How to choose your wedding team (according to the Victorians)

Anyone who has embarked on the arduous business of planning a wedding will acknowledge that a well-chosen and efficient wedding team will go a long way towards making that special day run smoothly. Inevitably, the wedding team also encompasses the bride and groom and their parents, but the main focus is on the choice of the best man, ushers and bridesmaids.

Modern weddings have moved a long way from the rigid traditions of the Victorian era, and the new flexibility has enabled couples to ring the changes and, in some cases, dispense with the traditional wedding team altogether. But inevitably some charming traditions will be lost, so we are taking a look at Victorian attitudes to the wedding team and their duties in the lead-up to the big day and how they contrast with modern expectations.


The invaluable Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette (1860) has this to say about the selection of bridesmaids:

The bridesmaids should include the unmarried sisters of the bride; but it is considered an anomaly for an elder sister to perform this function. The pleasing novelty for several years passed, of an addition to the number of bridesmaids varying from two to eight, and sometimes more, has added greatly to the interest of weddings, the bride being thus enabled to diffuse a portion of her own happiness among the most intimate of her younger friends.

One lady is always appointed principal bridesmaid, and has the bride in her charge; it is also her duty to take care of the other bridesmaids have the wedding favours in readiness. On the second bridesmaid devolves, with her principal, the duty of sending out the cards; and on the third bridesmaid, in conjunction with the remaining beauties of her choir, the onerous office of attending to certain ministrations and mysteries connected with the wedding cake.”

To this day the chief bridesmaid, frequently a close friend or sister of the bride, is the main sounding-board in the lead-up to the wedding and on the day itself. She must be a confidante and a trustworthy friend; it is important that she understands any idiosyncrasies of the bride.

She is often the bride’s main helper. This will include involvement in plans before the wedding and acting as her key aide on the day. She will attend wedding dress fittings, help the bride choose dresses for the bridesmaids, and liaise with other bridesmaids. In contrast to her Victorian predecessors, she will have to organise a hen night.

If there are to be other adult bridesmaids, she will be assisted by them. If the bride has chosen small children as bridesmaids, then it will fall to the chief bridesmaid to liaise with their parents. These days the main duties of bridesmaids before the wedding are to attend dress fittings and rehearsals and help the chief bridesmaid with plans for the hen night. They no longer have to look after sending out cards or looking after wedding cake rituals (see below).

Best Man and Ushers

The Victorians nominated a number of ‘bridesgroomen’ to attend the groom at his wedding. One was selected as the best man, the rest acted in much the same way as modern ushers:

It behoves a bridegroom to be exceedingly particular in the selection of the friends who, as groomsmen, are to be his companions and assistants on the occasion of his wedding.

The number is limited to that of the bridesmaids: one for each. It is unnecessary to add that very much of the social pleasure of the day will depend on their proper mating. Young and unmarried they must be, handsome they should be, good-humoured they cannot fail to be, well-dressed they will of course take good care to be. Let the bridegroom diligently look over his circle of friends, and select the comeliest and the pleasantest fellows for his own train.

The principal bridegroom’s man, style his ‘best man’ has, for the day, the special charge of the bridegroom; and the last warning we would give him is, to take care that, when the bridegroom puts on his wedding waistcoat, he does not omit to put the wedding ring into the corner of the left-hand pocket.”

Today the emphasis is still on the best man’s sense of responsibility, and his forward planning and organisational abilities. It is also stressed that high levels of diplomacy and reliability are needed, as he will be closely involved in the planning of the wedding. It falls to him to ensure that the day runs smoothly and that everyone is fulfilling his or her duties. He must also take responsibility for organising a stag night and liaise with his ushers, ensuring they have the correct clothes and understand their role on the big day.

The ushers’ chief duties take place on the actual day, when they must assist the best man, and marshal the guests. Before the actual wedding day, their only duties are to ensure that they have suitable clothes for the wedding, and to help the best man plan the stag night.

Duties Before the Wedding

The Victorians had several rituals that took place on the day before the wedding, many of which are no longer performed. These placed a greater burden of responsibilities on bridesmaids and bridesgroomsmen than we are used to – though the duties and expectations of the modern wedding team on the wedding day itself may be more onerous, especially when a large reception is planned, in contrast to the more modest wedding breakfasts of the Victorian era.

