Royal wedding feelgood factor overrides feminist impulses

February 28, 2011


Sarah Gristwood is one of the authors of The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings 1066-2011 (Hutchison) by Alison Weir, Kate Williams, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host a follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

More than a hundred years ago the great Victorian Walter Bagehot claimed that the women of Britain cared more about the marriage of a Prince of Wales than they did about a ministry.

Looking at the frenzied curiosity regarding the April 29, 2011, wedding date of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton, there’s not much doubt that his lament still rings true. One question, of course, is whether it is only the women – and why the advent of feminism hasn’t damped our hunger to any real degree.

Another is to what degree our interest has been consciously fostered, by a monarchy anxious to ensure it is still welcome in the 21st century.  But the third and largest must be whether there’s anything new under the sun, in the world of royal wedding festivities.

Newspaper columns on how Kate Middleton’s dress might look? Pages on the fact her family have taken over the entire Goring hotel for the pre-wedding night?

In 1947 Norman Hartnell, designing the wedding dress of the then Princess Elizabeth, found himself under siege by journalists, to the point where his ex-Army manager had to sleep in the workroom to repel spies.

Meeting with the Women’s Press Club, the Palace press secretary found himself faced with questions as to whether the bridegroom would kiss the bridesmaids, and what cosmetics the bride would wear.

Did they really think such details worthy of publication? – he asked, bemusedly.

If that attitude exemplifies the ‘something old’ a bride is supposed to include in her wedding gear, then the ‘something new’ must be the monarchy’s increasing readiness to accommodate the people’s desires, as marked by the steady progress of cameras and microphones towards the heart of the ceremony.

When, in 1923, the newly formed BBC asked to record the entire wedding of the future Queen Mother, the request was vetoed because, it famously was feared, disrespectful persons might hear the service, ‘perhaps even some of them sitting in public houses, with their hats on’.

A billion tv viewers worldwide are anticipated today. But the whole concept of the royal wedding as public spectacle is one that – lost since the late middle ages – had to be reinvented for modern times. Throughout the Stuart, Georgian and Victorian eras ceremonies were mostly held privately.

It was only after the First World War that the royals began to use Westminster Abbey rather than St George’s Chapel, Windsor or the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. Neither it nor St Paul’s (where Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer) had seen a royal wedding for more than four centuries.

‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’. The agitation over Kate and William’s guest lists is old. When Princess Elizabeth married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, the big question was whether his German relatives would be invited. (They weren’t.)

This couple’s decision to request charitable donations over presents is arguably new: in 1947 it was decided all gifts would be welcomed, to encourage the ‘sort of family feeling’ Mass Observation reported among the British public, and the result was a rash of knitted tea cosies and nylon stockings.

Something borrowed is easy, in a royal family awash with inherited jewels. We already have that engagement ring. And something blue?

Well, successive governments through the last century (in 1923, 1947, and 1960 when Princess Margaret gave the royal family a much-needed modern gloss by marrying Tony Armstrong-Jones) have in depressing times had cause to be grateful for the feelgood factor a royal wedding provides.

History always repeats itself, with the British monarchy.

Picture Credit: Prince Charles kisses his new bride Diana on their wedding day July 29, 1981. REUTERS/Handout


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It will be a time for making new history. Her choice of dress alone will follow her in history, much as Diana’s choice is still the attention of millions. For a look at some of the most famous wedding day gowns, go to the Who’s Your Inspiration community page on facebook: Inspiration/132897310108617?ref=ts

Or to the blog, Kate Middleton – To Dress A Princess:

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Sarah Gristwood will join co-authors Alison Weir and Kate Williams for a Times+ event in St. John the Baptist the Windsor Parish Church 6 April. Waterstones of Windsor is co-sponsoring Royal Weddings from 1066 to 2011. The event starts at 7 pm.

For more information visit the Forum at the Royal Windsor website and click on “Windsor Now”.

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