The Royal We

This was not simply a wedding but the clearest indication yet of how the House of Windsor is positioning itself for the post-Elizabethan age

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Andrew Cowie / UPPA / ZUMAPRESS

Kate and William on the Carrage down to Buckingham Palace Friday April 29 2011.

If London were a ship, she would have listed. Days before the wedding of His Royal Highness Prince William Arthur Philip Louis and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, it began: the inexorable buildup of spectators along the ceremonial route, at first a straggle of flag-bedecked diehards, then the crowds and finally hordes, all intent on squeezing into the same small corner of a sprawling city. Some were locals, but many had traveled across countries and continents. Those lucky or determined enough to grab the best vantage points caught fleeting glimpses of oxblood-colored Rolls-Royces and open carriages and their smartly dressed occupants. The greater press of people, their views obscured, raised smart phones like periscopes. What mattered was not seeing the pageantry but living it.

You can understand why Britons and the 54 nations of the Commonwealth would take more than a passing interest in an event attended by their head of state, her immediate heir and the heir's heir. Brits observing the bobbies keeping order on the ceremonial routes may also have wondered how much of their taxpayer cash had been spent on what was, after all, described by palace officials as only a "semi-state" occasion. Citizens of Bahrain could take heart that even amid the cheers, their clamor for reform was audible, forcing the Gulf state's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to send his regrets.

Yet this wasn't a spectacle of interest only to audiences with tangible links to those present. The marriage of the Prince and the commoner gripped a global audience, reaching places not represented at the ceremony and without historical ties to Britain or, like the U.S., long independent of its Crown. The world loves a love story, and we're thirsty for narratives of hope in difficult times. But more than that, the wedding, though it left some people cold and overheated a few — police arrested 55 people before and during the ceremony — achieved something exceptionally rare.

Some 750 million people watched Prince William's father, the Prince of Wales, marry Lady Diana Spencer in 1981; 2.5 billion were drawn by Diana's 1997 funeral. Many commentators perceived in Diana's death a second death — of our unfathomable but undeniable fascination with Britain's monarchy. Then came news of her son's engagement, and the fascination kindled again. Estimates suggest that in addition to the London throngs, upwards of 2 billion people saw the wedding on TV or online, triggering the mysterious alchemy that turns spectators into participants in their own history. As the bride stepped out of the car, you knew that a huge chunk of humanity was watching as you were, straining for a first glimpse of the dress as you were, caught up in the moment as you were. "This is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope," said the Bishop of London in his address, and as William and Kate exchanged vows, a significant portion of our fractured, fractious planet, for those moments at least, shared an idea and a dream.

It helped that, despite its pomp, the wedding offered much that we could relate to. Ignore for a moment the celebrity guests, the soaring architecture and the swelling melodies that only world-class musicians can produce. Nuptials in developed nations almost always represent an accommodation between tradition and society as it really is — as this one did. The bride and groom had lived together for just over four years before marching up the aisle. Kate is 29 years old. (William is her junior by five months.) This mirrors a wider trend that has seen British women delay tying the knot until 30. When Charles married Diana, the average age of British brides was 23.1. Diana was only 20.

That union ended in divorce, just like some 50% of all British marriages. When Prince Charles later chose to wed his mistress, also a divorcée, he pursued a path that just 68 years before forced Edward VIII to abdicate. In 2005 there was barely a murmur of complaint as Charles and Camilla, in common with two-thirds of British brides and grooms, exchanged vows in a civil ceremony. Camilla's children by her first husband were in the pews for William and Kate's wedding. Few marriages these days are free from tangled family constellations, and the royal one is no exception.

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