The ritual of the wedding cake in Britain can be traced back to medieval times, when it would have been made of wheat and, bizarrely, thrown at the bride as a symbol of fertility.
It also wasn’t just cake that was eaten after the ceremony. All the baked goods, which included scones and biscuits, were piled high (the higher the better) and the couple attempted to kiss over the mound. If they managed it without toppling the pile they were assured a lifetime of prosperity.
In the 1600s, a visiting French chef was quite appalled by the uncouth piling ritual and recommended a more stable stacking system instead, using sawn off broom handles. However this more elegant use of tiers didn’t catch on until later.
In the 17th century “bride pie” became popular, which varied from sweet breads to mince pies or even mutton pie. Within it was a glass ring which was used in a similar way to the bouquet today: whichever woman found it was meant to become the next bride. For those less affluent families, this pie might have formed the centrepiece.
The popularity of tiered wedding cakes came, legend has it, as a result of a baker’s apprentice in late 18th-century London. The story goes that William Rich set up as an apprentice in Ludgate hill and fell in love with his boss’s daughter. When he asked her to marry him he wanted to impress her with a large, beautiful cake and his inspiration came from the spire of St Bride’s church. However, there are no surviving records of this cake.
It was the marriage of Queen Victoria and Price Albert in 1840 that really set fashion for weddings – the dresses and cakes both became big and white as norm. Sugar was now cheaper and it became much easier for working class families to imitate the weddings of the rich.
But of course this affluence couldn’t last, and wartime rationing rather limited wedding cake options. During the Second World War there were strict rations so cakes were much smaller. The average person would have probably had some ingredients donated from friends and relations. Others used deceptive tricks so their cakes looked the part. Gravy browning made fruit cakes look richer or cardboard cakes were rented and the real, smaller cake was concealed inside.