I Also Went to the Royal Wedding

Posted May 25, 2018 11:21 p.m. EDT

WINDSOR, England — The sun was glad. The air was the exact temperature of God’s warm breath as he whispers a secret in your ear (72 degrees Fahrenheit). The breeze was discreet; the clouds were for decoration only; the roads looked newly born; the volunteers were eager to volunteer in some way; the grass smelled like even more grass than it was; the horses were lauded as “brave,” “affectionate” and “very tolerant of drunk people”; the policemen were armed with semi-automatic rifles; the empire, while dead, was verging toward an eerie approximation of vitality (rigor mortis, perhaps?); the Earth was careening through space at a rate of 1,000 mph; and Rachel Meghan Markle was getting married — married! — to the sudden and frantic delight of millions.

These were the sparkling images beamed from the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead last Saturday to dazzle a global audience: The bride in lustrous, heavy white silk. The groom lustily biting his lip as he cast his eyes upon her. Oprah Winfrey striding into a medieval chapel in a dress the color of chilled rosé.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the day before the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a tightly packed horde of nameless well-wishers had found themselves crushed between police barricades outside the walled complex of buildings known collectively as Windsor Castle. As the sun began to dip in the west, the well-wishers grew agitated. Police presence suddenly increased on the already well-policed street, as word had spread that an appearance from a member of the British royal family was imminent. Women in sandals negotiated for purchase on railings. Dogs and children were for several minutes at risk of being trampled, and then were. Specific complaints about certain people in the crowd were voiced loudly into the evening air, presented as general observations about humanity.

Everyone was desperate to see Markle. They did not hunger to see her; it is possible to live for weeks without solid food. These people needed Markle as they needed oxygen. They needed to witness firsthand the color of the dress she had chosen to wear for the afternoon of her last day as a divorced single woman. They needed to watch the fading light glint off her shiny, healthy hair — and would it be up or down? They needed, each, to scream their personal well-wishes at her, or maybe just to feel her name rip out of their throats — Meghan! — so it could never be said that they’d had the opportunity to try to command her attention and failed to.

Minutes crawled by. The crowd grew angrier at the prolonged wait for whoever might be going to come outside, their energy mutating from excited to inconvenienced to furious.

It was a relief, then, when Harry emerged from the castle gates accompanied by his brother, Prince William. Harry was half, or at least 45 percent, of the reason everyone had gathered here, 25 miles outside London. Harry was the one whose future happiness they had come to verify and endorse. Harry was ... spending an awful lot of time talking to children at the other end of the street. Harry was waving goodbye to the children. Harry was going back inside the castle without having made a full and complete circumnavigation around the perimeter of the police barricades that were stacked several bodies deep with people resolute in their desire to give him well wishes.

At first, there was stunned, disbelieving silence. Then, with the prince still in earshot — still climbing his way back to the castle because William the Conqueror built his fortress on a hill, and so the road leading to its modern gates is steep and awkward to navigate in dress shoes — a wave of furious boos swelled up from the crowd. “He’s balding!” yelled one woman as Harry retreated. “Look how balding he is!”

“Why do you care?” is a question that has been slapped against me like a cold, slimy haddock carcass many times since the royal wedding became a topic of conversation last fall. The answer is: I don’t care at all, and yet I must know every detail or I will die. Do I love “Suits,” the show on which Meghan Markle portrayed a former paralegal? Yes. Have I ever seen “Suits”? Absolutely not. Do I have plans to watch it? No, no offense. Am I addicted to Meghan Markle? One hundred percent. What is the cure? More Meghan. Am I Meghan? Unclear. Am I not not Meghan? Almost certainly. What would I do if Meghan tried to install herself as a monarch ruling over the United States? Strike her down. Do the inner workings of the British monarchy affect me in any way? Meghan loves cross-body bags.

In the spirit of science, here is my earnest attempt to break down the appeal of the concept of Meghan, for me: She is beautiful, which makes her an object of fascination in the same way as a bright red cardinal or a dramatic sunset. She is, like me, a biracial American woman, and while there is no more interesting topic than myself, Markle will do in a pinch. Her path to royalty is strewn with the indignities accrued by actors toiling on the lower rungs of fame (ads for Canadian clothing companies; photographs of her scooping up freebies at promotional gifting suites), available for my online perusal any time I want to remind myself that the Duchess of Sussex, now a vaunted figure who embodies grace and humanitarian ideals, used to be a regular embarrassing person.

I am impressed that she has become immensely retroactively famous for a TV show she no longer appears on and in which she played a supporting character. Is it possible that anyone could truly live, breathe and bleed charity to the pathological degree Markle’s bio page on the royal family’s official website would indicate? I must know, for no reason.

