The engagement of Britain’s Prince Harry to actress Meghan Markle is raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic for a particularly British set of reasons: She’s a biracial woman who will be the first American divorcée to marry into the royal family in nearly 81 years.
Harry, the 33-year-old second son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, quietly proposed to Markle earlier this month. The royal family announced that Markle will become a British citizen before she marries Harry during a May 19, 2018 ceremony in Windsor Castle. The young couple will live in Nottingham Cottage, part of London’s Kensington Palace.
The famously secretive royal family made the engagement public on Monday. In an interview that evening with the BBC’s Mishal Husain, Markle said she and Harry met in July 2016 on a blind date set up by a mutual friend, then cemented their relationship during a camping trip to Botswana. She said Harry asked her to marry him during what she described as a “cozy night” at home.
"It was so sweet and natural and very romantic. He got down on one knee," she told the BBC. "As a matter of fact, I could barely let you finish proposing. I said, 'Can I say yes now?'"
The engagement sets the stage for the first royal wedding since Harry’s older brother William, the heir to the British throne, married Kate Middleton in 2011. Nearly 23 million Americans watched TV coverage of the wedding, outstripping the number who had watched Charles’s wedding to Diana in 1981 (the ring Harry gave to Markle included several diamonds that had belonged to his late mother).
The engagement also ends months of speculation about the future of Harry’s relationship with Markle, who took the unusual step of cooperating with an extensive Vanity Fair profile earlier this year.
But it won’t end the widespread public interest in the couple. That’s not just a reflection of Harry’s checkered public image (a British soldier who served in Afghanistan, Harry had years earlier sparked controversy for attending a costume party in Nazi regalia).
It’s also a reflection of Markle, who she is — and who she isn’t.
Meet Prince Harry’s new fiancée
Markle is no Kate Middleton, who kept a low public profile while dating William and has seamlessly slid into the public role expected of the woman who will be Britain’s next queen.
That’s not just because Markle hails from Los Angeles — she is also divorced and biracial. Her mother is African American; her father is white.
It’s also because Markle had a high-profile role on the USA Network show Suits and ran the Tig, a lifestyle blog.
Coverage of this prince-meets-commoner courtship in the British tabloids became so lurid
“Prince Harry is worried about Ms. Markle’s safety and is deeply disappointed that he has not been able to protect her,” the statement said.
There was a reason for that: Many of the attacks were both racist and sexist in tone. Last November, for instance, the Daily Star Online reported that Harry “could marry into gangster royalty — his new love is from a crime ridden Los Angeles neighborhood.”
Markle, for her part, wasn’t the shy and retiring type. In the Vanity Fair profile, she said the enormous media interest she faces because of her relationship with Harry “has its challenges, and it comes in waves — some days it can feel more challenging than others.”
One reason for those challenges: Markle’s divorce means she will make history when she marries Harry next year.
It’s not the first time for a British royal to marry an American divorcée
Markle will in some ways be following in the footsteps of Wallis Simpson, a divorced American woman who married into the British royal family nearly 81 years ago. Then-King Edward VIII abdicated the throne rather than end the relationship.
The relationship scandalized Britain, in part because Simpson was still technically married to her husband when she started the relationship with Edward. (They got divorced in May 1937, nearly six months after Edward abdicated.)
There’s no such scandal here; Markle was divorced before she started dating Harry. Assuming the nuptials go ahead as planned, the upcoming royal wedding will be a clear test of how much British public opinion has shifted in 81 years, and of just how different — or how similar — the Britain of 2018 will be to the Britain of 1936.
Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly stated that Markle’s father is Jewish.