I belong to a generation of Americans for whom the idea of not only a royal wedding but a royal marriage was largely established by Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales. Their staid ceremony and their seemingly joyless marriage (aside from the births of their children) made marrying into the royal family look less like a fantasy than like a march into oblivion — a grudgingly accepted transformation into a wealthy but hollowed-out target for photographers hoping to catch you at your worst.
Even William and Kate's wedding in 2011, while a considerably happier affair, wasn't particularly surprising. It felt — from my perspective on the street outside — like a beautiful but utterly traditional event. Perhaps even beautiful because it was utterly traditional, but carried out with some actual pleasure.
From the time Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — got engaged, their relationship was considerably less expected. Markle is an American. Her mother is black. She's an active feminist. She's an actress. She's divorced. She took such abuse in public in the early days of their relationship that Harry issued a statement explicitly calling out its sexism and racism — calling it sexism and racism, in those words.
And by the time the wedding started Saturday morning, commentators were talking about elements of the ceremony that wouldn't be traditional for royal weddings: that Markle would walk herself down the aisle before being joined by Harry's father, Prince Charles, for the final leg. (An act that's still considered rebellious even by some who are not British royalty.) That Harry would wear a wedding ring. That an American Episcopal bishop named Michael Curry would give the address.
Oh, we will come back to him.
The ceremony began as you might expect: with a lot of emphasis on great hats. British weddings may offer Americans their best opportunity to look at the kinds of hats that we, regrettably, don't wear all that often. And perhaps because Markle is an American actress, there were even more celebrities to look at than usual. Actress Priyanka Chopra wore a sculpted lavender number I could have looked at all day, and Serena Williams had a divine stand-up fascinator. Camilla Parker-Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall and Charles' wife, wore a broad, flat swirl of feathery peach.
But then Markle herself appeared for the first time, making public a dress that had been treated as a secret only slightly less important than spycraft. And while she had an elaborate veil, with flowers from every country in the Commonwealth embroidered on it, her dress was very simple. Aggressively simple, even, other than the boat neck. Her hair and makeup were simple as well: her hair was in a low bun that was a touch loose, and her makeup was natural-looking enough that it didn't obscure her freckles. Even in a tiara, she looked like an American actress might look when marrying anyone — not just a prince. It will be a snap to copy the dress for its look, if not its quality.
But nothing felt fresher than the address from Bishop Michael Curry, who's the first black presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church. Curry is a longtime activist on matters of justice, and he opened by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on "the redemptive power of love." He moved quickly to stress that romantic love is transformative, but so are other kinds of love: the love between neighbors, and potentially in "a new human family." (By all means, read the whole thing.)
Because Curry was a black minister in an overwhelmingly white church at an overwhelmingly white event, the cadences of his speech — unusual for a British chapel but utterly familiar in an American black church, as commentators from both countries noted just before the BBC America coverage signed off — embraced parts of Markle's public identity that she's been adamant about maintaining. Its very presence at the ceremony acknowledged her, and her mother, Doria Ragland. It acknowledged the rest of her family, and even the racism that she's faced in public.
At the same time, though, broadening the ceremony beyond the walls of the chapel to encompass the idea of a broader responsibility for each other provided a vital link to how Harry's mother, Diana, saw the world and her role as a royal. She was an activist always, and her charitable work often seemed to be the only thing she liked about being a princess; the only part of it that brought her any happiness. While Curry offered one link between this very British ceremony and Markle's American blackness (a gospel choir offered another), he also offered a link between this obscene world of wealth and a man who was raised by a mother who seems to have desperately wanted him to know more of life than that. So both of their mothers felt especially present in that moment, even if only Meghan's was seated nearby.
The case against monarchies is not a hard one to make, particularly from afar. Why on earth allow public funds to support such a spectacle? What is a tiara for, in the grand scheme of things? And, of course, the old standard: Who cares? (Often spoken by those in the process of caring quite deeply, if in the negative.)
But I couldn't forget, as I watched Harry get married, that my first real memory of him as a fully formed human was seeing him as a gutted 12-year-old redhead, walking behind the carriage that carried his mother's casket, his goodbye letter to her in view. He's talked about how agonizing that experience was, and how broken he felt for years after Diana's death. So how can it not be some relief to see him and his brother, joking and grinning, not only happy but seemingly at least a little normal, marrying women who looked happier to be marrying them than their mother looked when she married their father? How can it not be a relief to see their father lean over to chuckle with William, and to see him step in to walk Markle the rest of the way after her own father tagged out? I empathize with other people's sympathy, I suppose: if one family is to be born into a completely bizarre set of duties and rituals, better that they invite a fiery speaker who advocates for justice; better that they marry people they seem to like and mutter sweet nothings to each other when they don't have to. Better that they place conviction on that platform than simply tradition.
Of course, the parts of this ceremony that felt modernizing were only symbolic for everyone except the couple themselves. It doesn't actually modernize the monarchy, let alone a country, to invite one minister rather than another; it doesn't change anything for poor people to have a gospel choir singing.
But everything the monarchy does — except, perhaps, spend money — is symbolic. Messaging is, at this point in history, most of its purpose. Harry himself has acknowledged its "magic" but also that nobody would really want to be king or queen if it weren't a "duty." Even if the monarchy moves with the speed of a sloth on benzos, if it must exist with all this pageantry and absurdity to accompany it, why not some joy as well? Why not some interest in the wider world? Why not some gospel music and some beautiful cello performance?
It's hard to defend a royal wedding as anything other than a lark. But it's not hard to understand why for a lot of people, this one was more pleasurable — and perhaps more moving — than they expected.