Eighty-one years ago, on the very day of Prince Harry’s betrothal, the British Cabinet rejected King Edward VIII’s bid to wed the last royal American fiancée, Wallis Simpson. That Meghan Markle is a divorcee matters not at all, and that is as it should be
Has the House of Windsor ever been so replete — and so at peace and full of promise? The 96-year-old consort, Prince Philip, has acquired a new hip and seems determined to regain his stride; the Queen has entered her 93rd year as if it were her 73rd; her heir, the Prince of Wales, about to be 70, has been confirmed as the next leader of the Commonwealth; his heir and daughter-in-law have produced their second spare, Prince Louis of Cambridge — the sovereign’s 18th descendant; and tomorrow the charismatic sixth-in-line, Prince Harry of Wales, takes a bride in the fabled family chapel of St George’s Windsor.
Every wedding, be it common or Royal, is an occasion for optimism. And so it was when Princess Anne married Captain Mark Philips in 1973; when Prince Charles wed Lady Diana Spencer in 1981; when Prince Andrew married Miss Sarah Ferguson in 1986. But then some matches have endured, the Queen’s own platinum bond is a shining example; the Wessexes and the Cambridges too; while the Princess Royal and the Prince of Wales have found contentment in their second marriages.
The marital fortunes of the children of our world leaders should be of no interest to serious observers, but when the system is governed by the hereditary principle, the strengths and flaws of the heirs are not just relevant but vital.
It is now a quarter of a century since HM’s annus horribilis — but it wasn’t just 1992; in fact most of the ’90s were pretty horribilis: Diana’s Squidgygate and Charles’s Camillagate tapes, his book, her book, their divorce; the Duchess of York’s wet toes, and the Yorks’ divorce; the Princess Royal’s divorce, her flight to Scotland to remarry; and finally the fire at Windsor Castle. None of these episodes could be said to be the Queen’s fault and yet she was engulfed by them all. As remote as it seems, any one of her children could have inherited the Crown and so as kingly/queenly alternatives they had to measure up.
Not since the reign of great-great grandmother Victoria has a sovereign had so many eligible living descendants. (Interestingly, another Louis – her great-grandson Prince Louis Mountbatten was her last godchild.) Even George III, whose Queen Charlotte bore him fifteen children (13 of whom survived to adulthood), had fewer legitimate heirs at his death in 1820.
But neither Victoria — nor, in fact, the next three generations — had to suffer the spotlight of media intrusion: flashbulbs and paparazzi, hackers and harassment. As some have learnt to their cost, even today, the Thai King and, significantly, his family, are shielded by strict laws of lèse majesté. The modern British Royal Family has enjoyed no such reverence and restraint and the press has had a wild time since the Nineties as the lives of the family came under the unrelenting glare of commentators and cameras.
The only occasion where her unblemished record came in danger of being lost was the aftermath of the death of Diana in 1997. As hysterical Britons left bouquets by the thousand at royal residences throughout the kingdom (one paper dubbed it ‘floral fascism’) the Queen remained remote at Balmoral. She persisted that Diana, stripped of her HRH, had not strictly been a member of the Royal Family since her divorce, and her obsequies were a matter for her family, the Spencers. Her priority, she thought, was to her grandsons who had just lost their mother. Her subjects thought otherwise and, inflamed by a baying press, with headlines imploring “MA’AM, SHOW US YOU CARE”, they wanted their sovereign in London, grieving with them. At the urging of her courtiers and on the advice of her Prime Minister, she returned early to London, allowed the Union Jack to flutter at half-mast, and broadcast to her people. (“What I say to you now as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart”) All was well – the monarchy was saved and, as one royal watcher put it, “The Queen was back in charge.”
And twenty-one years on, she remains so and will witness the first match between prince and actress since Grace Kelly conquered Monaco and its ruler in 1956. In other ways, this coupling is both unprecedented and groundbreaking.
Interestingly, eighty-one years ago on the very day of Prince Harry’s betrothal, the British Cabinet rejected King Edward VIII’s proposal for a morganatic marriage to the last royal American fiancée, Wallis Simpson. Like Wallis, Meghan Markle is a divorcée – having ended a nine-year relationship (including a marriage of two years) in 2013. Edward VIII’s abdication, and the elevation of his reluctant brother as George VI, stung the family and stiffened their hostility to divorce for half a century. Princess Margaret was the first victim. In 1992, Princess Anne, had to fly north to walk down the aisle of Crathie Kirk, near Balmoral; the Scots being more amenable to the marriage of a divorcée than the Anglican Church.
