The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066-2011
(co-written with Kate Williams, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman)

"A fascinating romp through royal wedding history... Most informative and entertaining." (Woman and Home)

"One for history buffs and soppy romantics alike, this heavily illustrated tome looks back at previous nuptials from the Norman Conquest to Charles and Camilla. It's fascinating to see Wills' and Kate's big day put in its historical context." (Bella

Now available as an audiobook.

(Hot Brands, Cool Places: The Wedding Issue)

(Above) Preliminary jacket designs

MegaHertz celebrates the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in this very special episode. Host Noreena Hertz is joined by authorities on the subject - best-selling royal biographer Andrew Morton, the UK's top-selling female historian and specialist on royal weddings Alison Weir, and world expert on the differences between British and American English Professor Lynne Murphy. They discuss all things Meghan Markle, what history can teach us about royal weddings, and what can go wrong when a Brit marries an American. According to the producer, this episode was 'definitely one of our best - it's had a really great reception'.


The Great Hall at Hampton Court provided the venue in April 2011 for the launch of The Ring and the Crown by Alison Weir, Kate Williams, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman.

The book examines royal weddings from 1066 to the present day with what Hutchinson publisher Paul Sidey describes as "a zip and excitement which is unique".

Pictured with our late, great editor, Paul Sidey, (from left) are Tracy Borman, Alison Weir, Kate Williams and Sarah Gristwood.

From the Sunday Express (below)

by Alison Weir for Inside Story, Historic Royal Palaces magazine, Issue 14, Spring 2011)


Special guest contributor Alison Weir looks forward to a momentus occasion in April.

On 18 April, Historic Royal Palaces will mark the coming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton with a presentation in the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace, featuring the 'History Girls' - myself, Kate Williams, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman - who have co-written a book exploring the fascinating history of royal weddings over the past thousand years.
   The announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton heralds the latest in an ancient tradition of royal weddings. The concept of a public royal wedding is medieval in origin, and the tradition developed in the centuries following the Norman Conquest. The splendid nuptials of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders set a pattern that is still largely observed today: the procession to the cathedral, the solemnities in the presence of important guests, the lavish banquet afterwards, and the civic reception afforded to the bride as she was welcomed by the people.
   This pattern endured throughout the Middle Ages, and culminated in two weddings that cemented great political alliances. The first was the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486 in Westminster Abbey, which united the warring factions of Lancaster and York. There was then no established royal tradition of marrying in Westminster Abbey. The first wedding in the present church was that of a son of Henry III in 1269, while the future Richard III may have married Anne Neville there in 1472 or at St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster.
   The second important Tudor wedding was that of Henry VII's heir, Arthur, Prince of Wales. It is not widely known that Charles and Diana's was not the first wedding of a Prince of Wales in St Paul's Cathedral. Nearly 480 years earlier, Arthur married Katherineof Aragon there amid similar pageantry and rejoicing.
   One feature of medieval royal weddings that seems shockingly intrusive today was the public bedding ceremony, in which the newly wedded couple were put to bed together by their attendants and toasted by their guests, as the bed was blessed by a bishop or priest. Then they were left alone to attend to their chief duty, the begetting of heirs to ensure the succession. This bawdy custom had died out by the end of the 17th century.
   The reign of Henry VIII saw a reversal away from public royal weddings. All six of the King's marriage ceremonies were conducted in private - even in secret, in the case of Anne Boleyn - with only a few select guests, and we know very little about them. There were no public beddings. But when Mary Tudor married Philip of Spain in 1554 in Winchester Cathedral, the ceremonial was lavish. It was to be the last great public royal wedding for nearly 300 years.
   In the Stuart and Georgian periods, royal weddings were generally conducted in private, often in a chapel royal, and sometimes late at night in the bride's bedchamber. It was not until the reign of Queen Victoria that the royal wedding again became a public affair. The young Queen's marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 was attended by splendid celebrations, and set the trend for the royal weddings of the future, notably those of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark and George V and Mary of Teck.
   It was Queen Victoria who set the fashion for wearing white. Previously, royal brides had worn their most magnificent attire. Victoria's gown still exists, although her wedding veil was buried with her. The oldest surviving royal wedding dress is that of Princess Charlotte, a silver-and-white regency design dating from 1816; it is now very fragile, and required 400 hours of restoration before being exhibited in the 1990s. Many other royal wedding dresses survive, from Alexandra of Denmark's to Lady Diana Spencer's. Historic Royal Palaces have six in their collection.
   The first modern wedding to take place in Westminster Abbey was that of Princess Patricia of Connaught in1919. Thereafter, the Abbey became the chief venue of choice for royal couples. In 1923, when the future George VI married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon there, plans to broadcast the ceremony on the radio were abandoned because it was feared that men would listen to the service in public houses with their hats on!
   Times had moved on by 1947, however, for when Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip, their wedding was filmed in colour for the cinema. Widespread rejoicing marked the event, which was seen as a splash of desperately needed colour in grey austerity Britain; there are parallels with Prince William's wedding, which is anticipated as a similarly uplifting occasion in the midst of the current recession.
   Royal marriages nowadays are made in the blazing glare of a world-wide media. Public interest in the last wedding of an heir to the throne - that of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 - was unprecedented, and traumatic for the young, inexperienced bride, who had been catapulted into international fame. The tragic precedent of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was killed in a car crash in 1997, has no doubt informed official thinking on the wedding of her son. There is a general consensus that the pressures that blighted Diana's life should not overshadow her daughter-in-law's.
   In this difficult time of recession, this latest royal marriage comes as a ray of light and an article of faith for the future. All the world loves a lover, and it loves a royal wedding even more. We are ready to celebrate, as Prince William marries the lady he loves. Unlike many of his predecessors, he has chosen her himself. He has had time to get to know her before committing them both to marriage. He has not had to defy a feudal overlord, fight a war or circumvent witchcraft before he can lead her to the altar. Yet even this most modern of royal weddings will take place in a historical context, informed by the traditions of a 1,000 years of monarchy.


