The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle which will take place in May of 2018 will constitute a considerable departure from some of the protocols regarding royal marriage which have characterised the history of the Royal Family in Britain. Inevitably, Prince Harry’s decision to marry an American divorcee will draw comparisons with the same decision made by the Duke of Windsor with respect to Wallis Simpson, leading to the abdication crisis of 1936 (Valente, 1998). The Royal Family has changed dramatically in the eighty or more years which have passed since this crisis which almost brought down the Royal Family as an institution altogether, but Meghan Markle will nevertheless make a considerable impact, and bring about certain changes, even today. This essay will consider some of those changes, and assess the degree to which Prince Harry’s somewhat unconventional choice of bride will have repercussions for the image and function of the Royal Family in Britain and around the world. It will be argued that Markle, in her nationality, ethnicity, career history and personality, represents a radical departure from some of the conventions and traditions of the royal bride, ones which will likely have the impact of bringing about a significant modernisation and image development for the Royal Family. Further, if she and Harry were to have children, the impact on the Royal Family would be truly transformative and lasting, and may indeed preserve it from the abolition that may otherwise result from its becoming, or appearing to be, obsolete.
In the case of Princess Diana and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Charles and his son Prince William chose women who were not themselves royal but, in the case of Diana, of aristocratic English background and, in the case of Catherine, of British middle-class background (Church Gibson, 2011). A progression might be seen towards a less selective and restrictive choice of possible marriage partners between Charles and William. William, in marrying Catherine, chose a wife who did not have a royal or aristocratic background, something which in itself marked a departure from the traditions of royalty. In choosing Meghan Markle, Harry is departing even further from the conventional model of the royal bride, as she is both an American and someone whose background is in entertainment, meaning she was already in the public eye before her engagement to Harry was announced. Catherine has been credited with doing a great deal to modernise and de-formalise the image of the royal family. In coming from a middle class rather than aristocratic background, and in insisting on a more hands-on approach to child-rearing which departed from the more distant, aristocratic royal model, Catherine has brought the royal family in her generation and that of her children a distance away from some of its traditional past (Palmer, 2013). She has been engaged with the media and the public in a way which has blended formal responsibility with more light-hearted informality, and she has been identified with an increasingly modernised Royal Family.
Markle will not therefore constitute an unprecedented change, as she is of the same generation as Catherine and someone who has a lot in common with her. Instead, Markle’s impact can be considered in part a continuation of the work in transforming the Royal Family which has already been evidenced by Catherine. As was noted in the Belfast Telegraph, ‘Meghan is a modernising figure for the monarchy – which puts her in the same league as Kate, who has been credited with transforming its public face over the past six years.’ However, as will be outlined below, there are ways in which Markle represents a unique change. Nonetheless, it might be argued that the greatest changes will be made by Meghan rather than Harry or the rest of the Royal Family upon their marriage. Indeed, Markle will no longer pursue her acting career, and instead will devote herself to the kinds of humanitarian work which are a necessary part of the royal duties that Harry, her future husband, will be performing as part of his role as the likely Duke of Sussex. Moreover, she will be baptised into the Church of England and will be required to accompany Prince Harry on a number of his royal duties. Nevertheless, although the change to Markle’s life will be significant, it is equally true that she has had, is having, and will continue to have, a transformative impact on the Royal Family itself.
One of the ways in which Markle’s coming into the Royal Family will likely change it is in the kind of background and life experiences which she is bringing into her role. Indeed, her background is notable for being unconventional in royal terms and, as was noted above, for having already involved her in the public eye in her role as an actress before meeting Harry. She is from Los Angeles, and has spent her career in the acting industry, acquiring a number of Hollywood and show business connections as well as a degree of fame in the United States and the world. Although she has deleted her social media in the light of her new membership of the Royal Family, her forthcoming marriage has only increased interest in her and following from the United States. This Americanness is central to the ways in which she will transform the Royal Family, bringing it both into a more transatlantic, international alliance with other parts of the world and integrating it into areas of youth and popular culture from which it has always traditionally remained distant. Markle is notable for her calm and friendly media appearances, informed by her own career in the media spotlight, and this marks a distinction from some of the stiff or awkward interactions which have defined the Royal Family’s media engagements in the past. The Daily Telegraph has noted both Markle’s greater maturity when compared with Diana (being nearly twice the age Diana was when she announced her engagement to Prince Charles), as well as her and Harry’s greater ease and comfort in engaging with the media: ‘compared with the stilted, coy and embarrassing interview that pair gave when they became engaged in 1981, both Harry and Meghan displayed an assuredness and emotional maturity that bodes well for their future success.’ Harry, who is notably lower down the order of precedence for the throne than were either Charles (first in line) or William (second in line) at the time of their marriages, is also himself entitled to a greater freedom and liberality in his behaviour and associations than would be afforded to someone who was the heir or heir-but-one to the throne, and this is an element which Markle will be able to contribute to and exploit in her own fashion. Indeed, Harry has long been considered one of the more fun-loving and engaging members of the Royal Family, and thus in conjunction with Markle it is likely that their marriage and her contribution will be one of mellowing the somewhat austere and traditional image of the Royal Family abroad, and modernising both its perception and its actual practices.
