Royal weddings continue to captivate the nation, and this is amplified when the royal in question will rule the country. Especially in times of hardship, it is these figures we look to. Certain weddings shaped the monarchy that we know today. Never has this been truer than with the post-war weddings of King George VI and Elizabeth II.
Britain, and the rest of the world, experienced many years of unrest in the first half of the 20th century. While many struggled to find their feet after the catastrophic world wars, the royal family knew how important morale was. Therefore, their weddings were as much about the country as the couple. They needed to be big enough events to be a celebration and a promise that things would improve.
On 26th April 1923, the Duke of York married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon; on 20th November 1947 their daughter married Philip Mountbatten. These weddings were among the most memorable of the century. So, let’s dive in.
King George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was born in 1900 as the ninth of ten children to a British peer and landowner. However, her happy childhood ended abruptly when England declared war on Germany on her 14th birthday. The First World War took its toll on her family, as her elder brother, Fergus, died in action. Moreover, Michael, another brother, went missing in action and was later discovered in a prisoner of war camp.
Meanwhile, Albert (as he was known at the time) spent time fighting in the war. Three weeks after war broke out, he was discharged to Scotland to have his appendix removed. He spent time between the Navy and the hospital and eventually transferred to the newly formed Royal Air Force.
Albert never expected to be king, as his elder brother Edward was due to inherit the throne. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was nervous about not being able to speak her own mind when she joined royal life. The two had played together when they were young and so were very familiar with each other. Albert’s mother had her eye set on Elizabeth as the perfect match for her son and did everything she could to set them up. Eventually, after two years of asking, she finally accepted his marriage proposal.
The Royal Wedding
The couple married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923. This took place, of course, before television. Moreover, the Archbishop of Canterbury forbade a radio recording for fear that men would listen in from pubs and clubs. Nevertheless, it was still considered a public affair and all eyes were on the news to find out about it. Furthermore, being in Westminster Abbey, it sent a signal to the country that all was right following The Great War.
And also, it is important not to ignore the political decision that the duke made by deciding against marrying a princess. This was seen as a great push towards modernisation and greatly needed in the post-war years. Suddenly, everyone started to dream that they could do anything again.
Elizabeth had eight bridesmaids, the two youngest being eleven year old nieces of the bride. She wore a deep ivory dress designed by Madame Handley-Seymour, supposedly inspired by Jeanne Lanvin and medieval Italian in style. The press published details of the dress before the wedding day. Newspapers told of the chiffon moire fabric and that it was to be embroidered with pearl beads, pearls and silver lamé. They also explained how part of Queen Mary’s train would be repurposed to form “Betty’s” train. The bride also chose to add a “silver and rose thistle” to honour York and Scotland. The prince, meanwhile, wore his RAF group captain uniform.
After the ceremony in the Abbey, Elizabeth stopped and laid her wedding bouquet at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. She did this to commemorate her brother, as well as all others who had lost their lives in the war. Other royal brides, including her daughter, copied thi act.
Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten
Philip Mountbatten was born Prince of Greece and Denmark in 1921 on the Greek island of Corfu. In the aftermath of the First World War, his family were banished from Greece and they fled to safety in France. As Philip was just a baby, they made him a cot from a fruit box for their escape.
The rest of his childhood was full of similar disasters, including an air crash that killed six of his relatives. His mother was sent to an asylum, and then his guardian died of bone marrow cancer.
However, it wasn’t all bleak. At the age of 13 he met the young Princess Elizabeth, just eight years old, at a family wedding. They once more then, in July 1939, thirteen year old Elizabeth fell in love with the RAF trainee. They exchanged letters for seven years during the war before he asked the king for his permission to marry her. He agreed to wait until Elizabeth turned 21 the following year.
There were, however, still many preparations before Philip was able to join British royalty. Early in the month they were due to marry, he officially became a member of the Church of England. Although he attended services and considered himself Anglican, he was baptised as Greek Orthodox. He dropped his Greek and Danish titles and briefly became Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. The day before the wedding, the king gave Philip the title Royal Highness and the morning of his wedding he became the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as taking several more titles.
The Royal Wedding
Westminster Abbey hosted the famous royal wedding on 20th November 1947. They invited 2,000 guests to the ceremony and permitted radio recording, so 200 million listeners across the world could tune in. The processions were filmed for television, although cameras were not allowed inside the Abbey. Film cameras also caught the royal couple indulging in waving to the crowds from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. However, it is important to note that Philip was not allowed to invite his family. He had three sisters, who had all married German princes, and therefore politics was still strained.
Because it was so soon after the end of the Second World War, rationing was still in effect. The princess had to use ration coupons to purchase the fabric for her dress, designed by Norman Hartnell. In reflection of the wedding being a rebirth after the war, he based the dress on the Botticelli painting “Primavera”. Taking after the tradition set by her Great-Great Grandmother, Queen Victoria, her dress was white.
The young princess also wore two royal pearl necklaces, and borrowed the Queen Mary fringe tiara from her mother. Beside her, Philip wore his lieutenant’s uniform: a double breasted jacket with all of his military ribbons.
The majority of photos from the future Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding were taken by Baron Studios and their eponymous photographer. Baron photographed many celebrities and royals from the earlier part of the 20th century, up until his death in 1956.
Elizabeth and Philip received more than 2,500 wedding presents and 10,000 telegrams of goodwill and congratulations. Buckingham Palace exhibited the gifts for the public to see.