The news that ‘Catherine Middleton’ is to marry Prince William, our future King, is happy indeed, both from the couple’s personal perspective, and dynasticically, for historically the marriage of an heir to the throne promises the continuance of the royal line; and, in this case, it means that, once more, we will see another Queen Catherine gracing the consort’s throne.

There have been several queens of that name in our history, but on the face of it, they were not the happiest of precedents. Catherine of Valois, the wife of Henry V, was widowed at 21 after only two years of marriage, and was barred from any meaningful involvement in the upbringing of her son, Henry VI. Forbidden to remarry, she began an affair with Owen Tudor, with whom she secretly had several children; the eldest, Edmund, was the ancestor of the Tudor dynasty. If Catherine and Owen ever married, there is no record of it, and when their liaison was discovered, after her early death at the age of 36, Owen Tudor was sent to prison.

Three of Henry VIII’s queens were called Catherine. The most renowned was Catherine of Aragon, the mother of Queen Mary I. After eighteen years of outwardly contented wedlock, the King applied to Rome to have his ‘incestuous’ marriage to Catherine annulled, on the grounds that she had been his brother’s wife. Henry needed a son, and he also wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he had fallen passionately in love. Catherine made a brave stand, insisting she was the King’s true wife, but the price of defying Henry was years of exile from court, separation from her daughter, and increasing penury and ill health, until her death in 1536.

Catherine Howard suffered an even more tragic fate. Neglected in childhood, and given no moral guidance, she was pushed by her ambitious family into the ageing King’s path. When a besotted Henry married her 1540, when she was about twenty, and he was 49 and 54” in girth, he had no idea that she had already enjoyed sexual adventures with two men. After her marriage, Catherine foolishly indulged in a treasonable affair with her cousin, Thomas Culpeper. This being discovered, along with revelations about her earlier affairs, she was beheaded in 1542.

Catherine Parr was Henry VIII’s sixth wife. Twice widowed already, she was probably more of a nurse than a lover to the ailing King. They clashed only once, when Catherine attempted to dispute with him over religion, and only narrowly escaped accusations of heresy. After Henry’s death in 1547, she married the dashing Admiral Sir Thomas Seymour with indecent haste, but he had amorous designs on her stepdaughter, the future Elizabeth I, and a pregnant Catherine was shocked to discover them in a compromising situation. She died in childbed, miserable at her husband’s betrayal, in 1548.

The last Catherine to sit on the consort’s throne was Catherine of Braganza, the convent-educated wife of the promiscuous Charles II. That marriage was overshadowed by his constant infidelities, which brought Catherine much grief, and by her inability to bear him children.