Even seven decades after Edward’s fall, Charles, his successor as Prince of Wales, was denied a wedding in St George’s, Windsor and had to make do with a blessing by the Archbishop of Canterbury. A dozen years on, all is changed and the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, has expressed his ‘absolute delight’, signalling his approval for a church wedding.
Harry should be indebted to his stepmother for paving the way, as a divorcee, to become the consort of a senior prince. In deference to Diana, Camilla eschewed the title, Princess of Wales, but she became, instead, Duchess of Cornwall and more significantly, HRH – an honour denied to Edward’s Wallis.
It is expected, as custom dictates, that the Queen will confer a dukedom on her grandson on the morning of his wedding. Sussex appears to be spare and the most appropriate (though one observer has asked why Harry should be saddled with a title suffused/suffixed with ‘sex’). Meghan will lose her first name and be formally transformed into HRH the Duchess of Sussex. Only divorce, or widowhood, will bring back Meghan. Another remarkable coincidence is that the Dukedom of Sussex was last conferred on Augustus Frederick, the sixth son of George III, on 27 November 1801, 216 years to the day of Harry’s engagement.
But what of this 36-year-old American? Not only was she born six days after the wedding of Harry’s parents — the Wedding of the Century – but on the birthday of his beloved great-grandmother, the Queen Mother (surely the best actress to have graced a family yet never the stage). She is the daughter of Doria Ragland, an African-American clinical therapist (who, just as exceptionally for women in the Royal Family, is a graduate), and Thomas Markle, a German, Dutch, English, Irish and Scottish television lighting director. Among his work is the long-running (and hopefully rather apt) comedy, Married …. with Children. Thomas and Doria separated when Meghan was two.
Meghan has proclaimed her bi-racial heritage and called on her fellow Americans to do the same. She has also expressed her shock that only five generations ago her ancestor lived as a slave on a Georgian plantation. Although there have been recent suggestions that George III’s bride, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was of mixed race, it is astonishing that, while Harry’s great-great-great-great grandmother was Queen Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, the British Dominions, and Empress of India; Meghan’s great-great-great grandfather was a slave. As Meghan told Elle magazine, on abolition in 1865, former slaves had to choose a name. “A surname, to be exact….the commonality that links me to my bloodline, is the choice that my great-great-great grandfather made to start anew. He chose the last name Wisdom.”
She grew up in Los Angeles, and, although not a Catholic (until recently, another impediment to royal marriage) Meghan was educated at a good Catholic girls’ school. She said of herself, “a California girl who lives by the ethos that most things can be cured with either yoga, the beach, or a few avocados.” This belies a steely determination and drive that led to a starring role in the U.S. legal drama, Suits, in which Meghan played a clever, ambitious young paralegal and part-time associate, Rachel Zane. Her on-screen colleague and lover, Mike Ross, proposed as early as Series 4, and she had to wait until Series 7 – episode 108 – to marry him.
Interestingly, Rachel is also Meghan’s first given name. It could well have been a case of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ when genealogists unearthed, as they inevitably do, a common descent from a 16th century Elizabeth Bowes, an ancestor via the Queen Mother.
Another key trait the couple has in common is their humanitarianism. Meghan is a global ambassador for World Vision Canada and a campaigner for gender equality as a women’s advocate for the UN. Meanwhile, Harry, a natural soldier and accomplished Apache helicopter pilot, has left the forces to devote himself to Invictus, the games for injured service man and women. As he has said, “The world needs Invictus, these guys need Invictus, I need Invictus.” He also has Sentebale, the charity that helps children with HIV and Aids; and Heads Together, a charity, which seeks to overcome the stigma of mental health.
This shared passion — not just for each other – but also for a better world will add not just lustre but depth to Britain’s Royal Family, which constantly needs to renew itself while remaining a steady model for its subjects. Harry and Meghan, with their charisma and glamour, will complement and sustain the dutiful, diligent, devoted Cambridges.
The decades ahead augur well. One can only wish the soon-to-be Sussexes every success.