LONDON — He is a flame-haired former wild child, who courted controversy in his youth by smoking cannabis and by once wearing a Nazi uniform to a party. She is a biracial, divorced actress from abroad. Together, they are taking the British monarchy — that most conservative of institutions — into a more modern era.
Prince Harry, a grandson of Queen Elizabeth II and fifth in line to the throne, is engaged to Meghan Markle, his American girlfriend, the royal family said Monday.
The prince, 33, and Markle, 36, will marry in the spring, a statement from Clarence House added.
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Harry and Markle’s engagement underscores recent shifts in the British monarchy. They are part of a new generation of royals eager to project themselves as modern, inclusive and down-to-earth. This latest set of royals, who include the duke and duchess of Cambridge — Harry’s elder brother, William, and his sister-in-law, Kate — have in recent years tried to connect better with the public.
It is a marked difference, for example, from the queen, who has maintained a more traditionally aloof style.
Harry and Markle are expected to be known as the duke and duchess of Sussex after they are married, according to the British news media, although she may be known informally as Princess Meghan. If Harry were to decline the dukedom, he would remain Prince Henry of Wales — his official name.
The pair have dated for more than a year, and made their first official outing together in September in Toronto at the Invictus Games, a Paralympic-style competition for wounded or sick members of the military and veterans.
Like his brother, Harry grew up in the public eye, first as a son of the heir to the throne, and then as an adolescent struggling over the loss of his mother, Princess Diana, who died in a car accident when he was 12. His grief played out in what he described as “total chaos” in his 20s, a period that was gleefully pounced on by the tabloids.
The relationship of Harry and Markle also has been the subject of intense scrutiny.
The announcement of their engagement ended days of fevered speculation by the British news media, some of which, in anticipation of the event, tried to find any royal connection with Markle. (The Daily Telegraph breathlessly reported an unverified study showing that Markle’s ancestor was in fact an aristocrat who was beheaded by Henry VIII, an ancestor of Harry.)
But other stories about Markle’s ethnicity and middle-class background — her mother is a black yoga instructor and her father is a white cinematographer — have drawn the ire of the royal family. The prince himself issued an unusual statement last year, denouncing the “racial undertones” of news coverage of Markle.
Harry’s reputation has changed markedly in recent years. In his younger days, he acknowledged wanting to be a “bad boy,” but he has emerged as possibly Britain’s most popular royal.
As a rebellious youth, he partied heavily, including an episode in 2005, when he wore a Nazi costume with a swastika armband, just weeks before his grandmother, Elizabeth, was scheduled to lead Holocaust memorial ceremonies.
In 2009, a video emerged of him using racial slurs during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. In the footage, he is seen referring to a Pakistani member of his platoon as a “our little Paki friend” and calls another soldier a “raghead.” He later apologized.
But he has matured since those early years, say his defenders, becoming a vocal advocate for mental health awareness and for other charities. He has also spoken openly about the difficulties he faced after the death of Diana.
In another unusual break from palace protocol, he divulged to a newspaper that he had suffered for years from grief after the death of his mother, before finally getting help about three years ago at the urging of William.
In 2016, he took an HIV test and broadcast it live on the royals’ Facebook page in 2016 to promote the importance being tested for the virus that causes AIDS.
This year, he suggested that no one in the royal family really wanted to sit on the throne. “We are involved in modernizing the British monarchy,” he said in an interview with Newsweek. “We are not doing this for ourselves but for the greater good of the people.”
Harry’s public statement last year in defense of Markle effectively confirmed their relationship, and it also took aim at the British newspapers that have long hungered for news of the royals and their foibles.
In the blunt rebuke, Harry, through his spokesman, excoriated “the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments.”
In their first interview since the announcement, Markle revealed that she had very little understanding of the British royal family and its significance.
“I didn’t know much about him,” she told the BBC, referring to her fiancé, adding that the pair had been set up on a blind date by a friend.
“The only thing I asked her was, ‘Was he nice?’”
Harry said he tried to prepare her for the media scrutiny. “I tried to warn you as much as possible,” he said. Still, “we were totally surprised by the reaction. We were totally unprepared.”
When asked about the way she has been portrayed by some British media, Markle replied: “It’s a shame that that is the climate in this world. At the end of the day I’m proud of who I am and where I come from. We just focus on who we are as a couple.”
Their relationship is not the first in which a British royal has fallen in love with an American partner who had been married before.
King Edward VIII caused a constitutional crisis in 1936 when he abdicated to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson, who was divorced. The Church of England at the time opposed the marriage, and the king chose love over his royal duties, with his brother taking his place to become King George VI.
Harry’s parents, Prince Charles and Diana, divorced in 1996.
Harry served on active duty in the British military for about a decade, rising to the rank of captain. He served two tours in Afghanistan, where he co-piloted an Apache helicopter and was a weapons officer.
The announcement of the engagement was quickly followed by messages of congratulations from the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, who recently celebrated 70 years of marriage. The couple said they were “delighted” and wished Harry and Markle “every happiness.”
Charles, Harry’s father, said he was “thrilled,” while Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement that the engagement marked “a time of huge celebration and excitement.”
William and Kate said they were “very excited for Harry and Meghan.” The date of Harry and Markle’s wedding may take place close to another royal event, the birth of William and Kate’s third child, due in April.
Kate’s wedding to William was also unusual in the context of the royal family because she was a commoner: Her parents had founded a mail-order party supply company.
Markle’s parents, Doria Ragland and Thomas Markle, said they were “incredibly happy” for their daughter and her prince.
Markle describes herself as biracial. She graduated from Northwestern University in Illinois in 2003, and married in 2011, divorcing two years later.
She is best known for her roles in the television legal drama “Suits” and in the science-fiction series “Fringe,” and she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in September. Markle is also notable for her charitable work — she is a global ambassador for World Vision Canada — and she has worked for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
She also shares a love of dogs with the queen, who is known for having a collection of corgis. British tabloids reported this month that Markle was preparing to move her two dogs, Bogart, a Labrador-shepherd mix, and Guy, a beagle, to London.
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