Princess Diana: A minute by minute guide to the Royal Wedding

In glorious July sunshine, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, 40 years ago this month, provided Britain with a rare blast of celebration during a difficult summer.

Nearly ten per cent of the British workforce was unemployed, interest rates were over 14 per cent, and both were rising. There had been four months of sporadic rioting across England, in places such as Brixton, South London, Handsworth in Birmingham, and Liverpool’s Toxteth. The Government was locked in a battle with Irish Republican hunger strikers – six of whom, including Bobby Sands, had died.

On July 29, 1981, more than 600,000 people lined the streets of London. The wedding reached a global TV audience of 750 million viewers in 74 countries, including 28.4 million in Britain. In the words of one of the bridesmaids, India Hicks, ‘everyone was looking for a fairy tale’.

On July 29, 1981, more than 600,000 people lined the streets of London. The wedding reached a global TV audience of 750 million viewers in 74 countries, including 28.4 million in Britain. In the words of one of the bridesmaids, India Hicks, ‘everyone was looking for a fairy tale’

Tuesday, July 28, 1981 

The night before

Half a million people gather in London’s Hyde Park for a Royal fireworks display. Thousands more have set up camps along the route to St Paul’s Cathedral. Fourteen-year-old David Cameron [who was to become Prime Minister 29 years later] arrived at 10am to bag a good spot in The Mall and set up camp overnight.

In Liverpool, much smaller crowds are collecting on the streets of Toxteth, where, after a three-week lull, tensions have resurfaced over economic decline and policing techniques. In Belfast, families of the hunger strikers want to avoid more deaths and request a meeting with the leading Republican Gerry Adams, while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher again insists the deaths are the sole responsibility of the IRA.

At Edgbaston cricket ground in Birmingham, the pitch is ready for the Fourth Test in the Ashes series. England had just defied 500-1 odds to beat Australia at Headingley in one of the most memorable matches in cricketing history.

At Buckingham Palace, the Queen is hosting dinner for 90 international dignitaries.

7.30pm At Clarence House, the Queen Mother and Lady Fermoy, Diana’s grandmother, watch Dad’s Army on TV. In another room, Diana is dining with her sister, Jane. Ten years later, Diana revealed to her biographer Andrew Morton that she ‘had a very bad fit of bulimia,’ adding: ‘I ate everything I could possibly find.’ Charles has sent over ‘a very nice signet ring’ with a note: ‘I’m so proud of you and when you come up I’ll be there at the altar for you tomorrow. Just look ’em in the eye and knock ’em dead.’

In Belfast, Gerry Adams promises hunger strikers’ families that he’ll recommend a suspension of the protest to allow time to assess reforms at the Maze Prison, where the protest is taking place, offered by the Thatcher government.

The 1981 Royal Wedding provided a moment of happiness for a nation facing economic and social problems

The 1981 Royal Wedding provided a moment of happiness for a nation facing economic and social problems 

9.25pm Darkness falls and the life-size model of the front of Buckingham Palace as it was in 1749 casts a golden glow over Hyde Park. Bus-loads of dignitaries arrive from the Queen’s banquet along a route illuminated by Scouts holding burning torches. Nancy Reagan, travelling without her US President husband Ronald, is accompanied by Prince Andrew. Raymond Baxter, commentating on the night’s events for the BBC, reels off the names of the royalty and international leaders entering the Royal Stand. India Hicks, Earl Mountbatten’s 13-year-old granddaughter, is brimming with excitement about being a bridesmaid. In Clarence House, yards from the crowds camping on The Mall, Diana is, she confides, feeling ‘as sick as a parrot.’

9.55pm Prince Charles lights the fuse to ignite the first bonfire of the hundreds that will be form a chain across Britain. A vast screen shows Diana’s younger brother, Eton schoolboy Charles Spencer, lighting the bonfire at her childhood home of Althorp, Northamptonshire.

10.10pm Antique cannons fire a salute and five marching bands play Handel’s 1749 work Music For The Royal Fireworks. The windows of the Palace facade gleam like stained glass and rockets explode into the air, showering coloured stars.

