Royal wedding: Meghan Markle is a symbol of change for British monarchy
Sixty years ago it would have been impossible for a divorcee to marry into British royalty
On Saturday more than 100,000 people are expected to line the streets of Windsor to celebrate the marriage of Prince Harry and his bride, US actress Meghan Markle.
For those unable to head down to Windsor, street parties and open-air screenings being held across the country will offer Britons and royal fans the opportunity to share in the happy couple’s big day.
While there has always been opposition to the monarchy in Britain, support for the institution has remained high. As a constitutional monarchy, public commitment to the royal family is vital to ensure its continuation.
Ms Markle, a humanitarian activist, has generally been received well by the British public, with most recent opinion polls showing a majority believe she will be a good addition to the royal family.
As recently as 60 years ago, a divorcee like Ms Markle was blocked from marrying into British royalty.
In the 1950's, Harry’s great-aunt Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II, was prevented from marrying her beloved, Group Captain Peter Townsend, on the grounds that he had been married once before, in a doomed love story depicted in Netflix drama The Crown.
Barring a major disaster, Margaret was, like Harry, unlikely to ever succeed to the throne. By the time her sister became monarch, she was third-in-line behind her nephew and niece, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Harry, the only sibling of heir to the throne, is sixth in the succession line behind his father Charles, brother Prince William and William's three children.
But in 1953, the British cabinet refused to approve Margaret’s 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 Group Capt Townsend.
Almost 20 years before, Margaret’s uncle, King Edward VIII’s determination to marry Wallis Simpson had 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 Mrs Simpson- as she was derogatorily referred to in the press.
Like Ms Markle, Mrs Simpson was an American divorcee but public opinion of her as a suitable match to Edward was always low. Painted in the press a money-obsessed, social climber with constant references to her not one but two previous marriages, it was unlikely that in 1930's Britain Mrs Simpson would ever have been accepted as Queen consort.
Memories of the Mrs Simpson affair combined with her recent succession to the throne mean the Queen was extremely reluctant to allow Margaret to marry Group Captain 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 of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson escapades."
Having reigned for over 60 years, the Queen and the monarchy is in a more comfortable position and gave her consent to Harry and Ms Markle's marriage without hesitation.
"It’s changing times, the Queen is more confident now and it matters less," Dr Whitelock added.
As a biracial divorcee who once appeared half naked in a sex scene for TV drama Suits, Ms Markle was always going to be a source of interest to Britain’s notorious right-wing tabloid press.
However, the media interest grew so intense while the pair were only dating that Harry released a statement in November 2016, saying his then-girlfriend had been subject to “a wave of abuse and harassment”.
Publicly confirming the relationship, something the royal family rarely ever do before an engagement, Harry said he feared for Ms Markle’s safety and condemned smears on the front pages of national newspapers about his girlfriend and the racist undertones of comment pieces.
The statement was received positively by the public, who remember all too well the press intrusion his mother Princess Diana suffered, ending in a fatal car crash in Paris while being pursued by paparazzi.
However, this has not stopped the media, who in recent weeks, have delighted in Ms 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 in return for money. Ms Markle announced on Thursday her father would not be attending the wedding due to ill health.
But scandal is something the royal family are now well used to dealing with, not least thanks to Margaret, who in 1971 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, had got divorced. Charles even married his long-time girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles, in 2005, herself a divorcee accused of breaking up the Prince of Wales’ marriage to Diana.
Back in Windsor, where supporters have already been gathering days before the wedding, public sympathy for Ms Markle’s recent private turmoil is clear to see.
"It must be heart-breaking for them, because her father can't come because he is in poor health," Maria Scott, 46, who had travelled from Newcastle to camp out in Windsor to get a glimpse of the couple told Reuters. "It must be really upsetting.”
Dedicated Harry and Meghan fans have even 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 to be in Windsor, told Reuters she was very excited for the big day.
"I want them to come through those gates. I want them to look at me, wave and smile."
Updated: May 17, 2018 07:14 PM