William and Kate: Nuptials fitting for the age of austerity or no expense spared?

AS THE Windsors strive to maintain economic decorum in these straitened times with nuptials fit for an age of austerity, they will find themselves out of step with their peers and forebears.

In the past, and in other parts of the world, mind-blowing matrimonial excess and vulgarity has traditionally been the order of the day when it comes to royal weddings.

One of the most lavish royal weddings in European history, a dynastic bonding between Margaret of York and Burgundy's Charles the Bold in 1468, cost the equivalent of 200?million in today's money. As well as the usual endless parades, the nuptials were accompanied by a four-day joust in which the most famous knights in Europe bludgeoned each other. Margaret wore a crown covered in pearls and diamonds, a sartorial cue picked up by Henry VIII, whose first wife Catherine of Aragon went to the altar in a dress made of cloth of gold before two weeks of drunken festivities ensued.

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In contrast, our present Queen marrying in a post-war era of such austerity that she paid for the fabric used for her wedding dress with ration vouchers, but the difficulty of trying to stage a royal wedding on a budget should not be underestimated.

Virtually all of the 3,500 guests who packed into Westminster Cathedral for Charles and Diana's wedding almost 30 years ago were heads of state, ambassadors and members of the global great and the good invited by Buckingham Palace, which is why the bill topped 70m back then, and it won't have got any cheaper.

There have been very low-key royal weddings, most notably when Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik married Aussie Mary Donaldson, a marketing consultant he met in a bar during the Sydney Olympics.

But even the most cursory attempt to inject some stately glamour into proceedings has proved eye-wateringly expensive, as the family of American heiress Marie-Chantal Miller found when their daughter married Prince Pavlos, Crown Prince of Greece in 1995 and the bride's billionaire father was handed a bill for 5m. Grace Kelly's family had to pay a 2m dowry before her 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Even one of the most retiring monarchies in Europe, Sweden's, managed to annoy its citizens this summer when Crown Princess Victoria married her former personal trainer Daniel Westling. Some of the ire came from the fact Westling is a country hick with the Swedish equivalent of a worzel accent who was seen to have taken advantage of a popular princess in an emotionally fragile state when they met. But mainly the Swedes objected to the 2m cost of the ceremony and wedding banquet for 950 people, which was swollen by a further 7m spent on two weeks of celebratory events, for which the state coughed up half. That disquiet has distilled to disillusionment: in 2000, 85 per cent of Swedes approved of the Swedish monarchy; that figure is now 58 per cent.

The mere baubles expended on modern royal weddings pale by comparison with the excess in those parts of the world where royal families rule as divine leaders.

In Egypt, in the 1800s, the Egyptian royal family staged weddings of such opulence that the impoverished country had to sell off its 50 per cent stake in the Suez Canal to the British.

In Morocco, in 2002, when King Mohammed VI married a middle-class computer engineer from Fes, the ceremony lasted three days and nights and began with a procession in Rabat that included performances featuring 1,500 dancing horses. Curiously, the king also freed 8,425 prison inmates and shortened the sentence of another 42,661.

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Even more lavish was the royal marriage of Muhammad and Salama of Dubai in 1981. Rashid bin Sayid al-Maktoum, sheikh of Dubai, personally planned his son's wedding, an orgy of excess that lasted seven days, with the centrepiece a ceremony held in a pupose-built stadium big enough for the 20,000 guests. In the circumstances, the bill of 35m was good value.

The daddy of royal weddings, however, came when Brunei's Crown Prince Pg Muda Hj Al-Muhtadee Billah got spliced to 17-year-old Dayangku Sarah binti Pengiran Salleh Ab Rahaman in 2004. Brunei is smaller than Dumfries and Galloway but has more oil and gas than the North Sea, making its royal family absurdly wealthy, and its Sultan more than lived up to its well-founded reputation for blingtastic excess on the occasion of his eldest son's wedding.

The Sultan personally went to the Rolls-Royce factory in England to pick up a dozen Phantoms with bullet-proof windscreens and armour-plated bodywork at a cost of 5m, although the prince and his bride rode to their wedding in a golden palanquin hefted along by 40 strong men. The impossibly lavish celebrations were held in the family's art deco schlock palace, which boasts 1,788 rooms, 200 bathrooms, more than 500 chandeliers, and a banquet hall where 4,000 can be seated for dinner beneath a Renoir bought for 50m in the 1980s. At least the prince's disgraced uncle, Prince Jefri, was absent, although a stag party aboard his 152ft yacht, the SS Tits, with its two speedboats, Nipple One and Nipple Two, would have been entertaining.

Not that the royals have the monopoly on excess. When billionaire steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal's daughter Vanisha married investment banker Amit Bhatia in 2004, the ceremony in a French chateau lasted six days and cost over 60m, including 300,000 for a 30-minute performance by Kylie Minogue.

In Hollywood, Liza Minnelli and David Gest's $3.5m ceremony is the most expensive celebrity wedding ever. Their nuptials featured Michael Jackson as best man and Elizabeth Taylor as maid of honour, while Tony Bennett provided backing vocals. Forbes magazine reported: "Guests feasted on a 12-tier cake and received personalised favours encased in satin candy boxes embossed ‘Liza and David 4 Ever'." The pair divorced the next year.

Richard Bath