The Archaeology of Royal Weddings

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As Prince William’s and Kate Middleton’s nuptials this month stir up feverish national excitement, what light can archaeology shed on the pomp and pageantry of the most magnificent of Royal occasions? Brendon Wilkins goes in search of the evidence.

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.

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.

The full article can be found in Issue 254 of  Current Archaeology, with further archaeological evidence for Royal weddings throughout history.


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