The dress of the century? It was designed for a girl called Deborah: That’s the codename given for Diana to keep her wedding gown under wraps — just one of the tantalising details in this definitive, poignant account of the day the whole of Britain fell in love, 40 years ago today

  • Prince Charles and Lady Diana married at a time of recession and riots in Britain
  • Jonathan Mayo gives an account of their wedding day on July 29th 1981
  • Diana had dress fittings at Elizabeth and David Emanuel’s London studio 
  • Elizabeth recalls having shutters on the windows and using codename ‘Deborah’ 

Britain was in the grip of a recession and dogged by riots and rising unemployment in July 1981. The nation needed the distraction of a fairytale royal wedding.

As the country prepared itself for a national celebration, Prince Charles and Lady Diana were each wrestling with doubts. Even before their engagement was announced, Charles had written to a friend: ‘I expect that it will be the right thing in the end.’ While Diana, a few days before the wedding, discovered a bracelet Charles intended to give to Camilla Parker Bowles.

Distraught, she told her sisters she couldn’t go through with the marriage. They replied: ‘Well, bad luck, Duch [her family nickname], your face is on the tea-towels, you’re too late to chicken out.’

July 29, 1981


Lady Diana Spencer, 20, is waking up in the Queen Mother’s home, Clarence House. She hasn’t had much sleep as her room faces the crowds on the Mall, where thousands have slept overnight.

Jonathan Mayo gives a detailed account of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding day on July 29th 1981. Pictured: The couple share a kiss on the balcony at Buckingham Palace

The week has been a celebratory marathon — girls caroused in Lady Di wigs, London’s exclusive Embassy Club held a party for people called Charles and Diana and, at a firework display in Hyde Park the night before the wedding, Prince Charles lit the first of 101 beacons that stretched between Land’s End and the Shetlands. This morning, so many well-wishers have caught early trains into London that machines have run out of tickets.

Earlier, BBC and ITV screened an interview with the couple. Diana said she was ‘looking forward to being a good wife’. Charles said she was ‘marvellous, oh, a tower of strength’.

‘Gracious!’ Diana exclaimed.

‘I had to say that,’ he replied, ‘because you’re sitting there.’

Before the fireworks and as the Queen Mother watched the Dad’s Army film on TV, Diana had supper with her sister Jane, who was staying at Clarence House with her. Diana said later she had an attack of bulimia that night, after ‘eating all I could find’.

William Tallon, a page of the Queen Mother’s, remembered having a drink with Diana before she went to bed. She borrowed Tallon’s bike and rode around singing: ‘I’m going to marry the Prince of Wales tomorrow!’ and ringing the bell. Tallon thought she seemed like ‘a little girl’.


John Betjeman, the poet laureate, has written a poem for this morning: ‘Blackbirds in City churchyards hail the dawn/Charles and Diana on your wedding morn … And all of those assembled there/ Are joyful in the love you share.’

More than 4,000 coaches are expected in the capital. There’s good news for car drivers — London parking meters are free for the day.


Street vendors are selling wares all over London. It is estimated there are more than a thousand souvenirs available, from mugs, stamps and coins, to Charles and Di beach balls. For some, the day is bringing back memories of VE Day 36 years before.

‘It’s just like the end of the war all over again. Just like a party with guests all over the world,’ a policeman tells a Daily Mail reporter. ‘What a Party — What a Day!’ is the paper’s headline.

Elizabeth Emanuel, who was involved in preparing Diana’s dress, said they had shutters on the windows and left false trails in their bins. Pictured: Lady Diana Spencer, her bridesmaids and the Queen


Diana’s hairdresser Kevin Shanley and make-up artist Barbara Daly arrive at Clarence House. Diana is watching the coverage of the crowds on TV. She looks at Shanley and teases him that today of all days he should be wearing a tie.

He washes her hair and puts in rollers. Diana is wearing a signet ring engraved with the Prince of Wales feathers Charles gave her the previous day, with a card saying: ‘I’m so proud of you and when you come up I’ll be there at the altar for you tomorrow. Look ’em in the eye and knock ’em dead.’


Elizabeth and David Emanuel are preparing the wedding dress. For the past few weeks, Diana has been going to the young designers’ small central London studio for fittings. These appointments are crucial as Diana has lost two stone since her engagement; her waist has dropped from 29 to 23 in.

