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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Royal Occasions

The Prince and Princess of Wales
return to Buckingham Palace following
their wedding at St. Paul's Cathedral,
July 29. 1981.
It's hard to believe, but yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer.  I don't know about you, but I remember the day, and the run up to it, quite well.  I was only seven in July of 1981, but all of the excitement surrounding the event served to increase my emerging interest in the Royal Family.

Of course, we know the outcome of that exciting day and, looking back at old footage and remembering the impact it had on the world, it seems rather sad.  But it also shows that despite all of the outward trappings, everyone faces challenges.  Theirs were just played out on a much bigger screen.

Much more auspicious was the wedding, three months ago, of Charles and Diana's son, Prince William, to Kate Middleton.  And then, today, yet another happy union was celebrated when William's cousin Zara Phillips married her rugby playing companion, Mike Tindall.  Despite the fact that Zara is barely a member of the "working" Royal Family - no title, no official duties - there was considerable interest among the British public.

The new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace,
April 29, 2011.

Royal occasions seem to bring out some of the best qualities of the British.  There's the pomp and pageantry, of course, at which the Brits excel.  In fact, I don't think there is another monarchy, or republic for that matter, that can even come close.  Other monarchies tend to be a bit cozier, more approachable.  That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it does take a little polish off of what kings and queens are supposed to represent.  Events such as this also unite the British people in a way that few others could.  When it comes to the Royal Family, it is the Queen who is at the center of every occasion.  Even if it's someone else's wedding, having the Queen there dresses things up a bit.  You have to have a fanfare welcoming her, and of course the National Anthem must be played - hard to ignore her when you are asking God to save her.  The Queen unites because she is steadfast and, seemingly, immovable.  She's been on the throne going on sixty years,  She's met just about every world leader since the late 1940's, and she's been a head of state for longer than our own president has been alive.  It's no wonder that when she meets today's presidents and prime ministers, it is they who are a little in awe of this tiny white-haired woman.

Barack and Michelle Obama
looking rather delighted to be
meeting the Queen and
Duke of Edinburgh.

For decades, successive governments, and even Buckingham Palace itself, have worried about what sort of reception the Queen would receive at various large-scale royal events.  In 1977, it was the Silver Jubilee that caused concern.  The British economy was in decline and the Empire on which the sun had never set was almost entirely gone.  By 1981, Britain was in ever more dire straits.  In London there were riots in Brixton and the Queen was shot at during the Trooping of the Color.  Hardly an auspicious moment for a hugely expensive royal wedding.  Twenty years later, the Royal Family was thought to be held in even lower esteem.  2002 brought the death of the 101 year-old Queen Mother and celebration of the Queen's Golden Jubilee.  At each one of these points, government ministers and royal courtiers were gravely concerned that there would not be enough interest and excitement to warrant the kinds of celebrations usually staged at such times.  The great British public had other ideas.

Ordinary citizens wait to pay their respects to
the late Queen Mother in Westminster Hall
during the "Vigil of the Princes".  Prince Charles,
the Prince of Wales, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward
and David, Viscount Linley - the Queen Mother's
four grandsons - each stand in homage at the
four corners of the bier.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh travel
to St. Paul's Cathedral in the Gold State Coach
on Jubilee Day, 2002.  The Gold State Coach
is only used for coronations or Jubilee celebrations.

The 1977 Silver Jubilee saw the entire country participating in celebratory street parties and crowds flooded London for the Jubilee weekend.  The Queen was genuinely touched and surprised by the outpouring of affection from her subjects.  The Royal Wedding of 1981 was not just an event of interest in the UK, but throughout the world.  Finally, and perhaps most telling, were the events of 2002.  Following the shocking events following the death of Princess Diana, it was hard not to worry that the Queen's currency had fallen.  It was even thought that the funeral of the Queen Mother might be lightly attended.  What happened was very different.  In fact, it proved that the monarchy was still at the center of the British nation.  Once again, London saw unprecedented crowds for the Lying-in-State and State Funeral of the Queen Mother.  So many people came to pay their respects and circle her bier that the doors of Westminster Abbey had to remain open through the night.  On the long weekend set aside to celebrate the Golden Jubilee, even more people came to the capital to show their loyalty to the monarch.  Two huge concerts, one classical and one rock, were held at Buckingham Palace, and the enormous crowds seemed to party non-stop for four days.  On Jubilee Day itself, the throng that descended on Buckingham Palace to see the Queen and the Royal Family on the balcony of the palace seemed to go on forever.  Such a sea of Union Jacks had never filled the space before Buckingham Palace.

Crowds gathered before Buckingham Palace on
Jubilee Day, 2002.

And then, of course, there was the wedding of Prince William.  While those who wanted to portray Britain as a forward thinking republic in the making tried to make it appear that the only real interest in the wedding existed in foreign countries, the number of people who lined the processional route and waited outside the palace belied that assertion.  If anything, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have created a new and youthful appreciation of this ancient institution. 

I've been watching royal occasions for many years.  If I need to stay up all night to see the Queen Mother celebrate her 100th birthday with a parade through London, I'll do it gladly.  If I need to sleep all afternoon to be awake for a 2 am royal wedding, it's no sacrifice.  Royal occasions are fun.  They are colorful and exciting and, quite honestly, they are moving.  The music, the pageantry and brilliance of execution are wonderfully entertaining.  But, to see a person, such as the Queen, who represents so much to so many, who has been a steadfast presence in her people's lives for as long as they can remember, and who fulfills a duty, one that was not sought, so beautifully, is quite inspiring.

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