‘She’ll spice things up’: Britain wakes up to new royal era
Meghan Markle has come to stand for something much more than the woman with whom the affable Prince Harry happened to fall in love
A divorced, self-made, self-declared feminist, biracial American woman, and a descendant of slaves, has married the son of the heir to the British throne, accompanied by a gospel choir and the trailblazing, improvised sermon of an African-American bishop. And in Windsor on Saturday, no-one batted an eyelid, other than the ones who had to blink away a surge of emotion when the choir broke into a rousing rendition of Ben E King’s Stand By Me.
That such a thing is even conceivable shows how far the monarchy, and British society – which is not always quick to allow people to move on from their past – has come.
The sense that the marriage of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was elbowing the royal family into a new era was reflected in the make-up of the throngs gathered outside St George’s chapel on Saturday.
The crowd was markedly more diverse than might have been expected had he married from the pool of pale-skinned, public school educated Sloane types from which royal brides have traditionally been chosen.
Several distinct tribes were in evidence: there were the families on a day out, slightly harassed parents issuing suncream and safety instructions to small children with painted faces and flags.
They were equalled in number by the tribes of young, smartly-dressed, urban professionals congregating in couples and small groups on picnic blankets with wicker baskets, packed tight with ingredients for plastic jugs of Pimms, prawns salad and pesto and crackers.
There were the professional royal watchers, of course, who often came in all-female groups, and were sometimes squeezed into the same bandage-style union jack dresses they wore for Kate and Will’s wedding, and wearing the same straw hats customised with fresh miniature flags.
Some of them were here for Charles and Camilla too, and a handful were even in London for the wedding of Charles and Diana. For them, this was mostly about tradition, and a reflection of the fact that there isn’t likely to be another royal wedding this generation. Or so everyone hopes.
But there were also large numbers of African Americans who had flown in from places like North Carolina, Ohio and California, the men in jackets and open necked shirts, and the women often dressed up with fascinators and heels, as though they were planning to observe from inside the chapel itself instead of the amidst the heat of the crowds on the Long Walk.
Carolyn Miller from North Carolina said she booked flights practically “as soon as the ring went on her finger”.
Canadians, too, had come in their droves, feeling a connection to Markle because the drama series for which she became known, Suits, was shot in Canada. Carole Porter, dressed in a blue lace dress with a matching fascinator said she was here for “the thrill of being at a royal wedding, and because it’s going to be the last one for a long time.”
For the younger ones and the African Americans, the appeal was unquestionably the Meghan factor.
Meghan Markle has, whether she likes it or not, come to stand for something much more than the woman with whom the affable Prince Harry happened to fall in love. “She is a symbol for the other side of America, a more progressive America,” Aaron Endré said, who had flown in from San Francisco with his friend Alex Conlan. Both were wearing long white gowns, wigs and long, curling fake lashes.
“She’s biracial, she’s American, she’s self-made, she’s divorced, she’s strong,” Endré said.
Carole Porter said the royal family “will have to get used to her. She will have a voice, and they’re going to have to get used to hearing it.”
As pictures emerged from inside the church onto the large screens set up along the Long Walk showing the Queen and Meghan Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland, sitting opposite one another, both wearing shades of lime green (Ragland’s the paler, of course), ripples of approval ran through the crowd outside. There was a cheer when the camera settled on Ragland, who sat alone looking proud, stoic, and at the same time, terribly solitary.
The cheer might just have been a swell of affection for a mother-of-the-bride on her only daughter’s wedding day. But it might also have been a reflection of what a historic sight it was: there was the granddaughter of slaves, sitting opposite the Queen of the British empire, equal at least in the bond of affection they share for two young people in love.
Three international students waiting at one of the food trucks spoke of their admiration for Markle’s independence and feminism, and the fact that she has worked hard for everything she has. “I love her,” Clarissa Fehr from Canada said, who met Markle once in Canada when she was filming Suits.
“She’s not someone to conform. She’s strong. She’s got a voice and she’s not afraid to use it. And she’s normal, an everyday person marrying a prince. So that gives hope to the rest of us.”
Many cited Meghan Markle’s decision to walk alone part of the way down the aisle, wearing a strikingly demure, snow white, dress designed by Briton Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy as a symbol of how she intends to remain her own person.
They didn’t see Prince Charles joining her halfway along and accompanying her to the top of the altar so much as a sign of his acceptance her, so much as a symbol of her acceptance of the royal family.
Sonny and Bernice Bryant, and Sonny’s twin sister Barbara Johnson, had flown in from Ohio for the wedding. “We never thought from the bottom of our hearts we’d have one of our own in the castle. It’s all changed now.” Bernice said.
That point couldn’t have been made more empathically than when the voice of the Most Rev Michael Curry, the Chicago-born bishop of the Episcopal Church, came booming out across the manicured lawns of the Long Walk, speaking of the transformative power of love and the resilience of faith and slavery and even, to titters, sexual union.
Inside the church, Zara Tindall - who always seems to enjoy a good laugh - was failing miserably to stifle her amusement, providing the internet with a rich new vein of instant memes. And even the terminally uptight Victoria Beckham broke into a rare half-smile.
Outside, the crowd was, by turns, restless and entertained. “He has the floor and he’s going to make the most of it,” Jackie Torrance said, who had come from Dorset
For the more traditional royal watchers, the chief appeal was the Harry factor. Several people evoked memories of the solemn figure on the day of his mother’s funeral, all those years ago. The poor boy following that coffin, they said, over and over, on Saturday.
Nicki Yucal, who was dressed up in union jack colours and sipping Pimms, said it was all about Harry for her. “He’s so normal. He’s the people’s prince,” she said.
Her friend, Eillie Wood, got married on Diana’s funeral, and Yucal was her bridesmaid, and the sadness shot through her own celebration, so for them there was a sense of closure in seeing him so happy.
Dawn Wilson, from Belfast, who camped out all night on the Long Walk to be here, agreed this wedding feels like a mending of the heartbreak. “We all remember that poor boy walking behind the coffin,” she said, echoing the words of many others.
For African-American Bernice Byrant the memories of the small tragic figure walking miles to his mother’s funeral are strong too. When she saw William and Harry on the day, “I cried, I cried, I cried. I look at him now and I still want to do mom stuff for him. I’m glad to see him grow up and be so happy.”
Will the union of Prince Harry -- who is, after all, only sixth in line to the throne -- and Meghan have a lasting effect on British society?
In the end, probably not. If the snide viciousness of some of the tabloid coverage surrounding Markle’s father and wider family is anything to go by, it will take more than one sunny day and an anything-but-average royal wedding out to tackle deeply-held prejudices, particularly at a time when those prejudices are resurfacing globally, rather than receding.
But still, by any measure, the house of Windsor has come a long way from when King Edward VIII was forced to abdicate so he could marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. Saturday might not herald an overnight revolution, but it could just be the start of a shifting off attitudes.
Babs Davies, who is 81, was on the Mall for the wedding of Charles and Diana, and made sure she was there again on Saturday to see the dawn of a new chapter. Harry and Meghan, she said, “are a breath of fresh air.”
For Carolyn Miller, Meghan Markle’s heritage and independence are equally important. “I like the fact there’s a little colour in the castle now. I think she’ll spice things up a bit.”