The 7 Weirdest Royal Wedding Traditions That Have Actually Happened

by JR Thorpe
Chris Jackson/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As you will likely know unless you've spent the past two days under a rock, American actress Meghan Markle is now engaged to Prince Harry of England. This has, predictably, caused royal wedding fever across the Atlantic, though British people are slightly indignant that they won't get a public holiday when Markle and Harry wed next year, unlike with William and Kate's wedding. However, when it comes to the shape of their wedding day, they've got thousands of years of precedent to draw on — and some of the royal wedding traditions they choose could be, frankly, rather bizarre.

As we'll likely all remember from the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now Duchess Catherine, in 2011, British royal weddings are full of pageantry, pomp, and weirdness, like that time sprigs of myrtle from a tree planted by Queen Victoria ended up Kate's bouquet. But compared to their historical antecedents and regal wedding ceremonies throughout history, they're pretty tame. We're pretty sure nobody paraded a collection of noble's daughters and their childhood nurses before the British princes, and Harry will hopefully not be replaced by a giant life-size sugar sculpture at his own wedding reception. However, there are some wedding traditions I'm pretty sure I'd pay to see Meghan and Harry observe. An 1120-pound cheese with its own song at the reception, anybody? Here are some of the most bonkers wedding traditions from royal nuptials around the world.


A Royal Wedding Cheese — With Its Own Song

The historian Emily Brand, who specializes in 18th and 19th century Britain, points out that Queen Victoria received a pretty amazing (and tasty) gift on her own wedding day in February 1840: a truly gigantic cheese. According to the Monmouthshire Merlin newspaper of Feb. 22, 1840, farmers in Somerset, which is famous for its cheese (and is the origin of actual Cheddar), got together and used the milk of 750 cows to produce a massive Pennard cheese, weighing over 500kg or 1120 pounds. It was pressed with the royal coat of arms, given a huge wire case to prevent rats nibbling at it, and taken to the Queen's wedding day, where it was presented with its own song.

The song is adorable — the last verse goes "And wedded to her royal love,/May blessings on her fall,/And Pennard cheese at dinner prove/The best thing — after all!" — and the enthusiastic Pennard cheesemongers didn't stop there. They made another huge one for Victoria and Albert's first anniversary in 1841, where apparently the queen "saw the cheese privately" and Albert "expressed himself much pleased and gratified with the present," according to Blackwood's Lady's Magazine.


Laying The Bouquet On A Soldier's Tomb

This tradition is specific to the English royal family, and was begun by Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the current Queen's mother, who laid her bouquet on the Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in London after her wedding to George VI, in 1923. The reason was poignant; the Queen Mother had lost her beloved brother, Fergus, at the Battle of Loos in the First World War in 1915, and details of his gravesite in France were lost.

Ever since, brides who've married into the British royal family, including Kate Middleton, have saved their bouquets to lay them on the Tomb the day after the ceremony. It's probable that Meghan Markle will do this as well, so royal guests shouldn't hold up much hope of catching it at the reception.


Sugar Sculptures Of The Groom (In Case He Can't Be There)

The modern wedding cake is nothing compared to medieval and Renaissance European royal wedding treats. As sugar became a serious mark of status, royals began featuring items called "subtleties" made out of marzipan or boiled sugar, which is a hilarious name because they were very rarely subtle at all. The smallest were figurines that resembled mythical creatures, dragons, saints or knights on horseback, while others are recorded as life-size elephants and whales. They were often quite inedible and covered in paper, wax and gold leaf.

The ultimate subtleties were produced in Renaissance Italy, where royal weddings were accompanied by “trionfi di tavola,” or triumphs of the table, according to food historians. One wedding in 1475 had costumed servants bringing new sugared constructions to the table at each course, including a painted sugar pail filled with sugar money that had the portraits of the bride and groom. The best sugar triumph, though, happened at the wedding feast of Henry IV and Maria de Medici in 1600. Henry IV wasn't there, so a life-size sugar sculpture stood in for him instead.


Funding The Weddings Of The Poor

If you were in the service of royal families in medieval India, or in destitution, their weddings were a chance to work out your own wedding. Historian Eugenia Vaninia explains that for many medieval Indian monarchs, a key part of the wedding celebrations involved arranging the weddings of servants and those who were extremely poor, particularly orphans, at the same time. It was seen as part of the royal family's duty to their people to share the love. The Mughal Empress Nur Jahan, who ruled in the 17th century, was one of the biggest examples of this tradition, according to chroniclers of the time. She is thought to have arranged the weddings of at least 500 orphan girls during her reign.


Potential Brides Turning Up With Their Nannies

Among the tsars of Russia, it was pretty common for a "bridal pageant" to take place in order to select the bride; all eligible boyars, or noblemen, would bring their daughters to the palace to take part in a kind of procession where the tsar would select his bride. He also had the right to select the brides for his brothers and members of his family, which made this rather an awkward scenario. From the 16th century onwards, the girls would come to the ceremony accompanied by their nannies, who'd been taking care of them since they were children, to act as chaperones and presumably make sure nobody did anything funny. A lot of times, the candidate for tsarina had been selected already — but the pageant went ahead anyway, to make the whole procedure look fairer to other nobles and avoid fights.


Sending The Gift Of Pineapple

The phenomenon of wedding gifts from far and wide represents a big part of modern royal wedding protocol, particularly when it comes to England and its former Empire. Sometimes, the gifts can be more practical than romantic. In 1947, for instance, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip received gifts from all over the world for their nuptials, including a gift from the government of Queensland, a tropical Australian province, that took into account the fact that England was still facing wartime rationing. They generously sent 500 tins of canned pineapple. A woman from Brooklyn, New York, also sent a turkey, fearing that the Queen-to-be was going hungry. Don't try and send them chocolates in the mail, though. These days English royals only accept symbolic gifts or donations to charity.


Compulsory Wedding Outfits For The Entire Country

The Qing dynasty in China, which lasted from the 17th century until 1912, had incredibly complicated imperial wedding customs, including elaborate bridal costumes, ritual sipping by the bride and groom from a special cup, and weeks of celebration, according to historians of Chinese culture. But even if you weren't likely to get vaguely near the Emperor or his family throughout your entire life, you could still benefit from the celebrations. One imperial wedding, in 1888, heralded 20 days of holiday in which the entire Qing empire mandated that nobody could be punished for any crime, and on the wedding day itself, everybody around the country was required by law to wear the auspicious colors red and green. And you thought wedding guest dress codes were stressful.

While we're all looking forward to Harry and Meghan's wedding next May at Windsor Castle, there's a strong chance that it'll likely hew close to form and involve white dresses, bridesmaids and carriages. But it's not too much to hope that there might, in all the fuss, be room for at least one gigantic cheese.