Yet Kate Middleton can take heart: the lives of her namesakes and predecessors were not all tragedy and grief. Catherine of Aragon was a devout woman of firm principle, a shining example of integrity, loyalty and fortitude. Katherine Parr was a charming, learned lady who transformed the dysfunctional Tudors into a happy family. And Catherine of Braganza eventually won Charles II’s devotion, and ruled Portugal wisely and well in her later years. Kate Middleton bears an illustrious name, and should rejoice in it.

Heritage magazine, No. 160, March 2011

In this article I looked back on the greatest royal romances. It tells the stories of four royal couples: Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Owen Tudor and Katherine of Valois, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, The Prince Consort. The magazine did the picture research and captions for the original article. Please note that the tomb said to be that of Owen Tudor and Katherine of Valois is in fact that of Goronwy ap Tudur Fychan and his wife, while it was Owen, not 'Henry', who was buried in the Grey Friars' Church at Hereford.)

One of the least romantic of royal weddings, that of the future George IV to Caroline of Brunswick, in 1795.

One doesn’t always associate royalty with romance. Until recently, most royal marriages were arranged for political or dynastic reasons, and love was rarely a consideration. Often, a young royal bride would travel to England, having said goodbye for ever to her country and family, and find herself married to a stranger, and expected to produce children to secure the succession. Some royal couples did come to love each other; others were hopelessly mismatched, with disastrous consequences; most simply made the best of it. Such marriages were not generally conducive to romance.
   But there were a few great exceptions.

Edward I married Eleanor of Castile in 1254, when he was fifteen and she thirteen; as usual, it was an arranged marriage. They did not cohabit for some years, for their first child was born in 1264, yet by then they had become devoted to each other. When Edward went to the Holy Land on crusade, Eleanor insisted on accompanying him, saying that the way to Heaven was as near from Palestine as from England.
   During the crusade, Edward was shot by a poisoned arrow, and a romantic legend had Eleanor saving his life by sucking the venom from the wound. A more accurate account had her being carried out of the tent, screaming, but both stories testify to her famed love for him. Although she bore him sixteen children, she was content to leave them behind while she accompanied Edward on his many sorties abroad.   
   When Eleanor died in 1290, of a fever, Edward’s grief was profound.
   ‘My harp has turned to mourning,’ he wrote. ‘I loved her in life; I cannot cease to love her in death.’ In her memory, he ordered twelve memorial crosses to be erected at the places where her bier rested on its journey south from Nottinghamshire to Westminster Abbey. Three survive, at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham; that at Charing Cross is a Victorian replica. All are monuments to the grief of a bereft king.   

When royalty fell in love, the fallout was often sensational or tragic. Henry V’s wooing of Katherine of Valois is romantically depicted by Shakespeare, but the stark truth was that this marriage was made to cement his claim to the French throne, and Henry died less than two years later, leaving his bride a widow at twenty-one. Deprived of any political role or influence over her infant son, Henry VI, Katherine was forbidden by Parliament to remarry. Inevitably, she embarked on a secret romance with Owen Tudor, the Keeper of her Wardrobe. One tradition states that she became attracted to him when he tripped while dancing at Windsor and fell into her lap; another claims that she determined to have him after glimpsing him swimming naked in the River Thames.
  There is no record of Katherine and Owen marrying, although their affair produced several children, including Edmund Tudor, later Earl of Richmond, who was to become the father of Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty.
   In 1436, Katherine’s liaison with Own Tudor was discovered; the couple were forced to part and her children were taken from her. She was obliged to retire to Bermondsey Abbey, where she died in childbirth the following year. Owen was imprisoned for a short time at Newgate, but was later pardoned by Henry VI, who treated him well and ennobled his sons by Katherine.
   During the Wars of the Roses, Owen Tudor fought for the Lancastrians, but was taken prisoner by the Yorkists in 1461, after the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, and beheaded at Hereford. As he stood before the block, he was heard to say, ‘This head shall lie upon a stock, that was wont to lie in Queen Katherine’s lap.’

