The images of royal weddings are some of the most glamorous in our history books. But the events also have a real sticking power, be it in the memories of those who watched a day unfold or as an opulent footnote to an otherwise dreary history lesson.
As Prince Harry prepares to wed Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle on Saturday, we took a look at some royal weddings around the world over the past century. There is another American actress joining the ranks of European royalty, as Grace Kelly marries Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. Princess Diana waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 1981, wearing an ivory-silk taffeta dress with 10,000 pearls and a 25-foot train, with Prince Charles at her side.
The former Rania al-Yassin stands in an open-top car moments after her wedding to Prince Abdullah of Jordan in 1993, followed by a motorcade of men clutching machine guns. The sheer color and brilliance of the robes worn by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan and Jetsun Pema as they took their vows in 2011.
There is one unifying factor: In each case, excited crowds watch two people whose personalities have been deliberately obscured, hidden behind a veil of pomp and propriety. What is it about these fairy tale occasions, filled with pageantry and splendor, that so captures the modern imagination? Perhaps it’s those very ingredients.
Here are some images of royal weddings over the years.
On Dec. 11, 1936, the former King Edward VIII climbed the Gothic staircase to his old rooms at Windsor Castle and recorded one of the most famous radio broadcasts in British history. “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love,” he said.
The woman for whom he had just abdicated was Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, a twice-divorced American. Edward, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication, married Ms. Simpson six months later in France, where they spent much of the rest of their lives.
On Nov. 20, 1947, the wedding at Westminster Abbey of Princess Elizabeth, 21, and Lt. Philip Mountbatten, 26, was broadcast by BBC Radio to a country, continent and world still suffering from the atrocities of World War II and the difficulties of rebuilding. The princess’s gown, designed by Norman Hartnell and made of silk, crystals and 10,000 seed pearls, was extravagant given postwar restrictions, but she collected clothing ration coupons to pay for it.
Queen Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest-serving monarch, and she and Prince Philip are the longest-married couple of the British royal family. They celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in October, and have four children; eight grandchildren, including Prince Harry; and six great-grandchildren.
Rita Hayworth, the Hollywood actress who rose to international fame in the 1940s and 1950s, was often called “the love goddess” by the press. In the late 1940s, she had an open affair with Prince Aly Khan, the son of the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of millions of Ismaili Muslims. They married in May 1949 in the south of France, but years later she divorced him, as she did four other husbands, including Orson Welles.
While on a trip to Paris, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand met Sirikit Kitiyakara, whose father, a Thai prince, was a diplomat in Europe at the time. They married in 1950, had four children, and remained revered and unifying figures in a deeply polarized country over the course of more than 65 years.
King Bhumibol died in October 2016, leading to a year of national mourning. He was succeeded by the couple’s son, who was crowned as King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.
Grace Kelly, the Philadelphia-born movie star of “To Catch a Thief,” “High Noon” and “Rear Window,” met Prince Rainier III at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955, and she abandoned her career to be with him.
The couple married in Monaco in April 1956, drawing thousands of well-wishers, and their wedding included a reception for 3,000 Monégasque citizens. Ms. Kelly read her vows in French. Four-hundred and fifty yards of silk and lace are said to have been used for the gown, designed by Helen Rose of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, that the bride wore for the religious ceremony.
The marriage began a period of revitalization for Monaco, and the princely couple had three children: Caroline, Albert and Stephanie. Princess Grace died at 52 of injuries sustained in a car crash near the family home.
The wedding of Crown Prince Akihito of Japan and Michiko Shoda broke more than 2,600 years of tradition in the world’s most continuous hereditary monarchy: She was the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family. They met on the court at a tennis tournament, in opposing mixed pairs, and their relationship set off a nationwide tennis craze.
The couple married on April 10, 1959, in a brief Shinto ceremony dressed in ancient Japanese style. The bride wore the formal junihitoe, or 12-layered garment — a carefully arranged ensemble that is said to weigh 50 pounds. Akihito wore a flowing robe of bright orange to represent the rising sun. He became emperor in 1989, and has said he will abdicate the throne in 2019. The couple have three children and four grandchildren.
