By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers
On May 19th, HRH Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle will wed at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. The couple has decided to update several royal wedding rituals, but their choice of venue is steeped in tradition. On March 10, 1863, Prince Harry’s great-great-great-grandfather, Prince Edward VII, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in the same chapel. As with so many historical events, an Adams was there to witness and record it.
Charles Francis Adams was serving as U.S. minister to the Court of St. James’s when his invitation to the heir apparent’s wedding arrived. With his son Charles Francis 2d fighting in the American Civil War, the elder Adams had more pressing concerns on his mind. But, as evidenced by the dwindling number of documents crossing his desk, the British were absorbed by the union of their future king and queen, and it was Adams’s diplomatic obligation to attend. (To read more about CFA’s diplomatic career, see his 1861–1865 diaries that have been digitized by the MHS and are available here.)
With five days left before the wedding, Charles Francis took his wife, Abigail, to Garrard’s to see the diamond jewelry prepared for Princess Alexandra. Adams recorded in his diary that employees told him the crowds of oglers “had been constant since nine in the morning.” Three days before the nuptials, Charles Francis took his youngest son, Brooks, to observe the public’s reception of Alexandra herself. The streets of London were mobbed with Brits hoping to catch a glimpse of the young bride. Though he and his son (uncomfortably wedged in the mass of humanity) waited more than an hour to witness the event, “the banners of the Livery companies and the quaint dresses of some of the servants and postilions constituted all the display.” Princess Alexandra and Prince Edward processed in a carriage surrounded by horsemen and escorting coaches. “The thing itself was not worth the trouble of seeing,” Adams reflected, “but the city of London in a convulsion of enthusiasm about a girl of eighteen of whom nobody yet knows anything good or bad, fully repaid my fatigue.” On the night before the wedding, Charles Francis and Brooks again ventured out into the cold to observe the men arranging the “illuminations,” or fireworks, prepared for the occasion.
Arrival of Princess Alexandra from Denmark for her marriage to the Prince of Wales, 1863: the Princess passing the lines of Volunteers in Hyde Park c.1863 by Robert Dudley / Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
Adams and his wife woke early on the day of the ceremony, braved heavy fog and the crowds at Paddington Station and boarded the train to Windsor Castle. Once inside, the Adamses took their designated place at the north side of the altar and waited for the ceremony to begin.
“The scene was very impressive,” Adams wrote of the chapel space. “Here amidst the emblems of a remote age were assembled all there is of rank and official reputation in the kingdom. Here the greatest dignitaries of the Church performed the solemn service which waited a young couple destined under Providence to continue the line of monarchy for another age.”
The Marriage of the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Windsor, 10 March 1863 by William Powell Frith / Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
Adams noted how young the bride and groom were—Edward was 21 and Alexandra was 18—and mentioned that the couple “are supposed to be attached,” which he recognized as a rarity for royal unions. Charles Francis was impressed by their calm demeanor, especially young Alexandra’s as he looked down upon her and her eight bridesmaids kneeling at the altar. The Archbishop of Canterbury performed the half-hour service, and the newlyweds left the chapel to Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” chorus. Guests were then ushered into St. George’s Hall for refreshments.
“With the surroundings of the royal family, the household and the Court resplendent with gay attire for the first time the conception dawned upon me of the political importance of all the paraphernalia that surround a throne,” he wrote. “Satin and lace and diamonds and gold embroidery all contribute to make a pageant which knits the wealth of the land into the texture of the crown itself. It is a ponderous machine enough, but may-be necessary.”