A fairy-tale wedding

The omens were bad, but it turned out to be a gigantic family party

Carol Kennedy August 10 1981

A fairy-tale wedding

The omens were bad, but it turned out to be a gigantic family party

Carol Kennedy August 10 1981

The middle-aged Englishwoman with her rug and flask of tea, who spent nearly 48 hours staking her claim to a patch of sidewalk by St. Paul’s Cathedral, knew exactly what was so special in the atmosphere. “Everyone,” she said with some amazement, “is being so nice.” For battered old Britain, which this year has endured bitter racial violence, street riots in the slums, the worst unemployment since the 1930s and a damp mockery of a summer, it was certainly time for a spell of niceness, even if it took a royal wedding to make people feel benevolent toward one another.

Foreign visitors invariably opine that no one does these great occasions like the British. But the essence of them is not so much the plumes and well-drilled pageantry as the sudden uprush of comradeship and solidarity they release in an often-divided nation. Celebrations such as the coronation and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee turned into gigantic family parties—and there was never such a family festival as the one that erupted last week in the streets of London.

Outside the palace, tens of thousands wait for a glimpse of the royal couple

The wedding of Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales and king-in-waiting, and Lady Diana Spencer, the blue-eyed “girl next door” just blossoming out of her teens, was more than “a flash of color on the hard road we have to travel,” as Winston Churchill described Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947—harder yet though that road has grown for many. It was, as some 750 million people around the globe witnessed for themselves, an astonishing explosion of popular emotion that swept TV viewers thousands of kilometres away into its epicentre, confounded professional cynics in the press and left almost everyone, for a few hours, feeling just a little more hopeful about the future.

It did not at first seem it would turn out that way. A visitor to London the week before might have noted the threadbare municipal decorations (the word had gone out to be economical), threatening skies, an air of apathy and vaguely menacing hints of a disturbed society in the racist subway graffiti, groups of hostile-looking youths, more riots in the urban graveyards of industrial Britain. Even as fireworks lit up the sky over London’s Hyde Park on wedding eve, home-made firebombs provided their grim counterpoint in Liverpool’s riot-torn Toxteth district.

But the British are slow to wind up to great events, and, as if someone had pressed a switch, a ridge of high pressure settled over the land, the sun beamed down and crowds poured out along the 3.2-km wedding route. Red, white and blue sprouted from every window, and an American entrepreneur persuaded a church in the Strand to let him hang a giant Stars and Stripes on its builder’s scaffolding, with a message reading FROM AMERICA WITH LOVE —his way, he explained later, of apologizing for the recent U.S. demonstrations against Prince Charles over Northern Ireland. Central London virtually seized up, causing President Ronald Reagan’s punctuality-proud wife, Nancy, to run half an hour late on her pre-wedding schedule as her police outriders stuck fast in the traffic.

Bridegroom and supporter Prince Andrew, off to St. Paul’s (left);

Spectators took up prime curbside positions as early as Sunday, scorning the fainthearts who would watch it all from the comfort of armchairs—“It’s a bit of history being made, innit?” explained one. “You’ve got to have a look at the next King and Queen, haven’t you?” said another. Most were British, they came from Yorkshire and the Hebrides, the depressed mining towns of Wales and the plump stockbroker belts of Kent and Sussex. The cut-glass accents of a girls’ school principal mingled with the glottal cockney of punk youths with multi-colored hair.

One man outside St. Paul’s had taken patriotic fervor to absurdity, painting his face like the Union Jack; another, squatting in the leafy avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, wore a Union Jack T-shirt and a belt emblazoned with the Red Dragon of Wales. Said auto components salesman Steven Tinsley, 34: “If you’re going to be a fanatic, you might as well do a good job of it.”