Wedding Gloves

“The bride now sends white gloves, wrapped in white paper and tied with white ribbon, to each of the bridesmaids. The bridegroom does the same to each of the bridegroomsmen.”

Gloves are no longer a prerequisite of modern wedding dress, and there is no longer any obligation to provide them.

Wedding Cake

“One portion of the wedding cake is cut into small oblong pieces, and passed by the bridesmaids through the wedding ring, which is delivered into their charge for this purpose. The pieces of cake are afterwards put up in ornamental paper, generally pink or white, enamelled, and tied with bows of silvered paper.”

The wrapped wedding cake was kept as a memento of the day. At the wedding breakfast the bridesmaids cut the remainder of the cake into small pieces that were not eaten until the health of the bride was proposed.

Wedding Bells

It is usual too for the bridegroom’s ‘best man’ to make arrangements for the church bells being rung after the ceremony: the rationale of this being to imply that it is the province of the husband to call on all the neighbours to rejoice with him on his receiving his wife, and not that of the lady's father on her going from his house.”

Wedding Cards

The bridegroom furnishes to the bridesmaids his list for the ‘Cards’ to be sent to his friends [after the marriage]…. The cards, which are always furnished by the bridegroom, are twofold – the one having upon it to the gentleman’s and the other the lady’s name. They are placed in envelopes, those containing the lady’s card having her maiden name engraved or lithographed inside the fold. The lady generally sends cards to all whom she has been in the habit of receiving or visiting while at her father’s house.”

The purpose of the cards was to announce the marriage to the couple’s circle of acquaintance and to alert them to the fact that they could now be visited – sometimes the worlds “At home” were added, and the address was provided, indicating that a call was expected, usually about a month after the couple’s return from honeymoon.

Wedding Favours

The bridesmaids on this evening also prepare the wedding favours, which should be put up in a box ready to be conveyed to the church on the morning of the marriage….Inside the church, the wedding favours are distributed, and gay, indeed, and animated is the scene, as each bridesmaid pins on to the coat of each bridegroomsman a wedding favour which he returns by pinning one also on her shoulder.”

In this context, the wedding favours are the Victorian equivalent of the modern buttonhole. As well as being sported by the wedding party, favours were also distributed to all the servants in attendance, who pinned them on their hats, while the coachmen used them to ornament the ears of his horses.

Party like it's 1822!

Image: The Royal Procession in 1847 by George James Crawthorne and Richard S. Herod

This year is the 200th anniversary of the Royal Box at Ascot racecourse, and we are taking a look at the two most prestigious events on the racing calendar and their historic place in London’s Season. These race meetings, both held in June, are still summer highlights, so now is the time to follow a great British tradition and plan an outing to Epsom or Ascot.

The cream of London society – beaux and dandies, debutantes and their doting mothers – all looked forward with eager anticipation to the Summer Season. From May 1780 the Queen Charlotte’s ball, held originally to celebrate the Royal birthday, was the annual launch pad for the Season’s new crop of eligible young women, who were presented to the Queen and curtseyed to her as she stood next to an over-size birthday cake. From this point on they were debutantes, and the social whirlwind of balls, parties and soirées swept them along until the end of July, when the exhausted social butterflies were able to take some well-earned rest and relaxation in their country homes.

But the Season wasn’t just about balls and parties – it encompassed other pastimes, the most important being horse-racing, long a passion of British aristocrats and the royal family (it was known as the “sport of kings”). Some of the most famous horse-racing events can date their origins to the 18th century, and they survive – complete with long-established traditions and rituals – to the present day, when they have come to symbolise a quintessentially British summer.

Beyond the obvious fascination with all things equestrian, prestigious race meetings offered a social cornucopia: the excitement of betting at Tattersalls; the opportunity to be seen in the Royal Box; the delights of mingling with high society in the covered Grandstand; the chance to socialise with fellow enthusiasts at the race balls that accompanied the meeting.


The first race meeting ever held at Ascot took place on 11 August 1711 and was instigated by Queen Anne, but it was with the accession of George II that the race became truly popular. By 1813, races at Ascot were such a part of the fabric of England that Parliament stepped in, passing an act to ensure the racing grounds remained a public racecourse.