Farah Diba, a commoner 19 years younger than Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, became his third wife on Dec. 21, 1959. She was chosen to replace Soraya Esfandiari Bakhtiari, whom the shah divorced because they failed to have children. (He divorced his first wife, Princess Fawzia, after they had a daughter but no son.) In her memoir, “An Enduring Love,” the empress describes Harry Winston designing a tiara for her wedding that weighed more than four pounds, and people reaching out to touch her wherever she traveled.
The new empress gave birth to a son, Reza, less than a year after the wedding, and a second son and two daughters followed. She fled with her husband into exile on the eve of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and followed him from country to country until he died of cancer 18 months later.
The wedding of Prince Juan Carlos of Spain and Princess Sophie of Greece on May 14, 1962, united two European dynasties: He was an heir to the deposed Spanish throne, while she was the eldest daughter of King Paul of Greece.
Royals from across Europe attended, most of them related to the bridal couple. (Both Juan Carlos and Sophie are descendants of Queen Victoria of Britain.) The marathon day included three ceremonies, in three locations, to satisfy Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and civil requirements. Juan Carlos and Sofía (she now uses the Spanish spelling of her name) became king and queen of Spain in 1975, after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, and ruled until he abdicated the throne in 2014. They have three children and eight grandchildren.
Queen Juliana of the Netherlands announced the engagement of Crown Princess Beatrix to Claus von Amsberg with “great joy,” but the match was almost immediately met with public outrage. It was only 20 years after the end of World War II, during which Germany had occupied the Netherlands, and Mr. Amsberg had been a member of the Hitler Youth movement and served in the German Army. The New York Times reported that Claus said that his membership in the youth organization had essentially been compulsory, and that “he did not like it.”
About 1,000 youths massed in Amsterdam to protest the couple’s wedding on March 10, 1966. But among those who signed the marriage certificate was Willem Drees, a leader of the wartime resistance movement. Their marriage lasted until Claus’s death in 2002. The couple had three sons; the eldest, Willem-Alexander, became king when Beatrix abdicated in 2013.
They met in 1959 but were given permission to marry only nine years later. Why? She was a commoner (if one with qualifications in dressmaking, accounting and fashion design, and a degree in French, English and art history).
In the long interregnum, the Norwegian news media floated other options for Harald, including Greek princesses. But he is said to have vowed to remain a bachelor if he could not marry Sonja. His father, King Olav, finally relented. The engagement raised anxiety about a public backlash, but the resistance was far less than expected and the wedding was held at Oslo Cathedral on Aug. 29, 1968. When King Olav died in January 1991, Harald ascended to the throne, and Sonja became queen.
King Carl Gustaf was the first modern Swedish king to hit the dating circuit. He saw himself as a normal guy, driving his own car. Yet it was assumed that he would marry a fellow royal, with rumors at one point that he was courting Princess Anne in Britain.
Then, when he was attending the Munich Olympics, he met Silvia Sommerlath, a German-Brazilian working as an interpreter during the Games. He asked her on a date almost immediately. When they began dating, she sometimes dressed in disguise while visiting him in Sweden. The wedding on June 19, 1976, was the first to be broadcast live on Swedish television.
When Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, married Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981, the occasion was breathlessly described as “the wedding of the century,” a spectacle of pomp and pageantry broadcast to an estimated 700 million viewers around the world.
The couple chose St. Paul’s Cathedral over Westminster Abbey, the site of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding, because it had more space for guests and allowed for a longer procession through the streets of London. They then made a traditional appearance on a balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet the thousands of people waiting to view a kiss.
Charles and Diana had two sons, William in 1982 and Harry in 1984. But their marriage was an unhappy one, and they divorced in 1996. She died in a car accident the following year.
For much of 1993, a dominant story in Japan was the engagement of Crown Prince Naruhito, next in line to become emperor, and Masako Owada, an Oxford-educated diplomat and trade negotiator. Her reputation as a modern woman — she was criticized for walking ahead of the prince in one instance — meant that the press was under strict orders on what could be written, for fear of upsetting the imperial family.
Finally on June 9, the couple married in a thickly wooded area of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, in a ceremony conducted in silence. Outside the tranquillity of the palace, more than 30,000 police officers were mobilized, as helicopters buzzed in the sky. The crown prince is expected to become emperor in 2019.