The ripoff merchants who have driven away so many tourists this year—along with the riots, the weather and the strong pound—had a field day. On a cleared building site along Fleet Street, a company called Westminster Touring had put up makeshift stands and was selling seats plus a packed lunch for between $265 and $400 each. Another, calling itself Corporate Capers, charged nearly $460 for a seat with a champagne picnic hamper. Near Trafalgar Square, hotdogs garnished with greasy fried onions found takers at an extortionate $3.70 each. Entrepreneurs might not be emerging in industry as fast as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would like, but there was no shortage of them making a quick “quid” out of Charles and Diana’s nuptials.

The security industry was also in high gear. Behind the service personnel lining the procession route, 4,000 policemen were ordered to turn their backs on the Queen—a touch of deliberate lese majesty so that each man could watch 30 faces in the crowd. A thousand of them were discreetly armed. After the shock of the Queen’s birthday parade, when a youth fired blanks at her horse; the attempted assassinations of Pope John-Paul II and President Reagan, and the deaths of IRA hunger-strikers in Belfast (a seventh, Kevin Lynch, died Saturday), no one was taking the remotest chance.

One for the (Metropolitan Police) album;

The police appeared relaxed enough—sightseers had been adjured to “adopt a cop” for the day—but unseen at upper-storey windows, unsmiling detectives raked the crowd with binoculars, rooftop cameras scanned the scene, a TV company’s airship carried a police observer 300 metres up and, from a helicopter, sophisticated equipment normally used for traffic surveillance homed in on sections of the crowd. Police “sniffer” dogs incessantly checked St. Paul’s, the railway track to the honeymoon destination and the sewers under the city. Later, it was revealed that on the carriages of the Queen and the bridal pair, one of the postillions in scarlet and gold was actually an armed detective. It was a jittery time for security men. But in the end there was only a handful of arrests, all for such minor offences as pickpocketing.

Others, too, had pre-wedding nerves. The weekend before, the bride-to-be, who had stoically smiled her way through nearly five months of press onslaughts, succumbed to tears at a country polo match and rushed for cover. As tradition required, she did not see her groom on wedding eve. While Prince Charles inaugurated a huge fireworks display for charity and lit the first of a chain of 101 beacon fires in Hyde Park, watched by the Queen and 500,000 revellers, Diana spent her last night in the single and commoner state by going early to bed at the Queen Mother’s residence, Clarence House.

At 9:40 on the wedding morning, police estimated nearly a million people along the route, with more flowing in by the minute. The streets, freshly washed, gleamed like Dick Whittington’s legendary gold with sand in the horses’ hooves. Earl Spencer, the bride’s ailing father—he nearly died from a cerebral hemorrhage two years ago—told reporters at his gate that Spencers had served their “king and country” for hundreds of years and that Diana was “vowing to help her country for the rest of her life.” (She chose the hymn I Vow to Thee My Country for the service.)

Many of the 2,600 wedding guests got stuck in a line of limousines nose-to-tail down the Strand, but police dissolved the jam and, promptly on cue, the processions moved out of Buckingham Palace forecourt: minor members of the Royal Family first, then the remnants of continental royalty, missing only King Juan Carlos of Spain, who had objected to the royal decision to embark from Gibraltar—the subject of a current sovereignty wrangle with Britain—at the start of the honeymoon cruise on Britannia.

Then the real pageantry began: the Queen’s carriage procession, eight open state landaus drawn by glistening horses and escorted by the Household Cavalry, with their flying plumes and burnished breastplates. The Queen, in aquamarine, looked tense for much of the ride, perhaps recalling those pistol shots. Prince Philip, by contrast, seemed to revel in it all. Princess Anne’s often forbidding expression was transformed to good humor under a frivolous yellow hat; the Queen Mother, approaching her 81st birthday and recently ailing, got an even warmer reception than usual.

The cheers reached a crescendo as the bridegroom drove out in his specially tailored Royal Navy “No. 1” uniform.