Prinny, the future King George IV, made Ascot one of the most fashionable social occasions of the year. The Royal Enclosure at Ascot dates back to the 1790s, when a separate Royal Stand was erected. The exclusive Royal Box, commissioned by George IV in 1822, was only accessible to guests brandishing a royal invitation.

Outfits for Royal Ascot were planned well in advance, and were always topped by extravagant hats and bonnets. Gold Cup Day is colloquially known as ‘Ladies’ Day’ (Thursday). The term seems to be have been first used in 1823, when an anonymous poet described the Thursday of the Royal Meeting as “Ladies’ Day… when the women, like angels, look sweetly divine.”

To this day, Royal Ascot, which holds five days of flat racing in mid-June, continues to be a key date in the social calendar, combining venerable tradition with fashionable panache when hordes of well-dressed racegoers descend on the Berkshire town.

In keeping with its Royal antecedents and illustrious place on the social calendar, Ascot still operates strict dress codes. To gain entry into the 200-year-old Royal Enclosure, race-goers must be recommended by someone who is already on the list. Convicted criminals and undischarged bankrupts are barred from the Royal Enclosure. Divorcées have only been allowed in since 1955.

Men must wear a morning suit, national dress or uniform, with top hats and no brown shoes. Ladies must sport hats and formal daywear – dresses and skirts that are no more than two inches above the knee. Dresses that are strapless, halterneck, off the shoulder or have spaghetti straps are not permitted. Trousers may only be worn as part of a suit. Bare legs are frowned upon. Stilettos are not recommended, as they make walking on grass difficult.

Visitors also dress smartly for the Grandstand. Many ladies wear hats, although this is not obligatory. Gentlemen are required to wear a suit or jacket, in both cases with a tie.

Royal Ascot takes place 14–18 June 2022


The first recorded Epsom Derby race meeting was held on Epsom Downs in 1661. In 1779 the 12th Earl of Derby organised a race for himself and his friends to run their three-year-old fillies over a mile, and this race was subsequently called ‘the Oaks’, after the Earl’s country estate. A similar race was suggested for colts and fillies, which was to be inaugurated the following year, 1780. The title of the race was decided after the Earl of Derby and his friend and fellow-racing enthusiast Sir Charles Bunbury flipped a coin. In 1784 the course was extended to its current distance of a mile-and-a-half.

By the end of the 18th century the Derby was already well established as the day when Londoners of all classes decamped to the country (until the 20th century Derby Day was traditionally a Wednesday). In 1793 the Times reported: “The road to Epsom was crowded with all descriptions of people hurrying to the races; some to plunder and some to be plundered. Horses, gigs, curricles, coaches, chaises, carts and pedestrians covered with dust crowded the Downs, the people running down and jostling each other as they met in contact.”

For many ordinary people it was simply a day out – a chance to drink, gamble (various games of chance were on offer in the tents that sprawled across the Downs), and to attend entertainments such as cockfighting and bare-knuckle boxing. For the aristocrats and royalty who attended, it was an opportunity to display their knowledge of horseflesh, and their passion for the sport and betting.

The Grandstand at Epsom was not built until 1829. Before then the upper classes, who came in their own carriages, paid for the privilege of parking where there was a good view of the racing, well away from rowdy crowds and their boisterous enjoyment.

Today, the Derby Festival is still considered one of the most iconic events on the summer sporting calendar. It is held over two days; Derby Day is on the Saturday and Ladies’ Day, when the Oaks is run, is on the Friday. The fashion stakes are high and elaborate headwear and colourful dresses are the norm.

While the Tattenham Picnic Area and the Hill allow spectators to relax and enjoy the view, dress codes apply to the range enclosures at Epsom; in the Grandstand smart casual clothes (jacket, collared shirt) are encouraged. Ladies do not have to wear a hat but the majority do.

Within the Queen’s Stand a strict dress code applies; black or grey Morning Dress with a top hat, service dress or full national costume is traditional and obligatory for gentlemen on Derby Day. Ladies are asked to wear formal day dress, or a trouser suit, with a hat or fascinator. On Ladies’ day within the Queen’s Stand, gentlemen are asked to wear a jacket, collar and tie. Ladies do not have to wear a hat but the majority do. Jeans, sports shorts, denim or trainers are not acceptable.