He was still just a prince, and she was a Cairo-educated business executive. They met at a dinner party, and Prince Abdullah was smitten by Rania al-Yassin. “The minute Rania walked in,” he told People magazine in 2005, “I knew it right there and then. It was love at first sight.” Two months later, he proposed as his father, King Hussein, looked on. She accepted.
They married at Zahran Palace in Amman on June 10, 1993, when a national holiday was declared. The king oversaw the Muslim wedding ceremony. The couple has since had four children and Abdullah became king o on Feb. 7, 1999, after the death of his father. He declared Rania queen six weeks later.
Described as the social event of the decade in Belgium, this royal wedding saw the 39-year-old eldest son of King Albert II and Queen Paola marry a 26-year-old speech therapist, the daughter of a Belgian nobleman. The couple first held a civil ceremony at Brussels Town Hall, conducted in French, Flemish, Dutch and German. A religious service was then held at the Cathedral of Saint Michel.
At the time, the news media speculated that the wedding might help ease the rift between Belgium’s Flemish-speaking north and its French-speaking south. While there was a flourish of enthusiasm, the deeply ingrained tensions have remained.
In a ceremony conducted inside a sports stadium, with thousands of people filling the grandstands, the man known as Africa’s last bachelor king married in February 2000. He had once joked at a meeting of African leaders that he needed help finding a bride. “My dear mother has started to get worried,” the king said in 1997, according to the BBC.
He found his bride in Karabo Motsoeneng, a commoner with a degree in science. He was 38, she was 23. Nelson Mandela, the great emancipator of South Africa, attended the ceremony.
When King Mohammed VI of Morocco married a 24-year-old computer engineer, he broke royal tradition simply by acknowledging his bride in public. For centuries, the wives of Morocco’s rulers had remained private figures: The name of Mohammed’s mother was not widely known (nor was that of his father’s other wife).
But that changed in 2001, when the king announced his engagement to Salma Bennani, whom he was said to have met at a party a few years earlier. The release of the bride’s name and photograph stunned the country. The couple married on March 21, 2002, at the Royal Palace in Rabat, and national celebrations followed in July. She assumed a royal title — Princess Lalla Salma — and has often represented Morocco at events around the world, including the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
When the heir to the Dutch throne, Willem-Alexander Claus George Ferdinand, met the Argentina-born economist Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti at a spring fair in Spain, he did not reveal his royal lineage. Later, when he told her he was the oldest son of Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus, she thought he was joking, according to local reports. The relationship raised eyebrows in the Netherlands because the bride-to-be’s father had served as a government minister in Argentina under a military dictatorship.
The father bowed to Dutch pressure and did not attend the wedding; his wife chose not to go without him. The couple, he then 34 and she 30, married in civil and religious ceremonies in Amsterdam on Feb. 2, 2002. Her dress was designed by Valentino in Rome, and the bridesmaids wore red. Willem-Alexander and Máxima became king and queen in 2013, when Queen Beatrix abdicated.
Prince Felipe, then the heir to the Spanish throne, married Letizia Ortiz, a popular television journalist, in Madrid on May 22, 2004. It was the second marriage for the bride, who had divorced in 1999, an act that still carried real stigma in the Roman Catholic country. But because the first marriage had been a civil ceremony only, the church allowed her to have a religious wedding with the crown prince.
The couple had met in 2001 at a dinner party, but they are said to have fallen in love in November 2002, when she was covering the Prestige oil tanker spill, Spain’s largest environmental disaster. The prince had flown to the area to show his support to those affected.
More than 1,700 guests, including 30 heads of state, attended the wedding. The couple have had two daughters, and Felipe became king when King Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014.
After 33 star-crossed and often unhappy years, after other marriages and public opprobrium, the Prince of Wales married Camilla Parker Bowles on April 9, 2005. Because both had divorced, they elected to have a civil ceremony in Windsor Guildhall, followed by a marriage blessing at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
The Prince of Wales and Camilla Shand, as she was then called, hit it off from the first time they met, at a polo match in 1970, and they even dated briefly before her first marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles, a British Army officer. Prince Charles, for his part, went on to marry Lady Diana Spencer, but their marriage was an unhappy one. The couple separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Diana died in a car crash a year later.
