Queen Victoria's 300-pound wedding cake set a big new trend for brides

Sweet treats had been a part of nuptial feasts for centuries, but Queen Victoria's tiered white cake took the tradition to new heights.

By Inés Antón
Published 10 Jun 2021, 21:48 BST
Wedding cake
Queen Victoria’s wedding cake was topped by Britannia, a female personification of Great Britain, blessing the bride and groom. Colored lithograph
Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Layers of cake, each one ornately decorated with piped icing and stacked atop each other, is a staple of many modern weddings. The moment when the newlyweds cut their first slice of wedding cake is a popular photo op, a tradition that goes back to British royalty. By the 19th century cake at wedding celebrations was nothing new; it had been a part of the marriage ceremony since ancient times. The Romans crumbled a cereal cake over the bride’s head, and in medieval England the bride and groom would kiss over a confection made of small, stacked buns. 

The 1840 wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha took this old tradition and turned it into something new. Their cake was big: three tiers of English plum cake that stood 14 inches tall, measured nearly 10 feet across, and weighed 300 pounds. (Discover the love story behind Queen Victoria's crown jewels.)

A bride cuts the cake in a British colorplate illustration from 1900.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

Standing tall 

The height of Queen Victoria’s cake was a novelty: Most traditional English cakes were one layer at that time. Food historians believe that the queen wanted her cake to reflect a French influence, which had become popular in England. The origins of the high-rise cake go back to pre-revolutionary France, when chefs began cooking ever more ornamentally and vertically. After the revolution, fancy confectioners and pâtissiers left France for England, where they and their craft were embraced by the British upper classes. 

Some have speculated that these taller cakes were made in the early 18th century by a London baker, inspired to re-create the steeple of St. Bride’s Church designed by the architect Christopher Wren. In his book Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, Simon R. Charsley casts doubt on that idea: “It Anglicises the history of the vertical cake, placing its origin . . . before the influx of continental confectioners at the end of the 18th century.” (See vintage pictures of British royal weddings.)

Cake slice and gift box from Queen Victoria’s wedding.
Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Adding to the spectacle (and height) was one of the world’s first cake toppers. Victoria and Albert’s cake featured several miniature statues, including Britannia, a female personification of Great Britain, on top, blessing the royal couple clad in Roman costume. It soon became popular for small figurines of a bride and groom to appear on top of commoners’ cakes. 

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Victoria’s wedding cake was the use of pure white royal icing to cover the entire confection. Refined white sugar, which is used to create the iconic look, was very expensive in the 1840s, making the wedding cake a true statement piece. The cake caused a sensation. A detailed print of it reportedly hung in windows around London before the ceremony. Newspapers published images of Victoria’s cake—and every royal wedding cake thereafter—giving everyone a glimpse into the feast. 

By the late 19th century, however, thanks to the drop in sugar prices, tiered cakes with royal icing caught on among a middle class eager to emulate royal splendour on a humbler scale. 

Growing Big 

If commoners were marrying with tiered cakes, royal wedding cakes had to get taller if they were still to convey authority and prestige. Pastry chefs set new royal standards when Queen Victoria’s eldest child, Princess Victoria, married Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858. They created a triple-layer columned cake that stood more than six feet tall. When Prince George (later King George V) married in 1893, his wedding cake also featured columns, but supported three tiers and reached a height of seven feet. Not to be outdone, Lady Elizabeth (bride of the future King George VI) had a 10-foot-tall, nine-tiered cake. 

Cakes have continued to be a popular part of a royal wedding’s spectacle, but the trend spread to the masses, making it more than a central prop in a dramatic celebration of the monarchy and state power. 

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