11pm The firework display closes with a vast, spinning ‘sun’, trailing bright flares. The Queen and her immediate family are whisked away. An excited Miranda Brett, 16, is in the crowd with her first-ever boyfriend, Frank, but she’s lost him in the crush. She says: ‘It was the first time I’d been in such a huge crowd. At Hyde Park Corner, the traffic couldn’t pass and although someone shouted “Let the car through”, no one would.’

Lady Pamela Hicks is worrying how she’ll be able to drive home and get her daughter India to bed in good time. Princess Margaret suggests India can stay with her and her daughter, the chief bridesmaid, Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, at Kensington Palace.

Diana, in Clarence House, can’t get to sleep and goes downstairs where Backstairs Billy, aka the Queen Mother’s Steward, William Tallon, offers her a drink. She chooses orange juice.

Then she spots his bicycle, leaps on it and cycles around in circles, ringing the bell and singing: ‘I’m going to marry the Prince of Wales tomorrow!’

Welwishers, including this Arsenal fan, left, lined the streets of the route on the day before the wedding

Welwishers, including this Arsenal fan, left, lined the streets of the route on the day before the wedding

In Toxteth, a 23-year-old disabled man called David Moore is visiting his friends and encounters a crowd near Falkner Square that is being dispersed by a police Land Rover. Local resident Yusuf recalls everyone throwing stones at the vehicle, hoping to stop it, as they race out of the way. Moore can’t run because of his limp and is hit by the Land Rover. Yusuf says the police officer in charge immediately calls an ambulance. But as soon as Moore is driven to hospital, ‘the riot starts up again’ and ambulanceman David Sullivan later revealed: ‘We tried to get this lad away as fast as we could. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.’

Midnight In Buckingham Palace, Prince Charles is looking out from a window with the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting, Lady Susan Hussey. Down at the end of the Mall around the Victoria Monument, police officers remove their helmets and are doing the Hokey Cokey with the crowds. Finally, Miranda Brett finds her boyfriend and they are dancing in The Mall.

Now at Kensington Palace, India Hicks has been given a small, chilly bedroom when there is a knock at the door. Princess Margaret is standing there in her nightie, offering a toothbrush. India reckons it is the Queen’s sister’s own toothbrush. A mile away, Diana is in her Clarence House bedroom, finding it hard to sleep with the noise of the singing crowds.

Wednesday, July 29 

The Wedding Day

5am Last night’s warm evening has long turned cold in The Mall. Miranda and Frank are in their sleeping bags on the grass of St James’s Park, listening to music on her Sony Walkman. She’s beginning to feel bored.

Diana awakens. She feels ‘very, very calm, deathly calm’, confessing later: ‘I felt I was a lamb to the slaughter. I knew it and couldn’t do anything about it.’

6am Street cleaners sweep the roads between Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.

7am Hairdresser Kevin Shanley and make-up artist Barbara Daly arrive at Clarence House. Five thousand police and military officers line up along the two-mile route. The crowds are unaware that one in ten officers is armed, including some disguised as carriage footmen. Sharpshooters are stationed on the rooftops to defend against a possible IRA attack.

7.45am The bridesmaids arrive at Clarence House. India Hicks remembers it as ‘organised mayhem, really wonderful – the hustle and bustle of a bride’. Diana’s hair has been done and she is wearing her Spencer family diamond – and jeans. She watches ITV’s wedding day coverage on a small, portable television and shoos anyone who gets in the way of her viewing. In the breaks, they all sing along to the Cornetto adverts.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the wedding

Princess Diana and Prince Charles appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the wedding 

8am Across the country, preparations for street parties begin: Union Jack bunting is threaded between lampposts. Trestle tables are collected from church halls. In Driffield Gardens, Tonbridge, Kent, residents mow the communal grass. Children are trimming the edges with scissors.

9am In Clarence House, the bridesmaids are dressed and join Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother to admire Diana in her wedding dress. Everyone laughs as the designer, David Emanuel, suddenly emerges from beneath her voluminous skirt. He’s been hooking her petticoat. Diana introduces him to the Queen Mother.

Diana applies a dab of her favourite scent, Quelques Fleurs, on her wrists but accidentally spills some down her dress. Unable to remove it, Ms Daly tells her to hold that spot on her dress when she walks in to the cathedral so it looks as if she is merely lifting the front in order not to step on it.

