The sound of smashing porcelain paralysed us with fear. Looking down at the kitchen floor, ‘29 July 1981’, read one of the shattered pieces lying next to the heart shaped portraits of the Prince of Wales and his broken bride, tragically cracked in two. My best friend had dropped the most precious thing we had ever been given. His mum was going to kill us.
I sometimes reflect on my hapless friend’s royal wedding cup with the detached eye of an archaeologist. It, doubtlessly, ended up in a Yorkshire landfill, where it now rests in the July 1981 layer. Modern royal weddings spawn all manner of disposable souvenirs and paraphernalia, but what survives from earlier periods of history? Moving further back into the past, how much archaeological evidence remains for other royal weddings? Can archaeology, with its long, unsentimental view of history, tell us anything we do not already know about these celebrated occasions?
What lies beneath?
Weddings are the least considered, among all the ‘rites of passage’ studied by archaeologists. We are on much firmer footing with funeral rituals, because so much material survives in the ground for us to study. A royal funeral may demand the construction of monumental architecture and burial with a wealth of grave goods, but what type of evidence might be expected for royal weddings? Recorded history from 1066 onwards suggests that they leave little or no trace. Throughout the Medieval period, royal weddings were small private affairs – with big political consequences.
The primary purpose of royal matrimony was political, such as Henry I’s marriage to Mathilda of Scotland in 1100, ostensibly to secure an heir that could unite England and Scotland. A pragmatic marriage could seal treaties between warring nations, and royal children were sometimes betrothed before they could walk. Henry ‘The Young King’ was engaged to Constance of Castile when he was five and she was two years old; and Isabella of Valois married the 29-year old Richard II when she was only six. In such matches, personal feelings were irrelevant. Weddings were a contract signed behind closed doors, between dynastic families. Love was not part of the equation.
Much has been made about Kate Middleton’s status as a commoner who won a prince’s heart, but she is just one in a long line of upwardly mobile lasses who have married close to the throne, including the Queen Mother herself, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon. But to find the biggest upset to royal protocol, we have to go back to the 15th century, and the tumultuous years of the War of the Roses.
A tryst in the tale
Elizabeth Woodville lived the last of her days amongst the nuns at Bermondsey Abbey. When she died on 8 June 1442, her simple funeral belied her true status in a dynastic struggle for the crown of England. The rise of the Woodville family, from common stock to the royal household, reflects the complex social and political upheaval in England during the War of the Roses (1455-1485). As the houses of Lancaster and York (the red rose and white rose respectively) embarked on a sporadic 30-year conflict, Elizabeth’s father fought for the Lancastrian cause. Elizabeth’s first husband was killed in the battle of St Albans fighting for the Lancastrians, and as the tide shifted in favour of the Yorkist’s claim, her lands were confiscated.
Elizabeth returned home to her father’s manor in Grafton, Northamptonshire, where, hearing news that the King was hunting nearby, she set out to plead with him for restoration of her lands. What passed between them on that fateful day – 1 May 1464 – we will never know; but according to legend, they met under an oak tree, where the King tried in vain to alleviate her distress by suggesting she become his mistress. The 25-year old Elizabeth was a renowned beauty, ‘with heavy lidded eyes like those of a dragon’; she spurned his initial advances, until he swept her back to her father’s manor, and married her in secret.
The wedding took place in the family chapel, and the only people present at the ceremony were her mother, a priest, two anonymous witnesses, and a boy to help with the mass. Not even Elizabeth’s father knew of the marriage, which remained a closely guarded secret until the following September, when the King’s advisors unveiled their plans for a far more profitable, and foreign, wedding match. The idea that a King could have married for love was unheard of in the 15th century, but there was little the nobles could do without provoking outright rebellion. Edward struggled to prove the credentials of his bride; and the favours he bestowed on Elizabeth and her family only served to intensify seething dynastic resentments.
