Every British Royal Wedding Tradition You Need to Know

Princess Diana

Anwar Hussein 

Ever since words like "besotted" began headlining U.K. news reports of Prince Harry's relationship with Meghan Markle, the wait for another royal engagement had us all on tenterhooks, as the British would say. But after a long wait, Harry and Meghan wed Saturday, May 19, 2018. The mania surrounding the happily-ever-after of Prince William and Kate Middleton has far from dissipated, and the regally-adjacent union of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews also continues to feed our frenzy. And yet, who among us wasn't fancying another royal wedding as soon as possible? We're especially keen when the love story is just as fairytale-worthy as its royal subjects.

Speaking of wedding prep—if you thought planning your own wedding was complicated, can you imagine being a member of the British royal family? We couldn't either, so we did some investigating. From the centuries-old rules and regulations to the pint-sized "bridesmaids" and post-wedding "breakfast" served at noon, below we dissect the pomp and circumstance of a traditional royal wedding—and we've got insight into how Pippa, and now Meghan, set theirs apart.

01 of 12

The Proposal

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

Getty Images

The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 requires all royal descendants to seek the sovereign's approval for marriage. But the requirements don't stop there—the 1701 Act of Settlement prohibits royals from marrying Catholics. Royals may legally wed an atheist or someone of any faith other than Roman Catholicism. In 2008, the Queen's eldest grandchild, Peter Phillips, had Autumn Kelly converted from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism so her husband would keep his place as 11th in line for the throne.

Soon after Will and Kate's engagement was announced, officials from Buckingham Palace said the Queen was "absolutely delighted" for the couple, which can only mean she approved of Will's choice. She also apparently took to Meghan Markle, as sources reported that Harry, too, followed protocol and asked Her Majesty's permission to wed his now-wife, and the Queen bestowed her blessing. There has been much speculation about Markle's religious background, and many publications have falsely reported that Markle is Jewish because of a two-year marriage to Trevor Engelson, a Jewish producer, from 2011 to 2013. While we're unsure of Markle's beliefs, we're assuming the couple is well aware of the law and we're hoping it's a non-issue.

02 of 12

Stag and Hen Parties

Prince Harry and Prince William

Justin Tallis

What began as a dinner party in Ancient Sparta has evolved into a party thrown in honor of a bachelor's soon-to-be-lost single status. But in the UK, groomsmen have taken the tradition even farther, now celebrating over an entire weekend's worth of festivities known as a stag weekend. While details are scarce, Will's office confirmed that the Prince's party took place in late March (about a month before the wedding). Hosted by his brother, Prince Harry, at a country estate, the party included Will's close friends James Meade, Thomas van Straubenzee, and Guy Pelly.

With the dawn of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, women claimed their own night of "farewell-to-singlehood" revelry. Kate's "hen night" (we call it a bachelorette party around here) was even more hush-hush than Will's. Her sister Pippa reportedly booked four different hotel locations to throw off paparazzi. For Pippa's own hen party, Princess Kate and a few more gal pals whisked her away for a weekend of skiing in the French Alps.

We don't have an abundance of details about Meghan Markle's bachelorette, but rumor has it she had a laidback hen at a "mystery five-star resort." As Us Weekly reports, Markle wanted her bachelorette party “to be a celebration of friendship and love. [...] Think low-key. Think somewhere out of London, good food and drink, a little music...It won’t be wild." Best to leave "the wild" to her South African adventures with Prince Harry.

03 of 12

The Location

Will & Kate wedding

WPA Pool

The most traditional site for a royal ceremony is the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace, which housed the weddings of Queen Anne (1683), George III (1761), George IV (1795), Queen Victoria (1840), and George V (1893). More recent royal couples have since outgrown the small chapel, which seats 100, as the ceremonies have become more of a public spectacle. For her 1919 ceremony, Princess Patricia of Connaught brought Westminster Abbey (pictured here) back into vogue for royal weddings for the first time in 605 years. Westminster was then chosen for King George V's daughter Mary in 1922, Queen Elizabeth's parents in 1923, and the Queen's own wedding in 1947. Kate and Will were Westminster-bound as well, but two alternatives would have been the much larger St. Paul's Cathedral where Charles and Diana wed or the much smaller St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle where Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles's wedding was dedicated following a civil ceremony at Windsor's Guildhall in 2005.

