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Every fairy tale has its peasants; the existence of royalty demands the existence of subjects. Princes and princesses, kings and queens, put you in the position of watching, assigning you the role of witness to their power. Spectacle is one of the most powerful tools left to the Windsors, and they wield it expertly.

In America, the British royal family is the stuff of fairy tales and celebrity culture, largely detached from its real-world history and consequences. But standing among the cheering crowds, watching the newly minted Duke and Duchess of Sussex glide past, it was impossible not to feel the weight of a thousand years of power pressing down, the sheer asymmetry of the experience inescapably feudal.

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The original Windsor Castle was the work of William “the Conqueror,” who was merely Duke of Normandy in what is now northern France until he seized control of England in 1066. You could say he kicked off the line that leads all the way to Queen Elizabeth II; his was the first name listed on the Buckingham Palace merch to commemorate her becoming the longest-reigning monarch, a string of names that would include much conquering of other peoples around the world.

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William was a prodigious builder of castles, which were part of his military strategy to actually keep the crown he’d won on the bloody field of battle at Hastings, not far from the coast. You can see that legacy in the current incarnation of Windsor Castle, a massive gray, stone structure that’s partly medieval and partly 19th-century pseudo medieval and looks like an illustration from a storybook about knights and ladies fair. It sprawls around the Round Tower, which was begun in 1170 on the site of William’s original structure—and expanded in the 1800s to look more imposing. But while it’s been a residence rather than a proper fort for centuries, it still dominates the town below, all roads winding up to its battlements, clearly positioned with intent to survey and control the surrounding territory. The place feels like a company town, except the company is the British monarchy. The local district is officially the “Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead,” because it contains a palace; the area still observes the law, dating to the 12th century, that says the Queen owns the all the local unmarked swans.

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The 2.65 mile Long Walk, where I camped out overnight for the chance to see Harry and Meghan process through the town, unrolls from one of the castle’s many imposing gates, making you feel like an insignificant speck before the might of the monarch. On foot the gravel driveway feels eternal, like the other end is receding before you as you walk in twin rivers of green grass. It was originally created by Charles II, who was keen to reassert the Stuart line and the divine right of kings over the country that had executed his debauched father, before recalling him to England to restore the monarchy. (It’s especially striking when you compare the experience to that of walking around the original square mile City of London, which is clearly built to a tradesman’s scale, meant to be crossed on foot by somebody walking with purpose.) Waiting around on royalty for hours, my fleece blanket purchased at the last minute dragging in the dirt, really did conjure up the image of peasantry.

When Harry and Meghan finally appeared in their carriage, accompanied by mounted guard, it was striking how far above us they were. It’s easy to forget that horses are tall and, frankly, slightly terrifying to those on foot. There’s a reason that calvary struck fear into the hearts of the foot soldiers facing William and his Norman knights at Hastings—the same reason that cops have used horses to intimidate striking workers and control unruly crowds for centuries. Usually, upon encountering a celebrity, I’m struck by how normal they seem, just a fellow human scuttling around the face of the Earth. When Harry and Meghan passed, primed by the asymmetry of the whole experience, I thought to myself: Holy shit, that’s a literal prince.

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But the affair also enthusiastically embraced new technology. The giant screens studding the town carried strikingly well choreographed footage of arriving guests, the ceremony itself, even Meghan’s car as it made its way from nearby Cliveden House. This feed wasn’t borrowed from a broadcaster, but rather the Palace itself actively packaging the experience for attendees. That’s the strategy for the young royals generally, using social media like any other modern celebrity, bypassing wherever possible the ravenous and unpredictable media to distribute their own carefully curated images via Instagram and Twitter. Those cute photos of the kids that Will and Kate distribute through Kensington Palace social media are an example of an ancient institution making use of modern tools. Which is not the same as modernizing—a subtle but important difference that goes to the heart of the monarchy’s continuing existence.

In one sense, monarchy is the most physical principle imaginable—the embodiment of the state in a single person, somebody who sweats and shivers and gets prickles when their leg has fallen asleep. But monarchy really exists in the abstract, in the realm of symbols. The Crown exists because a sufficient number of people agree it exists. The institution therefore lives in TV broadcasts watched by millions of people as much as it lives anywhere.

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The symbolic realm is hotly contested, though.

Out on the Long Walk, surrounded by Union Jacks waving furiously and “God Save the Queen” swelling around me, I half expected to turn and find Nigel Farage wiping a tear from his eye. At times, I felt in danger of a Brexit contact high. The British royal family has historically been beloved by the most fervently nationalistic elements of the country; Queen Victoria had comparatively little formal power, but she presided over the height of the British Empire, providing important symbolic support.

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And yet, there was another story playing out simultaneously, another reading of the signifiers on display. There’s no question that Meghan Markle is not the bride a stereotypical Brexiteer arch monarchist would have sketched out for Harry. The biracial, divorced American actress is the most interesting addition to the cast since Diana, and more significant in many ways.

This wedding was indeed something new in the thousand-year history of the English monarchy, with guests including Oprah Winfrey and Serena Williams; the music included East London’s gospel Kingdom Choir doing a rendition of “Stand By Me.” (The aristocratic version would be more like “Stand A Discreet Distance Behind Me.”) And in a fiery sermon that left many of the attending Windsors shifting around uncomfortably, Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., and explicitly spoke of slavery—an institution in which the British upper crust was up to its neck.

“Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive,” Bishop Curry told the assembled guests. “When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.” It easily read like a rebuke.

