From the guessing game over her new royal title to celebrity connections and Mrs Wallis Simpson, we take a long look at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's royal engagement
A long look at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's royal engagement
Recounting the moment he proposed to Meghan Markle, Prince Harry confided, “All the stars were aligned.” Certainly, at least two real stars were in alignment – the prospective bride and groom – famous in their own spheres but together a stellar union. Is this 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 announcement, 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, so Meghan will lose her first name and could be formally transformed, sometime in the Spring, 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. She is the daughter of an African-American clinical therapist, Doria Radlan, and a German, Dutch, English, Irish and Scottish television lighting director, Thomas Markle. Among his work is the long-running (and hopefully rather apt) comedy, Married …. with Children.
She has proclaimed her multi-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. 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 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 US legal drama, Suits, in which Meghan played a clever, ambitious young paralegal and part-time associate, Rachel Zane. Her on-screen colleague, Mike Ross, proposed as early as Series 4, and yet in Series 7, they were still unmarried. One hopes for a swifter denouement in real life.
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.
Despite those ancient links, the UK Press Association has rather piously pointed out that all non-European nationals must obtain a visa if they want to come to the UK to marry and that Meghan would need to apply for a Family Visa if she wanted to live with her fiancé more than six months. The report continued, “Fees range from £993 (Dh4859) to £1,583. Decisions by the Home Office can be made on the same day via the premium service or sometimes take up to 12 weeks.”
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 servicemen 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 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 next six months or so before the wedding should prove exciting for royal watchers everywhere and the decades ahead augur well. One can only wish the soon-to-be Sussexes every success.