The Woodville Oak at Grafton Regis
On 4 September 2000, in an act of symbolism and spirituality verging on Old English paganism, Prince Charles planted this tree (below) (christened the The Woodville Oak) to replace the so-called Queen’s Oak that, according to legend, was the tree under which Edward IV met Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. The Queen’s Oak was believed to have survived for over 500 years, until its tragic demise in 1997 following an arson attack. Subsequent tests conducted on the perished oak indicate, however, that it was a mere 340 years old – and therefore not the oak of legend.
The proof is in the plough-soil
In 1964 and 1965, Christine Mahany excavated what, on the surface, appeared to be little more than a jumble of lumps and bumps outside the village of Grafton Regis. This was the same ‘Grafton’ in which Elizabeth Woodville had grown up; the village acquired the suffix ‘Regis’ in the 16th century when Henry VIII took possession of her family manor. The investigation warranted two excavation seasons, because a Medieval structure began to emerge that could not easily be explained. Mahany discovered a pillared cloister measuring 10.3m by 10.6m internally, flanked by a chapel (14.6m x 4.5m) and several other associated buildings. Beyond the main building lay a dovecote, and what may have been a hospital, and an industrial complex.
The excavators realised that this intriguing evidence for a small monastic settlement could be the ‘Hermitage of Grafton’, an Augustinian religious house that 19th-century antiquarians had placed in Shaw Wood, three miles from Grafton Regis. If this was the Hermitage of Grafton, less than a stone’s throw from Elizabeth Woodville’s manor, could this also have been the family chapel – and the location for her secret wedding to Edward IV? If so, how had the site so comprehensively disappeared from popular memory, so that by 1964 not even local tradition could identify the bewildering complex of rubble that lay just below the surface?
Mahany and her team identified a number of different phases corresponding to historical documents charting the development of the site. The earliest mention comes from an undated charter (between 1180 and 1205), which was witnessed by a ‘Helias, hermita de Grafton.’ Little more can be said of Helias, but he was likely to have been an Augustinian monk, perhaps commencing his religious life in the Abbey of St James (founded in 1140s) who later followed a call to solitude. Monastic authorities enjoyed close links with religious hermits, their status improving by association with the celebrated holy men; at sometime in the 13th century, his small cell was enlarged into a complex church for orations, hospital for travelers or paupers, and accommodation for brothers. By 1256, the site was inhabited by a small religious community and continued to prosper until the second half of the 14th century.
At about this time, Elizabeth Woodville’s family had succeeded to lands in the area, residing in what would become the manor house in Grafton. Episcopal registers in Lincoln show that Thomas Woodville was taking an increasing interest in the fortunes of the hermitage, supporting it financially, and petitioning the parent Abbey of St James to appoint a master. At some point in Edward IV’s reign, possibly because they were unhappy at the Abbey’s failure to support the hermitage, the Woodvilles took over the chantry and undertook a major reconstruction of the building.
The excavators found a number of coins of Edward IV in the rebuilt areas, and considerable remodeling. The cloister was sealed off, curtailing the inhabited area; a new room with two hearths was built, and the chapel was re-floored – tellingly, with tiles bearing the crest of the houses of York and Woodville. Given the limits of our evidence, this is as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to get. We will never know for certain if this small family chapel was the scene of Edward IV’s elopement, but the substantial renovations certainly took place soon after, perhaps to commemorate the ceremony that took place here. By the time Henry VIII had succeeded to the lands at Grafton in the 1530s, the Hermitage had been levelled.
The King’s Great Matter
If there is one monarch in British history likely to have left archaeological evidence for royal weddings, it is six-times bridegroom Henry VIII. In a desperate bid to sire a male heir – the ‘King’s Great Matter’ as the constitutional crisis was known – he personally selected four of his wives from his own court, something that would not be seen again until the 20th century. His other two wives were political matches – his brother’s wife Catharine of Aragon (married on 11 June 1509) and Anne of Cleves (6 January 1540). He married Anne in the Chapel Royal at Greenwich Palace; in January 2006, archaeologists monitoring building work at the Old Royal Naval College discovered brickwork belonging to this chapel, with its tiled floor in situ.
