To most families, Meghan Markle might seem like the ideal daughter-in-law. The American actress and humanitarian graduated from Northwestern with a double major in theater and international relations.
She’s devoted to public service, acting as a global ambassador for World Vision and a United Nations advocate for women. And she has a distinctly entrepreneurial bent—until recently; Markle ran her own food and lifestyle website, thetig.com.
The British monarchy, though, is not most families. So the announcement on Monday morning that Markle was engaged to Prince Harry, the younger son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, signifies more than just a wedding in the spring of 2018 and a surefire media frenzy. It’s also a sign that by accepting Markle—a divorced, biracial American who had a Catholic education—the monarchy is ready and willing to change. Markle, 36, is the first American set to marry into its ranks since Wallis Simpson sparked a constitutional crisis in 1936.
Rumors surrounding the impending engagement of Markle and Prince Harry peaked in recent days after Markle was seen accompanied by bodyguards from the Metropolitan Police’s protection unit, signifying her upgraded status within the ranks of the royals. (Markle also reportedly listed Prince Harry’s address in Kensington Palace on her two dogs’ passports.) But the announcement on Monday from the Clarence House Twitter account—the organization representing Prince Charles, Harry’s father—made the news official.
The phrasing of the statement seems noteworthy; the Queen, it reveals, was “informed,” while Markle’s family was the one whose approval was actively “sought.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the principal leader of the Church of England, reportedly gave his blessing several months ago for Markle and Prince Harry to have a church wedding. And a spokesperson for Westminster Abbey, where Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge were married in 2011, reiterated that the General Synod Ruling of 2002 approved marriages for divorcées within the Church of England.
The vehicle for announcing the engagement—a social-media platform founded in 2006—isn’t the only sign of the times. Members of the British royal family have repeatedly been frustrated by protocol over the last century when it comes to finding spouses. Wallis Simpson, an American socialite, was married to her second husband when she met Edward, Prince of Wales. When George V died in January 1936, Edward ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII. But his intention to marry Simpson complicated his status irrevocably. At the time, the Church of England forbade marriages for divorced people whose former spouses were still alive, and as King, Edward VIII was the Supreme Governor of the church. Opposed by the Prime Minister, and facing a constitutional crisis, he abdicated the throne at the end of 1936, stating, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
The Royal Family’s resistance to “Catholics, commoners, and divorcées,” as Vanity Fair puts it, endured for several more decades. During the 1950s, Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, was forbidden from marrying Captain Peter Townsend, who had previously been married and had two children. Prince Andrew, the Queen’s son, dated an American actress named Koo Stark in the 1980s, but the media interest in their relationship, and the Queen’s reported disapproval of Stark’s role in a “racy” film, led to his marrying Sarah Ferguson instead. And even for prospective partners who fit the bill, the requirements of the monarchy often overrode personal desire. Prince Charles’s current wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, was deemed an unsuitable choice for the future King when they first fell in love in the 1970s.
Markle, though, comes from a different generation, and is joining an institution that was battered by scandal and tragedy toward the end of the 20th century. Princess Diana’s public statements about her husband’s infidelity dispelled any notions that the Royal Family might be less susceptible to bad behavior than commoners. And her seeming incompatibility with her husband—despite being a perfect match on paper—undermined the idea that heirs to the throne had a responsibility to marry for more than love. Prince William’s relationship with Kate Middleton, who hailed from a middle-class background, and whose mother once worked for an airline, confirmed the new status quo.
Hence the distinct lack of grumbling about Markle’s biography, and the Queen’s willingness not just to accept her, but to embrace her into the family. The monarchy is relatively popular in the U.K., even in 2017. Two thirds of citizens think there’s still a place for the institution in modern Britain, and only 19% hope that the country will become a republic in the future. Still, the Queen is well aware that the Royal Family has to be seen as in touch with the priorities and the desires of modern Britons. In an interview to commemorate his grandmother’s 60th anniversary as monarch, Prince Harry praised her ability to adapt. “She’s managed to get the family to move with the times,” he said. “I think that’s incredibly important. You can’t get stuck in a sort of an old-age situation when everything around you is changing.”
Markle, who grew up in Los Angeles, has already experienced feverish media scrutiny on her background since her relationship with Prince Harry was announced in 2016. In November that year, following some erroneous and offensive tabloid reports that Markle was “straight outta Compton,” Prince Harry took the unprecedented step of releasing a statement condemning her “abuse and harassment” by the press, and the “racial undertones” of some of the commentary. “Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her,” it said.
Markle’s official status as his fiancée now affords her police protection. It also demonstrates that the 33-year-old Harry, who’s fifth in line to the throne, is more open-minded than much of the media in Britain. On her mother’s side, Markle is descended from enslaved persons; on her father’s, she reportedly shares a common ancestor with her husband-to-be, Elizabeth Bowes. In that sense, she’s well placed to represent both the history of the British monarchy, and its future.