The actress, the press and pressure for modernisation in the British monarchy
▶ A new era has emerged from doomed royal love affairs, as Britons embrace Meghan Markle
On Saturday, 100,000 people are expected to line the streets of Windsor to celebrate the marriage of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle.
For those unable to head down to Windsor, street parties and open-air screenings being held across the country will offer people the opportunity to share in the happy couple’s big day.
Support for the monarchy remains high in Britain, and public commitment is vital to ensure its continuation.
Markle, a humanitarian activist, has been well received by the public, with most recent opinion polls showing a majority believe she will be a good addition to the royal family.
Sixty years ago, a divorcee like Markle would have been blocked from marrying into British royalty. In the 1950s, Harry’s great-aunt Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II, was prevented from marrying her beloved, Group Capt Peter Townsend, on the grounds that he had been married before, in a doomed love story depicted in Netflix drama The Crown. But in 1953, the British cabinet refused to approve the marriage, with newspapers declaring the union “unthinkable” because of Christian teachings about divorce. Two years later, faced with losing her succession status, Margaret decided not to marry Townsend.
Almost 20 years before, the determination of Margaret’s uncle, King Edward VIII, to marry Wallis Simpson caused a constitutional crisis in the British monarchy. Edward abdicated in 1936 and became the Duke of Windsor after he was refused consent by the UK and Commonwealth governments to marry socialite Simpson.
Like Markle, she was an American divorcee, but public opinion of her as a match for Edward was low. Painted in the press as a money-obsessed social climber with references to her not one but two previous marriages, it was unlikely that in 1930’s Britain Simpson would ever have been accepted as Queen consort.
The queen was reluctant to allow Margaret to marry Townsend, according to British historian Dr Anna Whitelock.
“The queen was nervous,” Dr Whitelock said. “The idea that Princess Margaret would be pictured all over the papers was reminiscent of all the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson escapades.”
Having now reigned for more than 65 years, the queen and the monarchy is in a more comfortable position now and she gave her consent to Harry and Markle’s marriage without hesitation.
“It’s changing times, the queen is more confident now and it matters less,” Dr Whitelock said.
As a biracial divorcee, Markle was always going to be a source of interest to Britain’s tabloid press. However, media interest grew so intense while the pair were dating that Harry released a statement in November 2016, saying his girlfriend had been subject to “a wave of abuse and harassment”.
Publicly confirming the relationship, something the royal family rarely do before an engagement, Harry said he feared for Markle’s safety and condemned smears in newspapers about his girlfriend and racist undertones in comment pieces.
The statement was received positively by the public, who remember all too well the press intrusion his mother Diana suffered, which ended in a fatal car crash in Paris as she was pursued by paparazzi.
But in recent weeks the media have delighted in Markle’s somewhat dysfunctional family life. The days leading up to the wedding have been overshadowed by reports that her father, Thomas Markle, allegedly staged paparazzi shots of himself for money. Markle announced on Thursday her father would not be attending the wedding because of ill health.
But scandal is something the royal family are used to dealing with. In 1971, Margaret became the first high-profile British royal in 70 years to get divorced. She paved the way for the generation after her to end their unhappy marriages.
By 1996, three of the queen’s four children, including Harry’s father, Prince Charles, were divorced. Charles even married his long-time girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005, herself a divorcee accused of breaking up the Prince of Wales’s marriage to Diana.
Back in Windsor, there is sympathy for Markle’s private turmoil. “It must be heartbreaking for them, because her father can’t come because he is in poor health,” Maria Scott, 46, who travelled from Newcastle to camp out to get a glimpse of the couple, told Reuters. “It must be really upsetting.”
Harry and Meghan fans have been sleeping out on the street to secure the best spots to see the couple in the post-ceremony parade through the town.
Donna Werner, an American who flew 3,000 miles from Connecticut, told Reuters: “I want them to come through those gates. I want them to look at me, wave and smile.”
Royal wedding fever is building on the streets of Windsor and beyond, as Britain prepares for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s nuptials
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor tied the knot in Tours, France, in 1937 after Edward VIII abdicated from the throne