CULTURE

A Brief History of the British Royal Family’s Complicated Romantic Entanglements

Even in the age of Tinder, fairy-tale love matches are no simple matter for a prince. Hugo Vickers tallies the changing dictates of the British royal family.


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Illustration by PTMcG

History has proved on many occasions that when the heart rules the head, trouble can follow. To wit: the reign of Henry VIII of England, during which many such heads were chopped off, including those of two of the king’s wives. For a long time, arranged marriages were considered the most sensible, but nowadays we allow feelings to lead the way. Should you be looking to track the increasingly rapid evolution of such social mores over time, there are few better places to look to than the British royal family, which is currently the focus of intense media attention thanks to the arrival of Meghan Markle.

It is extraordinary that it was as recently as 2005, eight years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that Prince Charles was finally allowed to marry his first love, Camilla Parker Bowles—and even then, not without controversy. Interestingly, the media treated Camilla as the hated mistress until the eve of the wedding. They then assigned her, overnight, the role of supportive wife, which she still enjoys.

Forbidden fruit always tastes better, and rulers have often struggled with ways to address the issue. King George III created the Royal Marriages Act 1772 a year after his brother, the Duke of Cumberland, committed the shocking act of marrying a commoner, the 28-year-old widow Anne Horton. The king told his brother that “he had irretrievably ruined himself” by this “disgraceful conduct.” The act decreed that no descendent of George II—other than children born to princesses married into foreign families—could marry without the consent of the ruling British monarch. Any marriage that disregarded these stringent terms was effectively null and void. Thus his son the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, was deemed to have contracted an illegal marriage with the twice-married Roman Catholic Maria Fitzherbert in 1785; his brother William IV produced some 10 illegitimate children before attempting to create legitimate ones with a Protestant royal wife. Around 1890, Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence (grandson of Queen Victoria and her presumptive heir), seriously considered renouncing the throne to marry Princess Hélène of Orléans—her Catholicism being the issue. Although she was prepared to renounce her faith, neither her father, nor Pope Leo XIII, nor the British prime minister would sanction this union.

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By 1936, not much had changed. Unmarried when he succeeded to the throne, Edward VIII was very involved with Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American with two husbands still living. No one worried too much about this unfortunate state of affairs until Mrs. Simpson instituted divorce proceedings against Mr. Simpson, at which point there was a genuine fear that the king might marry her just before the coronation, in May 1937. The well-known saga of the abdication followed, and, in December 1936, he set off into voluntary exile. Most people saw the abdication as an obstinate, obsessional, and unpatriotic course of action. The duke saw it as a plunge into the real world, and claimed that he never hesitated an instant in choosing Mrs. Simpson over the throne.

Very much less headstrong than his great-uncle, Prince Charles hesitated about proposing to Camilla Shand, as Camilla was known before marrying the dashing cavalry officer Andrew Parker Bowles, especially because she did not fit the unwritten criterion for royal brides, having enjoyed something of a past. So instead, in 1981, he married Lady Diana Spencer, an innocent, aristocratic girl who had been brought up near Sandringham House. Both her grandmothers and four of her great-aunts were ladies-in-waiting to the Queen Mother.

25 Intimate Portraits Of the British Royal Family, From King George VI to Young Prince George

The Royal Family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the coronation of King George VI of England. Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

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King George VI with his daughters Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in the grounds of Windsor Castle in Windsor, England on July 08, 1946. Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images.

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Princess Elizabeth working on her studies at a desk in Windsor Castle. Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images.

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Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones in the grounds of Royal Lodge on the day they announced their engagement. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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Princess Margaret walks with her husband Earl of Snowdon on a pontoon in the Bahamas. Photo by DALMAS/AFP/Getty Images.

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Queen Elizabeth II with a group of local children during her state visit to Mexico, 1975. Photo by Serge Lemoine/Getty Images.

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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on safari during their state visit to Zambia, 1979. Photo by Serge Lemoine/Getty Images.

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Prince Andrew in the 1980’s. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

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Diana, Princess of Wales with Sarah Ferguson at the Guard’s Polo Club, Windsor, 1983. Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images.

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Princess Diana with the Duchess of York during a skiing holiday in Klosters, Switzerland, 1988. Photo by James Andanson/Sygma via Getty Images.

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Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after their marriage ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral, 1981. Photo by MSI/Mirrorpix/Getty Images.

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Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales together during their honeymoon in Balmoral, Scotland, 1981. Photo by Serge Lemoine/Getty Images.