Such is the interest in the dress, the Emanuels have resorted to subterfuge; Elizabeth Emanuel recalled: ‘We were so worried, we had shutters on the windows and left false trails in our bins and put in false threads.’ Diana was given the codename ‘Deborah’.

The Queen Mother comes into Diana’s bedroom: ‘My dear, you look enchanting!’ she says.


Across the country, roads have been cordoned off for parties. Bunting is being stretched between houses, tables put up and speakers placed in windows. Radio 2 and Radio 4 start a joint broadcast. Lining the route for the BBC are Wynford Vaughan-Thomas at the Victoria Memorial, Sue MacGregor in the Strand, Lorraine Chase in Fleet Street and Rolf Harris at Australia House.

The BBC had 60 outside cameras in place, and 300 staff by 9.45am. Pictured: The honeymoon carriage awaits the newlyweds


The BBC has 60 outside cameras in place, and 300 staff. Angela Rippon has been chosen to front their TV coverage, while ITV have veterans Andrew Gardner and Alastair Burnet leading their broadcast.

The American networks are also out in force. For weeks, NBC have been running promotional trails declaring: ‘When England’s future king says ‘I do!’ a shy 20-year-old girl turns into a royal princess. Watch the fairytale come true!’

On the TV in Diana’s rooms at Clarence House, an advert comes on and she insists everyone in the room joins her in singing: ‘Just One Cornetto!’


At Paul’s Cathedral the congregation are taking their seats. Charles and Diana have been involved in the guest list.

A few weeks ago, Charles was presented with names which included almost 300 diplomats. He scribbled ‘Ridiculous’ on the list and wrote: ‘All sorts of people have got onto a list of “friends” who are not … please could I have a copy of the full list to check what is going on?’ Since then, the couple have made sure staff, including housemaids from the Royal Palaces and workers from Diana’s family home of Althorp, are invited.

Bookmakers are seeing a flurry of bets for Champagne Charlie in the 4.40 at Goodwood and Wedded Bliss at the 6.45 at Doncaster.


The five bridesmaids leave Clarence House in their carriage. They are wearing scalloped dresses with yellow sashes designed by the Emanuels and carrying baskets of yellow roses and wildflowers.

So many well-wishers caught early trains into London that machines ran out of tickets. Pictured: Well-wishers

At the rehearsal two days before, the bridesmaids had laughed when they saw one of the St Paul’s staff take his place in the procession with a placard around his neck saying he was Princess Margaret.

India Hicks, Charles’ goddaughter, then aged ten, remembered Diana as ‘gentle, very shy, and she was someone that as a young girl you thought was everything a princess should be. Very beautiful, very young, very calm — and yet there was a nervousness about her.’


Prince Charles, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Commander, and his ‘supporter’ Prince Andrew (Royals don’t have a best man) leave Buckingham Palace in the State Landau. Six thousand soldiers and policemen line the route. Most face the crowd looking for anyone suspicious. Six weeks earlier, during the Queen’s Birthday Parade, a man fired six shots at the monarch. They were blanks, but security has been tightened.


At Clarence House, Elizabeth and David Emanuel help Diana into the Glass Coach that was built for George V’s coronation. Around the country, pubs are opening. Each region has different opening hours and most pubs will shut for a period during the afternoon, but the fortunate citizens of Aberystwyth can celebrate all day as their pubs will remain open until midnight.


The Queen and Prince Philip are met on the steps of St Paul’s by the Lord Mayor. The Queen has paid for the entire wedding, including £12,500 to shut the cathedral for three days. Prince Charles arrives and greets the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie.

 The leader of the Greater London Council Ken Livingstone let the Press know that he intended to be working through the morning. Pictured: Princess Diana 

The Archbishop has had new silver vestments made specially for the service, but confessed to Mrs Thatcher a few days earlier that they made him look like something out of Star Wars. ‘I like you dressed in silver,’ Prince Charles reassures Runcie.


Diana’s coach passes close to the church of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square. Her father, who has been ‘waving himself stupid’ in Diana’s words, thinks they have arrived at St Paul’s and prepares to exit the carriage. Earl ‘Johnny’ Spencer, 57, had a near-fatal stroke three years ago and was in hospital for eight months.