The love story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is one of the most famous and romantic in English history, and it was both sensational and tragic. Henry fell in love with the fascinating, witty Anne around 1525, when he had been married for sixteen years to Katherine of Aragon. Anne was to be the great love of Henry`s life. Unlike other court ladies, she refused to become his mistress and kept him at arm’s length. When she tactically withdrew from court, he sent her passionate letters, ‘written by the hand of him who longeth to be yours’. He was ‘struck with the dart of love’, he told her, and spoke of the ‘agony’ and ‘suffering’ he endured in her absence. ‘Give yourself, body and heart to me,’ he urged, wishing himself. ‘specially an evening in my sweetheart’s arms, whose pretty dugs I trust shortly to kiss’.    
   Before long, Henry had resolved to divorce Katherine and marry Anne, but the Pope prevaricated.  For six years, while doing his utmost to resolve his ‘Great Matter’, an increasingly frustrated Henry pursued Anne, determined to have her. `The King’s passion is such that only God can abate his madness,` one ambassador observed. In the end, Henry broke with Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. With her triumph in sight, Anne at last capitulated; discovering that she was pregnant, Henry married her secretly in 1533 in a turret room in Whitehall Palace.
   Alas, the familiarity of marriage bred only contempt. Within months, Henry had begun straying, and when Anne remonstrated, he brutally told her to ‘shut her eyes and endure’. Her four pregnancies produced only one daughter, the future Elizabeth I. By 1536, the King was ready to accept evidence laid before him by Anne’s enemies, accusing her of adultery and conspiracy. Famously, Henry VIII’s grand passion for Anne Boleyn ended with her bloody death on the scaffold in May 1536.

The tempestuous relationship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was, like that of Anthony and Cleopatra, ‘so unlike the home life of our own dear Queen’, as a subject of Queen Victoria was to observe. Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, were one of the happiest examples of a romantic royal couple. But Victoria, who had ascended the throne in 1837 at the age of eighteen, had been reluctant to marry. It was only when she came face to face with her cousin Albert in 1839 and fell deeply in love that she changed her mind. ‘Albert is beautiful!’ she wrote.
   As queen, she had to propose to him. ‘It would make me too happy if you would consent to what I ask,’ she said to him, in an agony of embarrassment. But Albert did not hesitate, and the two fell into each other’s arms.
   They married in 1840. Their married life was stormy at first, with Victoria refusing to allow Albert any political involvement, but as time passed and their nine children arrived, she came to value and rely on his advice and judgement. Soon, she would not choose even a bonnet without his approval.
   Albert’s early death, from typhoid, in 1861, was the great tragedy of Victoria’s life.
In grief, she remained in seclusion for years, and she mourned Albert deeply, and wore black, for the next forty years, before they were reunited in death and she was laid to rest beside him in the royal mausoleum at Frogmore, Windsor.     
by Elizabeth Grice
(serialisation in The Daily Telegraph, 25th and 28th March 2011)


For centuries, royal weddings have held a mirror up to society. A new book charts how celebrations, then and now, reflect the mood of the nation.

When you take the long view, the striking thing about royal weddings is how often they tend to arrive when they are most needed – and in a style that suits the mood of the moment. In 1947, Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten provided a tired, war-worn nation with a sparkling distraction from its daily struggle. “A flash of colour,” as Winston Churchill put it, “on the hard road we have to travel.” Mutterings about whether or not a full-scale wedding was really appropriate in a time of austerity were swiftly swept aside.

As Nigel Nicolson wrote much later in his book The Queen & Us: “English xenophobia was sublimated into delight for so handsome a couple and, as the wedding approached, vicarious love for them reached a crescendo of sentimentality.” We shall see; but his description already seems to fit the mood of optimism and goodwill that is gathering for Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Once again, the timing is perfect. Right in the middle of an economic slump, when confidence in the Royal family’s marital acumen has been sapped by a succession of disastrous marriages, the couple are poised to offer the same momentary shaft of brilliance; an article of faith in the future. And by happy chance, in the communal swoon of their nuptials, less attractive royal stories can be softly suffocated.

“The family can hardly have foreseen the furore about Prince Andrew’s business interests,” says the historian Sarah Gristwood, “but it has to be for them a lucky coincidence. I am sure they will be glad to have attention diverted from him. This wedding will make people feel so very positive and take the taste of that away. A royal wedding is a perfect storm, isn’t it? On the one hand it is a ceremony that makes everyone feel warm-hearted, because weddings are something they have in their own family, and on the other, they are important ceremonies for the future of the monarchy.”

