LONDON — When King Edward the Eighth set his heart on marrying American divorcee Wallis Simpson, the price was to give up his throne.
That was 81 years ago. Prince Harry’s engagement to divorced American actress Meghan Markle shows just how much Britain has changed.
His father, Prince Charles, said he was “thrilled” about his younger son’s decision to marry the 36-year-old actress. A Buckingham Palace spokesman described Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh as “delighted” by the news.
Prince Harry, aged 33, and Ms. Markle met on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend. They got to know each other on a trip to Botswana in southern Africa where they camped out under the stars.
The two were secretly engaged earlier this month and plan to marry next spring. In their first interview after the announcement, they revealed that the Prince had proposed on bended knee while preparing a roast chicken dinner. Markle said Prince Harry was still trying to get the words out when she said yes.
So far, so traditional. But this is far from a traditional royal marriage.
For centuries, Britain’s most senior royals were expected to marry members of other European royal families. Crucial alliances were often sealed that way. Those further down the line of succession could choose from the British nobility. But marrying a commoner (someone not of noble blood) was out of the question and so was marriage to a divorcee.
In recent years those taboos have been demolished. First by Prince Charles’s second marriage to the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles. Then by Harry’s older brother, Prince William, who married commoner Catherine Middleton.
But this engagement presents another couple of firsts. Markle, best known for her role in the TV legal drama Suits, is not only a divorced commoner. She is mixed race (her mother is African-American, her father of Dutch-Irish descent) and a Catholic.
It’s the last of these that could have been an obstacle until 2015. At that time, new laws on succession ended the ban on a potential heir to the throne marrying a Catholic. (Prince Harry is fifth in the line of succession.)
The bride-to-be’s biracial heritage is not seen as an obstacle by Queen Elizabeth, who must approve any proposed marriage of a senior royal. But in the early days of the couple’s relationship, Markle faced news coverage that Prince Harry released a statement that condemned “the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.”
For most Britons, Markle’s race is the subject of curiosity rather than concern, perhaps because one in 10 people living as couples in Britain are in mixed-race relationships.
Markle, who grew up in Los Angeles but now lives in Toronto, appeared relaxed and happy as she sat alongside Prince Harry, their fingers entwined. “She has an American confidence about her,” said BBC Royal correspondent Daniela Ralph, “and she’s very articulate.”
Markle is an advocate for the United Nations Women’s program and has traveled to highlight gender inequalities. Prince Harry, who is an outspoken campaigner on mental health issues said, “We’re a fantastic team.”
During their interview, Markle showed her engagement ring designed by Prince Harry himself. It includes two diamonds that belonged to his late mother. The prince said he was convinced that Princess Diana, who died 20 years ago, would have adored his fiance. “She would have been over the moon, jumping up and down,” he said.
Markle will likely be given an official title. It will not, however, be that of princess. Only women born of royal blood can have that bestowed by the queen.
Claire Bolderson is a British journalist and documentary maker with more than 25 years of experience at the BBC. She wrote this for the Block News Alliance, which consists of the The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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