From Queen Victoria’s English plum cake to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s eight-layer fruitcake, these masterpieces have taken many forms
By Victorian standards, modern wedding cakes can appear quite amateur: The wedding of Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Princess Royal Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa, on January 25, 1858 (to German Emperor Frederick III), featured a cake that appears modeled after elements of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the top is a square structure that looks a lot like St. Peter’s Baldachin, a Baroque canopy with four spiraled, or Solomonic, columns.
Since her mother Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840, British (and American) wedding cake style has evolved in many ways. Victoria’s set the standard for white wedding cakes — symbolizing purity and luxury, as refined white sugar was prohibitively expensive in Britain in the Victorian era — and it was among the first in England to feature edible sugar sculptures. For a century after her rule, pastry chefs borrowed architectural elements from Greek, Roman, Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture. (In fact, pastry chefs are still inspired by architecture today.)
In England, because the actual edible cake beneath the decor was an overly sweet and dense fruitcake, wedding cakes were more akin to ceremonial centerpieces. Pastry chefs of the day were sculptors just as much as they were bakers: They used sugar, eggs, and other ingredients to make malleable pastes that could be carved, molded, and painted to look like Europe’s most famous churches or state houses. They honored each bride and groom with carved reliefs depicting their life and travels, and, like dollhouse architects, they learned to construct towering, many-layered cakes held together by sugar instead of cement. Each weighed hundreds of pounds. For centuries, too, royal couples have used a family sword to slice into the cake — a sort ceremonial cake sabering.
Because of the fruitcake base — laden with sweet candied fruits and soaked in high-proof sprits — and because of the rock-hard royal icing crust, these cakes can last decades. For the last century or so, slices of royal wedding cakes were given as wedding favors, and, to commemorate the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, several royal wedding cake slices are up for auction this year. An auction house in Los Angeles is selling a 36-year-old slice from Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding cake for close to $1,200. Also on the block: a cake slice from the 2005 marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles (estimated auction price: $600 to $800); a slice of royal wedding cake from the 1968 marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson ($600 to $800), and a slice of royal wedding cake from the 1973 marriage of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips ($300 to $500).
Here, now, a look back at Britain’s most elaborate royal wedding cakes, from Queen Victoria’s to Meghan and Prince Harry’s.
Queen Victoria & Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1840)
Queen Victoria and Albert’s wedding cake consisted of two tiers covered in white royal icing — it set a new standard for wedding cake design. Weighing in at 300 pounds, the English plum cake (a variation on fruitcake) was enormous by all metrics; it had a 9- or 10-foot circumference. Greek- and Roman-style leafy swags, floral bouquets, and curlicues decorated the sides. Crowning the top were small Roman-style sculptures of Britannia (the female personification of Britain), the bride and groom dressed in Roman attire, and a model of the queen’s favorite dog.
The innovation of royal icing is attributed to baker and recipe writer Elizabeth Raffald, who developed the shiny and pure white cake coating as a layer to decorate marzipan-topped fruitcakes, especially for weddings.
Princess Royal Victoria, Queen of Prussia & German Emperor Frederick III (1858)
Queen Victoria’s first daughter had one of the most elaborate weddings of the century. Her round, multilayered cake appeared to take inspiration from Roman and Baroque architectural styles, with the spiraled Solomonic columns harkening to Biblical times. Festoons, or garlands of leaves create four quadrants around the cake’s central column; beneath each is an indented arch within which lies a figure. Below, cameos and reliefs of faces and crests decorate the bottom layer.
As the princess royal was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, her marriage into German court was as much a political move as it was a celebration of love. The Roman-style reliefs, sculptures of the couple, shell-shaped corbels, and fluted moldings suggested and celebrated empire building as much as they did wedded bliss.
King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra (1863)
Before he became King Edward VII, he was known as the prince of Wales and married Princess Alexandra of Denmark at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle (where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be wed).
The ceremony featured a wedding cake that looked a lot like the facade of a Gothic church, though it was round rather than oblong. A close look reveals touches that look like they were lifted right off Paris’s Notre-Dame — with the exception of those great round stained glass windows.
A sculpted pot of flowers crowned the top instead of a spire, but the design featured pinnacles (small spires), tracery (spine-like structures), small flying buttresses, and pointed arches — all markers of classic Gothic style. Garlands and bouquets of flowers adorned the edges of the cake instead of gargoyals. In the center, a staid cameo of the prince held court.
Princess Louise and the Marquess of Lorne (1871)
Princess Louise’s wedding cake appeared to take inspiration from the art and architecture of the Italian and French renaissance, as well as Greek mythology, which is appropriate, as the princess, a feminist in her day, was also a proponent of the arts.
