Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: Why it's more than just a wedding

As much as some might say "it's just a wedding," the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle this weekend also represents a critical moment for an image-conscious House of Windsor trying to find its way into the future.

This marriage is another critical moment for an image-conscious House of Windsor

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will tie the knot at Windsor Castle on Saturday, May 19. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

For Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, their upcoming wedding will be a time to celebrate with family and friends, setting the stage for what they hope will be a long and happy life together.

But the ceremony that will draw the world's eyes to Windsor this Saturday is more than just the joining of two people in matrimony — particularly considering the groom's status as sixth in line to the throne.

It's also another critical moment for an image-conscious House of Windsor trying to find its way into the future.

"There's never a fixed mark in terms of what people feel about the monarchy," says British public relations expert Mark Borkowski. "It's an ever-changing thing."

Take, for example, the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the monarchy was mired in scandal. Tawdry tabloid headlines laid bare the many cracks in several crumbling royal marriages, including that of Harry's parents, Prince Charles and Diana. Times were not good.

Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana are shown on their honeymoon in Balmoral, Scotland in 1981. (David Levenson/Getty Images)

On the rebound

But royal fortunes have been on something of a rebound in recent years, particularly after milestone celebrations for Queen Elizabeth — 60 years on the throne, her 90th birthday and so on — along with a focus on the younger generation of 30-something royals: Harry's older brother Prince William and his wife Kate, along with Harry and now Meghan.

"Certainly through 2012, the [Diamond] Jubilee, it's been a golden era for the Royal Family," says Borkowski, who's worked with the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Michael Jackson.

While the third generation of the Royal Family is bringing a bit of modernity to the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth, shown here during a 90th birthday celebration in 2016, remains firmly at the centre.

Still, when word broke that Harry was dating — and then was engaged to — Meghan, much was made of how she was in many ways not the typical royal girlfriend or bride-to-be. She's an American. Divorced. Biracial. She had an established career as an actor.

"I think there are interesting times ahead," says Borkowski. "But basking in the glory of this weekend … it's a very good image of diversity and breaking down many of the rules … to allow Harry to marry the woman he loves … so the modernity is in place for that generation."

That's not to say there haven't been some high-profile tabloid moments in the lead-up to the wedding, with much attention and messiness this week focused on the rather sad saga of Meghan's father, Thomas Markle, a paparazzi photoshoot staging scandal, and whether he would even attend the wedding. (It's looking like he won't be there.)

'Brilliant edition of a universal fact'

Royal weddings have been helping shape the image of the monarchy for generations.

In the mid-19th century, writer Walter Bagehot, who often delved deeply into the topics of government and economics, offered up an assessment of the impact of the 1863 wedding of the future King Edward VII to Alexandra of Denmark. He said that "a princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind."

In particular, he suggested, those riveted were the female portion of the population, who he considered to have a much greater interest in marriage than they did in affairs of state.

Schoolchildren in uniform wave Union Flags outside Windsor Castle ahead of the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

But Bagehot made assumptions about the attitudes of women "that were in keeping with 19th-century ideas of the division between a male public sphere and a female private sphere," says Toronto-based royal historian and author Carolyn Harris.

And she says there were other reasons why women may have been especially interested in the wedding of one of Queen Victoria's sons.

"The arrival of a new princess could result in a new patron for causes that benefited women," such as societies that promoted women's health, education and job opportunities.

Fast forward to this weekend's nuptials, and there's curiosity about the roles and causes Meghan will adopt post-wedding. Comments she made on women's issues drew considerable attention a few weeks ago.

In late February, Meghan Markle joined Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the inaugural Royal Foundation Forum, marking the first official engagement the foursome has attended together. The Royal Foundation is the organization that co-ordinates the young royals' charity work. (Chris Jackson/AFP/Getty Images)

As much as royal weddings may spark some optimism for the future, they also draw attention to ongoing debates around the monarchy. It's been that way since the 19th century.

"Then, as now, royal weddings prompted discussion of the cost of the monarchy, as Victoria expected all nine of her children to receive dowries and annuities, and the rare times that she opened Parliament as a widow often coincided with votes on incomes for her younger children," says Harris.

How much does it cost?

Today, much of the focus on cost surrounds the security that has been deployed to Windsor leading up to the wedding day. The costs to the British taxpayer hasn't been released, but some estimates place it as high as 24 million to 30 million pounds. That's expected to be higher than the cost for William and Kate's wedding seven years ago, The Telegraph reported, even though that celebration in central London was much larger.

"Harry's military background, as well as the [number] of racist comments directed at Markle is believed to have increased the security quotient," The Telegraph said.

While there was a heavy police presence during the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, some estimates say the security costs for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's nuptials will be greater. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

But this weekend, the focus will be on the "fun and joy" Harry and Meghan have said they hope their wedding will bring.

As for the monarchy, it's all in a "very interesting space at the moment," says Borkowski.

He says the Queen isn't going anywhere yet — or in a hurry. With the recent birth of Prince Louis, William and Kate have three children, and the line of succession through Prince Charles, followed by William and his eldest child, George, seems clear.

"You've got a pretty healthy Queen and you've got two [members] of the third generation coming through," says Borkowski, pointing to William and Harry. "I think that it's a honeymoon period."

But like any honeymoon period, no one really knows how long it will last.


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.