St George’s Chapel is a place of infinite beauty, with grandeur certainly but also a particular sense of intimacy. It’s more familiar as a place of royal burials than royal marriages, but it’s a setting that’s been significant in the life of Prince Harry.
He was christened here in 1984, and has attended many family services in the chapel over the years. Though a magnificent place, the chapel is less daunting than Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral. One reason to be married here might be that it’s more convenient for his grandparents, both now in their 90s. And Meghan Markle will by no means be the first foreign bride to be married here – the most notable being Princess Alexandra of Denmark to the future Edward VII in 1863 with Queen Victoria gazing down from the Catherine of Aragon loft, which on Saturday will be the home for the BBC cameras.
The 500-year-old building is the Queen’s family chapel within Windsor Castle. It is a “Royal Peculiar”, presided over by the Dean of Windsor and three Canons. The Archbishop of Canterbury only attends by invitation of the Dean. The Queen does not worship here every Sunday, preferring the chapel in the grounds of Royal Lodge, away from the prying eyes of tourists. But she comes here with her family for Easter, and the chapel has celebrated her 60th and 80th birthdays, as well as the 80th and 90th birthdays of Prince Philip. She also presides over the near-annual Garter ceremony each June.
The chapel stands in what is known as the Lower Ward of Windsor Castle, and is one of the finest examples of perpendicular architecture in the land, rivalling King’s College Chapel, Cambridge and nearby Eton College Chapel. Now and again St George’s becomes a focal point in the history of the nation – when monarchs are taken to their final resting place, on occasions such as the service of blessing following the wedding of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2005, or when famous men such as Winston Churchill walk down the hill in the gloriously medieval Garter procession.
When TV cameras take viewers inside the chapel, there will be two contrasted main views. The outer part of the chapel is the Nave, with its pale cream columns and brightness – what BBC broadcaster Tom Fleming hailed, in 1968, as its “mellow magnificence”. The chairs will be turned in to face each other (they now suggest they will be slightly diagonal!) and a Garter blue carpet will run from the West Door into the Quire and up to the High Altar. All the usual Nave furniture will be removed.
Here will sit the overflow of guests. At Prince Charles’s service in 2005 figures such as Rowan Atkinson, Joan Rivers and Stephen Fry could be found there, also Charles Kennedy, then leader of the Liberal Party. There will be no politicians this time, but look out for those wellknown faces from the Netflix series, Suits, and the likes of Serena Williams.
The royal family normally enter the chapel by the Galilee Porch, behind the High Altar, walking past the tomb of Edward IV. Prince Harry and his best man, Prince William, will make a more spectacular entrance via the West Door. The atmosphere in the Quire is all dark oak, the stalls of the Knights and Ladies of the Garter, with heraldic crests above them, and their splendid, colourful banners. To the right of the altar can be found the tomb of Henry VI and that of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
The bride will enter by the West Door and walk the length of the chapel on the arm of her father. If she glances to the left, she might spot the tomb of George V and Queen Mary, under their Garter banners. Concealed under the blue carpet in the Quire, she’ll walk over the vault containing the bodies of Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and the executed Charles I. She’ll also cross the slab that leads down into George III’s Royal Vault, similarly concealed today.
His remains are contained there, as are those of George IV and William IV. So too Queen Charlotte, Queen Adelaide and a cousin of Queen Victoria’s, the blind King George V of Hanover. In 1968/69, a special chapel was built for George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) off the North Quire Aisle, and this also contains the ashes of Princess Margaret.
But on Saturday the chapel and its grounds will be a place of great national happiness, not sadness. As the groom and his new bride – either HRH Princess Henry of Wales or more likely a Duchess – emerge and descend down the west steps, it is here that the world’s press will get their first pictures of the newlyweds and another chapter in the history of this great ecclesiastical building will have been written.
Hugo Vickers is a royal historian and broadcaster
The Royal Wedding is set to start at 12pm on Saturday 19th May with coverage beginning early in the morning and lasting well into the afternoon