The Derby Festival takes place 3–4 June 2022

An indispensable guide to the Peerage

A subject of perennial fascination and enquiry, the British peerage is a hierarchy of hereditary titles, along with associated ranks and privileges, that dates back to feudal times, when peers were vassals of the monarch who swore an oath of loyalty to the Crown in exchange for protection or a fief (a grant of land or money).

This tightly knit group of powerful nobles, inter-related by blood and marriage, jealously guarded their land and rights and became the backbone of the British aristocracy. The peerage was always growing and changing: successive monarchs created new peerages, as well as imprisoning and suppressing noblemen who opposed them. The last hereditary peerage titles granted to commoners were: Duke of Westminster (1874), Marquess of Reading (1926), Earl of Stockton (1984), Viscount Macmillan of Overton (1984), Baron Margadale (1965).

In 1958 the Life Peerages Act swelled the ranks of the peerage and life (non-hereditary) peerages (always the rank of baron or baroness) were granted in growing numbers.

Here is a short guide to the intricacies of the Peerage:

Ranks and Titles

There are five ranks of the hereditary peerage, organised in descending order of seniority: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, baron.

A new, lower, degree was added to the nobility by King James I when he created the hereditary orders of baronets in 1611. This was, in effect, a hereditary knighthood (with the title of ‘Sir’). Baronets were separate from the peerage and never held seats in the House of Lords. The last baronet to be created was Denis Thatcher in 1990.

Precedence is sorted by level of title (Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron) then country (England, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland, United Kingdom), then in order of year the title was created.

In 1337 Edward III created the first English dukedom for his eldest son, probably in imitation of the French king, who had created his elder son a duke in 1332. Since then a number of dukedoms have been conferred on close relatives of the sovereign.

Royal titles take precedence over all other peers. The Duchy of Lancaster is held by the Crown and the current Duke of Lancaster (not Duchess) is the Queen.


A title is automatically inherited by the heir on the death of the last holder of the title – he (or in some cases she) might thereafter have to prove his succession in order to be entered on the Roll of the Peerage or the Baronetage, but as a matter of law he is the peer or baronet from the date of the death of the predecessor.

The Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice hold the Roll of the Peerage. The Standing Council of the Baronets publish an Official Roll of Baronets. Peers and baronets are not accorded precedence or addressed by their title until their name appears on the relevant roll.

Royal titles return to the crown if there is no male heir or if the titleholder succeeds to the throne, as will be the case when the Prince of Wales becomes king.

Courtesy Titles

Some peers have two or more titles. For example, an Earl can also be a Baron and a Baronet.

A courtesy title is a title such as Lord, Lady or The Hon, which is usually borne by the sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law of a peer.

The son and heir apparent of a duke, marquess or earl is addressed as “Lord” before his forename and surname, but may also use one of his father’s peerage titles by courtesy, providing it is of a lesser grade than that used by his father. So the heir of the Duke of Norfolk is known as the Earl of Arundel and Surrey by courtesy.

The younger sons of a duke or marquess have the courtesy style of “Lord” before their forename and surname.

The younger sons of an earl, and all sons of a viscount or baron and daughters of a viscount or baron have the courtesy style of “The Hon” before their forename and surname.

The daughters of a duke, marquess or earl have the courtesy title of “Lady” before their forename and surname.

Female Title-Holders

Although the great majority of hereditary peerage titles may descend only in the male line, there is a small number that may also be inherited by a female heir, and may pass down in the female line, if no males are available.

Women married to peers and baronets are allowed to use the feminine version of the title – Duchess, Marchioness, Countess, Viscountess, Baroness, Lady – there is no such courtesy for those men whose wives are peers in their own right, or for those peers in same-sex marriages.

What are life peers?

There are currently over 650 life peers eligible to vote in the House of Lords, the majority of which are Conservative; the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has the record for the creation of the highest number, which is averaging 41 life peerages per year.