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Princess Diana, Princess of Wales poses in a bikini while on holiday in the South of France. Photo by Anwar Hussein/WireImage.

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Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York inspecting The Guard Of Honour at R.A.F. Gaton in Berlin, Germany, 1989. Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images.

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Duke and Duchess of York, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson on a boat during their visit to Venice, Italy in 1989. Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images.

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The Princess Of Wales with her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry on a chairlift during a ski holiday in Lech, Austria. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images.

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Prince of Wales on the slopes in Klosters, Switzerland, where he is on a skiing holiday with his sons Princes William and Harry. Photo by Tim Ockenden – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images.

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Princess Diana arriving at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in a gown by Christina Stambolian, 1994. Photo by Jayne Fincher/Getty Images.

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The Duchess of York attends a charity premiere of ‘A Little Princess’ in London, with her daughters Beatrice and Eugenie, 1996. Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images.

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Kanye West shares a joke with Prince Harry and Prince William at Wembley Arena in London, 2007. Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images.

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Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge drive from Buckingham Palace in a decorated sports car on April 29, 2011 after their wedding ceremony in London, England. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge watch a rodeo demonstration at a Government Reception at the BMO Centre on July 7, 2011 in Calgary, Canada. Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images.

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Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie attend the 8th annual charity: ball Gala at the Duggal Greenhouse on December 16, 2013 in New York City. Photo by Michael Stewart/WireImage.

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambride and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge ride in an open-air jeep on safari around the National Park at Kaziranga National Park on April 13, 2016 in Guwahati, India. Photo by Samir Hussein/Pool/WireImage.

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That was, however, the last time that the status quo prevailed. The queen’s other children wed people of their choice. In 1973, Princess Anne had fallen for a fellow equestrian, Captain Mark Phillips, whom she had met through her love of riding. Both he and Princess Anne were Olympic competitors; she famously joked that when she rode the queen’s horse Goodwill in the 1976 Summer Olympics, in Montreal, it was probably the first time in history that the owner had bred not only the horse but also the rider. Prince Andrew found Sarah Ferguson at Smith’s Lawn, Windsor, in the world of polo—her father managed Prince Charles’s polo schedule, ponies, and equipment. And Prince Edward met Sophie ­Rhys-Jones at a charity event, when she was a PR executive.

By 1992, the year in which Prince Andrew’s marriage fell apart, and Princess Anne divorced her Olympic rider, conventions had definitely evolved. Four decades prior, Princess Margaret, an unmarried princess, had not been allowed to marry Peter Townsend, a divorced equerry. In stark contrast, there was very little fuss when Princess Anne, a divorced princess, married Timothy Laurence, an unmarried equerry. The younger members of the family followed suit. Princess Margaret’s daughter, Lady Sarah, married Daniel Chatto, an actor turned artist; Peter Phillips, the son of Princess Anne, married Autumn Kelly, the daughter of a Canadian executive; and Peter’s sister, Zara, married Mike Tindall, then captain of the England national rugby team. Clearly, the dynamics around the dining room table are now considerably different from what the queen was used to when she was young.

From Kate Middleton and Prince William to Charles and Diana (and Camilla), a Brief History of British Royal Weddings—And Their Attending Scandals

Original diva Queen Victoria might not have been the first bride to wear white, but she was the one who made a white gown something of a protocol. Victoria commissioned a white lace dress for her 1840 wedding to Prince Albert, intending to support the struggling lace-making industry and best showcase the textile. Further, she destroyed the pattern for her dress so it could not be replicated, and she decreed no one else could wear white to her wedding. After the ceremony, she and Albert—for whom London’s Victoria and Albert museum is named—traveled to Windsor Castle for the night; though Albert had hoped to take a two-week honeymoon with his new wife, already the reigning queen, Victoria told him she could not take that much time off from work and they limited their vacation to just a few days.

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On April 26, 1923, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon married George VI, who would go on to become king—and she, the Queen Mother, giving birth to Elizabeth II in 1926. Queen Mary, George’s mother, lent her daughter-in-law the lace veil she wore for the occasion. British designer Madame Handley Seymour made the dress—custom dictated it must be a British creation—but its silhouette was based on those of Jeanne Lanvin, then very much in vogue.

