Behind a Royal Wedding

Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.
Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.

The marriage of the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips, to Rugby player Mike Tindall has been widely reported, especially by the celebrity press. It has been referred to as “the other” royal wedding, for its stark contrast with the marriage of William and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) a few months before.

That contrast isn’t just in the status of those getting married – Zara being 13th in line to the British throne, William 2nd. William and Kate’s wedding was a public spectacle, with all the pomp and ceremony of state, while Mike and Zara’s was a “quiet” family affair. Unfortunately the later wedding still generated significant public interest, and the result was a bizarre clash of family and celebrity, privacy and publicity.

A Family Affair

Canongate Kirk is a congregational church in the centre of Edinburgh. One designed to serve the needs of local people. Even those with a palace in parish. The church is unremarkable, except for the presence of a few famous corpses in its graveyard.

The church faces onto the lower section of the Royal Mile, a relatively narrow street, bounded by 4 or 5 storey tenement blocks. With no space for parking, the groom’s guests are bus-ed in on coaches. The male guests are of above average build, invariably dwarfing their daintily dressed spouses. There aren’t many kilts to be seen – few guests appear to be Scots. Still, this is a Scottish wedding, and the customary piper is going to play whether the guests like the bagpipes or not. Indeed, the bride and groom have spared no expense, with both an official photographer and video-maker, who scurry around the grounds, trying to record the presence of everyone.

A few minutes before the ceremony the bride’s extended family arrive in a fleet of luxury cars – even though they have a house at the end of the street, and weather is perfect for walking. The bride follows in a rather bland saloon car, fashionably late, and quickly disappears into the church. She emerges 45 minutes later with husband in tow. Then it’s back into the car for the short drive to the reception, followed by the guests, in inverse order of their arrival.

A Celebrity Affair

For most people weddings are family affairs. However, when the groom’s guest list consists primarily of well-known Rugby players and sports-people, and the bride’s guest list includes every senior member of the royal family from the Monarch down, there are a few minor differences:

Burly personal body guards and royal protection officers amble outside the venue, unusually blending in to their environment – being almost indistinguishable from many of the guests. Lothian and Borders Police officers outnumber guests. In the street, from the rooftops, waiting in vans parked in neighbouring streets; I’ve seen riots more scantly policed. Police officers even patrol the walled church graveyard: Are they expecting David Rizzio (the murdered private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots) to rise up from the dead and take care of some unfinished business?

A scrum of press photographers and “paparazzi” on step ladders vie for space on the pavement with ardent royal-watchers, many of who have spent the whole day waiting patiently. The combination of narrow pavement and narrow church gates mean only a handful of people can get a clear view of the couple emerging from the church. Only about a hundred are close enough to see any more than vaguely human shapes getting in and out of vehicles. Most casual “well-wishers” see only passing cars.

Press photographers outside Cannongate Kirk for the wedding of Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall.
Press photographers outside Cannongate Kirk – stepladders not optional.

The guests arrive as if part of a strange fashion show, with people who may or may not be famous, wearing garments that may or may not be desirable. The catwalk merely ends at an altar. The skill of the paparazzi is apparent: To know which people in the line of bodies climbing off a coach are famous enough to be pictured. Few guests play to the cameras, most preferring to walk straight into the church grounds. None of the vehicles are open-top – even the Queen arrives in a saloon car with narrow windows, presumably keen to remain out of sight of the minions lining the street. The only person of note to walk to the church is the Minister, Reverend Neil Gardner, who is cheered loudly for his efforts.

Press photographs of the event tend to be famous people walking away from the camera, or famous people behind the iron bars of the church fence. Both convey inappropriate symbolism of celebrities – glamorous faces need to feel accessible to their audience, not walking away or protected by metal railings. To add insult to injury, the official wedding photographer and video-maker have a free run of the church grounds, while major news organisations and broadcasters are left clinging to stepladders, scaffolds and window-frames, often only to have their views blocked by the arrival of a large coach.

Are They Watching Us?

Even the most deluded of celebrity-obsessives would have felt unwelcome. And yet, as consummate professionals, the media continue to tell a fairytale: Journalists interviewing the watching public have a predictable list of questions, dresses and celebrity paramount. Not that anyone they interview catches more than a glimpse.

But this media narrative isn’t entirely fictitious. I notice a woman enthusiastically typing a report of the wedding dress into a Facebook iPhone application. An elderly couple who had found themselves trapped behind a mass of step-ladders are remarkably sanguine about their day waiting to see almost nothing. “We were near the cathedral for the wedding of William and Kate, and we didn’t see anything then either.” I start doing something quite odd: Holding my mobile phone camera up to the sky to record the arrival of assorted members of the royal family. Everyone is, like a Mexican Wave or mass prayer to a strange god. My arms frame every photograph the woman behind me captures. I apologize, but she seems quite happy: “That’s what these are events are about, isn’t it?”

Indeed. One royal watcher poses an interesting question as we stand, eyes fixed on the wedding guests behind the bars: Are they watching us? Almost certainly not. A better question would be, are we watching them? Almost certainly not: We’re watching us. The spectre of celebrity may be what bought us together on this pavement, but that isn’t what makes us feel happy. What makes us happy is the gathering of people with common aim, however facile the aim, or however poorly we succeed.

And just as we are watching us, and the wedding guests are presumably pre-occupied with themselves, there are other people neither group sees: As the event draws to a close a pair a street cleaners start work on the mounds of rubbish that the crowd have left behind. In a broad Edinburgh Scots (“working class”) accent, they grumble that there’s no way “the machine” will fit down the still congested pavement, and start picking litter up by hand. The crowd doesn’t see them – they’re still looking towards the church.

Cleaning up after the crowds gathered for the wedding of Zara Phillips and Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall.
Street cleaners at work in the shadows, while the crowd looks the other way.

Private in Public

I pity those born into the British royal family, since not only are their individual beings intrinsically iconic symbols, but almost uniquely in British society they have no pretence of free will: They definitely don’t choose to be famous. For a “minor royal” like Zara Phillips, unlikely to have a significant constitutional role, it must be very tempting to pull up the drawbridge and attempt to live a “normal life”.

But as the volume of police, photographers and public that turned up at their wedding demonstrate, such an attempt is naive. And trying to deny widespread public interest in one’s affairs, forcibly making those affairs as private as possible, is arguably disrespectful of those interested people.

Critical to that argument is the extent to which British society has become relativist – structured on relationships between people, however symbolic and impersonal some of those relationships actually are. In this model elements like knowledge cease to be absolute (God or, in the modern era, science-given) facts, and are instead defined by what different groups of people agree upon, potentially without common agreement between different groups. The British monarchy is already adept at this, over the last few centuries moving from absolute monarchy to a form of relativist monarchy, embracing first collective symbolism, and then collective celebrity. Show-piece public events, like the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton, fit such a role perfectly.

What’s intriguing is just how little contact is actually required between such celebrity figures and their public admirers, for that public to remain content. The celebrity individual seems to need to be vaguely human to be a suitable target for admiration, but after that the prime human interaction is between fellow admirers – the celebrity themselves is almost redundant to the relationship. And hence thousands of people can turn up at your wedding, barely even see you, but go home happy afterwards, feeling like their 5 or 10 hours on the pavement were well-spent.

Minimal contact between different groups of people isn’t a unique function of celebrity relationships, as our street cleaners demonstrate. And herein lies the real challenge: To maintain an quasi-authoritative structure across many disparate groups. The irony for British governance is that our apparently undemocratic, but relativist, monarchy may be better placed to link disparate groups of citizens, than our democratic, but absolutist government.