Life peers are members of the peerage whose titles cannot be inherited, unlike hereditary peerages. Life peerages are available to both males and females, unlike hereditary peerages, which are predominantly male. Life peers are always created at the rank of baron or baroness. Although their children cannot inherit the title, they are allowed to use the honorific ‘Hon’.

The History of Life Peerages

The creation of life peerages is not simply a 20th-century phenomenon. The source of peerages is the Crown, as the fount of honour. A number of life peerages were granted in the Middle Ages and later in the 17th and 18th centuries, generally as an expression of familial loyalty, affection or romantic attachment on the part of the monarch – Henry V, for example, was well known for giving life peerages to some of his relations. Following the Restoration, a number of life peerage were granted by various monarchs to their mistresses and illegitimate children, for example Catherine Sedley was created Countess of Dorchester by James II in 1686, and Madame Wallmoden was created Countess of Yarmouth by George II in 1740. As the recipients of these titles were all women, none of the grants of peerages involved taking a seat in Parliament, and in some circles doubt as to the validity of these peerages was voiced.

This question came to a head in 1856, when Sir James Parke (1782–1868) was created Baron Wensleydale, of Wensleydale, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, for life, as he was a barrister and judge and it was felt that his skills were required in order to help the House fulfil its duties. His appointment was by Letters Patent issued by Queen Victoria. However, another peer raised the question of his validity, as a life peer, to sit in the House as no such person had done so for over 400 years. There followed a long debate as to whether the Monarch’s power to create life peers in this way had lapsed or was legal, given the changes put in place, both to Parliament and the monarchy, during and after the Interregnum (the period between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of his son Charles II in 1660, when England was under republican government). Eventually, it was decided that the monarch could not change the “constitutional character of Parliament alone”. So that his appointment could go ahead, Baron Wensleydale was recreated a hereditary peer later that same year as Baron Wensleydale, of Walton, in the county Palatine of Lancaster.

In 1869 Earl Russell introduced a life peerages bill. It made provision for 28 life peerages to be in existence at any one time, with no more than four being created in a single year. The idea was that life peers would be drawn from the professional ranks of the civil service, the armed forces and academia. The House of Lords rejected the bill on its third reading. In 1887 the Appellate Jurisdiction Act allowed senior judges to sit in the House of Lords, as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. They were allowed to retain their seats for life, even after their retirement. This pragmatic solution, which addressed the issues raised in the Wensleydale case, ensured that individuals with legal expertise played a full part in the deliberations of the House of Lords.

The Modernisation of the House of Lords

The Life Peerages Act of 1958 (or “An Act to make provision for the creation of life peerages carrying the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords”) established the standards for the creation of life peers.  For the first time, the Act enabled life peerages, which entitled the holders to a seat and vote in the House of Lords, to be granted for other than judicial purposes, and to both men and women. On 24 July 1958, the first 14 life peers were announced in the London Gazette. The list included ten men and four women. Hugh Gaitskell, the Leader of the Opposition, nominated six people for a life peerage, six of the ten men nominated were former MPs, and one of the four women was a hereditary peeress in her own right. The first female peer to receive her letters patent was Baroness Wootton of Abinger, created on 8 August 1958, who was also the first woman to chair proceedings in the House of Lords, as Deputy Speaker. The Act gave the Prime Minister power to change the political composition of the House of Lords, gradually diminishing the power of hereditary titleholders.

Lords Reform 1999

The House of Lords Act of 1999 radically reformed the upper chamber by removing the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, stating that “no-one shall be member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage”. However, the act did create a temporary compromise, whereby 92 hereditary peers were allowed to remain in the House of Lords for an interim period, while another ten were created life peers in order to allow them to remain. The 1999 Act decreased membership of the House of Lords from 1,330 to 669 by March 2000.

For the first time the Act gave hereditary peers the right to stand for election to the House of Commons, from which they had previously been disqualified. The first hereditary peer to gain a seat in the House of Commons was the Liberal Democrat John Thurso, a viscount.

Life peers are created by Letters Patent on the advice of the Prime Minister. Anyone is eligible to be selected providing they are aged at least 21, have no convictions and are a UK citizen or a member of the Commonwealth; they must also be resident in the UK for tax purposes. They receive no salary but can claim an allowance for travel and accommodation for each day they sign into the House, even if they do not take part in business; the allowance is currently £305 per day.