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Between Victoria, which stars Jenna Coleman as the titular monarch, and The Crown, with Claire Foy as Elizabeth II, British royals’ romances have been the subject of much pop culture fascination lately. Elizabeth, who was crowned queen in 1953, wore an elaborate dress by Norman Hartnell for her 1947 wedding to Phillip Mountbatten. If she resembles someone out of a Botticelli painting, that’s precisely what the designer intended with the delicate floral embroidery and 10,000 seed pearls sewn into the design. It was just two years after the end of World War II, and austerity measures were still in place rationing fabric, buttons, and types of trim, so, reportedly, young women all over England sent their clothing coupons to Princess Elizabeth; with her own savings, plus a 200-coupon bonus from the government, she was able to afford the dress, which took six months to make. (The Crown’s reproduction cost a reported $37,000 and took seven weeks.)

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Elizabeth’s younger sister Princess Margaret married the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, a contributor to Vogue and Vanity Fair, on May 6, 1960. It was a lavish affair, costing a reported $65,000—not to mention the additional $115,000 of her seagoing honeymoon—that didn’t do much to improve her reputation among her subjects. Margaret had previously been embroiled in scandal, engaging in an affair in the early ’50s with Captain Peter Townsend, a war hero 15 years her elder, who happened to already be married. Townsend later divorced his wife, but Margaret was nevertheless unable to marry him because her religion—and the royal family’s adherence to Catholicism—prohibited her from wedding someone who had previously been married. Still, her subsequent marriage to Armstrong-Jones ended in divorce in 1978.

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When Charles, Prince of Wales, was 24 years old, he met Camilla Parker Bowles. But, according to biographer Sally Bedell Smith, the prince was not yet ready to commit to marriage and gendered double standards of the mid-20th century meant Charles was expected to marry a woman who could plausibly present herself as a virgin. Cue Diana: Though Charles remained enamored of Bowles, he ended up marrying Diana Spencer, a woman 13 years younger whose grandmothers had been ladies-in-waiting to Charles’s grandmother, Elizabeth, the queen mother, in 1976. They divorced in 1996, after both had engaged in affairs (Charles, picking up his relationship with Bowles again); Diana died in a car crash in 1997.

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Andrew, Duke of York, the third child of Queen Elizabeth II, and Sarah Ferguson began their relationship in 1985 and married in 1986. They were both 26 years old. Her gown, by the designer Lindka Cierach, featured detailed iconography embroidered throughout, representing Andrew’s naval service (anchors, waves), romantic symbols, and images drawn from Ferguson’s own family crest. They divorced 10 years later.

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Prince Charles, currently next in line for the throne after his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, married his longtime romantic partner Camilla Parker Bowles in a civil ceremony on April 9, 2005. Bowles, now Duchess of Cornwall, wore a dress by British designer L.K.Bennett with a Phillip Treacy hat for the wedding and a Robinson Valentine ensemble for the service afterwards. The couple opted for a civil service in lieu of a full church wedding, presumably to avoid the controversy that could attend a religious ceremony, given the crown’s stance on divorce. (Both Charles and Camilla, at this point, had divorced previous partners.)

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In 2011, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, the eldest son of Charles and Diana and the current second in line for the throne after his father, married longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton, now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, on April 29, 2011. (The media circus that surrounded the event just evidences the continued adulation of the British public, though the royal family no longer has any legislative power in the United Kingdom.) Middleton’s dress, custom-designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen with its deep-v neck, long sleeves, high collar, and lace overlay, has inspired countless replicas; among the frontrunners for designers to create the gown were Victoria Beckham and Stella McCartney. Designers Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, and Vera Wang all praised the design, comparing it to royal weddings past like Elizabeth II and Diana. Also at the wedding: Kate’s sister Pippa Middleton, whose own wedding is slated for this weekend and who drew headlines of her own with her clingy white dress, also by Alexander McQueen.

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UNITED KINGDOM – JULY 18: The Wedding Of Tim Taylor To Lady Helen Windsor At St Georges Chapel Windsor. Wedding Dress By Catherine Walker (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

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All of which brings us to Prince William and Prince Harry. The royal wedding of 2011 caused a huge sensation, as it would lead to a future queen, and another generation of the royal family. But there was an additional element. The last time people had thought about Prince William, he was a forlorn teenager following his mother’s coffin. In the intervening years, he had finished school and university, not gone off the rails, and had complete freedom of choice in finding a bride. ­Catherine Middleton was a lovely girl, with a university degree and roots in a sound, middle-class family. This was not a dynastic marriage. She arrived on the scene, as it were, fully baked, and she has not changed a jot since then. Whereas there had been grave, if largely unvoiced, concerns when Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, Prince William’s wedding day was a huge success because the transparent happiness of the couple permeated the whole occasion.