Gristwood is co-author of The Ring and the Crown, a cleverly timed history of royal weddings from the private, semi-clandestine ceremonies of earlier times to the pomp and circumstance ushered in by Queen Victoria that set the pattern since. On the day that William, 28 , and Kate, 29, announced their engagement last autumn, Gristwood and three other historical biographers – Alison Weir, Kate Williams and Tracy Borman – the self-styled History Girls, decided to carve up 1,000 years of royal marriages between them according to their special interests.

What struck Gristwood, covering the years 1919 to 1960, was the surprising readiness of the Royal family to encourage interest in its nuptials, perhaps to be the better loved, and to allow the steady progress of cameras and microphones towards the heart of the ceremony. In 1947, George VI recognised the people’s wish to be part of the celebration by relaxing the rule that the royal couple only accepted presents from people known to them. The consequent glut of knitted tea cosies and nylon stockings, the Compact personal weighing machine, the georgette nightdress and the “string tidy” were as much symbolic as practical and affectionate. They made the whole thing a peculiarly domestic fantasy, a family affair. “The feeling was that if this big celebration were to be justified, all the nation should come to the party.”

In 1923, the newly-formed BBC asked to record the wedding of the future George VI and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, but the request was vetoed on the grounds that disrespectful persons might hear the service “sitting in public houses with their hats on”. Whereas the ceremony on April 29 will be seen on television by a billion people.

The changing style of royal weddings has reflected quite shrewdly the mood of the times. In 1960, for instance, when the Royal family was criticised for being out of touch and the value of the monarchy was being called into question, Princess Margaret married a working photographer by the name of (Armstrong) Jones.

The background to Princess Anne’s wedding in November 1973, was a national emergency: industrial chaos and imminent petrol rationing. Her instinct was to try to keep things simple. She did away with some of the crustier traditions associated with a full royal wedding and refused to be followed down the aisle by what she called “yards of uncontrollable children”.

After the public unravelling of his siblings’ marriages, Prince Edward chose to marry unostentatiously in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The year was 1999. Diana was dead. There was no appetite for show, only a quiet hope that this marriage would signal some kind of renaissance for the Royal family after the battering they’d taken in the preceding decade.

The one glaring departure from their sensitivity to the changing climate – an error that gives Prince William and Kate Middleton’s union a much fairer wind – was the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. “At the time it looked right,” says Gristwood. “A huge kind of fantasia. Everyone invokes the idea of the fairy tale for a royal wedding but never more so than for this one. The trouble is, fairy tales do have their dark side.

“In retrospect, the whole question of the choice of bride and those public protestations of Lady Diana’s virginity were pretty anachronistic for the Eighties. Charles had to prioritise a young (Diana was 20 whan they married), blue-blooded virgin over someone he knew and would be a natural partner to share his life. It was cursed from the start. It was the wrong kind of marriage for the age.”

There was a sacrificial element to the union, reminiscent of medieval royal marriages when princesses in their teens would be sent over the water to marry a man they had never met – bartered for peace or power or treasure. It was a throwback to the days when marriages were arranged for feudal or dynastic reasons. “It is very hard not to feel desperately sorry for Diana,” says Gristwood. “She was just so young. She was sold a pup. Prince Charles was expecting to make one sort of marriage – one that was historically expected of him – and she was expecting a very different sort.

“By contrast, Kate Middleton has those extra years of experience. She and William are two grown-ups, able to make their own choices with a good basis of information and experience on which to do it. Lessons have been learnt. No one wants to see a repeat of the Diana fiasco. One cannot believe anyone around them – other than the immense pressure of the system itself – would force Kate into a position where she would be deeply unhappy. She is older (29), she knows what she’s doing, she has more options, her family are together. This has as good a chance as any marriage.”

But more hangs on its success, she argues, than might be supposed. Underpinning our cautious but genuine hope that William and Kate will prosper in matrimony where his relatives have failed is the feeling that they represent a new start and that the old animosities – divorce, public spats, mutual humiliation – are quarantined within a particularly ill-fated generation.

“If this marriage were to go wrong nastily and soon,” says Gristwood, “if it were to crash in anything like the spectacular fashion of those of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, it would be serious for the Royal family and for our feelings about the monarchy. It would look as if the problem was more endemic. Marriages go wrong outside royal circles but we want the Royal family to reflect our better side rather than our worst and it’s problematic when they seem not to be doing so.