The fact that Markle will transform the Royal Family, and the degree to which she will do so, can be evidenced by considering certain events which have taken place since the announcement of her engagement which, although seemingly innocuous, reveal in fact a striking departure from tradition. One such unprecedented event is her being invited by the Queen to join the Royal Family for their traditional Christmas Day lunch. Kay (2017) notes of this decision that it ‘represents a sea change in the Victorian attitudes which for so long have coloured the royal approach to modern life.’ This is an invitation which has never been extended to an unmarried partner, with Diana, Camilla and Catherine all being excluded from such an invitation. This despite the fact that the engagement had only been announced shortly before in November. This represents not only the fact that Markle is approved of by the Queen, but also that there are changes in protocol and tradition which are being brought about by her presence. Exceptions such as this demonstrate the degree to which Markle is likely to modernise and de-formalise some of the more standoffish or coldly traditional behaviours which have defined the Royal Family for centuries. This is a view which rhetorically voiced by Gore (2017: n.p.) who asks if it is ‘too mad to wonder, once the Brexit dust settles, whether the younger royals may – against all the odds – represent a Britain looking forward to the future rather than an imagined past?’ Markle, with her informal attire, relaxed attitude with the media, experience in the film and television in the United States and, by royal standards, humble origins, may very well provide the catalyst for bringing the Royal Family into the twenty-first century in a way which is compatible with internationalist and inclusive values.
Finally, it can be noted that the greatest impact and change that Markle will likely have on the Royal Family will be long-term in nature. She will take British citizenship with dual American citizenship, and so will any children she might have with Prince Harry. This means that future members of the Royal Family will be American, forging closer links between the two countries and also bringing the Royal Family into a more internationalist, modern light. Perhaps even more significant than this question of nationality is the one of race, with Markle the daughter of a white father and a black mother, her mixed-race status meaning that future generations of the British Royal Family will have parents and grandparents of African American ethnicity, bringing a further degree of integration and internationalism to the complexion of the Royal Family in this and future generations (Hirsch, 2017). It has been argued that the lack of debate and discussion about this aspect of their union is both evidence of changed social attitudes in Britain and evidence that the Royal Family, always slow to move with the times with regards to socio-cultural issues, has also moved beyond questions of miscegenation that might have plagued older putative unions. As Gore (2017: n.p.) has noted, ‘the lack of agitation suggests that British society has largely moved on and that the royal family has moved on with it: this union thus stands as important statement about the degree to which progressive values and diversity have been entrenched in the UK mainstream.’ Other commentators have said that the symbolism of a multi-ethnic Royal Family will change Britain’s relationship with race forever (Hirsh, 2017). In any case, this racial diversity, combined with Markle’s ties to the American entertainment industry, means that the Royal Family will likely be radically changed by the new links that its members will have with the rest of the world. All of these factors point to a Royal Family which is increasingly far removed from the antiquated and insular image which has come to define it in previous decades and centuries.
To conclude, the impact of Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry in Spring of 2018 has already been and will be huge in terms of changes to her own life. However, and perhaps more surprisingly, the impact in terms of changes to the Royal Family itself, the evidence suggests, is likely to be just as huge. Indeed, one can perhaps best characterise Markle’s integration into the British Royal Family in terms of a mutually transformative process. She represents, in her nationality, previous career, ethnicity and personal character, a strong departure from some of the traditional ideas and characteristics which have defined the Royal Family. In Prince Harry, she has found a member of the Royal Family who has frequently been more open and engaging than is the traditional model of royal behaviour, and the likely consequence of their union in the short-term is an increasingly modern-looking, internationally-engaged and informal Royal Family, and in the long-term the kind of future generations of royals who may not only change the British Royal Family but save it.
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Church Gibson, P. (2011). New patterns of emulation: Kate, Pippa and Cheryl. Celebrity studies, 2(3), 358-360.
Daily Telegraph. (2017). Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wedding will give royals a boost.’ 1st December 2017. Available online [accessed 26th January 2018] at: https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/sydney-confidential/prince-harry-and-meghan-markle-wedding-will-give-royals-a-boost/news-story/6b49375970613474d52a5ab297aa8d8c
Gore, W. (2017). ‘Meghan Markle: the royal family needs a desperate update – could a Trump-bashing American actress be the answer?’ The Independent. 27th November 2017. Available online [accessed 26th January 2018] at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/meghan-markle-prince-harry-engagement-royal-family-suits-actress-trump-update-needed-a8078936.html/
Hirsh, A. (2017). ‘When Meghan weds Harry, Britain’s relationship with race will change for ever.’ The Guardian. 27th November 2017. Available online [accessed 26th January 2018] at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/27/prince-harry-meghan-markle-britishness-monarchy-relevant.
Kay, R. (2017). ‘How Meghan Markle is transforming the Royal Family.’ The Daily Mail. 13th December 2017. Available online [accessed 26th January 2018] at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5177145/Meghan-Markle-transforming-Royal-Family-RICHARD-KAY.html.
Palmer, R. (2013). ‘It’s ‘hands-on’ parenting for the future monarch.’ Available online [accessed 26th January 2018] at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/416809/It-s-hands-on-parenting-for-the-future-monarch
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