of Princess Anne of York, later Queen Anne – and of course, Prince Albert, who was given an enthusiastic reception on British soil when he landed at Dover on 7 February 1840 to marry Queen Victoria. But here the dynamic of welcome was a different one because these princes were being received as the consorts of their wives, as opposed to being a princess who would be lauded by the populace as a royal wife and – mother of its future king (or queen).

The formal arrival of princesses in early medieval England as future Queens does not properly occur with the Angevin dynasty because these marriages were mostly made outside of England, as was the case with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; Queen Eleanor entered England as the wife of the future Henry II therefore and was not greeted as a future royal bride, but simply crowned as his Queen instead; Richard I’s consort, Queen Berengaria of Navarre, was traditionally believed never to have once set foot in England and if she did so, it was not as Richard’s queen because any visit she would have made was not during his tenure as King.

In the case of the preceding Norman dynasty, William II had died childless; Henry I had married a foreign princess on his second marriage – Adeliza of Louvain (the first recorded royal wedding to have been performed at Windsor) but very little is known of the wedding itself, let alone how this daughter of Godfrey I, Count of Louvain was welcomed on English soil. King John’s second marriage was also to a French princess, Isabella of Angouleme, but this marriage was celebrated at Bordeaux Cathedral and Isabella was duly welcomed in England and crowned at Westminster Abbey, having been acknowledged as his queen by the magnates at Westminster.

It was Eleanor of Provence who as the wife of the first Plantagenet King Henry III, was welcomed as a French princess in England prior to her marriage to him at Canterbury Cathedral in 1236 and then subsequently crowned at Westminster Abbey – with whose rebuilding Henry III would be so closely associated – some short time afterwards. Details about any public welcome paid to these princesses are like much of the lives of early medieval queens, scant; we know that Edward I greatly loved his first queen, Eleanor of Castile, because her death gave rise to the building of the famous so-called ‘Eleanor Crosses’ at each stage of her burial journey, as a tribute to his grief for her.

Philippa of Hainault, consort of Edward III was married to him in two ceremonies, firstly per procurationem and then formally in York Minster, in 1328. This underlines an important point in the welcoming of a royal bride, where the marriage was first celebrated by proxy, enabling her to travel according to her new rank (like Marie Antoinette would) to the country for which she was destined, to fulfil what was by rule, a political marriage. The first Stuart queen, Anne of Denmark, married James I first by proxy at Kronborg Castle in Denmark and then in a second ceremony in person, in Oslo; her formal entry in 1590 was not into London but Edinburgh, as England’s Queen Elizabeth I still lived. Anne of Denmark arrived into the Scottish capital in a coach made of solid silver. In an earlier century, Queen Catherine of Valois married Henry V at Troyes Cathedral, was welcomed as his wife in England and crowned afterwards; Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, arrived in England with a full household of her own. The arrival of Queen Anne of Bohemia, Richard II’s beloved first consort (after whose death he ordered the palace of Sheen to be demolished because she died there of plague) resulted in hostile criticism from early English chroniclers; the chronicler Thomas Walsingham also related that the ships that brought her to England smashed when they set sail – a cause for ill omen when viewed by later eyes.

It is to the marked increase in public interest of these royal marriages which we owe the kind of rapturous welcome which was given to later princesses as future queens; in the case of foreign princesses, this welcome was the natural result of what was normally a painful departure from their homeland, a symbolic bidding farewell to the land of their birth, as was the case with Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s Portuguese-born Queen, whose royal cortege leaving Lisbon’s Palace Square was captured in paint by an unknown artist, stressing the significance of the departure towards the new destiny that had been selected for her.

The welcome given to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first queen, was famously illustrated by the unexpected arrival of Henry VII to ‘inspect’ the Spanish princess – who was originally intended for his first son, Arthur, Prince of Wales – gruffly (but correctly) reminding her duenna, Donna Elvira, that they were in England and the native Spanish custom of a royal bride not being seen before her wedding, no longer applied, giving him the legitimate right to lift Catherine’s veil. Catherine of Aragon was given a rapturous welcome by the City of London in 1501, although at this stage, she came as Arthur’s bride and not as that of the future Henry VIII; she was given six spectacles of pageantry, including one on London Bridge by a ‘fair young lady’ who as St. Katherine, held her symbolic wheel. Henry VIII’s other (and only) foreign marriage was with his fourth queen, Anne of Cleves, whose arrival was initially accompanied by a fervent desire on behalf of the King, to ‘nourish love’ with a gift of welcome at Rochester; the ship which bore Anne of Cleves to England docked at Deal. But there was no massive public welcome for Anne of Cleves from a cheering English public; she was merely officially welcomed by the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, who escorted her to Dover Castle. The Tudors of course, were famously unphiloprogenitive, with Queen Mary I as the only one of Henry VIII’s (legitimate) children who married.

Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s queen was the first such queen to be accorded the kind of welcome which we might now term to have been a more public one, given the fact that there was no proxy wedding and she arrived as a Portuguese princess for her English, royal wedding. She landed at Portsmouth in the ship the Royal Charles in 1662 – a plaque at the Sally Port records her arrival on 13-14 May – there were two wedding ceremonies which were conducted, after which the royal couple entered London in procession, which was attended by great festivity and also music which apparently included bagpipes from Catherine’s native Portugal. Tradition claims that one of the first things Catherine did on landing at Portsmouth was to ask for a cup of tea (Antonia Fraser, King Charles II, Pg 266).

Some princesses were wed to their royal husbands days or even hours after first meeting their royal husbands; this was the case with political marriages, when it came down to the meeting of two people after the enormous diplomatic labour involved, a personification of those dynastic treaties. Mary of Modena, who married the Duke of York – later James II – saw him for the first time on the day of their wedding in 1673; Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz married George III in an evening ceremony on 8 September 1761, some six hours after she had first met the King, having landed at Harwich the day before.

The earlier Georgian Kings were a different case in point; George I’s wife was the ‘missing queen’ at his side, having long since been banished to the castle at Ahlden in Germany for her earlier misdemeanours (in a double standard, masculine age); George II’s brilliant Queen Caroline had long since lived in England as Princess of Wales prior to her husband’s accession. George IV’s unloved queen, Caroline of Brunswick, landed at Greenwich in 1795 but was not accorded a public welcome as the wife of the future Prince Regent and was famously not given a coronation, although she was Queen of England de jure.

Queen Victoria’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent had married in Germany in a first wedding ceremony, their second was performed at Kew in a double service with the Duke and Duchess of Clarence – future King William IV and Queen Adelaide – in the presence of the dying Queen Charlotte.

The first royal princess to be welcomed as a bride into the family of Queen Victoria was Princess Alexandra of Denmark, who married the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII – at St George’s Chapel, Windsor on 10 March 1863. She was accorded an ode of welcome by the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, entitled ‘A Welcome to Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales’, which was subsequently reproduced in the Times on the wedding day. His original poem is the subject of a beautifully illuminated copy in the Royal Collection, with illustrations by the English architect and designer, Owen Jones. Sir Arthur Sullivan also composed music to mark the occasion.

Queen Victoria’s journal – with characteristic interest in detail – records her progress and her landing at Gravesend in the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert II, flying the Danish flag; this landing was captured in a painting ‘The Landing of HRH The Princess Alexandra at Gravesend, 7 March 1863’, now kept at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and by the artist Sir Oswald Walters Brierly, to name but two artists. Fireworks were set off at Spithead to celebrate the marriage.

The Russian Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna – Duchess of Edinburgh on her marriage to Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh – was duly welcomed at Windsor following their arrival at Gravesend on 7 March 1874, where great crowds awaited them, with bands and the ringing of bells. When Marie entered London in Queen Victoria’s carriage five days later, thousands lined the route to Buckingham Palace to greet the newest member of the Royal Family with enthusiasm, despite the snow that was steadily falling. The German-born wife of her favourite son Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught – Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia – had an ‘escort’ but the crowds are not described as welcoming her at Windsor, at least, not in the Queen’s journal for 1879. Her youngest son, Prince Leopold’s future wife, Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont, arrived at Windsor in pouring rain on 25 April 1882; the town had been decorated for the occasion.

The great crowds which had cheered Queen Victoria on her wedding day to Prince Albert in 1840 marked the beginning of a tradition which would take a natural pattern regarding royal weddings, although public interest in them had always been present given their dynastic importance, private detail being a separate affair. Certainly, the very public welcome which attended Queen Victoria’s wedding seems to have been the first in modern British history for those ‘great crowds’ which would gather in later centuries.

With the full development of the photographic process, it was easier for images of royal weddings to be visually documented; by the time of the Duke and Duchess of York’s marriage – the future George V and Queen Mary – in 1893, photographs even recorded the procession of the newlyweds leaving Buckingham Palace, having been led onto the Royal Balcony to the waiting crowds below. This was a precursor for the very public nature of the post-war wedding of the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1923 when stands were put up for the populace. The wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 gave occasion for full coverage on the radio, which allowed some 200 million to tune into the event as well as the many thousands that thronged the Mall and the whole of the processional route.

The welcome of a new princess to Britain, therefore, gave occasion for odes, pageants, chronicles, music, painting and of course – crowds, as we have seen. The history of this welcome has helped set a pattern for the modern coverage that attends a royal wedding today.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. Her academic subject is royal studies, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna and also researches and writes about Queen Victoria. She has spent nearly ten years conducting original research on historic royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on TV and radio, including the BBC. Her research interests include royal correspondence and royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor on BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the marriage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. She is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical and genealogical journal, Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for Tudor Life Magazine, the official magazine of the Tudor Society. She was History Writer for Royal Central (2015-2020), writing a blog for the web's most popular royal news site. Her current projects include the portraiture of Queen Jane Seymour and Prince Henry Tudor (*1511).