Westminster Abbey is a “Royal Peculiar.” The term applies to churches that fall under the direct jurisdiction of the British monarch rather than a bishop, but seemed especially apt during a Commonwealth Day celebration held there on March 15. The service blended the pomp and tradition associated with Britain’s state occasions with vivid song and dance performances and some tub-thumping about women’s equality. That Queen Elizabeth II, an icon of consistency, should deliver the keynote address on the Commonwealth’s 2011 theme of Women as Agents of Change, added to the surreality of the occasion. “Let us all give a thought to the practical ways in which we, as individuals or as groups, can provide support to girls and women—so that everyone can have a chance of a fuller and more rewarding life, wherever they happen to be born,” said the Queen in the pre-recorded speech, as Her non-digitized Majesty, resplendent in salmon pink, sat impassively in her pew.
On April 29, in the same church, one woman is set to take her chance of a fuller and more rewarding life as a royal, despite having been born a commoner. Catherine Middleton—you may know her as “Kate” but the process of elevation from hoi polloi to crème de la crème has already started with the re-appropriation of
our her classier full name—will marry the Queen’s grandson William in front of family, friends, and an assortment of British politicians, celebrities, charity workers, heads of state and foreign royals. (One trusts in the spirit of grandmother-in-law-to-be’s Commonwealth message, Catherine will omit any promise to “obey” her husband from the vows.) Despite a lengthy guest list—reported to number as many as 1,900, though no details have been released by the couple—the service could feel quite intimate. As I realized during Commonwealth Day from my privileged perch in the South Transept of the Abbey, in a section known as Poets’ Corner after the famous literary figures buried or commemorated there, the architecture of the building will block the nuptials from direct view of most of the congregation, who will watch the ceremony on screens. Only the best seats in the carved wooden Choir and under the Lantern, where Kings and Queens have been crowned since 1066 (and recreated for a key scene in The King’s Speech), will enjoy unimpeded sight of the first Windsor wedding on the premises since Prince Andrew made an honest woman of Sarah Ferguson.
Sarah Ferguson will not be among those lucky enough to snag these seats. The Duchess of York revealed she has not received an invitation. Much of the inner sanctum will be reserved for people close to the couple, but places in the Choir will also be allocated to foreign royals, an Abbey official told me. Although unconfirmed, it seems likely that invitations have been received in at least a few royal households where attention may be trained on events of a little more immediacy and at least as much excitement as an April wedding. These might include King Mohammed V of Morocco, who it was announced yesterday will welcome the bridegroom’s dad, the Prince of Wales, and stepmother, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, during their official visit in April, planned to focus on British commerce and going ahead despite turbulence in the country.
Bahrain’s King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa is also reported to have received an embossed “stiffy” in the post. He may feel tempted by the idea of enjoying respite in a country where republican protests remain polite* and support for the monarch is undimmed. But after the bloody repression of Bahraini pro-democracy protestors and his decision to request help from Saudi troops to shore up his regime, Al Khalifa’s presence would be as uncomfortable at the wedding as the Ancient Mariner’s and leaving his kingdom as might prove as foolhardy as shooting an albatross.
*UPDATE: Graham Smith, who leads the U.K.’s anti-monarchist pressure group Republic, has sent a letter to Catherine and William asking them to withdraw the invitation to “the King of Bahrain and any other Middle Eastern despot.” “While I oppose your right to inherit public office in this country and will do all I can to ensure the Queen’s successor is elected,” he writes, “I wish you both well in married life and trust you will make the right decision on this occasion.” The full text of the letter is here.