Most intriguingly, to marry a core member of the British royal family, Meghan Markle has completely dismantled her old life: She converted to a religion that requires her to acknowledge her husband’s grandmother as “the highest power under God.” She gave up a dog named Bogart who could not come to England for reasons that have never been entirely explained. She moved into a secure compound with her husband’s immediate family. She has made herself a tremendous kidnap risk and virtually guaranteed that the children she has expressed a desire to raise will have traumatic, possibly terrifying, childhoods. The day of her marriage marked Meghan’s official hiring into the job she will have for the rest of her life until she gets divorced, becomes too infirm to perform it or dies, and I’d like to know more about what kind of person would do that.

When a public event staged by members of the British royal family is executed correctly, the overall picture inspires white-hot jealousy powerful enough to split an atom. You have to get in close if you want to see the seams — if you want to determine if Meghan Markle honestly believes in her heart that the queen of England is the highest power on earth, below God. So, I had to go to the wedding. An oft-heard defense of the British royal family’s tax-funded existence is that its members are a boon to the national economy. The United States has soybeans. Saudi Arabia has oil. The United Kingdom has 7 to 10 white people, plus, now, Meghan Markle, and so it was no surprise that her photo was everywhere.

And yet, the extent to which her image, name, initials and flag of origin had been officially monetized, even before she had married into the royal family, was staggering. Images of Markle and Harry were used to sell an official $261 “limited edition royal wedding commemorative cup and saucer pair” finished with 22-karat gold in the (multiple) gift shops of Buckingham Palace. They were incorporated into the display of an official commemorative wedding coin for sale at the Tower of London, where two of Markle’s royal wife predecessors were jailed by their husband before their beheadings (on site). At Kensington Palace, the couple’s London home, their portraits were used to sell an officially monogrammed pill box. The souvenir shop inside St. George’s Chapel, mere yards from where Markle and Harry exchanged their vows in the presence of God, sells a book that observes, on the topic of Markle’s yearslong romantic relationship with a Canadian chef named Cory Vitiello, “Rumors persist that they were still an item when Harry and Meghan first met.”

The images of the royal family to which Americans are exposed create an air of false familiarity; they are close-ups, cropped around the subjects, removing them from the larger context of their settings. Stand at the gate of a royal residence, however, and true perspective comes rushing in. These people are as remote as distant stars. Their homes are mammoth. Public tours of Windsor Castle file through about 20 rooms; the castle is estimated to contain roughly 1,000. On inspection, the sumptuously appointed spaces of a bygone era seem arbitrarily privately occupied by the royal family. The robust schedule of daily tours at Versailles proves that a palace does not have to be lived in to exist, or to generate tourist income. A roughly equivalent setup would be U.S. taxpayers paying the collateral descendants of George Washington tens of millions of dollars a year to install themselves in a portion of Mount Vernon closed to public access. If they weren’t already doing it, the idea of the British monarchy would seem a hard sell.

If the castle is the throbbing tourist heart of Windsor, its aorta is Peascod Street, a winding, shop-lined thoroughfare that offers views of the castle’s squat Round Tower direct enough to strike fear into the heart of any pawn. This was ground zero of Meghan Markle mania. The retailer Marks & Spencer rebranded itself as “Markle & Sparkle” for the weekend, replete with glittery white signs. Nearly every shop bore, at minimum, an enthusiastic congratulatory message to Harry and Markle. “USA MEET U.K.,” pleaded Gap. An image of the couple embracing, taken on the day the engagement was announced, manifested itself as a cardboard cutout in incalculable scenarios: in doorways, on balconies, in shop windows, in the windows of private homes, in the street, wearing plastic leis, at Heathrow Airport. Their beaming faces were on buses and bunting and stretched across T-shirts and printed in cappuccino foam.

Speaking of bunting — strings of paper triangles highly prized by the British people — there was so much of it strung in cheery zigzag patterns around Windsor that Markle could have tightrope-walked across the town from end to end without ever having to touch the ground.

If you added up all the Americans who have ever died, plus those yet to be born, plus those currently alive, the sum would be fewer than the number of Americans who descended upon Windsor on Saturday, May 19. Members of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, whose Northwestern University chapter Markle pledged, staked out a prime spot at the front of the wedding procession route at an ungraceful and ungodly hour on Saturday, for Kappas only, and led a series of screaming chants into the cold early morning air. Within spitting distance, Americans grumbled through hours of verbal altercations with other Americans who they felt were encroaching on their standing spots.

