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Even before wedding, Meghan Markle injects new life into ancient institution

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Even before wedding, Meghan Markle injects new life into ancient institution

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Simon Dawson
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LONDON — Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's engagement announcement in November set off frenzied speculation on whether the British public and its royal family were really ready for this very modern marriage.

After all, a mixed-race, divorced American actress three years older than her fiance is not the stereotypical English princess. And certainly not all the media coverage at first was positive or enlightened.

The British public, however, has largely either embraced the couple, with adoring crowds greeting them when they step out in public, or simply shrugged its collective shoulders.

Meanwhile, Markle's spirited start to her new life has helped breathe new life into an ancient institution, experts say.

Markle "has so much more in common with the rest of the world than members of the aristocracy or blue-blooded people who've traditionally married into the royal family," said Roya Nikkhah, royal correspondent for The Sunday Times.

"In many ways, the royal family is now reflecting the reality of families in modern Britain."

"Because of that she will hugely increase the constituency of public around the world who are interested in the royal family, and that can only be a good thing for the royal family," she said.

That is a rosier picture than was initially envisioned.

When news of the relationship first leaked in November 2016, it caused a media frenzy, and the coverage of Markle's background wasn't always positive — to say the least.

The prince felt compelled to issue a statement asking for an end to the "abuse and harassment." This included what he called a "smear" on the front page of a national newspaper, "racial undertones" in newspaper opinion pieces, and "outright sexism and racism of social media trolls," the prince said.

Commentators warned that news of the engagement had highlighted a seam of classicism, snobbery and racism running through British society.

What a difference 18 months make. Among a vast majority of the British public, Markle's nontraditional background for a royal fiancee and bride hasn't been an issue.

Crowds in Belfast, Northern Ireland, greet Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Crowds in Belfast, Northern Ireland, greet Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Charles McQuillan

When it was revealed that the girlfriend of the leader of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party had made racist remarks about Markle, the backlash was swift and harsh. The leader, Henry Bolton, ended the relationship and was forced out of his post not long afterward.

Indeed, the warm embrace of Markle, experts say, is no surprise given the current makeup of the British population, which is becoming much more ethnically and racially diverse.

By 2050, around a third of the country will be black and minority ethnic, as it's referred to here, according to a study by the Policy Exchange think tank. What's more, nearly 1 in 10 people in England and Wales were in an interethnic relationship in 2011, the latest year for which census figures were available.

"In many ways, the royal family is now reflecting the reality of families in modern Britain," said Omar Khan, the director of the Runnymede Trust, a think tank that studies race.

The future of the monarchy

The reception Markle has received from the public and royal family also highlights how much the monarchy has changed over the course of Queen Elizabeth's 66-year rule.

Two generations ago, Harry's engagement to someone who had previously been married would have been completely out of bounds.

It was a divorce that prevented Harry's great aunt, Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth's sister, from marrying her long-time boyfriend, Captain Peter Townsend, in the early 1950s. A scandal at the time, it came less than 20 years after King Edward VIII abdicated rather than end his relationship with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

The queen is head of the Church of England, and at the time the church didn't permit marriage to someone who had previously been married.

That's no longer the case, and now almost half of all marriages end in divorce, according to official figures, so Markle's own is relatively uncontroversial. And in March, Markle was reportedly baptized by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in an intimate ceremony.

In contrast, Markle looks to have received a warm welcome from the royals, with the queen and other members of the family signaling their embrace. Markle, who starred on TV's "Suits," celebrated Christmas with the family, then made her first official appearance with the queenin March, sitting in a row behind her at a Commonwealth Day ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

"The queen and other members of the royal family have done a very good job of moving with the times when it comes to adapting the royal family to seem modern and relevant," Nikkhah said. "The freshness and sort of youthful vigor of Harry and Meghan is going to speed that along."

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in an official engagement picture by photographer Alexi Lubomirski.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in an official engagement picture by photographer Alexi Lubomirski. Alexi Lubomirski

Harry, currently fifth-in-line to the throne, is the second most popular royal at the moment, second only to his brother, according to the most recent Ipsos Mori poll, taken in January. He works closely with William and Kate on their charity projects through their Royal Foundation, and Markle will soon join them as one of its patrons.

Their diverse set of interests was captured in the seven charities they chose to receive donations for in lieu of wedding gifts — each nonpolitical and noncontroversial. The list included charities that help the homeless, bereaved armed forces children, children with HIV, women in the slums of Mumbai, urban teens and the environment.

With a career, lifestyle brand and charity work behind her, Markle is an accomplished woman in her own right. Until her relationship with Harry grew serious, she was politically outspoken, even voicing her opposition to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. In the future, she will likely be expected to keep such political opinions to herself as royals traditionally remain neutral and do not even vote.

Markle has also written about growing up mixed race, worked as an ambassador for U.N. Women, and encouraged the followers of her blog to "keep being 'the change they wish to see in the world.'"

While the British press can be notoriously vicious, it's recently been kind to Markle as she and Harry traveled around the U.K. on an introductory tour.

"The Fab Four as they are called — Harry, Meghan, Kate, and William — are hugely significant," NBC royal expert Camilla Tominey said. "They are very popular, and that is where the future of the monarchy lies."