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At approximately 11 a.m. British Summer Time on April 29, 2012, an indefinite—but immense—percentage of the world’s population will celebrate the first anniversary of watching Prince William marry the duchess-formerly-known-as Kate Middleton.
It’s hard to believe it has already been a year since the most famous wedding of the century (though the recently engaged “Brangelina” may give the royals a run for their money)—and even more striking to note how far back the tradition of ogling monarchs’ weddings dates. Before the indelible footage of Princess Diana monopolized the public image of royal weddings, it was Queen Victoria who sparked the fascination around monarchs’ nuptials with the world’s first ever “white wedding” in 1840.
Queen Victoria’s wedding didn’t just set a pattern for future stately weddings—it also familiarized British citizens with the nature of the new monarchy. Though the Glorious Revolution of 1688 made Britain a constitutional monarchy, the convention of monarchs’ ceding power to prime ministers and Parliament members became commonplace during her tenure. Thus, her reign also marked the introduction of the role that Diana, Will, Kate, their contemporaries, and their predecessors would also assume—that is, a ceremonial one.
Often characterized by historians as determined and egotistical, Queen Victoria made up for the royal family’s diminished governmental significance by seizing opportunities that being apolitical afforded. “Queen Victoria had to shape her own public image,” Professor Deborah Valenze of the Barnard history department says. She cites research that a former student conducted for her dissertation, which reveals that the queen “em- ployed several photographers who were instructed to depict her in very specific ways—at a spinning wheel, for example—in order to project a matronly, domestic image.”
Queen Victoria labored to put herself in the public eye in a way that reflected both her personal interest in celebrity and the unique circumstances of her power that called for a revamping of the throne’s purpose. The precedent she seemed to set was that of a public figure who used her power to inspire widespread appreciation of values that were important to her—but that power was only as strong as her subjects’ royal reverence.
For ceremonial figures, what better stage to simultaneously enhance self-importance and channel that image in a carefully constructed way than, well, a ceremony? The descriptions of the British fervor surrounding the morning of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s 1840 marriage are eerily reminiscent of the blogged photos and tabloid descriptions of the royal wedding of 2011.
The Victorian Magazine recalls that “at daybreak crowds of anxious and loyal subjects were seen hastening from all parts of the city in the direction of the royal palaces and the whole city exhibited the most extensive preparations for the proper celebration of Queen Victoria’s wedding.” The magazine even notes that “the articles in the queen’s dress were wholly of British manufacture,” a nationalistic nuance that Kate also pursued with her Alexander McQueen dress.
Will and Kate, too, made a national event out of their marriage, inviting the public to participate in their celebration by riding across the city to Westminster Abbey in clear-windowed cars, broadcasting the ceremony itself on projectors in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park (not to mention on live television for the rest of the interested world), and returning to Buckingham Palace in an open carriage for their public peck. Contrast this with the secrecy that shrouds American celebrities’ personal affairs, and the monarchs’ reliance on their citizens’ interest becomes apparent.
Lacking both governmental significance and professional capacity, the nominal titles that royals hold are only relevant to the British population if they place themselves in the public eye. They rouse interest, attention, and, consequently, power by showing their appreciation for the people, a performance that manifests most strongly when they involve their subjects in their ceremonies. Queen Victoria reveled in the opportunity her wedding provided to debut the new role of the monarchy, and her descendants have dutifully followed suit.
At this point, the only change in that enthusiasm has been its reach across the pond and across the world—an extension that also reflects the way that royals have used their personal life cycle events to adapt their expression and performance of power in a modernizing world. Queen Victoria was lucky to have the advantage of constructing her public image at times of her choosing and the ability to insert herself into the public domain in a controlled, deliberate manner. Will and Kate live in an era of round-the-clock paparazzi, a reality that has simultaneously impaired and enhanced the monarchy’s reception today. While scandals like Prince Harry’s tasteless 2005 Halloween costume have been eternalized because of this constant stream of photographers, the amplified attention to the royals’ every move has expanded the possibilities for the royals’ recognition in the public sphere that preserves their status.
On par with the royals’ interest in acting out their relevance, Valenze adds an interesting slant on the issue of why Americans are particularly drawn to the ceremonial royals’ ceremonies. “I think that in a media-saturated world, we’re trained to look for personal narratives in settings we feel are far away and somehow ‘long ago.’ Britain embodies that for many people in the United States.”
Ceremonies like royal weddings nostalgically revisit the past while simultaneously delineating the nature of contemporary constitutional monarchy. As this first anniversary comes and goes, we can all look forward to returning to more pressing matters of our daily lives: anticipating Kate’s first pregnancy.
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