A Historian’s Thoughts on the Royal Wedding

I’ll readily admit that I woke up earlier than is my usual habit this morning to watch the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, now the Duchess and Duke of Sussex. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I find the traditions that accompany royal events to be fascinating. Knowing that much of what’s involved in this affair descends from centuries—CENTURIES—of ritual gives me a little thrill. Watching the performance of these historical customs in real time is one of the ways we can access, even if it’s just in a small way, the experiences of people who came before, similar to how engaging with material culture and historic buildings can help us feel more connected to the past. Those things (often) existed before we did, and thus provide a bridge to ages and people we can’t ever know.

St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle

This isn’t to say that the traditions that unfolded at this morning’s wedding, and the British royal family, for that matter, aren’t steeped in a complex and controversial past. They are. Just like literally everything else in the universe, this particular moment has a history and it’s important to try and understand its historical context so we can better navigate its implications for the present. For example, knowing something of Britain’s long, violent, and racist imperial history provides important context for the Most Reverend Michael Curry’s sermon. Rev. Curry, the first black American to serve as the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, stood in St. George’s Chapel, a five-to-six-hundred-year old Anglican sanctuary at Windsor Castle, and talked about the importance of love in the face of poverty and racism, the histories and legacies of slavery and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Jesuit order, among other things, at the wedding of a bi-racial American to a member of a thousand-year-old monarchical tradition responsible for much of the Atlantic Slave Trade and an imperial legacy that’s had a profoundly destabilizing effect on much of the globe. And Rev. Curry did this with hundreds of millions of people tuning in from around the globe and with the leading members of that monarchy IN THE SAME ROOM. 

This was a powerful moment, made all the more powerful when we shine a light on the history standing behind these two people. It was evident throughout the entire process– when Rev. Curry spoke, when news commentators reminded everyone again and again that Meghan Markle is bi-racial and how her and Harry’s interracial marriage is almost unprecedented among European royalty, when the various military contingents marched after the ceremony, when the #RoyalWedding hashtag on Twitter was filled with hateful, racist comments about the black Americans present at and participating in the ceremony, and when a bi-racial American and a white British prince vowed to love each other forever. You may not care about the royal wedding, but this story and the responses to it, all across the spectrum, say a lot about the current state of our world.

These connections to the past help us better understand the significance of what’s happening in the present. The royal wedding is no exception, and so here are some helpful links and resources for those of you interested in digging deeper into the history of Britain and the British monarchy, and race, slavery, and imperialism in particular. This list is obviously not exhaustive—historians and other scholars have been studying this for decades and it would take many lifetimes to get through all of it (and even then it’d be impossible, as it’s evolving all the time)—but it’s a start.

  • For the royal family and royal court:

    Professor Carolyn Harris is a historian who teaches at the University of Toronto. She’s a bona fide royal family expert and she’s written all about the royal wedding on her website here. Dr. Harris has also written a number of books, articles, and other publications about the British monarchy.

    Professor Robert Bucholz is a historian who teaches at Loyola University Chicago. He’s written books and articles about court culture and social history in early modern England and he makes regular media appearances when the British royal family is in the news. Dr. Bucholz joined WGN Chicago this morning to offer commentary on the royal wedding. You can find more about his work here.

  • For general British history:

    Professor Linda Colley’s book Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, published by Yale University Press in 1992 and now in a later edition, considers the “imperial, political, social and cultural history [of Britain] to analyse the evolution of Britishness, evoking its enduring tensions as well as its powerful characteristics.” More here.

    Peter Fryer’s seminal work Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain was published in 1984 and offers a long look at the history of black people in Britain. More here. He also wrote Black People in the British Empire in 1988, though I’ve never read it. But if you’re interested, check it out here.

    David Olusoga wrote Black and British: A Forgotten History in 2016. I’m not a fan of the use of the word “forgotten” here—the people who lived it didn’t forget it. Rather, oppressive forces worked to silence, trample on, and besmirch these narratives. Colin Grant gets more into that here in his review of the book for The Guardian. Still though, a worthwhile read.

  • For British slavery and the Atlantic slave trade:

    Professor John Thornton wrote Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 in 1992 with Cambridge University Press. This study provides a broad overview of European (including English), African, and American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. If you want a better general understanding of the slave trade and the Atlantic world, this is a good place to start. More here.

    Professor Marisa J. Fuentes wrote Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archives in 2016 with the University of Pennsylvania Press. Dr. Fuentes studies enslaved women in British Barbados in the 18th century and really highlights how archives—and the problems with archival materials—shape how we locate and talk about histories of black enslavement. This book changed how I think about the past and my role in the world as a historian. More here.

    In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, published in the late-18th century, Olaudah Equiano offers a first-hand account of his experience as an enslaved person and his efforts in North America and England to abolish slavery. Project Gutenberg has a free copy available online here.

  • For British imperialism:

    Professor Antoinette Burton wrote The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism with Oxford University Press in 2015. Dr. Burton’s study investigates colonial resistance to the British metropole, with a focus on subaltern resistance in particular. More here.

    Professor Susan Meyer considers the intersections of British imperialism, race, and gender in Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, published by Cornell University Press in 1996. More here.

    Here’s a beginning. Get reading and then watch or re-watch today’s royal wedding. You’ll be ready with new knowledge, and I guarantee you’ll see it in a whole new light. What resources would you add to this list?