In Belfast, Gerry Adams and representatives from Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Socialist Party visit hunger strikers to try to persuade them to suspend their action. The strikers refuse to give up.

10am In St Paul’s Cathedral, 3,500 wedding guests are shown to their labelled seats. Cabinet Ministers and their wives are seated together and chatting animatedly – except for the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, who sits in silence, his head bowed, his mind elsewhere. In later years, he’ll say he retained no memories of the wedding. Having helped to bring together public and private investment in Merseyside, he feels a personal responsibility for the renewed violence in the area.

10.22am A procession of eight carriages sets off from Buckingham Palace. Miranda Brett finds herself five rows back on the pavement. She photographs the man in front of her who is wearing only a T-shirt and Union Jack boxer shorts.

10.42am The Royal Family arrives at St Paul’s Cathedral.

10.50am Prince Charles walks up the aisle with his two best men, Princes Andrew and Edward, to the sound of Purcell’s Trumpet Tune.

Diana sets off from Clarence House with her father, Earl Spencer, in a glass carriage. ‘Father was so thrilled, he waved himself stupid.’ Miranda Brett gets a snap of the bride and belts home to Fulham on an empty Tube train to watch the ceremony on TV.

The Queen and the Queen mother were also standing on the balcony on the happy day

The Queen and the Queen mother were also standing on the balcony on the happy day

11.20am Diana’s carriage arrives at St Paul’s. As she emerges, BBC commentator Tom Fleming declares: ‘For the first time we see in all its glory…’ he pauses, ‘that dress!’ Angela Rippon takes up the commentary: ‘What a dream she looks; what a dream she looks, that’s a sight any man would be happy to see coming down the aisle.’ Rippon goes on to admire Diana’s tiny waist.

During the couple’s five-month engagement, her waist has shrunk from 29in to 23½in and her dress has been taken in five times.

Bridesmaids Sarah Armstrong-Jones and India Hicks wait at the bottom of the cathedral steps to help manage Diana’s 25ft silk taffeta train, the longest train in wedding history.

India remembers: ‘We realised to our horror that the train had been completely crumpled in the small carriage.’ During rehearsals, they practised with a strip of dress cloth but silk taffeta behaves differently. India’s lasting memory of the wedding is of stooping, bottom in the air, trying to straighten the crushed material.

11.23am Saluted by a fanfare, Diana and Earl Spencer begin the three-and-a-half-minute walk up the long aisle. He is recovering from a cerebral haemorrhage and leans heavily on her. Diana has suspicions about Charles’s feelings for Camilla Parker Bowles and spots her ‘pale grey, veiled pillbox hat… and her son Tom standing on a chair’. The BBC’s Tom Fleming describes this as ‘the longest and happiest walk she will ever take’.

11.38am The couple make their vows. She gets the order of his names wrong. He vows to endow ‘thy worldly goods’, rather than his own. Their words are broadcast on outdoor speakers and when Diana says ‘I will’, the silent congregation inside the Cathedral hears an explosion of cheers from the streets. The King and Queen of Tonga pass sweets along their row.

Midday The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, preaches to the congregation, saying: ‘If we solved all our economic problems and failed to build loving families, it would profit us nothing, because the family is the place where the future is created good and full of love – or deformed.’

As the couple sign the register, the opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa sings Handel’s Let The Bright Seraphim. Out of sight, make-up artist Barbara Daly raises Diana’s veil and touches up her lipstick and powder.

12.27pm Charles and Diana emerge from the West Door into the bright sunshine. They smile broadly and the delighted crowd claps, whistles and cheers. The couple climb into an open-top 1902 state landau pulled by four white horses. The Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry Regiment, Andrew Parker Bowles, rides beside the carriage on the journey to Buckingham Palace.

Tearful bridesmaid Catherine Cameron, six-year-old daughter of Charles’s friend Lady Cecil Cameron, alights into a carriage despite being very allergic to horses.


The crowds surge down The Mall towards Buckingham Palace. Ten rows of police officers march slowly in front of them to prevent a stampede. England cricket captain Mike Brearley listens to the wedding coverage on the radio as he drives up the motorway to Edgbaston for the next day’s Test match.