Greenwich Palace, built on the site of the old Palace of Placentia on the banks of the River Thames, was Henry VIII’s favourite. It has never been established with certainty when the first royal occupation occurred at the site, but the accounts of the Office of the King’s Works show that Henry VII’s palace was an entirely new development. Among the earlier buildings that were demolished to accommodate it was the old chapel, which came down in the years 1500–1502. Construction of the new palace proceeded apace, and between March 1500 and July 1504 the accounts include payments to the master mason Robert Vertue and the master carpenter Thomas Benks for work on ‘the chapel, gallery and two closets at Greenwich’. It is likely that the new Tudor chapel was built on the already consecrated ground of its predecessor.
When archaeologist Julian Bowsher finally located the Tudor chapel, whilst monitoring routine building work, he found that the floor was laid with three distinct areas of tiles. In the centre were glazed Tudor tiles, formed in a chequered pattern with diagonally laid tiles at the surviving western edge. Linear breaks in the floor either side of these tiles were suggestive of partition bases. Beyond these, to the north and south, were later plain Flemish tiles. The east wall, surviving in some places to a height of 0.7m above the floor, had no trace of any rendering. It had been assumed that any surface at ground-floor level would have been furnished with wooden panelling and plastered at the first-floor level. There were, however, two putlog holes (for supporting timberwork) within the brick face towards the southern end, clearly created during construction. The floor of the chapel seemed to have been supported by two pairs of brick walls set equidistantly apart. These walls stood directly below the partition lines within the tiled floor and the putlog holes in the east wall. This would suggest that whatever structural feature surrounded the altar was conceived during construction and retained when the extremities of the floor were retiled.
The importance of the archaeological information about the Tudor Chapel Royal, which was such a focus for the majesty of monarchy and the setting for occasions of great splendour, ceremony, and music, cannot be understated. Historian and broadcaster Dr David Starkey said ‘This discovery brings home the reality of the weddings of Henry VIII more directly than any other surviving buildings, and gives us a real sense of the absolute heart of the palace. When Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves in the first floor closet, what he saw through the window was the tiled floor and altar that have now been revealed.’ Unlike Hampton Court and St James’s Palace, where the chapels have been altered, at Greenwich we can see what Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth would have seen.
When it comes to wedding venues, there seems to be only one of two choices for today’s self-respecting British royal: Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral. Westminster Abbey has certainly been the location of many royal weddings (14 in total) but it is worth remembering that no royal nuptials took place there between 1382 and 1919 – over 500 years of British history.
The return to Westminster in the 20th century, as well as the decision taken by Charles and Diana to break with previous tradition and wed in St Paul’s Cathedral, has much to do with fitting more guests in, highlighting the trend for treating royal weddings as monumental public occasions.
However, there was another venue that was much in vogue in years past: The Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a flock of royals tied the knot there, including Prince Fredrick and Princess Augusta in 1736, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1839 – whose wedding certificate, signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, today hangs on the wall in the vestry.
The Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace was constructed by Henry VIII, and decorated by Hans Holbein in honour of the king’s short-lived marriage to Anne of Cleves. If the Chapel Royal at Greenwich can be said to be at the heart of the Royal palace, then the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace has a heart all of its own: when Queen Mary I died there in 1558, her body was taken for burial at Westminster Cathedral, but her heart and bowels were buried beneath the choir stalls, where they remain to this day.
Sovereigns and keepsakes
From the 11th to the 16th centuries, royal weddings remained very private affairs; but as the powers of the monarchy declined and Britain began a transition to a modern system of government, old barriers were broken down. A flourishing print culture stimulated an appetite for royal weddings, and popular accounts of weddings in this period are supplemented with commemorative medallions, tokens, and novelty items that we would recognise today. Conceptions of royal marriage were beginning to change in the popular imagination, and become something that the public had an emotional stake in, however slight.
