Last Friday, I rose at 5 a.m. to watch the wedding of two strangers. They seemed like a nice enough pair of young people. The bride’s Sarah Burton dress was to die for, and I enjoyed watching her sister-slash-maid-of-honor haul her train while corralling the other bridesmaids, some of whom looked barely old enough to tie their own shoes.
It was a church wedding, and the bishop gave a solemn sermon about the new century’s “promise and peril.” The bride, I learned, had only recently been confirmed in this church. Whatever the depth of her personal convictions, she delivered her part of the ceremony nicely.
The choir sang some hymns and a haunting modern piece that, I would later learn, linked all this elaborate ceremonial business to Vermont. Then, after some bustle, a crowd of thousands assembled below a balcony to watch the couple share two chaste pecks.
It was my first royal wedding. I could have witnessed the famous Charles and Diana nuptials in 1981, and I remember friends making special plans to see Prince Andrew wed Fergie in 1986. But I’ve never understood the allure of these events — or, to be honest, why Americans even care. It’s just a wedding, right? Of strangers who might someday become symbolic rulers of a parliamentary democracy far away. If you care about the dresses and the hats, you can see those on the Internet.
Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon. Simon Schama, a Columbia University historian flown in to offer wedding commentary, told the BBC, “There are times when you suspend cynicism.” The American media, said the native Brit, have been all too cynical about the union of Prince William and his commoner bride, Kate Middleton.
Schama could have a point. On April 24, Newsweek ran a piece (by an Englishman!) headlined “Time for a Royal Wedding ... While England Is Royally Screwed.” The New Yorker had a snarky “Letter From Britain” in which Lauren Collins described Middleton as “a sort of Royal Katie Holmes.” Still, given that Schama wrote a massive book arguing that the French Revolution was just a mistake, I’m tempted to suspect him of closet monarchy love.
For a cynic like me, the hoopla around royal weddings proves two things: (1) People love hoopla for any reason; and (2) Hope really does spring eternal in human breasts. Our biggest public ceremonies are rites of renewal, which is why people flock to them in troubled times, hoping change is on the horizon.
Me, I’m the person who watches the inauguration of a popular presidential candidate and thinks, How long will the honeymoon last? Likewise, as I watched Middleton taking her vows, I thought of the derision that would have greeted the idea of a Charles-Di split in the 1980s — and how quickly we all got used to the idea. Prince Charles attended his son’s wedding with his second wife, the former Camilla Parker Bowles, apparently his true, lifelong love. A happy ending, maybe. A fairy tale, no.
But the “fairy tale” metaphor never dies. Even the American tabloids, which usually treat the royals as callously as they do other celebrities, trot it out when weddings roll around. It feels like just a few months ago that the magazines I read at the gym were deriding poor Middleton as “waity Katie.” Would the prince ever put a ring on his on-and-off girlfriend of eight years? they asked. When he did, Star and In Touch started running starry-eyed spreads about the palaces where the couple might reside and the loot the bride would receive. Modern fairy tales entail lots of bling.
And they can buy lots of bling for “niche entrepreneurs,” according to an Associated Press story that profiled Jerramy Fine, an American who grew up longing to marry a prince. Instead, she created Princess Prep, a $4000 weeklong camp for tweens with royal aspirations. Because you never know when you might need to curtsy for the Queen.
Even here in homespun Vermont, businesses are using the royal festivities as a marketing tool. Ye Olde England Inne in Stowe offered a Royal Wedding Weekend Special with a $99 Friday dinner that would allow guests to try “the same superb, multicourse menu as Prince William, his wife Kate Middleton and their guests,” according to a press release. Ski Vermont extended the royal couple an open invitation to honeymoon in the Green Mountains, “in recognition of a love that spans the Atlantic and a legacy as sweet as maple.”
A local business that fêted the wedding in a somewhat lower key was Brandon Music, a tearoom/CD store/art gallery owned by two British expatriates. On the Saturday and Sunday after the wedding, co-owner Edna Sutton offered a talk on “Royal Weddings Past and Present,” followed by high tea.
Seeking some insight into the royal-wedding frenzy, I made my way to the light, bright tearoom in a converted barn. I quickly learned that Brandon Music, the headquarters of Stephen Sutton’s Divine Art recording company, had a special reason to celebrate the Windsor marriage.
