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Modernising royal weddings: a historical perspective

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding demonstrated on a spectacular scale that there is an enduring interest among sections of the press and public in royal love stories. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance, and alongside all the usual reports on street parties, flowers, presents, and the bridal dress, the media coverage focused on the couple’s desire to “democratise” the celebrations by enabling a greater number of ordinary people to share in their wedding day than ever before. But this is not the first time that the younger brother of a future king has chosen to marry a woman whose modernising agenda has worked to transform the monarchy’s public relations strategy. Nor is it the first time that the media have celebrated a royal wedding for momentarily bringing together a British people who are otherwise deeply divided by recent events. We need to instead look back to 1934 and the little-known royal wedding of Prince George (youngest surviving son of King George V) and the famously stylish Princess Marina of Greece as a key moment when royal romance was “reinvented” for mass consumption with the explicit aim of generating British national unity at a time marked by social and political turbulence.

Image credit: The wedding portrait of Princess Marina and Prince George, 1934. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPGx158915

Royal weddings were first staged as mass public events in the years immediately after the First World War. In a period marked by industrial unrest, economic instability, and elite concerns about the appeal of radical socialism to newly-enfranchised working-class voters, the royal household worked in tandem with the British media to stage royal weddings as exercises in nation-building. The media presented these royal weddings as having an all-encompassing effect on the British public leading to the temporary suspension of political divisions and social animosities in favour of a national unity centred on the happy couple.

But modern royal weddings were not simply official public relations exercises designed by courtiers and news editors to bind British subjects of the crown more closely together around the symbolic focal point of a family monarchy. Rather, these marriages carried a broad cultural appeal for media audiences too. There was a public appetite for news about the love stories and glamorous personalities at the heart of these occasions. In the years between the wars, a new culture of romance emerged in Britain, which placed special emphasis on “true love” rooted in emotional fulfilment, like-mindedness, and intimacy. The royal marriages of the interwar period were celebrated as “true love” matches and, in 1934, Prince George and Princess Marina became the first British royal couple to speak candidly to news reporters about their emotions and excitement following their engagement. A few weeks later, they would also become the first royal couple to be pictured kissing by the tabloids and newsreels.

Image credit: Princess Marina pictured in the special royal wedding edition of fashion magazine Vogue, 28 November 1934.  © The British Library Board 

While the prince and princess certainly played up the romance of their relationship for the sake of photographers and interviewers, the media took on a key role in making royal love stories more accessible to the public. Journalists relentlessly pursued members of the House of Windsor, hunting for “human-interest” stories that might cast some light on the “real” people behind the royal public images. In many ways, royalty became Britain’s answer to Hollywood celebrity after 1918 and, in Marina, the press finally met their match. As a royal exile who had had to flee her Greek homeland following the political revolutions of the early 1920s, she became an extremely adept self-publicist who was able to attract positive media attention despite her inauspicious status. With her assured Parisian fashion sense and good looks, she cast herself as a new kind of royal woman—a change welcomed by Prince George who viewed his fiancée as a breath of fresh air and wrote to Marina’s brother-in-law, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, telling him so:

Everyone is so delighted with her—the crowd especially—’cos when she arrived at Victoria Station they expected a dowdy princess—such as unfortunately my family are—but when they saw this lovely chic creature—they could hardly believe it and even the men were interested and shouted ‘Don’t change—don’t let them change you!

Marina’s modernising agenda didn’t stop there. She became the first member of the British royal family to engage with crowds by waving to them. Right at the time that the European dictators were using new gestural salutes to foster the loyalty of their respective peoples, so Marina’s wave worked to endear her to members of the public who felt that they shared a close emotional bond with her. George and Marina also sat for England’s leading society photographer, Dorothy Wilding, who pictured them looking just like the modern film stars of the day. George gave permission for the photos to be sold as souvenir postcards—again signalling a break with royal tradition, which, until 1934, had ensured that intimate romantic images like these were kept hidden from public view.

Image credit: Princess Marina and her famous wave on the front-page of the Daily Sketch, 17 September 1934. © The British Library Board

But perhaps the most significant innovation of all was the way the prince allowed the BBC to broadcast his wedding ceremony live to the nation and empire from Westminster Abbey. In our multimedia age, it is difficult to appreciate the imaginative power of radio, but those people who listened in to the 1934 royal wedding ceremony described in letters written to organisers of the event how they felt as though they had been transported to the Abbey. The transmission of the words spoken by the couple as part of the service, and the music and sounds of the crowds that gathered in central London along the procession route, created an intensely immersive experience. And yet, at the same time, the letter writers described how they had felt connected to the millions of other listeners who had tuned in for the event—the BBC’s royal wedding broadcast inspiring in them a sense of a shared national community centred on George and Marina’s love story.

Image credit: The first royal wedding ceremony broadcast live to Britain and the world. Daily Mirror, 30 November 1934. © The British Library Board

The royal marriages of the interwar period projected the British royal family as the symbolic focal point of mass society. The religious principles that underpinned royal domesticity were publicly championed through the marriages of George V’s children, although this virtuous model created problems for his eldest son and successor, Edward VIII, who, in searching for his own true love match chose to pursue romance with a divorcée outside the confines of Christian marriage, resulting in his abdication. Nevertheless, the stage was set for a century of royal weddings that would continue to bring members of the public into closer emotional communion with their royal rulers, providing temporary respite from the social, cultural, and political divisions that have periodically divided the British public through celebrations of that peculiarly modern emotion—romantic love.

Featured image credit: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visit Belfast by Northern Ireland Office. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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