A mysterious dress, an epic cake & other tales from The Queen’s wedding 73 years ago

In a battered post-war Britain, the entire country pitched in to pull off what would become “the people’s wedding” — of young Queen Elizabeth — then a princess — to the dashing Prince Philip Mountbatten. Tahiat Mahboob

In a battered post-war Britain, where resources were scarce and rationing was still in effect, the entire country pitched in to pull off what would become “the people’s wedding” — of young Queen Elizabeth — then a princess — to the the dashing Prince Philip Mountbatten.

A Very Royal Wedding

The wedding, which took place at Westminster Abbey, was broadcast to 200 million radio listeners around the world. It was an international affair in the making as well — from the silkworms that produced the fabric for the gown to the ingredients that travelled across the world to be used in the official cake. The dress, the diamonds, the dessert — every detail was meticulously designed and executed. Here is a look back.

A thrifty bride, some questionable silkworms

With austerity measures still in effect after World War II, clothing could not be purchased without the ration coupons or government approval, even if the customer had money. When news broke that the bride-to-be had saved up clothing coupons to purchase the fabric for the wedding dress, people started to donate their own. Buckingham Palace received 3000 coupons. But using someone else’s stamps was illegal and the donated ones were all returned.

Forty-seven year old British couturier Norman Hartnell submitted designs for the wedding gown and one was approved in mid-August, less than three months before the wedding. “I roamed the London Art Galleries in search of classic inspiration and fortunately found a Botticelli figure in clinging ivory silk, trailed with jasmine, smilax, syringa and small white rose-like blossoms,” Hartnell recounted afterwards. “I thought these flora might be interpreted on a modern dress through the medium of white crystals and pearls – if only I had the pearls.” And pearls he would have — 10,000 of them. But not from within the country. The seed pearls were imported from the United States and arrived in England by private messenger.

Finding embellishments wasn’t Hartnell’s only hurdle in designing this gown. The fabric for the gown caused quite the stir. It was made from duchesse satin, ordered from the Scottish firm of Wintherthur, near Dunfermline.

"Then the trouble started. I was told in confidence that certain circles were trying to stop the use of the Scottish satin on the grounds [that] the silkworms were Italian, and possibly even Japanese!” recounted Hartnell. “Was I so guilty of treason that I would deliberately use enemy silkworms?"

When the designer called the manufacturer to find out the nationality of the silkworms he was assured that they came from an ally — Chinese worms from Nationalist China. And so work on the gown resumed. The gown’s 15 foot star-patterned train, woven in Braintree in Essex, was inspired by Botticelli’s famous Renaissance painting of Primavera, and symbolised rebirth and growth after the war.

It took 350 dressmakers seven weeks to make the wedding gown. In keeping with the ethereal, delicate style of Elizabeth’s dress, Hartnell also designed the eight bridesmaids' dresses in a similar fashion.

People were so interested in the design of the wedding gown that Hartnell had to whitewash and curtain the windows of the workroom at his Bruton Street premises to ensure secrecy. His workers signed a pledge of secrecy and his manager slept in the adjoining room to deter any break-ins.

A ring designed by the groom

The diamonds for the engagement ring came from a tiara belonging to Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg. The 3-carat round center stone, surrounded by 10 smaller pave diamonds was set in platinum. Philip worked with London jeweler Philip Antrobus Ltd to design the ring himself. He had another present for the bride — a wide diamond bracelet made of additional stones that he selected from his mother’s tiara.

On the wedding day, Elizabeth wore a double-strand pearl necklace and a diamond fringe tiara originally made for her grandmother, Queen Mary. The fragile tiara snapped while the bride was getting ready. It was sent across London with a police escort to be repaired by the court jeweler in time.

Elizabeth’s wedding ring was made from a nugget of Welsh gold that came from the Clogau St. David's mine near Dolgellau.

A wedding bouquet steeped in traditions

The Worshipful Company of Gardeners provided the wedding bouquet. It was made by florist Martin Longman and contained white Cattleya, and two types of orchids: Odontoglossum and Cypripedium. The bouquet also had a sprig of myrtle that came from a bush planted at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight, by Queen Victoria in 1845.

Moyses Stevens prepared the bridesmaids bouquets using white orchids, lilies of the valley, gardenias, white bouvardia, white roses and white nerine. They also wore wreaths in their hair made by Jac Ltd of London using miniature white sheaves, lilies and London Pride, modelled in white satin and silver lame.

Mountbatten fish and Elizabeth ice cream

Following the morning ceremony at Westminster Abbey, 150 guests gathered in the Ball Supper Room at Buckingham Palace for a wedding breakfast. Seated at tables decorated with keepsake bouquets of white heather and myrtle from the plants on the Balmoral estate, the guests were served:

• Filet de Sole Mountbatten (Mountbatten Sole filet)
• Perdreau en Casserole (Partridge in a casserole)
• Haricots Verts (Green beans)
• Pommes Noisette (type of mashed potatoes)
• Salade Royale (Royal Salad)
• Bombe Glacee Princesse Elizabeth (Princess Elizabeth ice cream)
• Friandises (delicacies)

The 10,000-mile wedding cake

Food rationing from World War II was still in effect in 1947. So many ingredients arrived from overseas as wedding presents. McVities and Price Ltd made the official wedding cake — a fruit cake — using ingredients that were sent as wedding gifts from around the world.

The Girl Guides Association of Australia sent seven crates that included powdered milk, flour, spices, and dried fruit, and a bottle of the best Australian brandy. In addition to the Girl Guides donation, other ingredients included flour from Canada, rum from Jamaica and brown sugar from Barbados. The great distances that the ingredients travelled to reach England earned the cake a nickname: the 10,000-mile wedding cake.

While the exact measurements for the recipe is unknown, a recent recreation of the 500 pound, four-tier cake at Le Cordon Bleu in London required 60 pounds of butter, 55 pounds of sugar, 750 eggs, 80 oranges, 80 lemons, 3 litres of navy rum and a total of 340 lbs of sultanas, raisins, cherries and spices. Over 150 pounds of marzipan and 110 pounds of icing sugar were used to coat and create the hand-piped decorations of the recreation.

The book Queen and Consort: Elizabeth and Philip - 60 Years of Marriage provides many details about the intricate design of the magnificent cake:

The official wedding cake, at nine feet tall, was anchored on the first tier by replicas of Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and Balmoral (made of sugar), as well as the bride and groom's insignia. The second tier featured a rendering of the Princess taking the salute as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, a night scene of the Battle of Matapan, and sporting motifs that reflected the couple's many interests. The third featured a cupid with initialed shields, ATS and Girl Guide badges, and a replica of the Duke's wartime ship, HMS Valiant. The last layer was crowned with symbols of the Commonwealth.

The cake was cut with the Philip’s ceremonial sword, a gift from Elizabeth's father, King George VI.

Eleven other cakes were given as presents. After the wedding, parcels of food and slices of cake were distributed to schoolchildren and institutions. The newlyweds sent a tier to the Australian Girl Guides to show their appreciation. One tier was kept for Prince Charles’ christening a year later.

Off to the countryside with the corgi

With Elizabeth’s corgi Susan in tow, the newlyweds left London from Waterloo station and spent their wedding night at Broadlands House in Hampshire. It was the home of Philip's uncle Earl Mountbatten.

Afterwards, they went to Birkhall on the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland for the second part of their honeymoon.

Available on CBC Gem

A Very Royal Wedding

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