The Earl’s mother-in-law Barbara Cartland has not been invited in case she turned up in her trademark pink feathers and made a spectacle. Some members of the Spencer family threatened a boycott if she was on the guest list. She is instead throwing a party for St John Ambulance Volunteers and watching the coverage on TV.


The crowds are 20-deep along the procession; some are throwing flowers as the coach passes. Diana can hear them shouting ‘You look fabulous!’ and ‘Good luck!’

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the wedding. The leader of the Greater London Council Ken Livingstone has let the Press know that he intends to be working through the morning. The Communist Morning Star newspaper carries the headline ‘For Richer and Richer’.

At St Paul’s all the guests are now in place, including the Crowned heads of Europe and 160 foreign leaders. President Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy has come alone but brought along a 12-strong security detail for the trip.

Mrs Reagan told reporters that her week in London is the longest she’s been apart from her husband in 29 years of marriage.

At the front of the congregation, dressed in blue, are Diana’s three former flatmates: Ann Bolton, Carolyn Pride and Virginia Pitman. When Diana moved out of their flat in West London a few weeks ago, she left them a note: ‘For God’s sake ring me up — I’m going to need you.’

David Emanuel said Diana chose an ivory colour dress to flatter her English Rose complexion. Pictured: Diana and Charles riding in a carriage after their wedding 


Diana arrives at St Paul’s on time and the world gets its first proper look at the dress. It is ivory instead of the traditional white because, as David Emanuel wrote in the Daily Mail the next day: ‘It’s so much more flattering to the skin — especially to the English Rose complexion.’

The dress is made of silk taffeta and antique lace that once belonged to Queen Mary. Ten thousand pearls and mother-of-pearl sequins have been hand-sewn onto the bodice. Diana’s slippers have suede soles to prevent her slipping and low heels so she won’t be taller than the groom.

But the dress is crumpled and creased because the 25ft train is too big for the coach. David Emanuel later recalled: ‘When I saw Diana arrive at St Paul’s and we saw the creases, I felt faint.’ He and his wife Elizabeth dash forward and spread it out.

Earl Spencer is helped up the cathedral steps by an aide. Diana says to her father: ‘Are you all right? Do you want to hold my arm for a moment?’ He replies: ‘I’m all right. Really, I am.’ Watching at home Barbara Cartland says to her St John Ambulance guests: ‘I know we’ve got a cardiac unit at the cathedral but have we got oxygen there for Johnny?’


Diana enters the Cathedral to a fanfare and, with her father, begins the three-minute 15-seconds walk up the aisle. As she walked, a BBC commentator called it: ‘The longest and happiest walk she will ever take’.

Some 750 million people around the world are now watching on TV. The marriage ceremony seems surreal to Diana; at heart she still feels just a kindergarten teacher. The congregation sing ‘Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation’. Charles once said he finds the hymn so moving that, when he hears it sung, he can ‘spend half the time in tears’.

The 3,500 people that made up the congregation sang the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country, a favourite of Diana’s since her schoolday. Pictured: Charles and Diana leaving St Paul’s Cathedral


After a blessing from the Dean of St Paul’s, the Archbishop tells the couple: ‘If either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it.’ Prince Philip cheekily turns around and looks at the congregation.

When Charles and Diana both in turn say: ‘I will’, there is a great cheer from outside the Cathedral. Then Diana fluffs her vows. She muddles the groom’s name, calling him ‘Philip Charles Arthur George’. Charles in turn says ‘All thy goods with thee I share’ instead of ‘All my worldly goods with thee I share’. Some speculate that his mistake was made on purpose to put Diana at ease.


From the pulpit Archbishop Runcie begins his sermon in which he hints at his misgivings about the marriage: ‘This is the stuff of fairytales … those who are married live happily ever after the wedding day if they persevere in the real adventure, which is the royal task of creating each other and creating a more loving world.’ When Charles and Diana came to Lambeth Palace to discuss the wedding arrangements, the Archbishop’s chaplain Richard Chartres thought the Prince was ‘seriously depressed’.

Runcie said later, ‘We thought it was an arranged marriage, but my view was: “They’re a nice couple, and she’ll grow into it.”’

Part way through his sermon some TV camera gear topples over, causing a moment of alarm for the security.


The 3,500 people that make up the congregation are singing the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country, a favourite of Diana’s since her schooldays. It will be sung 16 years later at her funeral.

