LONDON — To thunderous applause, Prince William kissed his bride, Catherine Middleton, not once but twice on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The pair of pecks followed a majestic ceremony at Westminster Abbey that was viewed via satellite on six continents. As the couple and members of the wedding party waved to thousands gathered outside the palace, military aircraft soared above them in salute.
William and Kate, carried along the procession route in the same carriage that brought Diana, Princess of Wales, to her wedding ceremony in 1981, arrived at Buckingham Palace with all the pageantry befitting a future king and his bride. An escort of mounted cavalry trailed them, followed by the queen in her own covered coach and Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, in an eggplant Rolls-Royce.
In the hours leading to the 11 a.m. ceremony, Britons sang in the streets and flooded public spaces.
As elaborately be-hatted guests filed into Westminster Abbey under overcast skies, celebrants lined the parade route. Ashley Hollebone, 29, arrived in London last night from the seaside town of Brighton. He slept in his car, a 1933 Austin 7 — top speed 35 miles per hour — which at 4 a.m. “feels like being in a fridge. But it’s only one night of discomfort. These have been dark, depressing times in Britain, and we’ve embraced this. They are a normal couple, go to normal shops, and I think people get behind that.”
Craig Herderman, 39, was wearing motorcycle leathers with a Union Jack flag tied around his neck like a cape, which is what he wore driving on the highway from Rochester. “The missus was not happy when I woke up at 3 a.m,” he said, but “it only happens once in a blue moon you can’t not make the effort.”
Louise Ratcliffe, 32, from Leicester, is selling Will and Kate flags, scarves, hand towels, face masks and umbrellas at a dishevelled stand next to one of the two giant TV screens in Trafalgar Square. “We can’t set up properly, people keep buying,” she says. Ratcliffe described the atmosphere as “happy, vibrant — everyone in same mindset. A nice change from the bad economy.”
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.
The bride, who arrived with her father in a sleek Rolls-Royce, revealed what the entire fashion industry — and royal watchers worldwide — have been waiting to see. Designed by Sarah Burton, the late Alexander McQueen’s stylistic heir at his enduring label, Catherine Middleton’s v-neck wedding dress was fitted to her trim torso, topped with lace and flowing into a perfectly proportioned long train, with pleats that flattered and didn’t slow her procession into the abbey. William kept his back to his bride, as tradition dictates, with his brother stealing glimpses at her and her father approaching up the aisle.
The reaction of the jubilant London crowd as the couple were pronounced man and wife was audible inside Westminster Abbey.
Perhaps more than any other single event, the royal wedding is exposing the members of the British royal family as what they really are: the original global celebrities. Despite the occasional grumbling from lads in the pub about those privileged freeloaders in Buckingham Palace, three out of four Britons still back the monarchy. Given the worldwide media frenzy over a wedding — even the proud republic of France is going gaga, with three national channels broadcasting live — it is easy to see why.
Although the sun set long ago on the British Empire, the royals, for all their foibles, still give this quaint and foggy land outsize importance, ensuring that the eyes of the world are focused on a marriage that would otherwise be a 28-year-old air force pilot getting hitched to a 29-year-old Internet party supply heiress. In the end, it works out cheap for the British: You cannot buy this kind of publicity.
“Oh, you can see it in this wedding! Never has one family so defined one country,” beamed Christopher Warren-Green, who conducted the London Chamber Orchestra at Westminster Abbey. “Never has one family been so well known — and so watched — by the world.”
Bowing to modernity and lean times in Britain — the nation is undergoing a historic round of austerity and budget cuts — this union has been billed as an affair slimmed down from the last royal event of this scale: the glamorous nuptials of William’s parents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, in 1981.
But slimming down for the royals still means a day of unquestionable grandeur. A medieval abbey “dressed” with a living avenue of 20-foot maple trees, the London Chamber Orchestra strumming in the wings. An early-morning rehearsal Wednesday involved 1,000 military personnel, the Royal Household Cavalry and 160 horses.
Sure, William and Kate had a “wedding buffet” instead of a formal sit-down breakfast, and the bride, who was not born into aristocracy as the groom’s mother was, arrived in a vintage Rolls-Royce instead of a carriage. But eventually, after their vows, the couple was hauled through London streets in the same open, glass carriage that brought Diana to St. Paul’s Cathedral. For the luckiest of guests, the queen is hosting 650 for canapes and drinks, and Charles is presiding over a lavish dinner for 300. Reportedly, it will be followed by disco dancing — complete with mirrored ball — at Buckingham Palace.
Charles is footing the bill for the majority of the wedding, with the well-to-do Middletons chipping in an undisclosed sum, which defies usual patterns. But the British taxpayer must cover pricey security costs, including overtime for the 5,000 police officers scouring the route Friday.
For some here, that expense is a bone of contention. Although the British overwhelmingly back the monarchy, polls report that one in three Britons do not care about this regal fuss. Some fed-up Londoners have used the national holiday Friday to leave town and avoid the influx of visitors and the headache of traffic jams.
But for others, the event is an echo of 1981, and the high hopes before the marriage of Charles and Diana fell apart, before Diana died. Royalists are hoping William and Kate bring back some of the luster lost after the death of Diana, and call the state cost of the royal wedding a small price for the emotional benefits of a global spectacle.
“I know some people say they don’t care, but honestly, I think they care more than they admit,” said Cheryl Ptolomey, 60, camped out in front of the abbey with her daughter and the cremated remains of her mother, who was a die-hard Diana fan. “For me, I felt I had to be here. With all the wars, with all the austerity, I needed this. And I just had to. This is Diana’s son.”
London hotels haven’t quite sold out, but hotel occupancy has jumped to 82 percent for the wedding, up from 76 percent last April. They have filled up with the likes of three Washingtonians, aptly named Cathy, Kathryn and Katherine.
One commentator on the BBC, marveling that mobs of foreigners would travel in for the wedding of British royals, called the rush a case of the three F’s: the fixated, the fanatic and the foolish. But for the three Kates, there is no mystery in their pilgrimage.
Sitting in a Green Park pub and mapping out their wedding plan, Cathy St. Denis, a Department of Transportation worker, outlined their mission: “See the dress. See the kiss.”
Kathryn Greenberg, who works in philanthropy in Washington, tried to further explain.
“You come over to the U.K., and they actually have princesses. Real princesses,” she said. “And we don’t have to pay for them,” just enjoy them.
But Katherine Miller, a Washington communications consultant, summed it up: “Let’s be honest. It’s like the World Cup for women.”
Staff writer Monica Hesse and special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.