The British Monarchy Is Changing—and It All Starts with the Queen
As everyone watched Meghan Markle walk down the aisle—up the steps solo, then walking the last 50 yards toward the altar on the arm of Prince Charles—I was desperately trying to look past her Givenchy dress to catch a glimpse of the queen. There she was, seated—and smiling!—in a lime green suit and matching lime Angela Kelly hat, just at the edge of the livefeed frame.
While the royal wedding has been capturing headlines since the engagement of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry last November, I was wondering how the wedding planning played out behind the secretive Windsor walls. Was there any royal drama over the nontraditional nuptials?
From our view, the ceremony appeared to be a happy occasion for the royal family; however, for me, and for plenty of other British grandkids, the wedding was so much more—it was a symbol of a major societal shift. If the queen approves of Harry and Meghan, maybe all of our grandmothers approve of our life choices, too.
Lately, whenever I think of my granny—my father’s mother, born in London in 1908—it’s the queen’s image that floats into my brain first. It’s a few moments before I can finally allow the features to shift and rearrange and settle into my grandmother, Olwen Polly Evans Davies. Like the queen, my granny also had eight grandchildren, loved dogs and wore hats to formal occasions. But it’s not that my granny and the queen have that much in common; it’s that there are so many similarities across all British grandmas who were born in a certain time.
My granny died in 1997, and my cousin, who is gay, and I, a single mom who’s never been married, often wonder whether our granny would approve of our lifestyles. She was a staunch royalist, a woman who would not hear anything less than complimentary about the royal family. She died before Princess Diana’s death, and as such, she didn’t witness the seminal unraveling—or reimagining—of the royal family.
I don’t think she would have approved of all the films, TV shows, and books that have tried to pry into the psyche of Queen Elizabeth. I imagine her dismissing The Crown as speculative, gossipy, and silly. But I think that’s because, to a certain class and breed of British women, prying too deeply into Queen Elizabeth’s mind is prying too deeply into their own.
For generations of British women, the “keep calm and carry on” edict wasn’t just a wartime slogan, it was everything. These women lived in a society where class stratification was the be all, end all—where a mentally ill family member or an out-of-wedlock pregnancy or an extramarital affair was "simply not done" (or at least, not talked about). Anything outside a narrow lock-and-step path would stigmatize you—and your family—for generations.
The emphasis on appearances was especially true for women in the generation of my granny and the queen, who had to navigate their formative years in a world rocked by two world wars. At the age of 14, the queen delivered her first public address to her subjects, where she said: “When peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.”
But in the ensuing decades, even as World War II ended, “better and happier,” for many British women, meant not making waves. One did not air their dirty laundry, and one did not comment on emotions—even pleasant ones. I remember the confusion and slight frown that crossed my granny’s face one time when I said to her, "I love you," when I was about six or seven. She didn't say it back.
Of course, the world of the royal family was seismically rocked when Princess Diana died. But the tragedy served to humanize Queen Elizabeth. While she may have seemed icy and out of touch, she was fiercely protective as a grandmother to Prince William and Prince Harry. The family wasn’t perfect after all. It was real. And it meant that other families could also let down their guard a bit.
And now, in blessing the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle—an American, a divorcee, a career woman with a messy family—she’s symbolizing to an entire generation of English women that it’s all right to let go of the “appearances above all” edict.
For my cousin and I, seeing the way the queen has softened on protocol—in real time, over the past two decades—is like feeling acceptance from our own grandmother. (Just last year, the queen spoke out in support of the UK's LGBT community, reiterating a view which she had not publicly discussed since 2003, when she briefly mentioned it.) Of my grandmother’s own eight grandchildren, only one followed the narrow, “approved” path created by society: University, marriage, good job, baby. You can see a similar pattern in the royal family. Prince William followed the “rules.” Prince Harry didn’t. And seeing how both are so, so loved by their granny is like a flush of relief.
The queen, you could say, is our collective granny, and this wedding is both the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one in British society. In some ways, nothing has changed. Even in the “massive departure from tradition” royal wedding—where an Episcopal bishop preached about slavery and Facebook and a gospel choir sang a Civil Rights anthem—everyone opened their hymn books and ended the ceremony with a rendition of “Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer,” reading along to the lyrics as though each guest hasn’t sung the song a million times, which, trust me, they have. Seeing these common tropes of British life played out—the hymns, the hats—is a reminder of shared British heritage.
But seeing the queen’s smile, to me, is the coda to her 1940 wartime address, that she truly did make the world a better and happier place, simply by finally accepting her family as they were. By her example, she allowed so many British families to also open up and let go.
And while my grandmother may no longer be here, I have a feeling she would also, like the queen, found the courage to accept her own grandchildren’s life choices, too. As long as they wore hats to a wedding of course. Some societal rules just can’t be broken.