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The UK is currently wrestling with its government’s ugly and dehumanizing treatment of the “Windrush” generation. These are black Britons and their children who arrived in the 1950s and 60s from former colonies, largely in the Caribbean, to help rebuild a country that had been badly battered by World War II. They had the legal right to become citizens of the United Kingdom because they had been subjects of the rapidly dissolving British Empire. But a recent Tory crackdown on undocumented citizens combined with grossly negligent recordkeeping by the British government has left many of them in legal limbo. People who’ve lived in the United Kingdom for decades have lost jobs, access to medical care, and been threatened with deportation. The consequences of empire continue to reverberate down the generations.

And despite the differences from royal weddings past, empire still echoed through the chapel. Markle’s veil was embroidered with images of flowers from across the Commonwealth—the allied collection of states that succeeded it. And racial oppression was key to the project of empire.

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Sitting in St. George’s Chapel was Princess Michael of Kent, who hit the headlines when she wore a “blackamoor” brooch to the Queen’s annual Christmas luncheon, which was Markle’s first appearance at a large Windsor family gathering. Even among the royal family, Princess Michael of Kent—who married in—stands out. Her father wasn’t merely a Nazi, but specifically an SS officer. Her daughter’s ex boyfriend, Aatish Taseer, wrote a piece for Vanity Fair about race and the royal family and said that at one point she’d owned two black sheep, which she had named Venus and Serena. Now she and Williams, a close friend of the bride, were sharing space. You could see the wedding as a break with tradition, a more egalitarian occasion than ever before. But then again, Princess Michael of Kent did still get to come, instead of having to sit back at Kensington Palace and watch on TV like the commoners.

For Americans, the monarchy is abstracted all the way into the realm of fairy tales. The Windsors are particularly attractive for those of us living in an era where Disney has successfully managed the folkloric equivalent of enclosure on these stories, fencing in a common heritage and overriding them with simplified versions they can wholly own. Fairy tales are useful in the same way as tarot, a tool for thinking out loud about what the world is and what we’d like it to be, and weddings are the fairy tale’s crescendo. Even when they’ve opted for different recessional music, as Harry and Meghan did, you get hit with the feeling of Widor’s Toccata; the couple turns to meet their happily ever after. And, too, American culture is absolutely saturated with images of princesses—but women of color have historically been locked out of that narrative. The sight of Prince Harry looking genuinely, passionately head over heels for Meghan Markle was a beautiful one, powerful to many different people for many different reasons.

But the English monarchy is a real-world institution with real-world consequences. I spoke to Graham Smith, the head of the dogged anti-monarchist group Republic, who was bouncing from interview to interview, making the most of the opportunity offered by a high-profile royal event. “My thought on all this is that the difference between being a republic and being a monarchy, is being a participant and being a spectator,” he told me. Fourth of July, he pointed out, is about the country and about the people of America. “This is all about just standing there, gawking at other people. We’re all locked out. We’re all just spectators,” he added.

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“We should be participating in everything and seeing each other as equals,” he said.

A popular narrative around the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has been one of “modernizing the monarchy.” From E! News to Reuters, from the Economist to the Wall Street Journal, it’s a popular idea in both the US and UK press, a gesture toward everything that’s different about this bride. Together with Will and Kate, the most optimistic version of the story goes, they are the “Fab Four,” a chic supergroup that will usher the institution into the future. But even today, when the sovereign’s powers have been steadily winnowed down over hundreds of years, the institution’s existence is predicated upon the idea that someone can be anointed and forever set apart by virtue of blood. If anything, the prospect of Harry and Meghan helping to “modernize” this institution and the possibility of their calling out injustice and oppression are in tension with one another.

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It bears remembering that the English monarchy has previously been successful at adapting to shifting circumstances and turning symbols in play to their advantage. In Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking, Deborah Cadbury writes about how the monarch stubbornly refused to wear a crown for the elaborate procession marking her Golden Jubilee, preferring a simple, matronly bonnet. It wasn’t humility; it was an understanding of the terms on which her reign continued even as the burgeoning, recently enfranchised British middle class seized the cultural wheel. Her power lay in the symbolism of combining her roles as both empress and granny. On a tour of Kensington Palace after the wedding, I saw newsreel footage from the event; her carriage looked exactly like the Ascot Landau that carried Harry and Meghan around town.

Through the interpretive lens of history, the wedding looks less like a story’s climax and more a moment where vast temporal tectonic plates shift against each other with an earth-shaking screech. Several parallel narratives wind through the pews at St. George’s Chapel, and only time will tell which emerge ascendent.

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I thought for a brief moment I might get even closer to royalty than my prime spot along the procession route. There was a flurry of excitement along the barriers in the center of town, close to the castle’s entrance. “Just wait,” said a friendly cop with a twinkle in his eye. The crowd built as people stopped to see why other people had stopped. Could it be Meghan? Prince Charles? Maybe even the Queen herself?

In fact it was William and Harry, doing a surprise walkabout. I found myself immediately swept up in the excitement, almost against my will. Protocol be damned, I wouldn’t curtsy to any of the Windsors except maybe, possibly the Queen. But even so, the chance to get so close to one of them was suddenly irresistible. I thought of the medieval notion that the monarch’s hand had special powers and could heal the skin condition scrofula. What would it be like to stand in the physical presence of such an ancient institution? What would it feel like to shake a future king’s hand?

But suddenly the excitement collapsed, like somebody had popped a balloon. “They’ve gone back inside,” a mounted cop called down to the disappointed faces below. Rather than assessing William and Harry eye-to-eye for any signs of lingering divine magic, I watched this policeman’s horse poop in front of me.