On May 19th, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry will marry, and Markle, a former actress raised in Los Angeles, will join the ranks of the royal family. We’ve all heard some of the drama surrounding this couple; Markle is only the second American to marry into the royal family, and the first person of mixed race. But no matter how progressive Markle and Prince Harry are, they still must adhere to some of the ancient rules that have helped solidify the bonds of the British royal family for centuries. So, which traditions have this royal couple opted to stick to, and which have they adapted?
The Royal Wedding Ceremony
The wedding will start at high noon, with the arrival of the wedding party and will begin with the traditional carriage ride. Markle’s dad, Thomas, was to walk his daughter down the aisle and give her away but is no longer able to attend due to a heart attack he suffered last week. It’s also tradition for the bride to walk down the aisle first rather than last, followed by her bridesmaids.
The bouquet traditionally contains myrtle, a type of flowering evergreen shrub whose use in events goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, where people created crowns from myrtle leaves to place atop the victors of the Olympic Games. Queen Victoria started this wedding tradition, using a piece of myrtle from her famous garden in her daughter’s wedding. The white flower in the myrtle symbolizes love.
The royal family and the family of the other partner each sit on one side of the church, with the royal family typically taking the right side.
And there’s no catching bouquets. Markle will probably leave her bouquet at London’s Westminster Abbey, at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, a tradition that goes back to 1923. The Unknown Warrior’s grave marks an unidentified soldier who died in battle in the First World War. The tradition began when Queen Elizabeth married King George VI and wanted to pay her respects to her brother, who died in the Battle of Loos.
In British royal wedding tradition, the women generally don’t give speeches during dinner. Rather, the best man and the groom address the guests.
We’ll also have to wait and see if photos are allowed during the wedding—banning selfies isn’t exactly a tradition, but Kate Middleton and Prince William didn’t permit snapshots on their big day, and we suspect Markle and Prince Harry may do the same.
Did you know that Julius Caesar actually started the tradition of special cakes for British weddings? This was in 54 BC. Originally, the cakes were baked in individual servings, and the tiny treats would be pressed through the wedding ring, eaten, thrown to common folk waiting outside, or broken apart and dropped on the bride’s head. The cake represents decadence, and the cutting of the cake typically serves to bring the wedding guests together after they’ve had some time to eat and be merry, bringing the bride and groom into focus again.
While fruitcake is the standard at royal weddings, Markle and Prince Harry are going for an elegant lemon elderflower wedding cake instead. Sounds more like a bouquet than a cake to us, but flower cakes are trending this spring, and the adornments on top make for a pretty, colorful spread. A few bakeries in England have even begun making these same buttercream and flower-topped cakes this spring for folks to share in some of the wedding spirit, using elderflower liqueur and lemon to flavor the frosting.
Another royal wedding tradition when it comes to the food served is important for practical reasons: no seafood. No one wants to go down in history as the newlyweds who served the bad oysters.
Royal Wedding Attire
Hats and fascinators are big at royal weddings—though not so much at standard weddings in England—and this one will be no different. The men will wear morning suits, rather than the less formal lounge suits, which are a traditional version of elegant attire, complete with tails and a waistcoat. The women will wear formal attire as well as hats that should be made of straw, instead of fabric, because it is after Easter. And the clothing should be modest—no bare legs, classy hemlines, close-toed shoes—you get the idea. Quite a difference from American weddings!
It will be interesting to see whether Markle will go for a white dress, or a veil, as she has previously been married. Markle’s dress will of course be white, and she’ll have to wear nude pantyhose. We’ll also be watching to see if she does wear tiara, a relatively new tradition begun by Queen Elizabeth I.
Welsh gold has long been the norm for rings. In fact, the rings of Princess Margaret, Princess Anne, and Princess Diana all came from a single chunk of gold from Clogau St. David’s mine.
Wise words from Queen Victoria may well serve this bride, and any bride, when it comes to worrying about judgement from the wedding guests, the couple’s familes, and the public: “The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.” Victoria famously had negative views of marriage, specifically of the role of a wife in a marriage, which includes, according to her, the “occupational hazard” of being pregnant.
Stressing over what others might think will only compound anxieties on the big day. We’re looking forward to see how Markle makes these wedding traditions her own, whether by choosing to wear the tiara, for instance, or by introducing new elements from her family’s history. After all, making or breaking traditions is beside the point. What matters on a wedding day, and on a public wedding day, is that we all get to experience the love these two beautiful people feel for each other.
Planning a wedding always seems to be an experience akin to surviving a hurricane, navigating each family’s traditions and quirks. But the neat thing about weddings is that each one is a unique event, a maelstrom of coordination and compromise, and the result is a singular experience—one that represents deep ancestral traditions as well as fresh new ones.