Britain Cheers a Royal Wedding (And Frets About the Bill)

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Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

Britain's Prince William and his fiancée Kate Middleton pose for a photograph in St. James's Palace in central London on Nov. 16, 2010

Within minutes of the announcement that Prince William would marry his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton, Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a statement of congratulations, helicopters were circling Buckingham Palace, and news channels were looping footage of the young couple sharing intimate moments at a garden party. The nonstop chatter of talking heads and royal watchers soon followed, their central concerns being what Kate will wear down the aisle and whether that aisle will be in St. Paul's Cathedral, where William's parents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, tied the knot 30 years ago. Despite the now blinding glare of the media spotlight, 28-year-old Kate must feel some degree of relief. Today — after an eight-year courtship that has endured constant speculation, relentless pursuit by paparazzi, a high-profile breakup and an even higher-profile reconciliation — the royal family finally made public what Kate has known for years: the future King really has found his Queen.

"The Prince of Wales is delighted to announce the engagement of Prince William to Miss Catherine Middleton," read a brief statement from Clarence House, Prince Charles' official residence. "The wedding will take place in the Spring or Summer of 2011, in London. Further details about the wedding day will be announced in due course."

The statement explained that the couple became engaged in October during a private holiday in Kenya and that William, ever the gentleman, had sought the permission of Kate's father. The Queen needn't worry that the newlyweds will crowd her out of the palace. "Following the marriage," the statement went on to say, "the couple will live in north Wales, where Prince William will continue to serve with the Royal Air Force."

Reports had been building for weeks that an engagement was imminent. Even so, insiders say the royal family managed to outfox the ruthless British media, which have a knack for exposing closely guarded royal secrets. "Wily William sprang a surprise on all of us who thought we would get a scoop by leaking the engagement before he could," Judy Wade, author of Diana: The Intimate Portrait and the royal correspondent for Hello! magazine, said in an e-mail to TIME. "It wasn't exactly a big shock as we were all expecting it, but it will lift the spirits of everyone in Britain during this economic downturn."

Not so fast. While the thought of horse-drawn carriages and billowing white dresses may bring a smile to some, a royal wedding also comes with a price tag — and folks are already worried that taxpayers may have to foot some of the bill, at a time when Britain is introducing unprecedented austerity measures. "If people are being told to tighten their belts, if the government is making thousands unemployed, if welfare payments are being slashed, it would be sickening for the government to allow a single penny more to be spent on the royals at this time," Graham Smith, spokesman for Republic, a campaign group calling for the abolition of the monarchy, said in a statement. "It is not for the taxpayer to pay for any part of this event. The Windsors must cough up."

Despite fancy vacations and weekends at the royal residences, the road to marriage hasn't been easy for the couple, who began dating as students at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The media were quick to point out that Kate lacks aristocratic lineage. Her parents rose to the ranks of the middle class by starting a mail-order party-supply business, earning enough to send Kate and her sister to prestigious Marlborough College, a high school that costs more than $24,000 a year. William's well-heeled friends seized on her family's background, reportedly dismissing Kate's mother — a former flight attendant — with the flight-check phrase "doors to manual." As their relationship progressed and a proposal remained elusive, the tabloid press began calling her "Waity Katie." The low point came in April 2007, when the couple split: William reportedly wanted to enjoy the life of a bachelor while serving time in the military.

Rather than sulking at home, Kate decided to have some fun and was repeatedly photographed looking glamorous and apparently unmoved by the snub from her wayward prince. Catherine Ostler, editor of the high-society magazine Tatler, believes Kate's poise during that period ultimately boosted her popularity with the masses. "She came out of that breakup rather well," says Ostler. "She went out, looked great, and eventually [William] went back with his tail between his legs. It made her look like the triumphant underdog."

And one that won't need training. That's one reason insiders believe the royal family has embraced her as one of their own. "She has behaved impeccably," Ostler says. "She's never said anything silly or had a tantrum or hit a photographer." Perhaps as important to the royals is that Kate has seen William's life up close for eight years and knows full well what becoming Queen Catherine would entail. Most agree that she already possesses the grace of William's mother — but, unlike Diana, has a relationship built on firm foundations. "It's not like Charles and Diana, which was a quick turnaround," Ostler says. "Kate has been in the frame for years." And it's the patience that she has shown — through the good times and the bad — that will likely keep her there.