It was 101 years ago that King George V (the present Queen’s grandfather) decided to relax the door policy on spouses marrying into the Royal family.
What time does the Royal wedding start?
Previously, English princes and princesses — to keep the bloodline impeccably noble — had tended to marry their royal German cousins, but with that gene pool becoming not only soupier but more politically awkward thanks to World War I, King George initiated a snap rebrand.
He changed the English Royal family’s surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gothe to the more patriotic “Windsor”, and let it be known that from now on, it was fine for heirs to the British throne to marry among the broader aristocracy.
For all the Royals’ feted attachment to tradition, the choice of “Windsor” has no family significance apart from it being the name of the vast medieval castle in which George’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, spent much of her time.
Victoria kept many servants there, including, for a brief time in the 1850s, a woman called Mary Bird. History has forgotten Mary and what she actually did for the Royal household.
But enthusiastic genealogists have claimed that her great-great-great-granddaughter is one Meghan Markle, due to leave the Windsors’ eponymous castle just after midday today (British time) having married into the family.
Such is the changing nature of the royal tradition.
The monarchy is an ancient institution whose admittance of Ms Markle — divorced, Catholic-born, biracial, American, and an actress who has done sex scenes on the television — is a genuine break from conservative customs.
But if history has proven anything about the Royal family, it’s that it will turn on a sixpence when required by urgent popular opinion.
Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle represent a new generation of Royals. (Reuters: Andrew Milligan)
A long-line of broken hearts
The century-long road of the Windsors is lined with the broken hearts of family members who — despite the free aristocratic love policy introduced by George V — still found themselves prohibited from marrying their first choices.
Edward VIII — the Queen’s uncle — famously abdicated in 1936 so that he could marry his twice-divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson.
Princess Margaret was never quite the same after the Queen — her sister — withheld Royal permission for her to marry the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend in the 1950s.
And as Meghan Markle proceeds down the aisle today, one should probably spare a thought for Prince Andrew, who like Prince Harry is a second son but unlike Harry was steered off his own beautiful brunette American actress girlfriend — Koo Stark — in the 1980s because it was judged that her movies were too racy.
Prince Andrew photographed in 1998 chatting to his former girlfriend, Katherine (Koo) Stark. (Reuters: Stringer)
“Welcome, Meghan, to the Twilight Zone,” wrote Stark in an open letter published recently to Ms Markle in the Daily Mail.
“The xenophobia that existed 35 years ago is fortunately less socially and politically acceptable now, but be aware old habits die hard, and the circles in which you now find yourself by association are propped up by maintaining old habits.”
Marriage of Meghan and Harry is ‘great PR’
Royal historian Anna Whitelock says that for all the family’s ancient traditions, it relies heavily on public approbation, and the marriage of a second son like Prince Harry can send a powerful public message without structurally changing the monarchy itself.
“If you remember, Diana had to be a virgin basically, even in the 1980s, because of course she was going to carry the Royal heir, the future king, so it mattered,” she says.
“For Meghan Markle — and this is why I think Harry and Meghan’s marriage is being applauded and is being supported by the Royal family and the monarchy — is it doesn’t really rock the boat.
“It’s great PR to have this young glamorous mixed-race woman marrying into the Royal family, but it doesn’t change anything fundamentally about what the monarchy’s about, about its future.”
Dr Whitelock emphasises the monarchy and the Royal family are two different things, and while the family might embrace diversity, the monarchy by definition is built on exclusivity and birthright.
The abdication of Edward VIII was triggered by the Crown’s indisposition toward American divorcees, and that attitude has demonstrably changed.
But that abdication continues to exert an immense and powerful influence on the future of the monarchy.
First, it created the extraordinary reign of Queen Elizabeth II, by hustling her sickly father George VI to the throne unexpectedly, then obliging the young Elizabeth to take over upon his early death.
Elizabeth — who has been on the throne now for 66 years — is the longest-reigning monarch in her country’s history.
Second, it’s made the matter of succession in the modern day Royal family a highly inflexible affair.
