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Throughout history, sovereigns have celebrated their marriages with elaborate gifts, from priceless tiaras and ancient antiques to foreign territories and valuable trading rights. But while a parade of splendor coming from all corners of the world seems wonderfully royal, this kind of pageantry seems to belong to the yesteryear of weddings, rather than the present day.
Prince William and Kate Middleton asked well-wishers to send charity donations instead of candlesticks and bric-a-brac when they were wed in 2011, and last month, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they would be requesting the same for their own nuptials. They have chosen seven small charities that represent causes they are passionate about, including women’s empowerment in developing countries, homelessness, children growing up with HIV, and protecting the environment from waste.
But that’s not to say that the couple won’t receive their share of material gifts anyway: Gift-giving has long been used as a diplomatic gesture by crowned monarchs and heads of state. It can be used to transfer wealth between families, or it could symbolize a special bond; it could signify an open table, or it could further a relationship.
Consider the wedding of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza in 1661. The marriage was a union between England and Portugal, and would renew the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 which had been disrupted by Austrian Habsburg rule in Portugal. To help cement the alliance between the two countries, Portugal gifted the English royal family Bombay in India and Tangiers in Africa, along with the rights to free trade with Brazil and the East Indies. While not as easy to box as a jumble of precious stones, the dowry was appreciated.
The Portuguese princess also brought a present of her own to England: Catherine is widely credited with making teatime popular among polite society, taking the little-known drink and turning it into a staple among the wealthy.
Almost three centuries later, when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were married in 1947, the palace throne room overflowed with gifts not just from the two families, but from leaders around the world. Crystal candlesticks from Sweden, porcelain horse figurines from West Germany, clocks from Switzerland, and carpets from India sat side by side as international gestures of goodwill. Even Pope Pius XII joined the celebration, sending a Victorian-era chocolate pot for the couple to entertain with.
However, some gifts were more curious than others. From the people of Kenya, for example, the couple received a cedar log cabin in Sagana, where Queen Elizabeth, then a princess, learned of her father’s passing and her ascension to the throne in 1951.
The Australian state of Queensland for its part sent 500 crates of tinned pineapples. While it may seem an odd choice today, especially compared to the fineries the couple had been gifted, the fruits were intended as a helpful gesture, considering that Britain was still recovering from the blows of World War II. It would be another seven years before Britain ended rationing for good, and exotic fruits were still rare commodities.
Queen Mary famously turned her nose up at a cotton lace cloth sent to the couple by Mahatma Gandhi. Little did she know that the gift, which she mistook for a loincloth, was made from yarn Gandhi had hand-spun himself. Embroidered with the term “Jai Hind” – Hindi for “Victory for India” – it can be interpreted as an anti-imperialist gesture. Gandhi had long maintained that, if Indians could reclaim their textile industry from British, they could finally be free from the yoke of colonialism. That the cloth arrived at the palace just a few weeks after Indian independence made the gesture all the more pointed.
But not every political gesture is so subtle. For the wedding of Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton in 2011, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson – then the mayor of London – gifted the couple a tandem bicycle, telling the crowd gathered at Trafalgar Square, “I look forward to seeing the newlyweds on tandem wheels as they start their new life in Anglesey.” While sentimental, the bicycle’s design was inspired by the city’s new bike hire scheme and served to promote the new venture.
Often, the most heartwarming gifts are sent not from foreign dignitaries, but from everyday people. And why wouldn’t they join in the fun? Royal weddings are, after all, made to feel like a party everyone is invited to.
When Queen Elizabeth was getting married in postwar Britain, one woman in Brooklyn sent a live turkey to Buckingham Palace because she was worried the princess was going hungry due to food rationing. Sharing this concern, the Australian Girl Guides got together and sent the future queen ingredients to make her wedding cake. And not for naught: In the end, McVitie & Price, the confectioners behind the first digestive cookie, used the ingredients to bake the official wedding cake.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana had equally thoughtful presents sent their way when they were married in 1981, from gingerbread figures in their likeness, courtesy of a primary school class, to a heart-shaped potato from two young sisters in Cheshire. (These stand in stark contrast to the two-foot long, jewel-encrusted model boat they received from the Emir of Bahrain, which was valued at $700,000. This same boat was famously stolen after Princess Diana’s death and has never been recovered.)
Meghan Markle’s first wedding present was from a citizen in Finland, who gifted her an apron. While it might sound old-fashioned, it was rather thoughtful considering that Markle and Prince Harry spent the early days of their relationship at home together, cooking and watching TV, and that Harry proposed while they two were making a roast chicken dinner.
Whether shipments of antique furniture and museum-quality oddities arrive at their doorstep as diplomatic gestures is too soon to tell, but one can bet that the twosome will appreciate the thought, no matter how big or small.