Illustration by PTMcG

Prince Harry’s problem was to find a girl prepared to take him on with all the pressures involved, and who would be compared, almost certainly unfavorably, to his sister-in-law. He made a contrasting impression on the public mind. Gallant service in Afghanistan was matched with bad-boy antics, most notably when he was photographed romping about in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Paradoxically, in the end, this served to give him pop-star status: Girls pressed against crowd barriers to see him, just as others had clamored for the Beatles in the 1960s. He was publicly linked to a pair of beautiful blondes, but these relationships never went anywhere—and then Meghan Markle appeared. She had already had a solid career as an actress and was immensely popular in the USA Network series Suits, as paralegal Rachel Zane. It was by no means a conventional choice. Many expected Prince Harry to settle down with an upper-class girl like Cressida Bonas, whom he had dated for a couple of years, and who was more in the British royal orbit. But, interestingly, Markle’s career as an actress could be considered better training for a royal spouse in the current era.

In the 19th century, in order to cement relations between great European nations, the royal policy was to create alliances with German royal houses; after the First World War, when it became clear that marriages with Germany were no longer feasible, the royal family gravitated toward Scottish aristocracy, or Greek and Danish, in two memorable instances. (There was a collective sigh of relief when the Duke of Kent married Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, in 1934, for she was infinitely more appropriate than other potential brides such as the fast and worldly Poppy Baring, the ragtime pianist Edythe Baker, and Kiki Preston, whose nickname, “the girl with the silver syringe,” said it all.)

Royal Engagement Portraits Through the Years: From Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle pose for one of two official engagement photos at Frogmore House in December, 2017 in Windsor, United Kingdom. Photo by Alexi Lubomirski via Getty Images.

Photo by Alexi Lubomirski via Getty Images

Prince William and Kate Middleton pose for photographs in the State Apartments of St James Palace on November 16, 2010 in London, England. The couple became engaged during a holiday in Kenya having been together for eight years. Photo by Chris Jackson via Getty Images.

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Sophie Rhys-jones And Prince Edward on The Day Of Their Engagement. Photo by Tim Graham via Getty Images.

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Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer pose outside Buckingham Palace following the official announcement of their engagement. Lady Diana, 19, had been a friend of the Royal Family all her life. Prince Charles, 32, was regarded as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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Prince Andrew with Sarah Ferguson at Buckingham Palace after the announcement of their engagement. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images.

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Princess Anne and Mark Philips Engagement In London On 1973. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

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Princess Anne and her fiance, Captain Mark Phillips. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images.

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Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones in the grounds of Royal Lodge after they announced their engagement. Photo by Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

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Princess Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace shortly before their wedding. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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The first official picture after the announcement of the engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, the former Prince Philip of Greece, at Buckingham Palace. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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Nowadays, however, geopolitical and even social considerations are less of a concern than is popular perception. Markle is used to dealing with fans on the red carpet and answering questions from provocative TV hosts. (When one of them asked her on air about having interracial parents, she replied that it’s a shame we should live in a world where anyone would focus on such things and discriminate because of them.) She was already known for charity work on a global level and had publicly embraced issues such as gender equality, the empowerment of women, and combatting modern-day slavery.

Challenges await the star as she merges into the hierarchy of the British royal family, whose members are there to support the queen and to undertake various royal duties that the queen simply does not have time to do. Some of them, such as presiding over the openings of factories, schools, and hospitals, are somewhat less than glamorous. Therefore, in a sense, Markle will have to step down to the role of “extra” or “supporting actress.” This was clear when she appeared with the royal family outside the church at Sandringham at Christmas. A large crowd had gathered, primarily for a glimpse of her, but she had to defer to the queen, as evidenced by her elegant curtsey.

Meghan Markle’s Style Evolution: See Her Transformation to Princess-To-Be

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during an official photocall to announce the engagement of Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle at The Sunken Gardens at Kensington Palace on November 27, 2017 in London, England. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been a couple officially since November 2016 and are due to marry in Spring 2018.

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Kensington Royal/Instagram

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took their first public pictures as a couple at Invictus Games Toronto.

Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage via Getty

Actress Meghan Markle leaves the “Today Show” taping at NBC Rockefeller Center on July 14.