Just in case, the Westminister Abbey confirmed that courtesy of a 2002 ruling, Meghan Markle could be married at the church despite her previous divorce. However, the couple ended up choosing the St. George's Chapel for their venue.

04 of 12

The Wedding Party

bridesmaids and page boys

Max Mumby / Indigo

English brides are accompanied by a group of bridesmaids, usually younger girls between the ages of 10 and 12. The Queen had eight bridesmaids and Diana had five, all ranging in age from 5 to 17. Kate's bridal party was even younger, including Grace van Cutsem (Will's goddaughter) and Eliza Lopes (Camilla's granddaughter) both toddling down the aisle at age 3, and then Lady Louise Windsor (Will's cousin), 7, and Margarita Armstrong-Jones (Will's second cousin), 8. In a major break with tradition, Kate chose a maid of honor, her sister Pippa, who is currently the oldest bridesmaid in recent memory at the ancient age of twenty-seven.

You may remember the buzz surrounding Pippa's decision not to employ Kate as her Matron of Honor. Princess Charlotte and Prince George, though, served as flower girl and pageboy—a young attendant who traditionally carries the train of the bride's dress—respectively.

Prince William's pageboys included his godson, Tom Pettifer, and Billy Lowther-Pinkerton, the son of Will's Secretary. Prince Harry acted as best man for his older brother, and Harry has now returned the ask with one of his own.

For her part, Meghan Markle decided not to have a maid of honor. The remaining ten members of the couple's bridal party are all under the age of 8 and include godchildren of both Harry and Meghan, the kids of friends, and of course Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

05 of 12

The Guest List

Barack Obama and Prince Harry

Karwai Tang

At an event as exclusive as a royal wedding, the guest list is everything. Fellow royals, foreign leaders, church officials, diplomats, and celebrities dot the list, along with the couple's own friends and family. The Royal Family sits on the right side of the church, unless the groom is not royal, in which case they sit on the left. By the Queen's command, 1,900 invitations went out to Will and Kate's wedding guests—including to their friends from St. Andrews University, but notably excluding Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. The celebrity attendees for their nuptials included David and Victoria Beckham, Elton John, Guy Ritchie, and Joss Stone, while Pippa and James counted Roger Federer as one of their wedding guest list VIPs.

While Harry and Meghan's venue seats 800, their guest list has been reported to cut off at the 600-mark. Some of their guest list mentions are Priyanka Chopra, the Spice Girls, and Markle's former Suits co-stars—including on-screen hubby Patrick J. Adams. There was even a performance by Sir Elton John!

Unfortunately, Harry's besties Barack and Michelle Obama weren't in attendance. In order to remain neutral, the Foreign Office advised the couple not to invite any foreign leaders to the wedding. This means current U.S. president Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May didn't manage an invite either.

Additionally, in order to honor his late mother, Princess Diana, Prince Harry invited relatives on the Spencer side of the family: Di's three siblings (Earl Spencer, Lady Jane Fellowes, and Lady Sarah McCorquodale), their spouses, and their children. Harry's aunt, Lady Jane, will also perform a reading at the wedding ceremony.

Male guests are expected to wear military uniforms, morning dress (single-breasted coats with tails) or lounge suits (what we consider a business suit). Female attire is less specifically outlined, though hats (or fascinators!) are a must.

06 of 12

The Bouquet

Catherine Duchess of Cambridge

Samir Hussein

When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, she carried myrtle—known as the herb of love, fertility, and innocence—in her bouquet. After the wedding, Victoria planted a myrtle shrub in her garden at the Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Every British royal bride since has carried a bouquet containing a sprig plucked from the same shrub. Kate carried a small, shield-shaped wired bouquet designed by Shane Connolly of said myrtle, lily-of-the-valley, Sweet William, and hyacinth. In an act of love to honor the armed forces, Kate left her bouquet in Westminster Abbey at the grave of the Unknown Warrior, a tradition begun by the late Queen Mum.

