Royal-Wedding Fever: The View from Windsor

 In U.S.
The town of Windsor, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will marry this weekend, is about twenty miles west of London, on a pleasant loop in the River Thames. The fastest way to get there from the capital is by train. In 1849, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Britain’s greatest engineer, laid the small branch line that serves the town in order to skirt the playing fields of Eton, which are on one side of the river, and to spare the foundations of Windsor Castle, the oldest inhabited castle in the world, which is on the other.

The wedding on Saturday will take place in St. George’s Chapel, just inside the castle walls. On a sunny morning last week, there was a brisk and purposeful atmosphere below the ramparts. Workmen touched up paintwork, Union Jack bunting fluttered in the streets, and royal staff in Panama hats called out commands to one another. Shortly before 11 A.M., the scene stilled, and there was a peal of martial music as a phalanx of Grenadier Guards in scarlet tunics and black bearskin hats marched up the high street for the changing of the guard. The new guard went into the castle; the old guard came out. Heavily armed police officers, standing in pairs, watched the crowd. Then, the trumpets faded away. The traffic started flowing again, and the preparations resumed.

Everyone agrees that Harry and Meghan’s wedding will be the biggest royal event in Windsor since 1863, when, on a rainy day in March, Princess Alexandra of Denmark married Bertie, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. Windsor was considered a poor venue, after centuries of royal weddings held at Westminster Abbey. Punch magazine described it as “an obscure Berkshire village, noted only for an old castle with bad drains.” Inauspiciously, Victoria’s court was also in half-mourning because of the death of her husband, Albert. Ladies at the wedding were restricted to dresses of gray, lilac, or mauve. Still, the thing went off as well as it could. A flotilla of boats accompanied Princess Alexandra, who was eighteen, as she sailed up the Thames. Bertie—later King Edward VII—was “plump and nervous, but radiant,” according to his biographer, Sir Philip Magnus. Queen Victoria watched the ceremony from Catherine of Aragon’s closet, a wooden balcony above everybody’s heads, which was decorated with carved pomegranates.

On Saturday, the BBC’s live coverage will begin at 9 A.M., three hours before the ceremony is due to begin. The main presenters will include Huw Edwards, a veteran Welsh newsreader, and Dermot O’Leary, a former host of “The X Factor.” The tone will zigzag between twiddly historical fawning and visceral celebrity hunger. In Britain, royal weddings brew up like mostly benevolent hurricanes. The air pressure changes; everyone is affected. In 1947, four months before Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, a survey of a hundred and twelve people in London found only one—a street sweeper in Bloomsbury—who was unaware of the event. The same details are thrown out each time, and greedily consumed. Elizabeth’s dress cost three hundred clothing coupons (rationing from the Second World War was still in place) and twelve hundred pounds. Thirty-seven per cent of the public thought that it was a reasonable price. “I’m very pleased, everything is so dull now,” a twenty-five-year-old, working-class woman told a social-research study of the event. In 2011, Kate Middleton’s Alexander McQueen wedding dress cost almost half a million dollars.

In recent weeks, Kensington Palace has dutifully supplied critical information about the big day: the carriage (an open-topped Ascot Landau); the cake (organic lemon elderflower); the floral concept (“branches of beech, birch and hornbeam, as well as white garden roses, peonies and foxgloves”). The Queen signed her official consent, a hand-drawn document, on vellum, which includes a heraldic intermingling of golden poppies, indicating California; olive branches, for the United States; and a leek, for Wales. The media has taken these offerings and battered away for more. In the final days before the wedding, the British tabloids have obsessed over whether Markle’s father, Thomas, a retired TV-lighting director, would walk her down the aisle, after he told TMZ that he had staged paparazzi photos of himself, had suffered a heart attack, and was “popping valium.” On Tuesday, betting odds on his attendance swung from 12–1 in the morning to 1–3 in the afternoon to virtually zero by midnight, when Thomas said that he would undergo a heart operation in Los Angeles on Wednesday morning.

The royal family took the surname Windsor, after the town, in 1917. After three years of war with Germany, King George V decided he needed a more British-sounding name than Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. When they became the Windsors, English princes and princesses also stopped marrying their Prussian and Scandinavian cousins, a dynastic practice they had maintained for two hundred years. As the monarchy shed the last of its political power, it reinvented itself as an icon of domesticity: the nation’s ur-family, and a focus of immense psychological projection.

What their subjects wanted most of all was love. In a corner of Windsor’s Guildhall, I came across a piece of silent newsreel slowly panning up and down the wedding cake of Princess Mary, the daughter of George V, and Viscount Lascelles, a Yorkshire landowner, who were married in 1922. The ceremony was an early prototype of the modern, emotionally accessible royal wedding. “It is just an English girl and an Englishman who have fallen in love,” the Daily Mail reported. The new Lord and Lady Lascelles received 1,279 gifts from their guests and the British public, including a platypus-skin rug, four artificial violets, and a thousand tins of toffee.

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