By Jane Connors
Prince Harry is being married in the spotlight but his wedding will be a more relaxed affair. (Twitter: Kensington Palace)
In faraway centuries, when a sweating sickness could carry off a healthy young man in the course of an afternoon, a monarch would be desperate for a second son — an heir and a spare.
In more recent times, the British Royal family has, if anything, overproduced. George III fathered no fewer than nine sons. Queen Victoria managed four. Edward VII had two and was succeeded by the second. His degenerate elder son, once suspected as the alter-ego of Jack the Ripper, fortuitously died from the flu in 1891. George V and his wife Queen Mary — his late brother’s former fiancee — had five boys, the eldest of whom, Edward VIII, called upon the spare to step up and take his place in 1936.
Prince Harry started life as the understudy but has now slipped down the line of succession to sixth and it seems unlikely he’ll be needed.
This has taken some pressure off his wedding, but even secondary princes get married under the spotlight.
As the 19th century constitutional lawyer Walter Bagehot wrote: “A princely marriage is a brilliant edition of a universal fact” and is a product of its times. But maybe there is something for Harry and Meghan to take away from some who went before them.
Controversial brides and disgruntled families
For example, they could look to Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, who had a big year in 1868. He survived an assassination attempt in Sydney in March and shortly after fell in love with Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. Neither family was happy and negotiations stalled for several years, but the young couple insisted and were finally married in 1874.
Prince Alfred married Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia; neither family was pleased. (Royal Collection Trust)
Maria’s father, Alexander II refused to travel to Scotland for the wedding and Victoria thought the compromise suggestion of Cologne was ‘impertinent’, so the ceremony was held in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg without the mother of the groom.
The service was extremely grand, involving Orthodox and Church of England rituals, and the bride wore crimson velvet trimmed with ermine. But it wouldn’t be a happy marriage.
The Grand Duchess was miserable in England, where she had to cede precedence to her sisters-in-law, and insisted on returning to the continent.
Pared back ceremony for the spare
Alfred’s great nephew Albert (Duke of York and later George VI) made a happier union in 1923, when he married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, straight from Glamis Castle in Scotland. The shine had come off European royalty after World War I, and the Windsors had been on the hunt for an all-English rose.
The Duchess of York’s wedding dress was described by press as the simplest royal wedding dress ever made. (Royal Collection Trust)
Royal weddings to this point had been private, conducted in chapels on secluded estates, but because of the post-war blues, and the feeling that the British public could do with some fun, this one took place in Westminster Abbey.
The newly-established BBC was keen to broadcast the service, but it was a bridge too far for both the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Archbishop was particularly worried that men drinking in public houses might listen without their hats on.
There was intense speculation about the wedding dress. The bride chose ivory chiffon moire for the fabric, dyed to match her veil, appliqued with gold and silver lame and beads. It had a lace train from the shoulders and another from the hips. It was described in the papers as the simplest royal wedding dress ever made.
With the unemployment statistics in mind, the King requested a simple menu of salmon, asparagus and lamb, and the cake was merely 9 feet high. Prince Harry and Ms Markle are also planning a modest spread.
The next brother to marry was George, Duke of Kent, in 1934. Foreign princesses had come back into vogue, and he imported Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, first cousin of the future Duke of Edinburgh.
Prince George sought a foreign princess. He married the glamorous Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. (Royal Collection Trust)
Marina was extremely glamourous. She was svelte and sophisticated, and spoke French, German, Greek, Russian, English and Italian. Her wedding dress was very chic, silver and white with a cowl neckline, and sewn, at her request, by refugee seamstresses from her mother’s homeland, Russia.
The wedding took place in the Abbey in front of 1500 guests and the bridal party travelled back to Buckingham Palace in a parade of glass carriages.
It was estimated that 500,000 people lined the streets, which had been decorated with 50,000 flags and 30 miles of flowers. The cake on this occasion weighed 800 pounds and had taken a company of Scottish bakers six weeks to prepare.
The following year, an earlier Harry (Henry, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of the Queen) exercised the greater latitude allowed to younger sons by marrying Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott.
This Harry definitely had a thing for adventurous women. Not that long before his marriage, he had a rip-roaring affair with Kenya-based aviator Beryl Markham, the first person to fly non-stop from London to New York and the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. It was said that the King had to pay her a hefty sum to stop her from spilling the beans.
The Duke then turned his attentions to Lady Alice, who had also lived in Kenya and travelled widely through Africa and Afghanistan, often in male clothing.
What time does the Royal wedding start?
Almost as old as Meghan Markle, Alice was 34 when she married and gave her age as the reason for vetoing white.
She married instead in pearl pink satin with orange blossoms at the neck. Because her father had recently died, the wedding took place privately at Buckingham Palace, but the couple did appear on the balcony.
No kissing in those days, of course, but the Gloucesters, who lived here later as Governor-General and wife for several years in the 1940s, were thought to have a happy marriage.
There’s a cultural trajectory in here somewhere, of course, in the marital choices of junior princes, all the way from a Russian Grand Duchess to an American actress. Or is it all in the size of the cake?
Dr Jane Connors is the author of Royal Visits to Australia.