Three-stripe commanders do not normally rate this admiral’s dignity, but the Queen had given her son permission for this day. Charles joked on the way to St. Paul’s with his brother Prince Andrew, who carried the ring. (Diana had the last of the famous nugget of Welsh gold that furnished wedding rings for the Queen Mother in 1923, the Queen in 1947, Princess Margaret in 1960 and Princess Anne in 1973.) At the top of the red-carpeted cathedral steps, Charles turned to flash a last smile, but inside, flanked by his brotherly “supporters” — Andrew in midshipman’s uniform, Edward in grey morning dress—his composure seemed to falter like that of any groom awaiting his bride.

But Diana exercised no bride’s privilege of lateness, arriving on schedule in the large-windowed Glass Coach which was filled with a frothing heap of ivory silk and veiling. As she stepped out, in her theatrically glamorous gown with its eight-metre river of train, she murmured mischievously, “Is he here yet?” The “something old” traditional to bridal gowns was antique lace stitched round the neckline by designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel, the “something borrowed” a Spencer family tiara, and the “something blue” a blue bow sewn into the waistband, along with a tiny gold horseshoe for luck. Even as the dress was revealed seamstresses in London’s East End garment district were rushing out the first commercial copies, on sale within four hours of the first sketches.

The bride and her father, the Earl Spencer, arrive at the cathedral

The bride, all sign of nerves vanished, advanced calmly up the long aisle to Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, seeking to steady her father’s arm rather than the other way round. Princess Anne, in her brisk way, had said at her wedding that she didn’t want “yards of uncontrollable children,” but Diana had seven—the youngest, Clementine Hambro, 5, was her favorite pupil at the South London kindergarten where she worked part-time until her engagement. Among the ushers were two Canadians—Esmond Butler, secretary to the governor-general, who once worked as a press aide at Buckingham Palace, and Bruce Griffin, an army major from defence headquarters who acted as equerry to Prince Charles on a 1979 visit to Canada. The official Canadian contingent of guests numbered four: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Governor-General Edward Schreyer and his wife and High Commissioner Jean Wadds.

As bride and groom touched hands and exchanged loving glances, the whole vast TV spectacular—the most elaborate ever staged —suddenly became an intimate moment. The millions of watching pairs of eyes, the massed guests were forgotten as the dean of St. Paul’s intoned the old, familiar words: “Dearly beloved . . . .” Charles flicked away a tear but, moments later as the silver-robed Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, spoke solemnly of the procreation of children, the prince quickly looked down to hide an irrepressible grin.

The couple endeared themselves to the world by fluffing their carefully rehearsed lines. Diana agreed to take “Philip Charles Arthur George,” and Charles, who should have said after the archbishop, “and all my worldly goods with thee I share,” said instead, “and all thy goods with thee I share.” But there were solemn moments: Archbishop Runcie called it “the stuff of which fairy tales are made,” but also reminded his listeners of the awesome public glare in which royalty lives: “May the burdens we lay on them be matched by the love with which we support them in the years ahead.” Reminders of other challenges intruded when Cardinal Basil Hume, Britain’s leading Roman Catholic prelate, took his part with other churchmen in the service: Ulster’s protestant firebrand, the Rev. Ian Paisley, had boycotted the wedding in protest of Hume’s presence.

Archbishop of Canterbury conducts the service;

It was, as Charles had wanted, a very musical wedding with rolling ceremonial tunes by Gustav Holst, Sir William Walton and Sir Edward Elgar. As they signed the register (“Charles P” and “Diana Spencer”) away from prying TV eyes, New Zealand Maori opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa soared into an aria from Handel’s Samson. Then, officially man and wife, Diana’s veil flung back, it was down the aisle to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 4.

The streets erupted in frenzy as they drove home with their jingling escort, bells pealing, from St. Paul’s. A silver horseshoe gleamed in the 1902 state landau and a rain of rice, confetti and rose petals fell on the bridal pair from upper windows along the route. Near the palace, the procession slowed to walking pace for the heaving, yelling mass of well-wishers to get a longer look. Charles appeared almost stunned by the acclaim. But it was as nothing to the reaction to the couple’s ritual appearance on the palace balcony. Four times summoned back by the insistent cheers, the newlyweds finally gave their audience what it wanted—a fleeting but loving kiss. Triumphantly, a banner waved above the sea of flags: LOVE IS CHARLIE AND DI.

