Royal wedding bells to ring for unlikely couple
Harry and Meghan will marry in Windsor Castle
Britain's Prince Harry weds US actress Meghan Markle next Saturday in a union of royalty and Hollywood glamour expected to reinvigorate the UK's House of Windsor.
Harry, grandson of Queen Elizabeth and sixth in line to the throne, and Ms Markle, star of US TV drama Suits, will tie the knot at Windsor Castle, home to the British royal family for nearly 1,000 years.
"It's absolutely marvellous. It's going to be a very special day for everybody," said Harry's father Prince Charles during a visit to France last week.
Harry (33), a former army officer and one-time royal wild child, met his bride-to-be on a blind date in July 2016 after being set up through a mutual friend. Meghan (36) said she knew little about her royal date while Harry said he had never heard of her or watched her TV series. However, it was love at first sight and, after two dates, he whisked her off to Botswana for a holiday camping under the stars.
"The fact that I fell in love with Meghan so incredibly quickly was confirmation to me that all the stars were aligned, everything was just perfect," Harry said when announcing the engagement last November. "This beautiful woman just tripped and fell into my life. I fell into her life."
The wedding takes place at St George's Chapel of Windsor Castle, the Queen's home west of London and the oldest inhabited fortress in the world. Some 40 monarchs have called the castle home and the chapel contains the bones of 10 kings, including Henry VIII.
Set against all this tradition, Ms Markle is a stark contrast in modernity. As a divorcee with a white father and African-American mother, her background has provided a source of huge interest and comment - not all positive.
Harry's Kensington Palace office issued a rebuke to the media in November 2016, decrying the sexism and racism Meghan had suffered in some press reports. Her family has continued to come under scrutiny, with her half-siblings criticising her in newspapers and saying they had been snubbed after not receiving invitations to the wedding.
However, both her divorced parents, mother Doria Ragland, a clinical therapist, and father Thomas Markle, a former TV lighting director for soaps and sitcoms, will play "important roles" on the day.
Markle is due to arrive at the chapel in a car with her mother, while her father will escort her down the aisle.
This wedding has drawn comparisons with some episodes of recent royal history: Edward VIII's relationship with American divorcee Wallis Simpson, which led him to abdicate in 1936, and the late Princess Margaret's decision to call off her marriage to equerry Peter Townsend.
"Meghan will bring a new perspective to the royal family," royal biographer Claudia Joseph said. "Obviously she comes from a very different background and... that's hugely important to take the royal family into the future."
The younger son of Princess Diana, Harry has always been a popular royal. A cheeky child who stuck his tongue out at photographers, he left a lasting memory in the minds of many when, aged only 12, he walked solemnly behind his mother's coffin as her funeral cortege after her death in 1997.
"I don't think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don't think it would happen today," he said last year.
The impact of his mother's death threw the prince off the rails, and his teenage years were overshadowed by negative headlines. In 2002 he admitted smoking cannabis and getting drunk when underage in a pub near the royal family's country estate. He later scuffled with paparazzi outside a London nightclub and caused outrage by dressing as a Nazi officer at a party.
He rehabilitated his image by joining the army, serving two tours in Afghanistan and escaping the media scrutiny and other trappings of his gilded upbringing. Now a campaigner on mental health issues, he says he was close to a breakdown in his 20s. Such frank admissions of frailty have resonated with Britons, as has his easy way when mingling with the public.
"One of the reasons why Prince Harry is so popular is when he was young he was something of a wild child, he got himself into a number of scrapes," said royal historian Hugo Vickers.
"All that has served to do is make him even more popular."
A poll last week found 71pc of respondents had a favourable view of Harry. That made him the second-highest rated members of the royals, just behind his brother but ahead of the 92-year-old Queen.
Meghan Markle, who was born in Los Angeles, made her first TV appearance in a 2002 episode of the medical drama General Hospital and has appeared in other TV shows and films.
In 2011, she married film producer Trevor Engelson but they divorced two years later. She achieved greatest fame as an actress for her starring part as Rachel Zane in the legal drama Suits. She bowed out of the series last month after her character married her long-time love interest.
She will not become a princess in her own right, but her unlikely marriage to Harry has led many to describing it as a magical children's story.
"The Americans love the British royal family and when you have an American actress marrying a British royal prince, it is the stuff of fairy- tales," biographer Joseph said.