Column: Americans’ enthrallment with British royalty

Janine Lanza

Last November, many Americans reveled to the news that Prince Harry had proposed to his girlfriend Meghan Markle and she had accepted his proposal.

From the description of the engagement ring (comprised of a central diamond from Botswana where the couple took their first trip together joined by two side diamonds that had belonged to Harry’s late mother) to the pictures from the couple’s first official event with Queen Elizabeth (the celebration of Commonwealth Day) news of the couple has been prominent in tabloid newspapers and ignited intense interest in details of the place, date and style of the impending nuptials. Many Americans enjoy hearing about the elements of protocol of the wedding arrangements, speculation about the bride’s attire and conjecture about who will (and will not) be invited to the lavish event.

Historically, Americans have been fascinated by European, and particularly British, royalty. The runaway success of Netflix’s series “The Crown,” which narrates the personal side of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, reveals the substantial appetite for royal pomp and gossip. Our history and Constitution forbid noble titles from taking hold in this country. American culture traditionally prizes individual achievement and accomplishment rather than status conferred by birth. However, the pomp and ceremony of Old World royalty have captivated a country with a brief history and no traditions to rival the pageantry that marks such royal events.

Excitement on this side of the Atlantic over a British royal wedding is no new phenomenon. Prince Charles’ marriage proposal to Diana Spencer kicked off months of media coverage. The couple sat for an extensive interview with British television networks to mark their engagement, and the lead up to their wedding day saw breathless coverage of the impending ceremony. With plans to be “the People’s Prince and Princess,” the couple married in St. Paul’s Cathedral, rather than the traditional Westminster Abbey, in order to accommodate a larger number of guests, including global media. When Prince Charles married Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981, millions of Americans (among 750 million people worldwide) rose before dawn to see the couple exchange their vows. Of course that fairy tale beginning did not assure a happily ever after for Diana, but American interest in her life and the lives of the British royal family, never abated.

Interest in this wedding is heightened, of course, because Meghan Markle is herself an American woman and a celebrity in her own right due to her successful career as an actor. But Markle is not the first American woman to marry into the British royal family, although her entry into its fold is far more welcome than that of her predecessor. One of the biggest scandals of the early 20th century attended Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate his throne so that he could marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. At that time, the Anglican Church, whose titular head is the British monarch, did not permit remarriage if an ex-spouse was still alive as Simpson’s two ex-husbands were. Edward attempted to find a way to keep the throne but ultimately his choice of Simpson separated him from his family and his crown. The details of this courtship and its dramatic conclusion riveted Americans and British alike who goggled at the lengths to which the king went to marry his lover.

It was the strict traditionalism of the British elite in the 1930s that generated the Wallis Simpson scandal. The refusal, or inability, to acknowledge change, such as the reality of divorce, prevented the royal family from accepting Edward VIII’s choice of wife. Romantic love was meant to take a back seat to considerations of state. In the unease of the post-World War I era, British politicians and members of the king’s court believed that the image of an unchanging ruling dynasty, upholding the practices and traditions of the past, would represent the best way to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the populace.

Markle not only shares her American birth with Simpson, but she too is a divorced woman. And Markle’s identity as a multi-racial woman (her mother is African-American, her father white) also marks her as distinct from prior royal brides. Discussions of Britain’s colonial past, and the race and racism that have resulted, have long been fraught. Markle is no stranger to the pain occasioned by racism; she has spoken out about the racism directed toward her mother and the hurt done by racist behavior. After the royal engagement was announced, some of the response was, predictably, online (and anonymous) expressions of anger over the fact that a biracial woman will soon be part of the royal family. But unlike the official response that Simpson provoked — the staunch defense of tradition and the timelessness of the values of the British monarchy — Markle ’s welcome into the family has been warm and seemingly genuine. There has been no indication that any aspect of Markle’s identity presents a problem to members of the royal family. Harry’s decision, based on his and Markle’s love for one another, has been supported and celebrated.

For Americans, the spectacle of Harry and Meghan joining hearts and homes will provide a feast for the eyes, a touch of vicarious luxury, and a sort of reality based quasi-episode of “The Crown.” It also signals a major shift in the way the British royal family relates to the public. Rather than the paragon of unchanging values and customs, the royal family is now striving to show its support for modern values of diversity, inclusiveness and acceptance. By welcoming Meghan Markle to their family, British royals are showing their commitment to these values, and above all to the modern devotion to the idea of romantic love.

About the author

Janine Lanza is associate professor and director for the Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies Program at Wayne State University.