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Actress Meghan Markle enters the “Today Show” taping at NBC Rockefeller Center Studios on July 14, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images)

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Actress Meghan Markle attends the Instagram Dinner held at the MARS Discovery District on May 31, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.

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Meghan Markle attends Glamour and L’Oreal Paris Celebrate 2016 College Women Of The Year at NoMad Hotel Rooftop on April 27, 2016 in New York City.

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Meghan Markle attends P.S. Arts’ The pARTy at NeueHouse Hollywood on May 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.

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Actress Meghan Markle attends AOL Build Presents “Suits” at AOL Studios In New York on March 17, 2016 in New York City.

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WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – JANUARY 20: Actress Meghan Markle attends ELLE’s 6th Annual Women In Television Dinner at Sunset Tower Hotel on January 20, 2016 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for ELLE)

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Meghan Markle attends the 12th annual CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards at Spring Studios on November 2, 2015 in New York City.

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Meghan Markle attends the Prada presents The Iconoclasts with Michael Wilkinson and Tim Martin event during the 2015 New York fashion week. Photo by BFAnyc.com.

Meghan Markle attends the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s 13th Annual An Enduring Vision Benefit at Cipriani Wall Street on October 28, 2014 in New York City.

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Meghan Markle attends Wes Gordon runway show during MADE Fashion Week Fall 2015 at Milk Studios on February 13, 2015 in New York City.

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Meghan Markle attends the UK Premiere of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” at Odeon Leicester Square on November 11, 2013 in London, England.

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NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 08: Model Meghan Markle poses backstage at the Herve Leger By Max Azria fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Fall 2014 at The Theatre at Lincoln Center on February 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week)

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Meghan Markle attends the London Global Gift Gala at ME Hotel on November 19, 2013 in London, England.

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Meghan Markle attends the Tory Burch fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring at David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on September 10, 2013 in New York City.

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Meghan Markle attends the Novak Djokovic Foundation New York dinner at Capitale on September 10, 2013 in New York City.

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Meghan Markle attends the Gala Tribute To Cate Blanchett during the 51st New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on October 2, 2013 in New York City.

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Megan Markle arrives on the red carpet at the 2013 MuchMusic Video Awards at Bell Media Headquarters on June 16, 2013 in Toronto, Canada.

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Meghan Markle attends USA Network 2013 Upfront Event at Pier 36 on May 16, 2013 in New York City.

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Meghan Markle attends the ELLE’s Women in Television Celebration at Soho House on January 24, 2013 in West Hollywood, California.

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Meghan Markle arrives at NBC Universal’s 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards after party held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 13, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.

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Meghan Markle attends The Paley Center for Media’s presentation of An Evening With “Suits” at The Paley Center for Media on January 14, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.

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Meghan Markle arrives at the GQ Men of the Year Party at Chateau Marmont on November 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

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Meghan Markle attends TV Guide Magazine’s 2012 Hot List Party at SkyBar at the Mondrian Los Angeles on November 12, 2012 in West Hollywood, California.

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Meghan Markle attends the HBO Luxury Lounge Featuring L’Oreal Paris And New Era Cap – Day 1 at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles on January 14, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.

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Meghan Markle arrives at the 13th Annual InStyle And The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Toronto International Film Festival Party at the Windsor Arms Hotel on September 11, 2012 in Toronto, Canada.

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Meghan Markle attends the USA Network’s and The Moth’s Storytelling Tour “A More Perfect Union: Stories of Prejudice and Power” at the Pacific Design Center on February 15, 2012 in West Hollywood, California.

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Wisely, Markle has already closed down her various social media accounts and ceased blogging about fashion accessories and travel destinations. But unlike any previous royal bride, we already know about her from late-night chat shows, and we can see her in action in Suits. She is well-spoken, in control, and clearly not afraid of raising middlebrow brows, as when she wore a $75,000 ensemble with a sheer top for her official engagement portrait. (But then, for the most part, it is her money that has earned her expensive clothes.) It has been hinted that she wants to make a speech at the wedding reception, which would be a break with royal custom. She’s the first royal bride ever to have addressed the United Nations, and it appears that Prince Harry enjoys the public’s interest in her—for once he is not the center of attention. As for his bride, the question will be whether someone trained to steal the spotlight will be able to retreat from it readily—or at least step into the shadows when the occasion demands.

Related: A Letter of Condolence to Meghan Markle, Whose Own Extended Clan May Be Even Nuttier Than the Windsors