1.10pm The Royal party waves to the crowds from the Buckingham Palace balcony. Charles and Diana kiss. Diana will describe herself at this moment as having ‘tremendous hope’.

1.30pm Inside the Palace, the youngest bridesmaid, Clemmie Hambro, aged four, trips over and Diana sweeps her up and carries her to the platform for the official photographs. Princes Andrew and Edward relax everyone with a stream of risqué jokes. Diana is exhausted and finally slumps down.

Millions of people around the world watched on television as teh couple got married

Millions of people around the world watched on television as teh couple got married 

2pm At the wedding breakfast, 120 guests are seated on circular tables. Charles and Diana sit next to each other but are too ‘shattered’ to speak. Little Clemmie sits on Diana’s lap. They are served brill with lobster sauce, chicken breast stuffed with lamb, fava beans and sweetcorn and new potatoes and salad. There are strawberries and clotted cream for pudding.

In Driffield Gardens, Tonbridge, children are sitting on long tables being served fairy cakes, crisps and squash. The adults are standing around drinking tea.

Most people are dressed for a wedding. Some have made Union Jack hats, decorated with pictures of the bride and groom. One woman is wearing only a swimming costume and high heels.

In Toxteth, Yusuf is at a ‘mock the wedding’ party in Park Road where a couple have dressed up as Charles and Di. ‘It was for fun – just to take the mickey out of the Royal Family. You know, we’d had the riots… we didn’t like the Royal Family, and that was it,’ he said. Mike Brearley inspects the Edgbaston pitch with team-mates Geoffrey Boycott and Bob Willis. It is very dry. Boycott thinks the grass needs cutting, but Brearley ignores him.

3pm Diana leaves the wedding breakfast and walks upstairs to change into her going-away outfit with her sisters and the two oldest bridesmaids. India Hicks remembers: ‘It all felt very girly and giggly and wonderful.’ Diana phones the Emanuels to say how much she, and everyone, has loved the dress.

3.45pm Across Britain, people at street parties are playing games. In Driffield Gardens, Tonbridge, there are piggy-back races and three-legged races, rounded off with the Hokey Cokey.

4pm The Queen, Queen Mother and Princess Margaret run across the gravel courtyard to wave goodbye to Charles and Diana. Princes Andrew and Edward have decorated the going-away carriage with helium balloons and a handmade sign saying ‘Just Married’.

The route over Westminster Bridge to Waterloo Station is lined with crowds who throw confetti on the newlyweds.

5pm India Hicks is driven home to Albany, near Piccadilly, to rest – she is excited ahead of that night’s ball at the Palace.

Charles and Diana set off from Waterloo in the Royal Train, heading to the Mountbatten estate of Broadlands, Hampshire, where the Queen and Prince Philip also honeymooned in 1947.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Reverend Alan Webster, tells The Washington Post: ‘It’s become a world event. There is now a real international sense that we all want it to work.’

6pm At Edgbaston, England’s cricketers gather for a pre-dinner team talk. There is a long conversation about press intrusion. Ian Botham is furious that his three-year-old son Liam has been questioned by a reporter about what food his daddy eats at home. He announces that he will no longer do post-match interviews.

7pm In London, teams of street cleaners tackle the debris.

Having lain down to rest ‘for a minute’ before the ball, India Hicks wakes up 11 hours later. ‘I had missed the ball. I’ve never forgiven my mother!’

In the following days, Michael Heseltine will return to Liverpool for a three-week visit, followed by spending a day a week there for 18 months, as he seeks to resolve the issues that triggered the riots.

India Hicks starts to get fan mail, and her mother insists that she writes a thank-you reply to each one.

In Belfast, the mother of 29-year-old Paddy Quinn, who had been jailed for 14 years for attempting to kill British soldiers, will insist on medical intervention to save his life. It is the beginning of the end of the hunger strike.

In Edgbaston, Ian Botham will take five Australian wickets for one run off 28 balls, delivering a sensational England victory for the second time in a row in the six-match series.

Charles and Diana will fly to Gibraltar to join the Royal Yacht Britannia for a cruise around the Mediterranean before ending their honeymoon on the banks of the River Dee in Balmoral. 

  • Emma Craigie is author of Hitler’s Last Day: Minute By Minute, with Jonathan Mayo (Short Books).