More than any other moment, it symbolized the turning of a page for the British monarchy, of a new generation of kings and queens who would, perhaps, stand somewhat closer to the people. After a majestic wedding in Westminster Abbey that comforted a nation in tough times and celebrated what it means to be British, the lofty royal family greeted the throngs outside the palace on a balcony shared by the beaming bride, the descendant of coal miners and daughter of run-of-the-mill Brits made good.
Although polls showed one in three here claiming no interest in the royal wedding, the spirit of the moment appeared to become infectious. An estimated crowd of 1 million lined the central London procession route between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, besting the outpouring of 600,000 for the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.
“I cannot tell you how proud I am today to be British, and how I felt when I heard them say, ‘I do,’ ” said Alice Morley, 18, draping herself in the Union Jack outside Buckingham Palace. “. . . And with Kate, who is one of us, a commoner, I feel closer to them, like anyone can be in that palace.”
Kate is not, in fact, a princess yet — at least not in official title. Instead, at the bequest of Queen Elizabeth II, the couple will now be known as Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The peculiarities of British titles kicked off a day that began with the pomp and circumstance of old royalty and ended with a bow to youth: disco dancing at the wedding reception in Buckingham Palace.
The BBC reported more than 5,500 traditional street parties across the nation, with the wedding seeming to generate a patriotic fervor and a toast to the quirky notion of Britishness. Britons held duck races. They attended “fancy-dress parties” where men wore women’s clothes. They gorged on pork pies in the park and drank bitter Pimm’s and lemonade. Why? Because that’s how the British have fun.
At a street party in east London punctuated by men in wedding dresses, Steve Edge, a 53-year-old owner of a design agency, said that “subconsciously everybody loves” the monarchy, an institution he called the “true brand of Englishness.”
You can see it, he said, “on days like today . . . with over a billion people watching” and his countrymen suddenly dropping their famed reserve. “The English can be very dour, not get too excited, but on special occasions they do it very well.”
Around the world, the wedding seemed to be helping the British build a new empire of love, with up to 2 billion estimated to be tuning in to Westminster Abbey.
Though billed as a toned-down affair at a time when the British are undergoing a historic period of austerity and budget cuts, the wedding nevertheless amounted to a grand, ethereal show.
Globally, viewers saw 1,900 guests — ranging from Elton John and his partner, David Furnish, to Prime Minister David Cameron to the crowned heads of Europe and Asia — walk down a “living avenue” of 20-foot maple trees dressing the abbey aisles. The crowd erupted as Prince William and Prince Harry arrived at the abbey in a two-toned Bentley, William in the striking scarlet uniform of the Irish Guards, followed shortly thereafter by Carole Middleton, the mother of the bride, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, grandmother of the groom.
For the romantics in the house, an almost collective sigh could be heard when William locked eyes on his bride in her Alexander McQueen gown as she approached the altar. A lip-reading expert for the BBC said he mouthed the word “beautiful.”
The ceremony itself was a celebration of Britishness and the notion of monarchy, filled with sweeping allusions to the outsize grandeur of these tiny islands in hymns, anthems and readings.
That sense of England climaxed, perhaps, as the words of poet William Blake filled the medieval hall: “I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land.”
Before Queen Elizabeth and under the hands of the archbishop of Canterbury, the young couple exchanged vows. Like Diana in 1981, Middleton refused to say she would “obey” her husband in her wedding vows, but unlike Diana, she got his full name right while reading them out: William Arthur Philip Louis.
Yet for some, the poignancy of the day touched off with the first glimpses of William and Harry, their looks so like their late mother’s as they chatted in the back of the Bentley on their way to the abbey. Many noted the open carriage that carried the newlyweds from Westminster to Buckingham Palace was the same that carried Diana to her wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
So much of the interest in this wedding, at least from overseas, stemmed from memories of Diana, whose own ill-fated fairy tale ended after a failed marriage and tragic death in 1997. On Friday, the Sun tabloid simply ran a black-and-white portrait of the young couple under the headline: “Mum Would Be So Proud.”
“I feel like Diana was with us today, like her story is coming full circle,” said Penny Bridgewater, a 52-year-old homemaker from Kent who spent the night in a tent with her daughter to get a good view of the royal wedding procession.
The last major royal event she attended was Diana’s funeral.
“William has always been in our hearts, losing his mum so early as he did,” she said. “Now, I feel he’s become a man. I wish Diana could have seen this. I know she would have been so happy.”
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.