The Wales-Middleton union will be the 15th royal wedding conducted during the 1,000-year history of the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, to give Westminster Abbey its formal name.
Though its role as the coronation church has remained unbroken since 1066, its place as a fashionable venue for royal weddings through the ages has been somewhat less enduring.
Henry I may have started a tradition when he wed Matilda of Scotland within its walls in 1100, but it was abandoned after the 1382 nuptials of a teenage Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.
It would be another half-millennium before Victoria’s granddaughter, Patricia of Connaught, earned a tiny historical footnote by choosing it for her wedding to naval aide-de-camp Alexander Ramsay in 1919. Only then did the trend for 20th-century royal weddings begin, though Connaught herself relinquished her royal title on completion of the ceremony on account of her groom’s commoner status.
This latest of royal couples is said to have chosen the abbey for its beauty, historic royal connections and intimacy. “Even at the altar, it seems like a parish church,” said Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, William’s private secretary, explaining their decision. “The venue has long associations with the royal family – it is in many ways the royal family’s church – and, of course, with Prince William personally.
“For Miss Middleton, the associations she has with the abbey are quite simply the same as any British person would have with such a glorious and holy place.”
The Very Rev Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster, was, unsurprisingly, delighted, and seemingly undaunted by the elaborate preparations that must now be put in train for this “enormously happy and glorious event”.
“We are very pleased they have chosen Westminster Abbey for their marriage, and look forward to the detailed planning for what will be a great and happy occasion for the couple themselves, for their families and friends, for the country and Commonwealth and for well-wishers across the globe,” he said.
With William’s grandparents, Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, great-grandparents Albert (later George VI) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and many another minor royals, having exchanged vows amid its French Gothic splendour, the abbey’s pomp and pageantry plans are well practised and the machinery well oiled, and it will, undoubtledly, deliver another public spectacle flawlessly.
Television cameras will jostle for space, journalists will be crammed into unobtrusive seats – a far cry from the solemn worries expressed in 1923 that to broadcast the nuptials of Bowes-Lyon and her “beloved Bertie” on the wireless could lead to men in pubs listening without removing their hats.
Westminster Abbey has moved with the times and can be counted on for the “big occasion”.
A “royal peculiar”, a concept dating back to Anglo-Saxon times whereby a church finds itself under the personal jurisdiction of the sovereign rather than a bishop, the abbey has provided the backdrop for more sombre royal ceremonials, and is the final resting place for 17 monarchs.
It has also witnessed much drama, not least during the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales and her brother Earl Spencer’s outburst against the royal family.
When William walked behind his mother’s coffin as a teenager, no doubt its stone walls came to symbolise grief and sadness. By choosing it as his wedding venue, perhaps any such association can be exorcised as he places a wedding ring next to his mother’s engagement ring on his bride’s finger.
It is set to be the stage for another important milestone for him. Since the site was first dedicated in the 10th century, it has witnessed 38 coronations – the first that of William the Conqueror in 1066, the most recent that of William’s grandmother Elizabeth II in 1953.
Destiny seems to dictate that he, like his forebears, will be crowned there too.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010