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Remembering the Royal Weddings of the Spares to the Heirs

Posted May 17, 2018 8:42 p.m. EDT

The stories of those first in line for the British throne are well known.

Queen Elizabeth II, a young princess growing up in postwar Europe, defined the midcentury monarchy. Prince William, now 35, has matured into a millennial dad on the world’s stage.

But there are also “spares” — members of the royal family who are farther in the line of succession because of birth order. Prince William — second in line to the throne, behind his father — is a potential heir. Prince Harry, his younger brother, is a spare — and would become king of England only if he survives William’s progeny.

Fortunately, these near-sovereigns are afforded gilded rites of passage for royal watchers to consume. It would seem safe to assume that anyone reading these words is part of the audience less interested in succession and more interested in the spectacle of Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle, the American actress and activist.

If so, please enjoy this abridged look at five previous “spares” from Prince Harry’s family tree, whose own royal nuptials illuminate a rich tapestry of spectacle and fascination for the betrothed participants and besotted public.

Princess Victoria: Euphoria Across the Atlantic

It is a very 21st century construction to have “watch parties” for livestreamed tentpole cultural events like Saturday’s wedding. But there are roots of similar satellite celebrations extending back to at least the 19th century.

The 1858 wedding of Princess Victoria to Prince Frederick of Prussia was the first British royal wedding in 18 years, and contemporaneous reports show a public that was anxious to take part in the revelry from “the marble palaces of Delhi to the banks of the St. Lawrence.”

The Times conveyed the opinion that the “whole spectacle” at the British Embassy in Washington “might compare with any to be met in Europe.”

The story went on to report that the attendance included “an array of intellect, station, beauty, wealth and distinction in the various departments of life such as was never collected before under one roof in Washington.”

It included “the whole diplomatic core” as well as “prominent officers of the army and navy” “leading members of both branches of congress” and Harriet Lane, who served in the official capacity as first lady for her uncle, then-president and lifelong bachelor James Buchanan.

A Simple Wedding for Bertie

This union of Prince Albert and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon is noteworthy only because of the history that would follow their 1923 wedding. King Edward VIII suddenly abdicated to marry an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson, resulting in Albert’s ascension to the throne in 1936.

There is no shortage of books, movies and stories documenting the dramatic turn of events.

But before all that, there was a low-key wedding of a second-born royal.

The front page New York Times story almost prophetically reported on the weighty events that would eventually great the young couple:

“Lady Elizabeth seemed almost overwhelmed by all that her marriage to a royal Prince meant to her. For a moment as she left her father’s house and saw the royal coach, with its gilded trappings, awaiting her and heard the great shout of greeting from the populace, she paused, half frightened, and it was a very nervous girl who bowed shyly as she passed through the crowds that lined the way to the Abbey.”

The Pageantry of Princess Margaret

The next generation of nonheirs would include a much higher profile affair.

Princess Margaret was the sister to the sitting monarch, Queen Elizabeth. But her colorful personality generated headlines — for falling in love with a divorced Royal Air Force pilot, for enjoying a Louis Armstrong concert that “broke all the rules of theatrical protocol” — and propelled her to a level of celebrity that many spares are usually, uh, spared.

So when she married Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, The Times was among the news outlets the world over that covered it. The event was the first British royal wedding to be broadcast on television.

The Times story described the scene in London, reporting that 250,000 observed the pageantry. Some “burst through the police lines to swarm in front of Buckingham Palace” while others “surged around the car as the young couple drove through the City of London to embark on their honeymoon.” At the end of the day’s festivities, the newspaper reported, there more cheers from the shores as “the royal yacht Britannia dropped down the misty Thames” bound for the Caribbean.

A Royal Televised Spectacle

By 1973, 500 million television viewers from around the world would be able to watch the first wedding for one of Elizabeth’s children, Princess Anne, as she married Capt. Mark Phillips in Westminster Abbey.

The Times reported that “interest in the occasion was so high that London streets were deserted except for the processional crowds. Many in the capital and elsewhere in the country took the day off to watch the ceremony at home on television and escape from the dire news about the latest economic crisis here.”

The queen’s oldest child, Prince Charles, was in attendance at Westminster Abbey for the wedding. His own wedding, to Lady Diana Spencer in 1980, would be viewed by an even greater worldwide television audience, estimated at around 700 million.

Multiple Generations Welcome Fergie to the Royal Family

By the time Prince Andrew — the third of Elizabeth’s children to marry — wed Sarah Ferguson on July 23, 1986, the “numbing avalanche” of press coverage had compared the growing royal family to popular contemporary television shows like “Dallas” and “Dynasty.”

Ferguson had become “'Fergie’ to all of Britain and much of the rest of the world,” with heavy coverage of all manner of details of the wedding down to the cakes.

Times columnist Anna Quindlen contrasted the constant tabloid attention on Ferguson’s weight with her own ritual of watching royal weddings with a bag of Peanut M&M’s.

The Times front-page story, written by a foreign correspondent and future Times executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, reminded readers that “at its core, under all the layers of pomp, circumstance and tabloid romanticizing, was the simple and dignified marriage ceremony.”

Further down was a photo of a 4-year-old Prince William, fulfilling his duty as a part of the bridal procession.

The spotlight may linger on a spare, but only for so long.