Don’t change the record!

The history of royal wedding ceremonies that have taken place at St George’s Chapel is a long and illustrious one that reached its peak in the nineteenth century, when five of Queen Victoria’s nine children solemnised their marriages in the Chapel. Each of these is recorded in the Chapel’s Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, part of a sequence which dates back to the early seventeenth century [SGC R.2].

So when, almost sixty years ago, while preparing for the wedding of a minor royal at St George’s Chapel, the Dean and Canons received a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office stating that the happy couple would be required to sign the Royal Marriages Register and not the register of St George’s Chapel, Chapter was prepared to fight its corner.

The Dean immediately wrote back explaining that all marriages solemnised at St George’s Chapel were included in the Chapel register and he saw “no reason why this practice should not continue”. Indeed, since the beginning of the Chapel’s then current register, Royals and non-Royals alike were included indiscriminately. The response from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office that, according to the Registrar General, “it is a fact that these Royal Weddings should not be entered in the local register” did nothing to deter Chapter from investigating the matter for themselves, as the Dean promptly informed the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The response is worth quoting in its entirety: “How splendid! I foresee a war of words which will make the Records of the United Nations Assembly very tame reading in comparison. “Let Right be Done”.”

The Dean’s letter to the College’s lawyer makes for equally interesting reading: “What I wholly fail to understand is that we should, in effect, be forbidden to enter Royal or semi-Royal weddings in the St George’s Chapel register… I can hardly bring myself to believe that this most ancient privilege is to be removed”. His incredulity increased on learning that the marriage register at the Chapel Royal was not subject to the same rules: “Are we then at St George’s less privileged than the Chapel Royal?” The lawyer’s response was plain; there was no real reason behind the Registrar General’s request and he himself had attended a royal wedding previously where the couple had signed the parish register. He recommended that “you carry on exactly as you would have done” and he saw “no reason why you should not ask the parties to sign your own register and no-one present need be any wiser”.

Nevertheless, the Dean did make his intention to use both registers clear to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. This pleased the official in question who stated happily: “I am all for tradition and am delighted that you are going to stand firm. You may be sure that I am on your side and will be prepared to bail you out if this should become necessary!”

This fascinating set of correspondence came to light during a review of twentieth century papers from the Chapter Clerk’s office [SGC CL 109]. The letters offer a glimpse of the relationships between not only St George’s Chapel and the Royal Household at this time, but also those that existed between the Royal Household and governmental departments such as the General Register Office. Furthermore, the letters highlight the importance of the historical status and traditions associated with St George’s, and the desire of Chapter to maintain these.

Anastasia Porteous, Archives Trainee

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.