The female figure holding a pitcher at the top of the cake looked like Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth. Cherubs, flowers, vases, Greek Corinthian columns, and other figures decorated the cake, which had a hollow center filled with figures under arches, at each face.
Louise was the first royal daughter to marry a British subject (rather than nobility from another country) in three centuries; after convincing her mother, Queen Victoria, the pair wed at Windsor Castle.
Queen Elizabeth II & Philip Mountbatten (1947)
London bakery McVitie and Price produced the main cake for then-Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Philip Mountbatten (who was, until just before he married Elizabeth, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark). The four-tiered cake stood 9 feet tall, weighed around 500 pounds, and produced 2,000 slices. It was a fruitcake that contained 80 oranges and lemons, 660 eggs, and more than three gallons of Navy Run.
Just two years after the end of World War II, certain items were still subject to rationing, and some ingredients for the cake were shipped in from around the world, including the sugar, which came from the Australian Girl Guides Association. As a result, the cake was nicknamed “The 10,000 Mile Cake.”
Another cake gifted to the couple came from Lyons of Cadby Hall and was made by chief decorator F.E. Jacobs. The cake was Wedgwood blue and white, with three tiers, decorative vases, pillars, and panels bearing Elizabeth’s coat of arms, the initials “EP,” and crowns.
Princess Margaret & Antony Armstrong-Jones (1960)
The hexagonal wedding cake for Princess Margaret, younger sister to the queen, stood 5 feet tall with three tiers separated with simple column stands. Its design borrowed more from French architecture, especially Louis XVI style and Neoclassicism. Trellises peeked out of each layer, and round reliefs decorated each side. This cake also had more color than previous royal cakes, which added eye-catching detail.
It was made by J. Lyons and Company Ltd. at its Cadby Hall bakery in Hammersmith, London, and it weighed 150 pounds. Decorations included the couple’s initials, the princess’s coat of arms, and an English rose.
Charles, Prince of Wales & Lady Diana Spencer (1981)
While there were reportedly 27 cakes at the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, the official cake came from David Avery, head baker of the Royal Naval Cookery School. With five tiers, the fruitcake stood more than 5 feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, with decorations that included the family coat of arms, the couple’s initials, and flowers.
Each layer took a pentagon shape, and the slowly diminishing tiers were set atop Corinthian Roman columns. The overall effect was one of a German Christmas pyramid. This shape and spacing of cake layers with columns influenced British and American wedding cakes for decades.
Prince Charles & Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (2005)
At Prince Charles’s second wedding, to Camilla Parker Bowles, the couple had a fruitcake made by Dawn Blunden of Sophisticake of Lincolnshire, U.K. It weighed around 240 pounds, and was covered in a sweet sugar paste called fondant. Blunden used royal icing to pipe a trellis along the sides. The Prince’s royal crests, sugar roses, leeks, daffodils, thistles, and the letter C, representing both Charles and Camilla, also adorned the square, two-layer cake. The smaller profile of this cake aligns with the (unique to royal history) marriage, which the queen approved for her son after his first wife, Diana, died.
Prince William & Kate Middleton (2011)
Though it was only a few years ago, the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton retained the British wedding tradition of fruitcake, though rather than a coating of royal icing, this cake was covered in fondant, a soft sugar paste. The towering eight tiers’ worth of candied fruit and bitter spirits was adorned with 900 sugar paste ribbons, bows, flowers — including roses — and leaves; tiered swags and pearls were piped on with royal icing.
The cake, which aside from its size appears more influenced by jewelry than architecture, came from pastry chef Fiona Cairns, who brought in a team to assemble it over the course of two and a half days. It stood 3 feet tall and weighed 220 pounds. A second cake, or groom’s cake, was an unbaked chocolate biscuit cake by McVitie’s Cake Company, the modern descendant of McVitie & Price, which made the wedding cake for William’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.
Prince Harry & Meghan Markle (May 19, 2018)
The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle featured a cake from American-born Claire Ptak of East London’s Violet Bakery. The chef baked a lemon-flavored sponge cake, soaked it in an elderflower cordial syrup (“made at The Queen’s residence in Sandringham from the estate’s own elderflower trees”), and covered it in Swiss meringue buttercream flavored with elderflower, per official announcements from the royal family. It was then covered in 150 fresh flowers — “mainly British, and in season, including peonies and roses.” The cakes were not all stacked on top of each other, but arranged atop footed, golden bowls and a mirrored tray.
Ptak trained for a time at trailblazing chef Alice Waters’s Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse. The now-London-based baker recently released her fourth cookbook, The Violet Bakery Cookbook, which showcases her straightforward biscuits, scones, and cakes.
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