The wedding photos were taken by the Queen’s cousin, Lord Lichfield. Pictured: Prince Charles and Diana on the balcony of Buckingham Palace


As the register is signed in an ante-chamber, Kiri Te Kanawa sings ‘Let The Bright Seraphim’ from Handel’s Samson. Barbara Daly takes the opportunity to refresh Diana’s make-up. The Queen of Tonga is cooling her husband, the King, by waving a rattan fan to the music. The 25-stone King is sitting on a specially made double-sized chair.


The wedding service is over and bride and groom walk back down the aisle to the Pomp And Circumstance March No. 4 in G by Elgar. Most of the congregation bow their heads as the couple pass, while former-Goon Spike Milligan waves at them. Diana spots Camilla Parker Bowles in a grey suit and matching pillbox hat with a veil, with her son Tom standing on a chair next to her. Diana has insisted Camilla is not invited to the wedding breakfast.


The newly married Prince and Princess of Wales leave St Paul’s and get into the State Landau to travel to Buckingham Palace. The cathedral bells start a peal that will last for four and a half hours.

For her journey to the cathedral, Diana had a mounted police escort but now she is a member of the Royal Family, her carriage is escorted by the Household Cavalry. The men are under the command of Camilla’s husband Andrew Parker Bowles.

Because of the shots fired at the Queen in June, he and other officers have walkie-talkies in their saddles with orders to surround the Queen at any sign of trouble.

Behind Charles and Diana on their carriage are two footmen in powdered wigs, silk stockings and breeches; one is an armed Scotland Yard detective.


Outside Buckingham Palace and up the length of the Mall, tens of thousands have gathered. A chant goes up: ‘We want Di! We want Di! We want Charlie!’ Finally the couple appear and Charles kisses his bride’s hand. This isn’t enough for the crowd.

Prince Andrew says: ‘Go on, give her a kiss.’ Charles replies: ‘I’m not getting into that caper,’ but Andrew insists. Charles says to his bride, ‘Well, how about it?’ and Diana replies ‘Why ever not?’ They kiss full on the lips. It is the first kiss on the Palace balcony.


The wedding photographs are being taken by the Queen’s cousin, Lord Lichfield. He has brought a whistle to keep everyone’s attention. Prince Charles pulls faces to make Diana laugh.

Diana and Charles (pictured) were taken to Waterloo Station in an open landau to take the Royal Train to Broadlands, just as the Queen and Prince Philip did on their wedding day


The wedding breakfast guests are being served quenelles of brill with lobster sauce, chicken breasts and strawberries and cream. The 5ft-high wedding cake took Royal Navy chefs two days to make; the ingredients include 150 eggs, which took half an hour to break, and so much fruit that four people spent six hours washing it. Charles and Diana are sat next to each other and years later her memory is that they were too tired to talk.


Just as the Queen and Prince Philip had done on their wedding day in 1947, the newlyweds are taken to Waterloo Station in an open landau to take the Royal Train to Broadlands, the former home of Lord Mountbatten.

Diana has changed into a pink ensemble and Charles into a grey suit. They will stay at Broadlands for two nights before joining the Royal Yacht Britannia in Gibraltar. The landau has been decorated by Princes Andrew and Edward with balloons and a sign saying ‘Just Married’.

Charles wrote to a friend a few days after the wedding: ‘What an unbelievable day it was — that went far too quickly … a revelation to find the real heart and soul of the nation being exposed for a moment in good, old- fashioned, innocent enjoyment.’


At Doncaster racecourse, Wedded Bliss comes in first at 9-1.

In London, more than 60 street cleaners wearing red carnation buttonholes are clearing up the litter left by the crowds, as well as the hundreds of tons of sand put down for the carriage parade.

The TV coverage of the wedding has finished. The BBC is now showing The Sound Of Music and ITV has Saturday Night Fever. The first copy of Diana’s dress, made out of polyester satin, is already in an Oxford Street department store window.


At Broadlands, the newlyweds are in the same suite the Queen and Prince Philip had for their first night together. There is a French print above the bedroom fireplace. Diana asks Charles to translate the text beneath it. He reluctantly agrees, saying: ‘It isn’t very hopeful.’ Charles reads: ‘Consideration, tenderness, courtesy, all flow from this day. But soon Hymen [the god of marriage] will languish and, behold, love will fly away.’

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