It was surely one of the best-kept secrets in the modern history of British royalty. Prince William proposed to his long-time girlfriend while on vacation in Kenya last month, but the news only came to light this week in an official announcement by his father, Prince Charles. The wedding between Prince William, second-in-line to the British throne, and his fiancée, Kate Middleton, will take place in the spring or summer of 2011.
Royal weddings are significant signposts in history. And this one is no exception. British Prime Minister David Cameron called the engagement between William and Kate “a great day for the country.” It should be considered a great and important day for Canada as well.
Queen Elizabeth II has been Canada’s head of state since 1952. Governor General David Johnston, recall, is merely her representative in this country. While such an arrangement strikes some as antiquated or unnecessary, it has proven to be a great benefit to this country. Her Majesty’s presence, both substantive and symbolic, provides political stability and reliability, and is an important reminder of our antecedents. Besides, popular approval of this system is always in ample supply, as witnessed by the outpouring of affection during the Queen’s well-received tour of Canada earlier this year.
The future success of Canada’s constitutional monarchy, however, will depend on how the public reacts to Elizabeth II’s eventual successors, whenever that occurs. (Our indefatigable Queen will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 at age 86, and the queen mother lived to be 101.)
Regardless of whether his 62-year-old father ever takes the throne, Prince William is destined to provide a refreshingly modern take on the traditions of the British monarchy. Despite a unique upbringing as presumptive king, Prince William’s biography to date, and his relationship with Kate, should appear rather familiar to any 28-year-old in Britain or Canada.
The couple first met at school during their initial year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (News of the engagement prompted the school to declare itself “Britain’s top matchmaking university.”) He struggled with his classes and Kate reportedly convinced him to stick it out. They later moved in together. After graduation, he joined the military and now works as a search-and-rescue pilot. They broke up in 2007. They got back together a few months later. They got engaged while on vacation.
After their wedding day, life will be similarly recognizable. “Following the marriage, the couple will live in north Wales, where Prince William will continue to serve with the Royal Air Force,” said the official announcement. He has a job like everyone else, intends to live close to work, and is rarely called upon to pull swords from stones.
It is also significant that Kate, unlike Diana before her, comes from a solid middle-class background. While much was made of Diana’s pre-marriage employment at a preschool, she was the aristocratic daughter of an earl who mixed with royalty all her life. Kate, on the other hand, grew up in unpretentious Bucklebury, Berkshire, where her father was a commercial airline pilot and her mother a stewardess. Kate’s parents now run a successful online party supply business, but this does nothing to change her upbringing.
Prince William’s choice of bride and life path thus offer an identity that seems entirely modern and comprehensible to the average person. At the same time, he has demonstrated a strong commitment to the traditional expectation that a royal’s duty is to serve his country. He was in Afghanistan on Remembrance Sunday, and appears entirely comfortable with the ceremonial demands of his position.
In the near term, the excitement of a royal marriage could play an important political role at home. Newly elected Prime Minister Cameron is in the process of correcting his country’s enormous fiscal mess and the pomp and pageantry of a royal wedding could serve as a welcome balm for this pain. A successful marriage with Kate will also erase many of the difficult memories associated with the messy relationship between Prince William’s parents, Charles and Diana.
For Canadians, the long-term prospects of this marriage are equally congenial. As a unifying figure who is both inspirational and reassuringly familiar, Prince William seems ideally suited to defend Canada’s important tradition of constitutional monarchy against cynics and continue the good work of his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II.
When King William and his Queen Kate eventually do take the throne, they will do so as thoroughly 21st-century monarchs. Their wedding is thus an event to be celebrated.