Entering into the Post Medieval and modern periods, much more evidence for royal weddings survives, as mass produced souvenirs entered the archaeological record. Just such a find was made by a metal detectorist Marie Hunt in a field near Owestry, Shropshire, in July 2010. She found a group of silver coins, which were unusual in that they included a silver gilt medal commemorating the 1625 marriage of Charles I to the French princess Henrietta Maria.
The head of the medal depicts the portraits of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, under rays from heaven, whereas the reverse shows Cupid with flowers and references the union of the roses of England and lilies of France. The inscription is a modified quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, FVNDIT AMOR LILIA MIXTA ROSIS / 1625. (Love pours out lilies mingled with roses). The medal was found with six other coins with varied wear and clipping, suggesting that they came from a single body of material deposited on one occasion, probably in the early 1630s.
The find consisted of two sixpences of Elizabeth I, two pennies of James I, and two pennies of Charles I. The wear and clipping visible on the coins of Elizabeth makes it probable that they had experienced considerable currency, which would certainly be compatible with the idea that they represent 17th-century deposits. Medals are not usually found with coins in this way, but given that the other coins had experienced considerable currency, it is possible that this one served as a pocket piece. It could have been carried around for luck, as a symbol of loyalty, or even as a marital memento.
If the last thousand years of history was wiped clean, and all we had to go on was the artefacts, objects, and scattered sites to inform us about royal weddings, we would, unfortunately, know very little. But taken together with the long view of history, the buildings and objects that archaeology reveals give an appreciation of the human scale of these royal events. Looking back through the centuries, we can see that royal weddings have changed significantly; from small, private ceremonies with little personal feeling in the Medieval period, to the large state occasions of the last century, where private feelings are front and centre.
Having met outside royal circles and enjoyed a long courtship, William and Kate epitomise just how far the public’s expectations have travelled. Rather than a political union for the benefit of the country, we now expect that, first and foremost, a royal marriage should be a love match: the fairytale wedding in full bloom. Reflecting on another commoner’s path to the royal household through the Medieval forests of Northamptonshire, it seems that history really does repeat itself after all.
Anyone who has ever experimented with internet dating will recognise the sinking feeling when you finally meet the object of your affections, only to find that they look nothing like their photograph. Henry VIII shares your pain.
Keen to cement a vital alliance with Germany in the wake of the Truce of Nice (1538), the King’s Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, urged a match with Anne of Cleves, daughter of a German Duke. By March 1539, negotiations were well underway, but Henry still had misgivings, and dispatched his personal artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, in the summer of 1539 to paint Anne and her younger sister Amalia, who he was also considering marrying. Holbein was under strict instruction to be as accurate as possible, and not flatter the sisters. Holbein painted Cleves, square-on and in elaborate finery.
Henry planned to greet her at Greenwich Palace, but was impatient to see his future bride, and rushed to meet her at Rochester almost as soon as she had landed in the country. Henry was woefully dismayed by her appearance, but dragged his heels to the alter nonetheless, grumbling ‘if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must this day for none earthly thing.’ Continuing in the same vein, the couple’s first night was equally disagreeable, Henry later remarking: ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.’
There was little love lost on her side either, and less than seven months later she returned her wedding ring, ‘desiring that it might be broken into pieces as a thing which she knew of no force or value.’ She readily agreed to an annulment, on grounds of non-consummation.
Brand, E 2011 Royal Weddings Shire Publications ISBN 978-0747810933
Parker, G 1981 The Medieval Hermitage of Grafton Regis Northamptonshire Past and Present Vol VI: 247-252 ISSN 0140 9131
Bowsher, J 2007 The Chapel Royal at Greenwich Palace Journal of the Society for Court Studies 11 (2)155-61