Serena Bhandari examines the social context of the latest royal engagement
It reads like a pitch for a scandal-filled reality show – ‘black sheep’ of the British Royal Family meets stunning American actress – but this is no Kardashians rip-off. On November 27th, 2017, Kensington Palace announced the engagement of Prince Harry of Wales, to Suits actress Meghan Markle. The news was followed by supportive statements from both Meghan’s family and the Royal Family. Harry’s sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge said, “William and I are absolutely thrilled” about the impending wedding, while his stepmother Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is said to have joked that “America’s loss is our gain”.
This acceptance of Harry and Meghan’s engagement by older members of the royal family has been received with surprise by many, however. Historically, the royal family haven’t taken kindly to their kin marrying divorcees, as is exemplified in the case of Elizabeth II’s late uncle, Edward VIII. After being introduced to twice-divorced American actress Wallis Simpson, they started to see each other in secret, with Wallis accompanying the then-Prince of Wales to official functions as a friend. A media frenzy ensued, with desperate efforts to expose her as his “secret lover” by the Fleet Street contingent.
At the time, the Church of England forbade divorced people from remarrying in church if their ex-spouse was still living, so when Edward ascended to the throne and stated his intention to marry Wallis, it was met with disapproval. Edward’s position as head of the Church was seen to conflict with the marriage, triggering a national crisis.
Edward VIII ended up choosing to abdicate from the throne, stating “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility… without the help and support of the woman I love.” The pair remained together until Edward’s death in 1972; a happy enough ending, but nonetheless tainted by their status as relative social pariahs after the abdication.
Arguably, Harry and Meghan’s relationship is even more controversial than that of the past King, due to her ethnic background; her mother, Doria Ragland is African-American and so Meghan identifies as biracial. Since the announcement, racists have been popping out of the woodwork on social media to express displeasure. Several users, including @frontblunt18 have been calling Prince Harry a “cuck”, whilst @westland_will tweeted “Imagine being able to marry any woman in the world and you pick a plain, 36yr-old, half-black, washed-up divorcee from America who is 3 years your senior.” Use of racial slurs was rife.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Meghan, 36, had been subject to intrusive comments about her racial background; mainstream media outlets, the Daily Mail and the Sun have been criticised in the past for their use of ‘racial undertones’ in coverage. But to the chagrin of the Mail and the Sun, an outward and 21st century United Kingdom does still exist.
Almost one in ten Britons are living with or married to someone outside of their ethnic group, and despite seemingly marked efforts from Donald Trump for it to be otherwise, Britain and America’s relationship has gone from strength to strength. For the majority of Britain, therefore, the upcoming marriage is welcome news. Many are viewing the announcement as evidence that the royal family are ready to change and truly embrace a 21st century attitude.
It has been argued that the high support rates for the monarchy today come as a result of widespread admiration for the Queen, and that when she is no longer reigning monarch it will be a ‘free-for-all’. It is now more important than ever that if royals – even those unlikely to become King or Queen – want to retain their status, they must engage with the public.
Concerns have been raised about the suitability of Prince Charles to inherit the throne after his mother’s passing; support for the monarchy dropped to 65% at the time of his wedding to Camilla, and a 2016 poll showed that only a quarter of the British population want him to succeed as monarch. In short, whether because of resentment over the fate of Princess Diana, or perceptions that he is “aloof” or out of touch, the thought of King Charles III isn’t appealing to the majority.
Even though Prince Harry is only fifth in line to the throne, the marriage is still incredibly important to stabilise public perception of the royal family as the question of who comes next looms. Harry will have to overcompensate for his father’s shortcomings, if he wishes to maintain the largely positive view of his family and their status.
When asking several UCL students their thoughts on the marriage, the answers weren’t exactly overflowing with praise. Second year students Vojta Smekal and Alexi Demetriadi were for the most part unimpressed, with Vojta admitting, “I don’t give a hoot. I’m all for the fact that it’s a non-traditional wedding though”, while third year John Wu wondered about the possibility of a bank holiday for the occasion. At the time of writing, John’s hope for a three-day weekend has yet to be cemented.
Harry and Meghan may not be facing the disdain that Harry’s great-great-uncle did in 1936, but that doesn’t mean that they can relax back into a charmed life. If they wish to prevent the youth of today taking an attitude of antipathy, or worse, straight-up negativity, they will need to continue to surprise, and rise above the incredibly low expectations of modern behaviour from royals. Harry and Meghan have set a precedent; now it’s up to the other royals to continue it.
Featured image credit: Flickr
Second and third image credit: Wikimedia