07 of 12


Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles

Anwar Hussein

Most royal brides arrive at their wedding in horse-drawn regal style (Diana's choice: the 1881 Glass Coach purchased for George V's coronation in 1911), but Kate instead arrived at Westminster Abbey with her father in a car. And not just any car. She's selected the Queen's Rolls Royce Phantom for its large windows to allow onlookers the best view. Once married, Kate and Will departed the ceremony in the same carriage that transported Charles and Diana, a 1902 State Landau originally made for the coronation of Edward VII. For their later exit, the newlyweds rode off in an Aston Martin decorated with ribbons, bows, balloons, and a license plate printed with the phrase "JU5T WED" to Clarence House for some downtime before the evening reception. To make their way from the ceremony to the reception, Pippa and James wheeled around in a Jaguar convertible. Back at Charles and Camilla's wedding, Will and Harry tied metallic balloons and the words "Just Married" to the back of the couple's Bentley.

Meghan Markle's mother, Doria Ragland, rode with her via car to Windsor Castle the morning of the wedding. Following Harry and Markle's hour-long ceremony at St. George's Chapel, the pair partook in a celebratory ride around Windsor from the comfort of the royal family's Ascot Landau carriage. A covered method of transportation, the Scottish State Coach, was also on deck in case of rain.

08 of 12

The Ceremony

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip

Getty Images

English brides lead the processional down the aisle with their bridesmaids in tow, unescorted by ushers, who stand at the front of the church with the groom. Will and Kate selected the 32-person Choir of Westminster Abbey, the Chapel Royal Choir, the 39 musicians of the London Chamber orchestra, and the Central Band of the Royal Air Force to perform various selections, including March from The Birds by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Fantasia on Greensleeves by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Romance for String Orchestra Op. 11 by Gerald Finzi. Kate walked down the aisle to "I Was Glad" by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Some royal wedding staples have been Mendelssohn's "Wedding March," the hymn "The Lord's My Shepherd," and Widor's "Toccata from Organ Symphony No. 5," which was the recessional piece at Edward and Sophie's wedding. The ceremony itself was divided between three officiants: the Dean of Westminster conducting the service, the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding over the vows, and the Bishop of London giving the address. Will and Kate exchanged traditional vows, with one exception: Back in 1999, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, caused an uproar for promising to "honor, cherish and obey" Prince Edward, and the newest royal couple wanted to avoid repeating this public relations nightmare. Instead, they vowed to "love, comfort, honor, and keep" each other.

And speaking of royal drama, the Daily Mail originally reported that for her wedding, Pippa Middleton would be enforcing a "no ring, no bring" policy—meaning Meghan Markle wouldn't be allowed to attend as Prince Harry's plus-one. Meanwhile, other news outlets alleged it was Harry and Markle's call to have her sit out the ceremony in order to keep the attention on Pippa. Instead, Markle arrived at the reception where—per a strict seating chart typical for private, formal dinners in Great Britain—she was seated away from her date.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's ceremony was led by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, dean of Windsor Rev. David Conner, and Chicago-based bishop Michael Bruce Curry. For entertainment, the couple had multiple musical performers at the ceremony, including a 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who in 2016 won the BBC Young Musicians contest, the St. George's Chapel Choir led by Director James Vivian, and gospel group The Kingdom Choir.

09 of 12

The Reception

Princess Elizabeth's wedding cake

Getty Images

Most British weddings are held at noon and are followed by a seated luncheon called a "wedding breakfast" (a brunch, basically). The Queen's luncheon was held in the Ball supper-room at Buckingham Palace for a small party, as was Diana's for about 120 guests. Following Will and Kate's 11 a.m. ceremony, 600 guests joined the new couple at the Palace for a buffet-style wedding breakfast hosted by the Queen. (The canapé menu was created by Chef Mark Flanagan.) Later in the evening, 300 of the couple's closest friends and family enjoyed a dinner and dance in another one of the Palace's staterooms.

