The marriage of Catherine Middleton and Prince William of Wales came off without a hitch as close to two billion people around the world watched the British dust off their ancient institutions—from Westminster Abbey (10th-century origins) to the state landaus and coaches from the last two centuries—and make a hugely successful fuss over their future king and queen, now titled the duke and duchess of Cambridge.
Out of it all, a new sort of monarchy was seen to emerge, one more approachable, more savvy, and much more likely to survive the assaults regularly hurled its way. And that is thanks not just to a with-it and photogenic young couple, but also to the palace’s adroit use of new media.
The couple has not made one mistake, and the only criticism of their pre-wedding behaviour—that they lived together “in sin”—not only redounded to their credit, it turned out the cohabitation had been almost blessed by the archbishop of York, the second-highest-ranked cleric in the realm. As the archbishop’s daughter said, couples “want to test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow.”
Some cow! Some milk!
So this wedding, firstly, was an important moment in royal chronology—especially if you are one of those for whom romance, majesty and constitutional sanity reign supreme—and, to quote the preacher of the day, a moment of great hope. If, on the other hand, the whole exercise seemed too silly for words, well, the only parade the rain fell on was yours.
For the greater purposes of the royal family, however, the day was much more than a brilliant event focused on a beautiful young couple. It was a triumph for its image handlers who have embraced new media and, through this wedding, seem at long last to have found a way to bypass a quarter-century of mean-spirited and often ludicrously fabricated reportage.
A classic example occurred in the April 20 Daily Express, whose “royal correspondent” Richard Palmer pompously opined: “To the puzzlement of some courtiers, the monarch has avoided any show of support or welcome for Kate’s mother and father.” This was under the headline, “Queen bans meetings with Middletons until after the wedding.” The only problem was that while the paper was being sold on the streets, the Middletons were having a nice lunch with the Queen and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle. A palace spokesman described it as “a long-standing engagement.”
Although Buckingham Palace started a website nearly 15 years ago, it was pretty stodgy, even after a revamp in 2001. They had finally figured it out by the 2009 relaunch, and the site, along with that of the Prince of Wales, is now a model of interactivity. The Firm—as the royal family has been nicknamed for generations—can now engage directly with its vast constituency and is no longer willing to let the older media be the principal purveyors of official storylines.
The wedding, and especially the buildup to it, has been one of the most tweeted and facebooked events in the short history of online communications. Mainstream reporters and certainly all the tabloid hacks have had to go—without exception—to royal websites to get their information. The news has been disseminated at a stately pace and journalists got it at precisely the same time as anyone sitting at home.
Here was something genuinely new: a monarchy remarkably in touch with what the public wants—and so modern it’s made the regular media seem old-fashioned. The palace’s control was evident right to the end of the wedding reportage, when William and Catherine drove off in Prince Charles’s Aston Martin convertible, festooned with a “JU5T WED” licence plate and trailing helium balloons. A lot of this is inspired by William’s own dignified informality, which the public is only just now getting to see. Those 2.1 million tweets and 1.8 million Facebook comments in the month leading up to the wedding in Britain (and almost as many in the U.S.) tell the story.
This hugely successful wedding also proved something else. While there may be no really logical argument to refute republican claims that hereditary monarchy is a feudal relic that makes no sense in today’s world, that is not the sum of the issue. It’s useless to hurl history and courtesy at someone who asks smugly if you also believe that the son of a professor of physics has a divine right to be a professor of physics. Red herrings like this are thrown at the monarchy every day, yet the idea of a Canadian monarchy, derived from our history and evolved through our federal and provincial offices of governor general and lieutenant governors, rests on a firm foundation of two sturdy and irrefutable facts: it exists and it works.
That’s why this glorious rendezvous at Westminster Abbey has been such good news. It promises a continuation of the magic, the mystery and the civil solution to our fractious political propensities. When we say, “God bless young William and Catherine,” we are also saying, without illusion or embarrassment, please spare us the rancour and divisiveness of the constitutional alternatives.
That’s a lot of weight to place on the shoulders of two young people setting off on a new life together, but it looks that they can handle it. The fact that they managed their nuptials with such aplomb, simplicity and directness, within a historical tradition of liturgical pageantry, is also our own confirmation that continuity and decency still have a role to play in our national life.
Catherine’s small wedding bouquet included sweet william and myrtle, flowers historically associated with gallantry and loyalty. So, now, are they.
John Fraser’s new book, The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Fling with Royalty, will be published in 2012 by Anansi Press