There were British people, too — tens of thousands — but unlike the foreign visitors who tended to congregate in the cramped, uncomfortable spots closest to the castle, they were willing to sacrifice physical proximity to the bodies of the royal family for general health and happiness. The greatest number milled about in the sun along the Long Walk, a ramrod-straight 2 1/2-mile avenue leading directly to a gate at Windsor Castle. The grassy banks on either side of the walk had been transformed into a temporary fairground with trucks selling hot dogs, pizza, burgers, ice cream and alcohol tucked in the shade of an infinite line of horse chestnut trees. “Hooray!” exclaimed white lettering on the side of a red double-decker bus converted into a stationary bar, “It’s Pimm’s O’Clock.” At a discreet distance from the food were the neatest rows of port-a-potties man has ever created. Near nothing in particular, a gaggle of children wearing cardboard Harry and Meghan masks spontaneously began swinging their arms in a stiff-limbed arrhythmic dance for several minutes — with no apparent aim or supervision — and the uncanny jerkiness of their movements was enhanced by the eerie floating stillness of the adult-sized faces. Needles of terror prickled at the edges of the fairy-tale day in a post-Brexit kingdom. The Thames Valley Police — “proud to police the wedding,” per the force’s website — advised that parents should photograph their children the morning of the event. This was a joyous occasion on which a child could suddenly go missing. Snipers studied crowds from the crenelated roofs of the castle, watchful for those who might want to kill the royal family. Visitors had to walk through metal detectors in order to gain access to the town center. A man accused of shoving too aggressively in a crowd was pulled into a side street and photographed by police. “At the end of the day,” an officer said sternly, “it is a celebration.”

Expansive viewing screens and small mountains of speakers had been installed at intervals on the Long Walk. David Beckham’s face prompted cheers of delight from the crowd. Serena Williams received a positive, if less boisterous, response. Much audience support went to Duchess Sarah Ferguson, who, it was popularly understood, had been invited at Harry’s insistence despite being divorced from his uncle. The crowd whooped when Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, appeared.

“Boo to Camilla!” a white-haired woman hissed at the screen, in clarification. “Those are for Charlie boy.”

When the queen emerged from her car, many in the crowd waved at her image.

Shortly before noon, a vintage Rolls-Royce containing Markle and her mother, Doria Ragland, flew past the crowds gathered on the Long Walk so quickly that the only claim anyone could make about her dress was that it appeared to be white. The crowd turned to the video screens to get a better look than real life provided.

When Markle emerged from the car, the thousands of people on the lawns burst into applause. A close-up shot of the groom watching her walk down the aisle engendered awwws. Inside St. George’s, the flowers looked like exploding white bouquets frozen mid-detonation. Outside, confetti of any kind was banned.

By far the liveliest moment of the broadcast was the impassioned sermon of Bishop Michael Curry. Over the course of his 13-minute speech, BBC cameras periodically made jarring cuts to the faces of the royal family, to the amusement of the crowd. A shot of the Duchess of Cambridge wearing a glazed, far-off expression stirred up laughter; an abrupt zoom to the stony-faced queen, just after Curry finished quoting a slave spiritual, prompted howls. Curry’s performance garnered cheers and applause. (The more muted remarks from the Dean of Windsor did not.)

The rings were exchanged. Strains of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” issued from the speakers, but the entire Long Walk enthusiastically sang “God Save the Queen,” from which the former borrows its melody, instead. The newly married couple kissed, and then set off on their carriage ride through the heavily patrolled, totally empty streets of town.

Through Windsor and on the video screens, they waved at the nameless hordes. They waved from their wrists, in quick, short strokes, as if scrubbing out a spot in the air; to wave any bigger would have burned through the muscle energy required to keep their arms in constant motion for the duration of the 20-minute procession. In less than a year — in less than six hours, if you peg it to live TV coverage — Markle had gone from essentially unknown to one of the most famous people on the planet. More than 100,000 people had traveled to Windsor to be in the vicinity of an invitation-only event of which she was the star; just shy of 2 billion were estimated to watch it on TV. She was at that precise moment in thoughts of, very conservatively, tens of millions of human beings. She and Harry came bounding down the Long Walk. Everyone clambered for a second of eye contact, but their faces flew by so suddenly even a second was impossible to claim.

And then, much more quickly than it began, it was over. Police could eat ice cream again, and did. A trio of elderly Brits speculated about whether the couple would have sex before that evening’s private reception. The crowd, which, moments before, had sung a proud pledge to the monarch, dropped their plastic flags on the ground and abandoned them. The day was too fine to waste on ceremony.