The reception also included two cakes: one multi-tiered fruitcake (the traditional royal wedding choice) and one chocolate biscuit cake (at the request of Will). At 1:25 p.m., the newlyweds appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony to share a public kiss, a tradition begun by Charles and Diana. Usually, the royal couple then jets off to a honeymoon destination, but Kate and Will stuck around for the above-mentioned private dinner and night of dancing at the Palace hosted by the Prince of Wales.

Pippa Middleton and James Matthews celebrated their reception at the Middleton family home in Bucklebury, where their guests needed a previously determined password to make it through security. The Middleton estate hosts a glass greenhouse in the property's garden where 350 guests can comfortably party inside. Attendees later received monogrammed marshmallow treats as wedding favors, courtesy of James Middleton, Pippa and Kate's older brother who owns his own sweets company, Boomf. He reportedly provided personalized cupcakes for Kate and William's wedding as well.

Harry and Meghan Markle also enjoyed not one, but two receptions—a lunchtime version hosted by Queen Elizabeth inside Windsor Castle at St. George’s Hall, and another hosted by Prince Charles in the evening at Frogmore House (which featured a festival theme). Markle planed to make history by defying tradition to give a speech dedicated to her groom, a feat that no royal bride has ever done before.

10 of 12

The Royal Titles

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales

Chris Jackson

With a few exceptions, women who marry royal male successors assume their husbands' titles: The Duke and Duchess of York, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, etc. The most notable exception is, of course, Camilla, who adopted the title Duchess of Cornwall instead of the Princess of Wales out of respect for Diana. If Prince Charles becomes King, Camilla will be the Princess Consort, not Queen Camilla. Prince William and Kate became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

As James Matthews is heir to the Scottish title of Laird of Glen Affric—a position currently held by his father who owns the family's 10,000-acre Scottish highlands estate—Pippa will eventually become Lady Glen Affric. Until then, the royal-in-law has been deemed Mrs. Matthews of Glen Affric the younger, though she is not formally required to use either of these names.

What about titles for Harry and Meghan? Markle will become a princess by marriage. However, she'll be known as the feminine version of Prince Harry's official title, Meghan, HRH Princess Henry of Wales instead of Princess Meghan. The honor of having the princess title precede your first name is reserved for ladies born into the royal family. If Harry is appointed as a Duke upon his marriage, as Prince William was, Meghan will follow suit in becoming a Duchess. Royal historian Marlene Koenig believes the most likely contending title for Prince Harry is the Duke of Sussex, but, aptly, the Queen has the final say.

11 of 12

The Wedding Band

Kate's engagement ring

Arthur Edwards / Getty Images


Beginning with the wedding of the Queen's late mother in 1923, all of the royal women's wedding bands have contained precious Welsh gold from the same nugget mined in Dolgellau, North Wales—a variety of gold that's three times more valuable than gold from Australia or South Africa. While the traditional nugget is almost depleted, the Queen has since been presented with another large nugget for subsequent wedding bands, including that of Sarah, Duchess of York, Kate, and Meghan Markle.

Will has decided not to wear a wedding ring. His father Charles is one of few male royals today who wears a band in addition to his signet ring, but Will says he personally just isn't one for jewelry.

But we do know Harry is one for jewelry: He himself designed the gold engagement ring he gave Meghan Markle that features a center diamond from Botswana (Yes, that was where the couple vacationed for Markle's birthday, well-remembered!) being flanked by two diamonds that belonged to his mother Princess Diana.

12 of 12

Official Photographs

engagement photo

Getty Images

Hiring a professional to capture the history-making moments of a royal wedding has, understandably, always been of the utmost importance.

According to royal.uk, the first photographed royals were King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. (Fun fact: At that time, the images came out monochrome and were often hand-colored to look like paintings instead of photographs.)

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle selected the notable, NYC-based portrait photographer Alexi Lubomirski to be their official photographer for their royal wedding after loving his work on their engagement photos, pictured above.

Related Stories