LONDON – If a prince is in want of a wife, no one puts on a better show than the British when he finally gets one.
That truth was universally acknowledged Friday when William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor, second in line to the British throne, married Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, his college sweetheart, in a ceremony dripping with tradition and sparkly jewels.
The couple exchanged vows in the soaring Gothic interior of Westminster Abbey before 1,900 guests, including more than 40 crowned heads and scores of dignitaries and celebrities. Also present was Prince William’s 85-year-old grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, the prim and proper head of a royal family that hopes to receive a boost from a new generation capable of rebranding the monarchy for the 21st century.
Outside the church, hundreds of thousands of well-wishers converged on central London, watching the wedding on jumbo screens in Hyde Park and cheering the newlyweds as they rode in an open-topped carriage from the abbey to Buckingham Palace.
In many ways, it was a chance for a normally reserved people to celebrate not just a royal marriage but themselves, an occasion for an outpouring of patriotism at a time of economic uncertainty and painful public austerity.
“It’s a big British event. We don’t usually have big British events,” said 28-year-old James Ravenscroft, a Londoner who was draped in a large British flag. His friends were similarly decked out.
Many spectators had camped overnight to nab the best vantage points along the short procession route. Along with Britain’s Union Jack, the flags of such countries as Brazil, Canada, Kenya and the U.S. also dotted the crowds, evidence of the abiding fascination that Britain’s monarchy holds for foreigners, even those who gave the royal family the heave-ho 235 years ago.
There was excitement when the abbey bells began pealing to herald the arrival of honored guests and members of the bejeweled and beribboned wedding party. There was laughter when William struggled to work the thin wedding band of Welsh gold onto Middleton’s finger, possibly putting the safety of the royal ring-fitter’s head in doubt.
But there was poignancy, too, in the knowledge that 14 years ago, William had sat stoically in the same church as a teenager for the funeral of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris.
That tragic event, and the palace’s out-of-touch response to the national upwelling of grief that followed, pushed public opinion of the royal family to its lowest level in years. Many supporters are now counting on William, 28, a personable and sympathetic figure with a strong resemblance to his mother, to help revive the monarchy’s reputation and glamour.
A completely new, and no doubt daunting, life awaits Middleton, who is now the wife of, essentially, a junior partner in “the Firm,” as the royal family likes to style itself.
Confident and poised, Middleton is the first university-educated woman to marry an heir in the direct line of succession to the throne. Somehow in Britain’s complicated and arcane class system, she is considered “middle class,” even though her parents have made millions from their home-based party-supplies business.
But Middleton, 29, is no longer a commoner: The queen announced Friday morning that William and his bride would henceforth be known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, with Middleton awarded the title “Her Royal Highness.” She is not, however, a princess, regardless of the fairytale fantasies of her fans.
Her main career duty has passed from helping her parents produce party favors to helping the royal family produce an heir. Welcome to the world of dynastic rule.
Such is the burgeoning popularity of “Wills and Kate” that polls show a significant number of Britons would like to see the young prince bypass his father, Prince Charles, and ascend the throne when Elizabeth dies. That remains an unlikely prospect, though.
“People may want William to succeed his grandmother, but at the same time, Charles has been waiting such a long time – he should have a shot at it,” said Jane Taylor, 48, a nurse who came to London on Friday from the city of Southampton. “If he didn’t, it would be like pages ripped out of the history book.”
The wedding itself seemed to have been ripped from the pages of a military manual, such was its attention to detail and timing down to every minute.
Guests began arriving long before the 11 a.m. service, creating a sea of colorful hats inside the abbey’s medieval nave. Cheers greeted celebrities like Elton John and David Beckham, but Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard received a muted reception. Gillard is an avowed republican who believes the royal family ought to be out of a job.
A trumpet fanfare announced the arrival of the canary-yellow-clad queen, who has reigned for 59 years. A majority of Britons alive today have known no other sovereign, and polls consistently show her to be the monarchy’s most-respected figure.
Friday’s was the grandest royal wedding in 30 years, when William’s parents, Charles and Diana, tied the knot before a worldwide TV audience of about 750 million. The potential audience for William’s nuptials was estimated at 2 billion.
The service itself was mostly traditional, with a few modern flourishes. Young maple trees in huge planters were hauled inside the abbey to lend it a garden feel (reported price tag: up to $80,000), and new music was commissioned for the event.
Middleton pledged to love and honor but not to “obey” her husband, though, once he becomes king, she will technically owe him her total allegiance.
Afterward, the newlyweds left the church for their coach ride to Buckingham Palace, escorted by helmeted guards of the royal Household Cavalry. The possible showers that were forecast never materialized. When Middleton came out on the palace’s balcony with William to wave at the surging crowds who will one day be her subjects, she could be seen to say: “Wow.”
Then came a pair of kisses that will be endlessly broadcast around the world.
To the delight of the crowds, the happy couple later emerged unexpectedly from the palace riding in a classic blue Aston Martin being driven by William himself.
Neither he nor Middleton appeared to be wearing seat belts. But even with 5,000 police officers crawling over London, in one of the biggest security operations the city has ever seen, they managed to escape getting a ticket.