It was the wave that gave it all away, that set the tone for this historic day. Instead of the usual restrained, faintly aloof dab of the hand we're used to seeing from the royal Rolls, Kate Middleton's greeting to the assembled crowds en route to Westminster was an enthusiastic, wholehearted salute.
he smile, too, was open, almost a grin. Yes, Kate has lost weight over the past weeks and looks older, more severe than the round-faced girl who first caught William's eye at St Andrews, but, as she embarked on the final moments of her old life, she looked joyous and radiant as well. Of the two, William, in the dashing red tunic of the Irish Guards, seemed the more self-conscious. "You look beautiful," he said to Kate as she arrived at his side in Westminster Abbey.
For any bride, it's the walk up the aisle that is the crucial, heart-stopping moment of the day. All eyes are upon her, all thoughts are with her, she is assessed and judged in those moments most completely -- what she's wearing, how she looks, her demeanour. For Kate, that walk, through the nave and choir of Westminster Abbey, past an avenue of maple trees planted just for the day, watched by a crowd of 1,900 guests, including her royal, about-to-be in-laws, took well over three minutes. She walked up simply as Kate Middleton, a commoner with uncommon luck, to the glorious strains of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's rousing anthem I Was Glad, and walked down as Her Royal Highness Duchess of Cambridge, into what we all hope will be her very own happy ever after.
She wore Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, and hit exactly the right note of regal simplicity; grand, but not fussy, a dress of ivory and white satin with a relatively modest train of Carrickmacross lace. Having insisted she wanted William to "recognise her at the altar," her hair was in a simple demi-chignon, with the queen's Cartier 'halo' tiara. Once at the altar, the couple exchanged looks of fond complicity. But despite her bright smile, Kate's hand trembled in her father's, and during the exchanging of the vows she looked tense, almost tearful. Like any couple poised on the brink of such public commitment, there was an endearing awkwardness to both, a slight fumble at times, that made them seem just what they were -- young, in love, taking a bold, public step.
In the end it was a very British wedding, and a very traditional affair, with God Save The Queen ringing out loud, clear and triumphant at the end of the ceremony. The vows were from the 1966 Book of Common Prayer; the reading, a lesson from Romans, Chapter 12, stressed the virtues of self-sacrifice, modesty, leadership and honesty -- an emphasis on duty that must have been music to the queen's ears -- while the music was a roll-call of Britain's finest composers. Charles Wesley's Love Divine, All Loves Excelling; Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer, a hymn perhaps better known to Welsh rugby crowds these days; William Blake's glorious Jerusalem, ode to an idealised England; even Greensleeves got a look-in, a folk song so popular as to be almost a cliche, but brought back to glory by the Westminster choir.
Each moment was dredged with historical and circumstantial symbolism, every choice -- of words, music, attire -- had some kind of precedence. Kate may have dropped promises to "obey" William from her vows, offering just to "love, comfort, honour and keep" him, but that was ground Diana had already broken, during her marriage to Charles in 1981. And although William's decision not to wear a wedding ring -- meaning that only he said the solemn words "with this ring, I thee wed," -- may seem strange, that too has form, including with William's grandfather, Prince Philip.
Guests started to gather well before 8am, the men dashing in their morning coats, women mostly demonstrating that complacent, expensive dowdiness so particular to the English upper classes. Chelsy Davy, Prince Harry's on-off girlfriend, upped the stakes a bit in emerald-green Alberta Ferretti, as did Tara Palmer-Tomkinson in a showy, electric-blue hat by Philip Treacy. Victoria Beckham, also in a Philip Treacy hat, looked elegant in a black shift from her own autumn/winter collection, while Samantha Cameron wore a jade-green, short-sleeved Burberry dress.
