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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Laura Elston

A fairytale wedding in the abbey for the princess and Philip

PA Archive

They were the country’s ‘Prince Charming’ and ‘Fairy Princess’ and their wedding captured the public imagination in the austere post-war days.

Winston Churchill summed up the occasion as “a flash of colour on the hard road we travel”.

The marriage of Princess Elizabeth and the dashing Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey on November 20 1947 provided something of a morale boost.

Britain had been battered by its conflict with Germany, rationing was widespread and glamour in short supply.

Peace was also beginning to feel brittle as relations between the West and Stalin’s Russia were tense in a newborn nuclear age.

As the New York Times commented, the wedding was a “welcome occasion for gaiety in grim England, beset in peace with troubles almost as burdensome as those of the war”.

It was the first great state occasion in the post-war years and a distraction from the hardships the Second World War had imposed.

But not all were enthusiastic.

The Camden Town First Branch of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, buoyant on the tide of the first Labour government since 1929, wrote direct to George VI.

They wished to remind the King “that any banqueting and display of wealth at your daughter’s wedding will be an insult to the British people at the present time” and called for a “very quiet wedding” instead and assurances they would be paid for any day off.

Yet not everyone felt this way.

The night before the big event, scores of loyal subjects, captivated by the royal romance, huddled together in the November cold, staking their place along the processional route.

On the day, well-wishers were packed solid from Buckingham Palace to the abbey, along The Mall and Whitehall; even Trafalgar Square was full to the fountains.

Millions of people listened on the wireless to news reports or watched coverage on the weekly cinema newsreels.

The day went off without a major hitch; the sun did not shine but the rain did not fall.

The carriages were buffed to a high gloss; the Life Guards and Household Cavalry, plumed and burnished, were strategically deployed; flags and banners decorated the scene.

Inside the abbey, the Lords of the Church were assembled, visiting royals were robed, and 2,000 distinguished guests congratulated themselves on having been invited.

There were television cameras, which had initially been banned by the King, but they were only permitted to film the procession.

The night before, Philip had a lively stag do at The Dorchester hotel with fellow naval officers and his uncle Lord Mountbatten.

On the day of his wedding he gave up smoking in a bid to please his new bride.

Elizabeth began the day with a cup of tea, while Philip is said to have supped on a gin and tonic before heading off to the abbey.

She left Buckingham Palace at 11.16am and rode with her father, George VI, in the Irish State Coach, and the public was given its first glimpse of her elaborate gown.

Her wedding dress by couturier Norman Hartnell featured the rose of York, and was hand-embroidered with more than 10,000 pearls and crystals.

The spreading skirt of ivory duchesse satin, below a fitted bodice with heart-shaped neckline and long tight sleeves, was embroidered with garlands of roses in raised pearls entwined with ears of wheat in crystals and pearls.

Round the full hem, a border of orange blossom was appliqued with transparent tulle, outlined in seed pearls and crystals.

On the white tulle veil rested a pearl and diamond tiara.

The fan-shaped train, 15ft long, in transparent ivory silk tulle, ended in a deep border of embroidered roses and wheat motifs.

It took Hartnell three months to make and he worked from his Mayfair base behind whitewashed windows covered in white muslin to keep the details a secret.

One rumour put about was that the silkworms were of Italian or Japanese origin, considered “enemy territories” in post-war Britain. They were actually from China.

Like other brides at the time, the Queen was offered 200 extra clothing coupons for her wedding day.

Her ring was made from the same nugget of Welsh gold as her mother’s.

The precious metal, from Clogau St David’s, Bontddu, North Wales, was later also used to fashion wedding bands for Princess Margaret, Princess Anne and the Princess of Wales.

The dashing groom, who was now the Duke of Edinburgh, was dressed in his smart ceremonial lieutenant’s naval uniform.

The best man was Philip’s cousin David Milford Haven, while the eight bridesmaids, who wore ivory silk tulle dresses designed by Hartnell, were Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra of Kent, Lady Caroline Montagu-Douglas-Scott, Lady Mary Cambridge, Lady Elizabeth Lambart, the Hon Pamela Mountbatten, the Hon Margaret Elphinstone, and the Hon Diana Bowes-Lyon.

Prince William of Gloucester and Prince Michael of Kent were pages and wore Royal Stewart tartan kilts with frilled white shirts.

The wedding procession route was lined for its whole length by contingents from the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force and the Household Cavalry provided a mounted escort.

The Bridal March and Finale by Parry signalled Elizabeth’s arrival.

The service began at 11.30am and the marriage was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher.

Kings and queens had taken their places in the pews including the King of Norway, King of Romania, King and Queen of Denmark, Queen of the Hellenes, Queen Helen of Romania, and Queen Marie of Belgium.

The princess’s bridal bouquet was made of three different kinds of white orchids with a sprig of myrtle from the bush grown from the original myrtle in Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet.

The bridesmaids’ flowers included white orchids, lily of the valley, gardenias, white roses and white nerine.

None of the royal family’s German relations, nor Philip’s sisters who married Germans, were invited to the historic occasion, in keeping with the public’s strong anti-German feeling in the wake of the war.

The Duke of Windsor, who abdicated as king, and his wife, formerly Mrs Wallis Simpson, were also left off the guest list.

A fanfare sounded after the couple signed the register and a peal of bells rang out, as the bride and her husband emerged to be cheered by the large crowd outside the abbey.

The happy newlyweds then headed to Buckingham Palace for their Wedding Breakfast.

More than 10,000 telegrams of congratulations were received from various well-wishers ranging from Charles de Gaulle to the Chinese navy.

Wedding presents went on show at St James’s Palace. Some cash gifts were received and more than £13,000 was distributed to charities.

The official four-tier wedding cake was made by McVitie & Price, using ingredients given as a wedding gift by the Australian Girl Guides.

The bride, in her powder blue going away outfit, and groom set off on their honeymoon at Broadlands, Hampshire, home of Lord Mountbatten.

Crowds lined the country lanes there to greet them.

They also spent part of their holiday at Birkhall on the Balmoral estate in Scotland.

Afterwards, the royal newlyweds began the start of what was to be a long married life by setting up home in Buckingham Palace until the renovation of their new abode, nearby Clarence House, was completed in 1949.

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