Charles and Camilla’s love affair is said to have begun when she cheekily declared, “My great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather’s mistress, so how about it?” In a sign of how much things have changed, Queen Elizabeth II gave her blessing for the marriage of her divorced son to his divorced lover. The duchess of Cornwall, mother of Tom Parker Bowles and Laura Parker Bowles, became stepmother to Prince William and Prince Harry, who are said to along with her splendidly.
Brunei’s crown prince, Haji al-Muhtadee Billah Bolkiah, was 30 when he married Sarah Salleh, a 17-year-old university Swiss-Bruneian student, in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, on Sept. 9, 2004. The wedding drew members of royalty from around the world, as well as politicians and heads of state. While the bride was the daughter of a distant member of the royal family, she was regarded as a commoner. A monsoon downpour drenched the couples’ wedding procession in a gold-topped, open Rolls-Royce as it made its way through the streets.
The crown princess continued her university studies, receiving a bachelor’s degree in public policy, and she was a member of the cadet corps at the University of Brunei Darussalam. The couple have four children.
When Catherine Elizabeth Middleton married Prince William at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011, she was the first non-aristocratic woman to marry a British heir to the throne in more than 350 years. Both went to St. Andrews University in Scotland, where they started dating in 2003, remaining together for eight years except for a brief separation in 2007. They became engaged while on vacation in Kenya, where William presented Kate with his mother’s engagement ring, a platinum ring set with a large oval sapphire and fourteen diamonds.
Some memorable moments from the wedding day included the remarkable attention Kate’s younger sister, Pippa Middleton, received for carrying the train into Westminster Abbey; Prince William struggling to place the wedding ring on the finger of his bride; and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to the cheers of thousands of spectators below.
The couple have three children: Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis.
Prince Albert II of Monaco married the South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Lynette Wittstock on July 2, 2011, in a civil ceremony held in the same room where his parents, Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly, had married 55 years earlier.
The couple had met at a swimming competition in Monte Carlo in 2000, the year Ms. Wittstock had represented South Africa at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. “The moment I met Albert, I felt a profound sense of destiny,” she told the magazine Tatler a year before the wedding. The wedding celebrations for Prince Albert, 52, who ascended to the throne in 2005, and Princess Charlene, 33, were spread over three days.
Britain and Monaco weren’t the only places brimming with royal wedding excitement in 2011. The Oxford-educated king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, married Jetsun Pema, a 21-year-old commoner 10 years his junior, in October that year.
For the landlocked country in the Himalayas, it was a cause for celebration, not least because it was the first royal wedding in Bhutan to be televised. (The country legalized television only in 1999.) The nuptials took place in a Buddhist ceremony in a 17th-century monastery and fortress in Punakha, and the festivities lasted three days.
The Pacific island nation of Tonga celebrated the royal wedding of its crown prince, Tupouto’a ’Ulukalala, to Sinaitakala Fakafanua on July 12, 2012. To keep the bloodline strong, Tongan protocol requires members of the royal family to marry a member of a noble family, and the crown prince, the eldest son of King George Tupou VI, married his second cousin.
The celebrations ended a 100-day mourning period after the death of King George Tupou V, but they drew controversy because of the continued practice of marriage between relatives. Many in the family, including the groom’s grandmother, did not attend.
Queen Zola Mafu, from Swaziland, is the sixth wife of the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, the traditional leader of South Africa’s largest ethnic group. They married on July 26, 2014, a decade after they first appeared in public together.
The bride had had a child with King Zwelithini in 2005, and had been living at KwaKhangela Palace in Nongoma for years, the Citizen newspaper in KwaZulu Natal reported, adding that the wedding had been delayed by the death of her father in 2007 and a subsequent family dispute over who should receive the bride price, of 40 cattle.
Thousands witnessed the ceremony, at Ondini Sports Complex in Ulundi, including Winnie Madikizela Mandela and the South African president at the time, Jacob Zuma, as well as the king’s other wives, local news media reported.