Among the 1,900 people assembled in Westminster were senior diplomatic, military and religious figures, members of royal families from a whole clutch of countries, representatives from William and Kate's chosen charities, a smattering of celebrities including Elton John and David Furnish, Joss Stone, Guy Ritchie, Rowan Atkinson, as well as the more controversial additions -- the Sultan of Brunei; Robert Mugabe's UK ambassador Gabriel Machinga; King Mswati III of Swaziland, who chooses his wives from an annual dance of 100,000 bare-breasted women; and of course Gary Goldsmith, uncle of the bride, proprietor of La Maison du Bang Bang, sporting a choice new tattoo with the words "Spend and God Will Send".
There were controversial absences too -- most pointedly Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The couple have persisted in calling this a private, not a state ceremony, to explain such oversights. It's a phrase which has unfortunate echoes of Diana's funeral. That too, the palace called "a private matter", so as to avoid the type of ceremonial razzmatazz due to state funerals. In the end, that hair-splitting distinction didn't get them very far, and the snub offered to Blair and Brown doesn't seem to have been lessened by the insistence, against all the visual evidence, that this was a private ceremony.
In fact, this was a wedding endorsed by history, even while fully conscious of being history in the making. The Middletons may have offered to pay half the costs (a most peculiar but somehow endearing gesture) but their stamp was nowhere on it. This was a royal wedding, just the kind of event Buckingham Palace does best -- the noble horses, open carriages, military bands, regiments in dress uniform; great and glorious celebration of a monarchy that, if not exactly divinely ordained, is certainly considered by many of its subjects to be pleasing to God's eye. And this was what the people wanted, those who slept in tents by Westminster Cathedral in the run-up to the big day, those who queued for hours for a glimpse of the happy couple, and the billions around the world who tuned in to watch. For the last few weeks, as the heavens smiled down with a spell of unseasonal sunshine, Britain's recession has been banished, tipped into second place by a nation determined to rejoice in the happiness of a young couple most believably in love.
Because this is not a dynastic match, or an expedient one. And it is prudent only in as much as the couple seem to truly love each other. In fact, it is a romantic gesture, the culmination of nine years of speculation, and a triumph for every Briton who has ever aspired to better. That a girl whose near ancestors were miners, drivers and in service should marry the heir to the British throne is astonishing, if not completely without precedent. The history of royal alliances contains a few such matches, and where they do occur they have often been the dynamic, revitalising power much-needed by an exhausted royal line.
While the Kate who walked up the aisle at Westminster Abbey could still be regarded with wonder, as one who had "pulled it off" and made an improbably good marriage, the Catherine who walked down the aisle was already invested with something more austere, and will now leave behind the covert jeers at her middle-class connections, those sneery little "doors to manual" jokes that dogged the first years of her relationship with William.
The qualities of discretion, loyalty and good grace which she has consistently displayed are what matter now, as is her transparent determination to stand firm beside her man. In every major detail of the ceremony, Kate deferred to William, putting his interests and ease of mind before her own. At the altar, she was surrounded by bridesmaids and page-boys drawn exclusively from his royal connections, including Lady Louise Windsor, the seven-year-old daughter of the Earl and Countess of Wessex and the eight-year-old Hon Margarita Armstrong-Jones, daughter of Viscount Linley. One of the two page-boys was Tom Pettifer, eight, whose mother, Tiggy Legge-Bourke, was nanny to Princes William and Harry and, at one time, rumoured to be Prince Charles's girlfriend. From her side of the alliance, only Pippa, her sister, stood by her side, taking the role of maid of honour.
Much is made of how "normal" the couple are, he as well as her. But this is to confuse low-key with normal. He may not be a pompous ass -- in fact, he certainly isn't -- but his grasp of the realities of most people's lives is necessarily slight. How could it be anything else? He is heir to the throne of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth, with a vast personal fortune, brought up surrounded by priceless historic artefacts, deference and endless goodwill. Much as his mother's and later his own praiseworthy inclinations encouraged him to investigate "normality", to seek out experience far from his gilded upbringing -- sleeping rough on the streets of London, volunteering in Chile on his gap year -- this is only dabbling. He may try to understand, but only a cataclysmic reversal of fortune, the type dreamt up by soap opera scriptwriters, probably involving a plane crash, facial disfigurement and memory loss, could really teach him what it is to be normal. Likeable, yes, well-intentioned, definitely, but only the almost equally privileged among his friends could consider him actually normal.
