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.)
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 prerevolutionary 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.