Dr Whitelock says any talk of the Queen abdicating in favour of her frustrated eldest son Prince Charles — or more controversially, as is sometimes suggested, skipping a generation and elevating Prince William to the throne — is fanciful.
“It’s not going to happen,” she says.
“Abdication is completely anathema to her … her uncle abdicated and the crisis that that threw the monarchy into … the fact that her father had to suddenly step up and be king … abdication’s never going to happen.”
Prince Charles, she says, is likewise unlikely to cede his claim to the throne.
“Charles has spoken really openly and said basically he wants to be king, he wants to have a legacy, he has been waiting all his life,” Dr Whitelock said.
“I mean he literally has itchy feet. He’s been the longest-serving Prince of Wales ever and he’s desperate to be king.”
It’s time to ‘freshen up’ an ageing institution
In ages gone by, kings died young in battle, or from disease, or were overthrown.
But in these days of minimal regal engagement in hand-to-hand combat, buttressed by sound healthcare and nutrition, the line of succession has — how to put this tactfully? — an ageing profile.
The Queen, who is of stout constitution, could rule for another 10 years. Her son could manage another 20 after that, quite conceivably.
So for all the current enthusiasm for the “Fab Four” — the younger generation of Royals comprising Princes William and Harry and their wives Catherine and Meghan — they could be quite advanced in years by the time any of their number make it to the front of the queue.
The younger generation of royals could be quite advanced in years by the time any of them make it to the front of the queue. (AP: Chris Jackson)
“It’s a nightmare,” Dr Whitelock says.
“It’s like the ultimate waiting room. It’s like — ‘Go on! You’re not supposed to be hanging around this long! We need to freshen it up!'”
An heir who waits around for six decades to take the throne has — of course — plenty of time to lose their appeal.
Prince Charles, through his disastrous first marriage and his controversial second, is a habitual tail-ender in public opinion polls.
And with two generations waiting in line, there is also ample opportunity for schisms to form between heirs.
Already there are reported tensions between the courtiers of Buckingham Palace, Prince Charles’ base at Clarence House, and Kensington Palace (where princes Harry and William live).
“There are three centres,” says Dr Whitelock, “but really where it’s all at is Kensington Palace, which is the home of and the offices of, William and Harry, Kate and Meghan. That’s really where it’s at.
“And the people they are employing to staff that — they’re young people. Meghan’s got a 20-something history graduate from Nottingham University [running things] and these young people are going to be advising her on which charities to support and her itineraries and what they should be doing and it’s very much a slick PR media machine.”
Asked who would prevail in an all-out PR war, Dr Whitelock says, without hesitation:
“Kensington Palace. I think they are all over this wedding and for the first time it’s coming from there, much more than William and Kate’s wedding, it’s being drip fed through social media, it’s a global wedding.”
Fruitcake out, disco in
The wedding itself is undoubtedly a modern affair.
Gone is the nine-foot wedding fruitcake of Elizabeth II (made from dried fruit donated by Australian Girl Guides) slices of which periodically surface at auction.
In its place is a highly perishable lemon and elderflower affair, the remains of which will be composted rather than hoarded.
The guest list is remarkably free of world leaders and stuffy relatives. There will be a disco later.
And the Royal family is admitting newcomers it would have found unthinkable a generation ago.
When the Queen battled in 1947 for her right to marry Prince Philip (a penniless Greek prince of eccentric family, who was moreover considered untrustworthy on the grounds of his excessive handsomeness), she would never have foreseen that one day she would be welcoming to the extended family an air stewardess (Kate Middleton’s mother) or a yoga teacher (Meghan Markle’s).
However, it’s advisable not to get too carried away; we’re still talking about a woman who — by virtue of a 14th-century statute — owns all sturgeon caught within three miles of the British coastline (dolphins, too).
Whose presence in any one of her castles is denoted by the raising above it of a special gold flag.
Who receives, once a year, a royal quit-rent from the City of London consisting of one sharp knife, one blunt, six horseshoes and 61 nails.
This is an outfit that holds on to tradition wherever it can.