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

  • Andrew Cowie / UPPA / ZUMAPRESS

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

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    Merging two families is rarely easy. And which families are free from embarrassing relatives? But this happy couple faced far more significant dilemmas in planning their nuptials than whether to invite Kate's tattooed uncle Gary Goldsmith (yes) or William's scandal-prone aunt Sarah, Duchess of York (no). They were keenly aware that every decision they made would form a virtual mosaic tile. At a distance, those tiles — the seductive details of lace and tulle, blossoms and hats, music and crowds and pageantry — resolve into a single, big picture. Stand back from the lush spectacle, and the image is of not just young marrieds but young marrieds whose future is intimately entwined with that of the country over which they may reasonably expect to reign. 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.

    To Have and to Hold On
    As the groom's spry grandmother entered the abbey, clad hat to toe in her favorite yellow, she appeared, as always, distant yet utterly familiar, a stern matriarch capable of sudden, transformative smiles. For more than 59 years the Queen has been a reassuringly fixed point of reference in a country that has seemed increasingly unsure of its identity. Britons have come to question many of the structures and institutions that once defined Britishness, including a class system that helped citizens know their place and hindered those who sought to challenge the social order. Britain's constitutional monarchy has not escaped contention, but Elizabeth II provides a bulwark against republican sentiment. The popularity of her children has flowed and ebbed, and critics routinely cast doubt on the value of monarchy. But apart from the briefest of moments — in 1966, when she hesitated to visit the Welsh town of Aberfan after a landslide of coal waste buried a school, and again, more than 30 years later, when she stayed silently at her home in Scotland for the first six days after the death of Princess Diana — the Queen has sailed on unscathed and, a rarity in this skeptical age, near universally respected.

    She is, however, 85, and the royal family is preparing for the succession that must inevitably come. There is an implicit understanding among palace officials that all events showcasing the Windsors form part of that preparation, from big occasions like William's wedding to the smaller-scale routines of ribbon cutting and receptions. "Our job is to think ahead and spot the potholes and drive round them and to plan for the long term," says a palace aide.

    For William and Kate, granted the titles Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as their wedding day dawned, those potholes included the risk that too opulent festivities would stoke resentments and open divisions in a time of belt-tightening austerity. In the Oscar-garlanded film The King's Speech, George VI plays a key role in stiffening the sinews of his subjects as they face a national crisis. It's a template his successors would dearly love to emulate. (The movie, confided one palace official, was the best piece of public relations the royals could have hoped for.) But that would entail convincing the public that the Windsors provide bang for the taxpayer bucks spent on their upkeep, calculated at 62 pence ($1.03) per subject per year. In return for that support, the royals perform ceremonial duties and, so the wisdom goes, boost tourism and national pride. Critics of the monarchy counter that the cost of the institution is insupportably high, entrenching traditions that favor the country's elite.

    In planning the wedding, the couple and their advisers took great care to emphasize the human scale and dimension of the event. The palace let it be known that the bride's family would help foot the bill and pointed out that many of the costs ordinarily associated with flashy matrimonials — the posh cars and coaches, the glitzy reception venue, the catering and waitstaff — were already amortized as part of routine expenditures for the royal household. Yet there was a balance that needed to be struck. Strip the spectacle of grandeur and the royal nuptials might easily have mutated into the sort of celebrity affair that in Britain fills newspapers one day and forms the wrapping for fish and chips the next. "Members of the royal family are not politicians. They're not pop stars with a new album. They're here for the long term," says the aide.

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