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British RoyalsFeaturesHistory

Looking back at the wedding of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

The future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth married on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey. Prince Albert, Duke of York, was the second son of King George V and Queen Mary, while Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne.

They initially met as children before a dance in 1920 brought them together again as adults. Elizabeth was famously reluctant to accept Albert’s offer of marriage and refused him twice. Undeterred, the Duke proposed a third time in mid-January 1923 at St Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire, the country estate of the Bowes-Lyons. With his offer finally accepted, the engagement was officially announced on 15 January, and preparations for the wedding were soon underway. Elizabeth received a sapphire and diamond engagement ring, which she later swapped for a pearl and diamond one in the 1950s.

In mid-March, the fiancés travelled to Edinburgh to visit the factory of McVitie & Price, where the main wedding cake, decorated with the coats of arms of the bride and groom in sugar paste, was being made.

Elizabeth turned to court dressmaker, Madame Handley-Seymour, who worked for Queen Mary. The bride’s dress, described by The Times as “the simplest ever made for a royal wedding,” was made of ivory chiffon moiré, specially dyed to match the colour of the lace veil lent by the Queen, appliquéd with gold and silver lamé and paste beads. Two trains flowed down, one from the shoulders and one from the hips, made from lace supplied by the struggling Nottingham lace industry at the bride’s request. She covered up in a white ermine cape for the short ride from her parents’ home at 17 Bruton St to Westminster Abbey.
Elizabeth did not wear a tiara, opting instead to hold her veil in place with a simple wreath of myrtle, a traditional symbol of love and constancy used by royal brides since the times of Queen Victoria. Her bouquet included roses and lilies of the valley.

The groom wore the uniform of a group captain of the Royal Air Force, the newest branch of the armed forces, with the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle, the latter received on his wedding day to pay homage to his bride’s Scottish origins. His supporters were his younger brothers, Princes Henry and George.

Prince Albert (future King George VI) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at their wedding on 26 April 1923. Photo: Bassano/Royal Collection Object 2941575 (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

The procession at Westminster Abbey, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Randall Davidson, followed by the Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Cosmo Lang, and the Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, to which the bride belonged, was briefly delayed when a member of the clergy fainted ahead of Lady Elizabeth.

In the brief lull, the bride, who had lost her brother Fergus at the Battle of Loos in 1915, suddenly stepped forward and placed her bouquet on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, before resuming her walk down the aisle.

While not completely unprecedented (the Duke of York’s sister, Princess Mary, who had married at Westminster Abbey in 1922, paused on her way back to the Palace to pass her bouquet to an officer, who placed it on the steps of the Cenotaph), the gesture was much admired for its spontaneity, and every subsequent royal bride has honoured the tradition. However, bouquets are nowadays placed on the tomb after the wedding ceremony.

The guest list was impressive and included four of Queen Victoria’s surviving children (Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, and the Princesses Helena, Louise and Beatrice), the groom’s great-aunt, the Empress Dowager of All the Russias, and the King and Queen of Spain.

After signing the marriage register in the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, the newlyweds travelled back to Buckingham Palace in the Glass Coach, establishing a tradition that is still followed today.

The wedding breakfast was served in the State Dining Room and was comparatively simple, as King George V wished, given the prevailing economic climate, and included salmon, lamb, asparagus and strawberries, before culminating in the grand nine feet high wedding cake.

The new Duke and Duchess of York appeared on the balcony to greet the crowds below, before departing in an open-topped landau for Waterloo Station, showered with rose petals thrown by their friends and family.

Their five-week honeymoon was spent first at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, then at Glamis, the bride’s family home in Scotland, where unfortunately Elizabeth became ill with whooping cough.

After the death of King George V and the abdication of King Edward VIII in December 1936, the Duke of York succeeded to the throne as King George VI, while the Duchess became Queen Elizabeth. They celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1948, the year after the marriage of their oldest daughter, then Princess Elizabeth.