“Part of the justification for a royal family is to represent some kind of good family values. Even if they are not the most traditional family values there is still an expectation, partly because of the Church of England connection, that they will deal honourably, charitably and kindly with one another. That was what seemed to be missing in the marriage of Charles and Diana.”

If there is disenchantment, Gristwood believes, it is with the hapless intermediate generation, not with Princes William and Harry and their tribe of cousins who are finding their own “good paths”.

Their style is not extravagant. William and Kate are not packing Westminster Abbey with heads of state. They have asked for donations to charity in lieu of presents. The wedding breakfast will be a buffet. “There is a fresher feel about this royal wedding,” says Gristwood. “It feels, in a good way, a lighter, fat-free version, more easily digestible.”

The transformative element of the royal wedding should not be underestimated, she says. “Someone’s life is going to be changed. Kate Middleton’s is. But it also has to be seen as a rite of passage for Prince William. It was notable that after Princess Elizabeth married, far more effort was made to include her in public affairs. This new partnership will slightly take the heat off the older generation.”

In The Ring and the Crown, the History Girls reveal how closely our obsessions with the protocols and fripperies of the event mirror those of other eras. In 1947, press interest in the wedding dress was so feverish that Norman Hartnell had to black out the windows of his studio and his manager slept in the workroom to repel spies. “Newspaper columns on how Kate Middleton’s dress might look?” says Gristwood. “Pages about her family taking over the Goring Hotel? The fuss about the guest list? There’s nothing new under the sun in the world of royal weddings.”

But The Ring and the Crown is also a fascinating reminder of how recent the tradition of the royal wedding as public spectacle is. Throughout the Stuart and Georgian eras and into the 19th century, ceremonies were mostly private. It was only after the First World War, when Princess Patricia of Connaught married in Westminster Abbey, that the Royals began to use the Abbey rather than St George’s Chapel or the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. Neither it nor St Paul’s had seen a royal wedding for four centuries.

It wasn’t until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 that the big, white extravaganza took off and the royal wedding became central to the royal fairy tale. “Her white dress, the message of innocence and purity after the excesses of her uncles, the business of wearing a style that other people would see and copy… Spin started a lot earlier than we realise.”

We may not be as susceptible to the fairy tale as we were – we know too much about how royal weddings of the Eighties ended for that – but that is not to say we don’t love a party. “A whole lot of people will greatly enjoy the day,” says Gristwood, “whether or not they are passionate monarchists on the other 364 days of the year. There is a lot of fun and fantasy attached to it.”

Royal wedding: The Ring and the Crown - a command performance

In a series of extracts from the new book The Ring and the Crown, we look back at some great royal weddings of the past, and forwards to that of Prince William and Kate Middleton. 

The concept of a public royal wedding is an ancient one but, until recent times, the most the public could expect to see was a bridal procession. A public wedding usually meant a court wedding following by feasting, but many royal nuptials were private, low-key affairs. All that changed with the advent of the camera, newsreels and television. The media opportunities of the 20th century not only enabled people to witness the ceremony but saw the royal wedding become the embodiment – for better or worse – of the national fairy story. 

The actual power of the monarchy might have declined, but its emblematic significance has never been more apparent. A Royal family event has come to feel like an event in our own family. Now, we all expect to be guests at a royal wedding. 

There is an element of bread and circuses in this – give the public a good show and it will take their minds off the ills of society – but it is certainly a boost to tourism and trade. Few other events have such power to unite us as a nation or to give us a sense of being part of a wider family. As Walter Bagehot famously wrote: 'A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such rivets mankind.’ Now The History Girls – the acclaimed historical biographers and academics, Alison Weir, Kate Williams, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman – have brought royal weddings to life in words and pictures, from 1066 to today. Now, in three exclusive extracts from The Ring and the Crown, the authors consider two 'fairytale’ weddings, more than 30 years apart, that had very different outcomes and explain why the hard lessons learnt will influence Prince William and Kate Middleton’s life together. 

"The days were long gone when a glorious wedding had been the velvet glove over an iron fist, the old realities – that a royal marriage was about romance AND power – had not entirely gone away." 

"Charles met Lady Diana Spencer at a friend’s barbecue... Diana, only 20, seemed every inch the 'sweet-charactered' virginal girl that the Earl had recommended, and very soon Charles began to think of her as a potential wife." 

