Westminster’s Wedding March

When Prince William and Kate Middleton marry on April 29, they will join a select group, even among royals. While the site of their wedding, Westminster Abbey, has been the place of every coronation since the Norman conquest, only 15 royal couples have been married there since it was founded in 960.

The first wedding to take place at the abbey was that of King Henry I of England and Princess Matilda of Scotland in 1100. The bride wore a crimson robe, a fashion choice Miss Middleton will likely not follow. While the great and good looked on and those less connected cheered outside, the archbishop of Canterbury married the bride and groom, as his successor will do in less than two weeks.

Many traditions — for the groom to don a military uniform, for the bride’s flowers to include a sprig of myrtle signifying love and for the couple to sign the wedding register in the privacy of Edward the Confessor’s Chapel — have been added in the years since.

After King Richard II’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, the abbey fell out of favor as the site of royal weddings for more than 500 years. That serial husband King Henry VIII had no fewer than six weddings, but none at the abbey, preferring ceremonies at Greenwich and Whitehall Palace. The Stuarts favored quiet affairs in private, while in the 19th century, the Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace and Windsor Castle and its St. George’s Chapel were popular venues.

King George V encouraged a return to the national church. The king, who changed the royal family’s name from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg to Windsor in 1917, thought using Westminster Abbey would enhance the royals’ “Britishness” in the eyes of the people.

In choosing the abbey — rather than, say, St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer opted to marry in 1981 to better accommodate their 3,500 guests — Prince William and Kate Middleton are following the example of his great-grandparents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II, who married the Duke of Edinburgh at the church, in the aftermath of World War II, on Nov. 20, 1947.

By Charles Phillips, the author of The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Kings and Queens of Britain and Barry Falls, an illustrator.

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