And Kate, despite the solid middle-class upbringing, is not precisely normal either. She wouldn't now be Princess William of Wales if she were. But she does at least recognise normality when she sees it and, more importantly, seems to value it. So far, Kate has shown no desire to lose herself in the more extravagant possibilities now open to her. She has long been a steadying influence on William -- persuading him to stick it out when he wanted to quit St Andrews after the first year, and suggesting the change from a four-year history of art course to the three-year geography course he eventually graduated from (with a 2:1, making him the highest qualified royal so far). She has also been instrumental in William's transition from a hostile relationship with the press, who he and Harry blamed openly for Diana's death, to an uneasy truce and, recently, something more affable. He has clearly accepted their contribution to his royal role, and seems prepared to work with them. Although that presupposes that he and Kate never find themselves in the firing line in the way Charles and Diana did.
And what of Diana? At any wedding, the spectre of an absent parent will hover -- a bride who walks up the aisle on the arm of an uncle or brother conjures up the spirit of her dead father and the pity of his not being there to see her; a mother who did not live to see her son happily married or her daughter at her most beautiful is a presence keenly felt. It is inevitably a poignant gap, but one to be meshed with the day's celebrations, swallowed up in the general joy so that it becomes a faint note of sadness rather than the dominant theme. But when Kate married William, the presence of Diana, his mother and in many ways the woman responsible for the match, although she never met Kate, hung over the proceedings most powerfully. It was in the minds of everyone who was watching and old enough to remember that other wedding. It was in the Carrickmacross lace on Kate's train, which Diana also wore. It was on Kate's hand, in the form of the 18-carat oval sapphire engagement ring, Diana's ring, that William chose to bestow in honour of his mother's memory. A touching gesture, but one not without troubling resonance.
Diana's role in creating a young man, heir to the throne of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who had the confidence to choose as his bride and future queen a woman whose maternal grandmother was a shop girl at the time of her marriage, a woman whose family (largely not invited to the wedding) are very firmly on the other side of the police cordon, can not be exaggerated. And it is the comparison Kate may never escape -- both the gold standard and the cautionary tale. On the one hand, Kate will suffer the inevitable comparison with Diana's now-legendary charm and beauty -- every photograph of the young Diana at the time of her wedding rams home yet again her extraordinary, luminous loveliness. Kate, in comparison, is a far more ordinary prospect. Pretty, with clear, healthy good-looks, but without Diana's extraordinary, fragile dazzle.
But happily there are also more positive comparisons, because perhaps in each other William and Kate truly have found their best friends and soulmates. When Charles married Diana, she was a blank slate, an innocent believer in the fantasy spread before her. He wasn't, though. He was already etched with the memory of passion, an on-going story with a woman who was not then his wife. That mismatch, and the radically opposing expectations it brought for each of them, was responsible for so much misery. Kate and William, in contrast, are both blank, both ready to write their own stories, together.
Both are conscientious people -- the contrast was telling between the typically solemn newlyweds and their far giddier younger siblings, Prince Harry and Pippa, as the four walked down the aisle at Westminster on Friday-- keen to do their duty and never to fail in it. They are united in purpose. One acquaintance of William's, Tom Bradby, described it thus: "It is clear to anyone who knows him that his life has long been characterised by an aching determination to make sure he never gets anything wrong, an ambition which is notably shared by his wife-to-be."
This, and the well-tried affection so obvious between them, is the mundane magic that might just reverse the Windsors' recent spell of bad luck in matters of matrimony. It's not exactly a dashing alliance, but it might just go the distance.
There is a fairy story, by M M Kaye, much-loved in England, called The Ordinary Princess, in which a royal baby's christening is attended by a gaggle of fairies, all bestowing the usual gifts of beauty, charm, grace and so on, until, last of all, the baby's godmother gives her the saving gift of "ordinariness". The baby grows up freckled, sensible, plain, and happy. Maybe Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, will be lucky enough to be an ordinary princess.
Sunday Indo Living