New life peerages are usually announced in the following lists: New Year’s Honours, Queen's Birthday Honours, Dissolution Honours and Resignation Honours.

Cash for Honours

Image: Sir Brooke Boothby, 6th Baronet, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1781

The monarch is known as the ‘fount of honour’ and the creation of hereditary titles is a royal prerogative. Historically, the peerage was formed of a tightly knit group of powerful nobles, whose titles, lands and rights had been bestowed upon them by the monarch in exchange for an oath of loyalty. In time, the ranks of the aristocracy were swollen by lesser branches of old families, and from the gentry and knightly classes.

 It was the first Stuart monarch, James I, who made the connection between title and payment explicit. He instituted the hereditary order of baronets in England by letters patent on 22 May 1611. The primary reason for raising funds by selling baronetcies was for financing the settlement of Ireland. He offered the dignity to 200 gentlemen of good birth, with a clear estate of £1,000 a year, on condition that each should pay into the king's exchequer in three equal instalments a sum equivalent to three years' pay to thirty soldiers at 8d per day per man.

Sir Thomas Gerard (1560–1621), for example, was created Baronet in 1611. He had paid the expected £1,000 for the dignity, but it was returned to him in consideration of the sufferings of his father in the cause of Mary Queen of Scots. In the words of James I: ‘I am particularly bound to love your blood on account of the persecution you have borne for me’. As well as a baronetcy, the king also gave his loyal subject an interest in the tobacco pipe monopoly. 

Subsequent monarchs also continued to sell baronetcies, and it was considered an acceptable way of raising revenue. It was not until the 20th century and the scandal surrounding Lloyd George’s brazen exploitation of the honours system that this practice became newsworthy.

The Liberal politician David Lloyd George was well known for his searing criticisms of the House of Lords and its members. He famously remarked that “A fully-equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two dreadnoughts. They are just as great a terror and they last longer.” He became prime minister in 1916, when he headed a coalition that relied heavily on the support of the Conservative Party.

The Liberal Party was in need of money, and Lloyd George found the perfect solution. In six short years, a staggering 1,500 knighthoods were created, and 91 peerage titles were bestowed, twice the figure for the previous 20 years. Lloyd George was unapologetic about the practice of selling titles: a published tariff listed 10,000 for a knighthood, 30,000 for a baronetcy and 50,000 plus for a peerage.

The Order of the British Empire (OBE) was instituted and was targeted at ambitious individuals who could not afford a full title. The honour was awarded to 25,000 people over a four-year period, and became so devalued that it was known as the ‘Order of the Bad Egg’.

Lloyd George’s masterstroke was to award an array of peerage titles to Fleet Street’s press barons – unusually, these were freely bestowed and no cash exchanged hands. In this way it was ensured that the press, with its self-interested and newly ennobled owners, would not hold the Government to account.

Many of the new title-holders were industrialists and self-made businessmen, moving the peerage away from old money and the landowning classes. The cash grab mentality inevitably meant that, since money was the main criterion for the award of titles and honours, an egregious array of criminals, tax evaders and fraudsters were also able to buy status and respectability. King George V was appalled, remarking that the award of an honour to John Robinson, a convicted fraudster, “must be regarded as little less than an insult to the Crown and to the House of Lords.” Even Fleet Street turned on its erstwhile benefactor.

Lloyd George was forced to agree to a parliamentary debate on the cash for honours scandal on 17 July 1922. He somewhat disingenuously described the selling of honours as a “discreditable system. It ought never to have existed. If it does exist, it ought to be terminated”. In time-honoured fashion, he pleaded the financial exigencies of the Great War.

A Royal Commission was announced, which published its report in November 1922. As a result the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee was established to vet potential candidates for honours, and the Honours (Preventions of Abuses) Act 1925 made it an offence to accept a monetary award in exchange for an honour.

Yet scandals continue to beset the British Honours system and it is widely accepted that ‘donations’ to a political party may, entirely coincidentally of course, be accompanied down the line by the granting of a title or honour. As recent events have highlighted, these benefits are also granted to non-British citizens with deep pockets.

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