"The obvious love and chemistry between Prince William and Kate Middleton have mellowed the cynics and revived the romantic mystique of the monarchy. All the world loves a lover, and it loves a royal wedding even more. We are ready to celebrate as Prince William marries the lady he loves." 

by Alison Weir. Full-page article published in the Daily Telegraph in February 2013, in response to Hilary Mantel's remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge

According to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Being a respected author in a position to influence what people think is a huge privilege, but in the general scale of human affairs does one person’s opinion count for more than others’? There is always another view that may be equally valid. I have long admired Hilary Mantel’s work, but what was she thinking of in her unwarranted attack on the defenceless Duchess of Cambridge? Such thinking reflects a very modern, post-feminist, literary-luvvie view on the role of royal women, and indeed on the institution of monarchy in general. It is a superior view, reflected in Mantel’s question, ‘Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation?’ She says she does not know, but the very wording of the question implies that it isn’t, and that all the thousands (myself included) who thronged to celebrate the royal wedding and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee are in some way immature.
   As for poor Kate, whom tradition denies a voice to respond to criticism, is she really ‘a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own’? This is a young woman who went to excellent schools, secured a place at Scotland’s oldest university and graduated with a Master’s degree in the History of Art. Why, therefore, does Mantel ask, ‘What does Kate read? It’s a question.’  This is a young woman who, far from having no character or personality, has chosen to take an extraordinary route in life and is making a success of it. If that isn’t empowering, what is?
   Mantel is correct in assessing the traditional role of a royal wife. Yes, it is to breed heirs, as history shows most graphically. But there is also a ceremonial role, and a charitable one. Queens, princesses and royal duchesses who have shown the gentler face of monarchy have always been popular. Their roles were decorous, symbolic and dynastic, and it is true that not much has changed. But there is one huge difference between Kate Middleton and the royal brides of past centuries: her marriage was not arranged without her having any say in it. She chose to marry into the institution of monarchy, knowing – how could she not have done, with the example of Diana before her? – that she would be expected to play an archaic and often challenging role. That she is doing it to perfection is a tribute to her intelligence and strength of character. 
   To state that she was ‘designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished’ seems particularly unkind. What shines forth from Kate’s smile is sincerity and pleasure. She is clearly doing what she wanted to do all along, and enjoys doing. The word ‘radiant’ may be hackneyed in royal reportage, but it certainly applies in Kate’s case.
    Accusing her of having ‘no personality of her own’ is unfair, given the constraints imposed on her. And surely no one ‘selected [her] for her role of princess because she was irreproachable’. That may have been an issue in Diana’s day, but it certainly isn’t now.  Kate met Prince William at university. They were together for eight years before they married, during which time they spent some time apart and lived together. It is highly unlikely, in the wake of what happened to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, that attempts were made to influence William in his choice of bride. This was clearly a marriage of personal choice – a marriage made for love, plainly evident in the interaction and body language of the couple.  No one could realistically suggest that Kate is ‘without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character’.  She is a human being like the rest of us, with the usual human frailties. Her character shines forth in her determination not to let those frailties interfere with the role she has taken on. For that, she deserves our respect.
   Whether Hilary Mantel likes it or not, both women and men, especially those in the public eye, are defined by what they wear, and they always have been. She cites the examples of the extravagantly dressed Marie Antoinette and Diana, Princess of Wales, whom others have described as a clothes horse. But royal clothing has always involved far more than looking stunning. Throughout history, conspicuous display has been the outward manifestation of wealth and power; it was a political tool. In the Tudor period, magnificence was expected of monarchs and those closely related to them. Dress defined rank and was governed by sumptuary laws restricting the wearing of certain fabrics to royalty and the upper ranks of the aristocracy, reflecting strict demarcations in society itself. In the eighteenth century, under the ancien regime in France, Marie Antoinette was still expected to dress sumptuously.
   Later, since the advent of domesticity in the Victorian monarchy and the modernisation of the royal family since the 1950s, royal clothing has been used to promote the manufacturing and fashion design industries. Both Diana and Kate have been flag-bearers for British fashion, immeasurably boosting its profile throughout the world. And Kate, wearing elegant frocks that sell out overnight, has worked wonders for high street fashion too, endorsing the favourite brands of thousands of young women who cannot afford designer clothes.
   Young women identify with her. I write as the mother of another Kate of similar age. Their aspirations and pleasures – university, a career, the right man, clothes, holidays, socialising, family – are plainly the same as Kate Middleton’s. There is nothing wrong with being ‘a nicely brought up young lady, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in her vocabulary’, as Mantel says, and there are many of them, unsung heroines in a world in which traditional values are under siege. But Kate knows more about courtesy than that. In dressing as ‘a shop-window mannequin’ – although some would put it more generously – she is not only fuelling demand for her outfits as objects of desire, but she is also showing respect for her hosts, the people she meets, her own position as wife to the heir to the throne, and the monarchy itself.  
   She may be ‘as painfully thin as anyone could wish’, but am I being old-fashioned in thinking that that is no one’s business but her own?  Were she to emerge from her pregnancy some pounds the heavier and with a fuller figure, the fashionistas would swoop to kill. Like Marie Antoinette, criticised for dressing simply like a shepherdess, Kate can’t win. It’s bad enough being lambasted for what you wear, but Mantel’s criticism of Kate Middleton goes beyond that; it is symptomatic of the regrettable current trend for saying what you think regardless of whom you hurt or offend. And I imagine that the Duchess is hurt by what Mantel has written, which is why I have felt moved to write this article.   
   It is true, as Mantel says, that ‘cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty’. So can very public comments about a young woman who has done nothing to deserve them. What do they tell us about the Duchess? Very little at all. But they may tell us a lot about Hilary Mantel.