The wedding breakfast consumed (120 guests feasted on lobster-sauced brill, chicken breasts stuffed with lamb mousse and strawberries and Cornish cream, washed down by champagne) and the five-tiered 100-kg cake cut (the Royal Navy cooks had laced it well with rum), it was time for the going away. Roars of delight broke from the crowd as the state landau reappeared—this time gaily decked with blue and silver balloons and a hand-lettered JUST MARRIED sign with hearts and arrows, the work of Andrew and Edward.

Charles held Diana’s hand clasped on his knee on the leisurely ride to Waterloo Station where Diana impulsively planted a kiss on the cheek of 65-year-old Lord Maclean, the Lord Chamberlain and organizer of the wedding. Then they vanished into the special train. Just under two hours later, the honeymooners were safely holed up at Broadlands, the sumptuous country home of the late Lord Mountbatten, in the same two-bedroom first-floor suite used by the Queen and Prince Philip on their honeymoon in 1947. Reporters besieged the locked and guarded gates in vain, looking for scraps of information. Some even flung a note in a bottle into the River Test at the foot of the estate, where Charles was expected to go fishing, imploring him to appear for the cameras: he didn’t.

Back to the palace, the newlyweds, leading the procession, greet the crowds

Mountbatten, Charles’s beloved “Uncle Dickie,” who was murdered by the IRA in 1979, had been remembered earlier that day: the bride’s bouquet of white gardenias, orchids, freesia and stephanotis also contained golden Mountbatten roses. The bouquet was later placed on the Unknown Warrior’s grave in Westminster Abbey.

For those still in a mood to celebrate, hundreds of street parties got under way: the Sunday before the wedding, traders had closed Oxford Street, London’s busiest shopping route, for what was billed as the world’s biggest street party—two kilometres of tables groaning with 10 tonnes of goodies for 5,166 handicapped and deprived children.

Not everyone had fallen under the benevolent spell, however. Several disaffected groups made well-publicized sorties to “republican” countries (France and Ireland); there were “rock against royalty” concerts and T-shirts bearing the slogan, WHAT WEDDING? Ken Livingstone, militantly left-wing leader of the Greater London Council, was officially invited to the wedding but instead went to work dressed in blue jeans. Welsh author Jan Morris (formerly James Morris until a sex-change operation some years ago) dispatched a biting letter to The Times recording “one citizen’s sense of revulsion and foreboding at the ostentation, the extravagance and the sycophancy” surrounding the wedding.

But at week’s end, as the honeymooners flew off to Gibraltar—Charles piloting the elderly Andover turbo prop of the Queen’s Flight—before boarding the royal yacht for a Mediterranean cruise to undisclosed destinations, most commentators were reflecting on the remarkable national sense of family which the monarchy is still capable of rousing on such occasions.

For a brief while, people of all colors had danced in the street with each other and with policemen. Would the mood rub off on Brixton and Liverpool, where ethnic hostilities had focused on the police as symbols of authority? Or would it all, like any other intense bout of party-going, end in a hangover? As the unreal spell of summer dissolved back into chilly rain and the flags and flowers wilted in the downpour, no one could say for sure.

Top row: Mark Phillips, Prince Andrew, Viscount Linley, Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Edward, Princess of Wales, Prince of Wales, bride's grandmother Lady Fermoy, bride's sister Lady Jane Fellowes, bride's brother Viscount Althorp, Robert Fellowes;middle row: Princess Anne, Princess Margaret, the Queen Mother, the Queen, bridesmaid India Hicks, bridesmaid Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, bride's mother Frances Shand-Kydd, Earl Spencer, bride's sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale, Neil McCorquodale; front row: bridal attendants Edward van Cutsem, Clementine Hambro, Catherine Cameron, Sarah Jane Gaselee, Lord Nicholas Windsor.