That haunting little modern choral piece that I — and the world — heard at the Westminster Abbey service was first recorded by Divine Art. A choir had approached Sutton about recording the song cycle set to Tennyson’s poetry by an obscure 35-year-old composer, Paul Mealor, who taught at St. Andrew’s College in Scotland. Meanwhile, Middleton, a St. Andrew’s alum who heard the work’s concert premiere last summer, liked it so much she requested it at her wedding.
So the piece that Divine Art recorded as “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” was set to new words and became the more decorously hymnlike “Ubi Caritas.” Even Mealor didn’t know for sure that his music would be heard at the nuptials until their eve — when he became famous overnight. On Friday, Stephen Sutton told me, Divine Art’s recording jumped to No. 3 on the Amazon UK classical MP3 chart.
On Saturday, the Suttons were celebrating their part in the composer’s success. But, with classic English restraint, they saved the tooting-their-own-horn part for the end of Edna Sutton’s talk.
Slim and blond, dressed in coordinating reds, Sutton stood before a table laden with photos of royal couples and Merry Olde England memorabilia, including a teapot shaped like Big Ben and another adorned with Union Jacks. She told the dozen attendees — mostly women of a certain age, plus two gentlemen and a couple of teens — that she had recently left a job supervising the placement of at-risk children in Yorkshire. It was a gentle reminder, perhaps, that the everyday England is grittier than the one we’d seen on television on Friday.
But Sutton insisted that, at its core, a royal wedding is “not about pomp and circumstance; it’s about a relationship.” She demonstrated by taking us through a history of 20th-century royal matches, starting with the future George VI (yes, that’s Colin Firth in The King’s Speech) and his dogged pursuit of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who, in her own time, was viewed as a “commoner.” (Despite having royal blood, she wasn’t born a princess.)
We learned about the underage Princess Elizabeth’s crush on her eventual spouse, Prince Philip, and his two prewedding “stag nights.” (“He enjoys life, does Prince Philip,” said Sutton.) Then we came to the sad chapter of Charles and Diana, in whose nuptial interactions, Sutton suggested, one can see in retrospect a lack of connection.
As for William and Kate, Sutton didn’t attempt to rewrite their “stormy relationship” as a fairy tale — except, perhaps, for “freedom and democracy” in England. “Kate is seen as very much a commoner,” she said. “I mean that in the best way ... she’s managed to hook the future king of England. So, well done her!”
The couple, Sutton noted, will return to the prince’s nonpalatial home in Wales, where they’ve reportedly refused to employ servants. “Let’s see if the monarchy can now step into the 21st century,” she concluded on an upbeat note. “If they can do it, they’ll do it with William and Kate.”
But that wasn’t all. Sutton, who has been presented to the Queen, showed us how to curtsy. “You just drop,” she instructed. (Who needs Princess Prep?) Then she asked audience members to share memories of their own weddings, in keeping with her theme — that every loving relationship is “royal” in its own way.
Two women in the audience, both married in 1972, talked about their special days. Both weddings rang up at less than $1000; they described wildflower bouquets, homemade gowns, cows watching the reception.
It was a far cry from the crowd of nearly 2000 that watched William and Kate marry in London (not to mention millions of TV spectators). During the Friday telecast, the BBC’s roving reporter interviewed dozens of crown-wearing little girls and men and women in wedding-themed headgear. Some had literally wrapped themselves in the Union Jack. “Kate’s a treasure for Britain now,” gushed one woman in that crowd. “She’ll be another Diana,” said another. A third spectator, taking things more lightly, said she’d worn her own princess gear so she could step in if Middleton got cold feet.
For these well-wishers, the royal wedding clearly meant a lot more than the ceremonial recognition of a relationship between two young people they’d never met. It was a chance to celebrate their country’s traditions and its evolution, to renew their faith in love, and (as on New Year’s Eve) to wear funny hats.
The enthusiasm of that crowd — and Sutton’s group — dampened my cynicism like the eminent historian’s scolding never could. Because hope springs eternal, right? Whether it springs in a backyard with an audience of cows or in Buckingham Palace.