by Alison Weir, The Independent, 1999

Down the centuries, the marriages of royalty have more often then not been sol­emnised away from the pub­lic view. Most royal castles and palaces had private chapels, and it was here that kings, queens, princes and prin­cesses made their vows. Such ceremonies were brief and witnessed only by the chief magnates of the realm. It was during the 14th century that royalty began to include the public in its nuptial celebra­tions, and the concept of the wedding procession was born.
   The first royal wedding to take place in public was the marriage of Arthur, Prince of Wales, to Katherine of Aragon in 1501 at St Paul's Cathedral. The bride went in procession through London, to the cheering of vast crowds, and was then es­corted to a platform built in front of the cathedral, where she and Prince Arthur took their vows. As was the cus­tom before the Reformation, the bride swore to be "bonair and buxom in bed and at board", and the royal party and their guests proceeded into the church for the nup­tial mass. This was followed by a splendid feast, after which the young couple were publicly bedded together in front of many witnesses.
   Henry VIII may have been married six times, but every one of those six ceremonies took place in private. His marriage to Anne Boleyn was secretly solemnised before dawn in a turret room of Whitehall Palace; not even the Archbishop of Canter­bury was certain of the date.
   In the 17th century, during the time of the Stuarts, royal weddings once again became private affairs. A century later George III and George IV met their brides only a day or so before their weddings. George Ill's marriage to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz proved successful and produced 15 children, but George IV took one look at the rather malodorous Caroline of Brunswick and called for a glass of brandy. His bride recorded that he spent his wedding night lying drunk in the fireplace.
   George V had been mar­ried privately in the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace, but three of his six children were the first of the modern generation of royals to have public weddings. The Princess Royal, the Duke of York and the Duke of Kent all went in procession to West­minster Abbey, and their nup­tials were the subject of intense public interest. It was the newly married Princess Royal who, in 1922, began the tradition of making an appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
   The development of the media in the 20th century has enabled the public to partic­ipate as never before in the celebrations of royal wed­dings. The first royal wedding to be televised was that of Princess Margaret in 1960. This was followed in rapid succession by the wedding of the Duke of Kent. Royal wed­ding fever reached its height in 1981, with the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. Never had media and public interest in a royal wedding been so in­tense, and it has been esti­mated that a hundred million people world-wide watched the event on television.
   There was a similar re­sponse when Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson. During the following year, however, adverse publicity attached itself to both these marriages and, when they both broke up in the early 1990s, public disillusionment set in. The happy endings promised by the fairy-tale weddings had been an illu­sion; when Prince Edward announced his engagement to Sophie Rhys-Jones, it was felt that the time for change had come. Wisely, the engaged couple have opted for a more muted cer­emony. They have returned to the tradition established by their forebears in an age when marriage was taken more seriously.
   It is encouraging that, in an era obsessed with the su­perficial. Edward and Sophie have indicated their wish to accord substance prece­dence over style, and are perhaps setting a new trend for royal weddings.