• Inside Windsor Castle airs Monday 30 July on SBS and streams at SBS On Demand. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A seemingly progressive Royal family doesn’t necessarily mean a progressive monarchy.
Jim Mitchell

30 Jul 2018 - 11:09 AM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2018 - 11:19 AM

The walls of Windsor Castle and its St George’s Chapel have seen some momentous occasions over the years (see Inside Windsor Castle), but few as momentous as the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19.

What must the ghosts of royals departed have been thinking as they spirited around the 15th century chapel? “A biracial, divorcee, Catholic-born, American, and…. (Good Lord!) actress(!!!) marrying into the Royal family? The monarchy is royally f…..inished! Also, what’s an ‘Oprah’?”

But seemingly, in one “fairytale” wedding, the Windsors had rocketed themselves into the 21st century, if almost 20 years late. Yes, the monarchy had come a long way says Vanity Fair writer Sam Kashner in the CBS News special Meghan Markle: American Princess; being divorced, biracial, and an actress is “everything that could have got you beheaded 500 years ago”.

The media commentary on the former Suits star, whose mother Doria Ragland is African-American and father Thomas Markle is white, was breathless: Markle is the new Grace Kelly!  Markle can modernise AND save the monarchy! Markle will forever change race relations in the United Kingdom! That’s a big call for one person.

For the royal family, the union symbolised that it embraced change and inclusiveness. At Buckingham Palace, the royal minders and string-pullers must have been choking on their caviar with glee at the PR coup.

But more than that, the unconventional pairing, with its genuinely sweet romance and Hollywood glamour, would be no direct threat to the monarchy. Barring some catastrophic incident, it’s unlikely Harry will ever make it on to the throne. He’s sixth in line behind father Prince Charles, brother Prince William, and his children Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis.

And do we really think Queen Elizabeth II would tolerate the tabloid hoopla whipped up by Markle’s father and half-sister Samantha Markle if Harry were a genuine starter for king? Not likely, although one wag created an ingenious meme of Queen Lizzy congratulating James Bond for orchestrating hospital stays for both of the Markle troublemakers.  

Undoubtedly the most significant factor in the marriage of Harry and Meghan is the addition to the royal family of some much-needed racial diversity in a sea of clammy white. (It’s important to note here though that Markle may not be the first mixed-race royal with some historians believing that King George III’s wife Princess Sophie Charlotte who he married in 1761, had African ancestry).

But some have questioned whether a biracial royal will have any real impact on the monarchy.

"It's great PR to have this young glamorous mixed-race woman marrying into the Royal family, but it doesn't change anything fundamentally about what the monarchy's about, about its future," royal historian Dr Anna Whitelock told the ABC’s Annabel Crabb.

Crabb adds that, “Dr Whitelock emphasises the monarchy and the Royal family are two different things, and while the family might embrace diversity, the monarchy by definition is built on exclusivity and birthright.”

Dr Kehinde Andrews, an associate professor of sociology at Birmingham City University argues that the addition of a biracial royal is meaningless.

“The family is really strongly a symbol of British empire whiteness,” he tells Newsweek. “Having a splash of coffee in the monarchy doesn’t make any bit of a difference. It doesn’t change what the monarchy is, it doesn’t change what is represents.”

But if not a modernisation of the monarchy itself, Markle’s mixed-race heritage could help foster a sense of the royal family’s relevance to the British public (for example, in London 41% of residents are black and minority ethnic).

"From the point of view of the royal family, it absolutely is the guarantor or perhaps the talisman of their survival," historian Robert Lacey tells NPR. "They have a constant struggle, the British royal family, for all their popularity, to demonstrate their relevance."

In this week's episode of Inside Windsor Castle, the show examines 2016, the year the Queen celebrated her 90th birthday amid an extraordinary series of events at Windsor. The show airs Monday 30 July at 7:35pm on SBS and is available to stream anytime at SBS On Demand.

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