http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20110429/wl_time/08599206848800

By MICHAEL ELLIOTT Michael Elliott 1 hr 44 mins ago

In Britain, all is not as it seems, nor ever has been. As they viewed the preparations for the royal wedding, with all its pomp and circumstance, the non-British seemed to willingly buy into the idea that the monarchy – and popular reverence for it – has been a fixed point in the British firmament for centuries, a source of stability however the nation’s fortunes may have ebbed and flowed.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The monarchy does not symbolize some deep sense of tradition; on the contrary, it has long been a contested element of what it means to be British. In the 17th century, revolutionaries turned the world upside down and deprived Charles I of his head more than 100 years before the French did the same to Louis XVI. The Crown was restored in 1660, but 28 years later another King was sent packing into exile. By the early 19th century, the scandal-stained Hanoverian dynasty was widely loathed. In his great sonnet “England in 1819,” the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley described George III and his sons as “An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king, – / Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow/ Through public scorn – mud from a muddy spring.” (See pictures of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding day.)

The monarchy was saved and re-invented by the sense of duty of Victoria – just 18 when she ascended to the throne in 1837 – and her remarkable German husband Prince Albert. During Britain’s period of high imperialism and global economic dominance, it suited both the old landed grandees and those enriched by the world’s first modern economy to elevate the Crown into a symbol of changelessness in a society that was changing at breakneck speed.

Victoria’s halo sanctified the reigns of her son Edward VII and grandson George V, a man whose principal pastimes were stamp collecting and slaughtering game birds on his Norfolk estate. But such splendid dullness could not be maintained. Though the reassuring presence of Elizabeth II, who was 9 when her grandfather died in 1936, has indeed been a stabilizing constant in British life, the years since George V’s demise have seen regular eruptions in British attitudes toward the monarchy – all taking place against a backdrop of quiet, but continual and profound, constitutional change.

1937
Not the Wedding They Wanted

On June 3, 1937, at a chÁteau in france, the Duke of Windsor – who had reigned for 10 months as Edward VIII before abdicating in favor of his brother – married the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson, an American from Baltimore and, in 1936, the first woman to be named Time’s Person of the Year. (The piece was distinctly catty; Simpson was said to have “resolved early to make men her career, and in 40 years reached the top – or nearly.”) The wedding was a low-key affair, and after the ceremony one guest described the duke as having “tears running down his face,” perhaps out of relief that the whole squalid business was over. If so, it was a sentiment his people shared. A vain, self-centered man who – to put it at its most charitable – was far too prepared to be used by Nazi sympathizers, Edward would have been a disastrous monarch as Britain fought for its survival in World War II.

1947
Relief from Hard Times

Instead of Edward, the nation was blessed to have on the throne George VI, a man of palpable decency, whose wife Elizabeth was widely popular.

On Nov. 20, 1947, their daughter Elizabeth, the heiress to the Crown, married her distant cousin Philip Mountbatten in Westminster Abbey. In the run-up to the wedding, its expense – shades of 2011 – was highly controversial. Exhausted and broke after six years of war, Britain was going through a period of penny-pinching austerity and food rationing, which made the question of a sugary wedding cake politically sensitive. Gifts piled in, from diamond-encrusted wreaths to a piece of cloth that Mohandas Gandhi had spun himself. (Elizabeth’s grandmother thought it was a loincloth; she was not amused.)

Perhaps because it offered a welcome relief from hard times, the wedding was enormously popular. Less than five years later, while in Kenya, Elizabeth was told that her father had died, aged just 56. TIME named her Person of the Year in 1952, with a tone quite different from the one it had used for her aunt. Elizabeth’s significance, we said, was “that of a fresh young blossom on roots that had weathered many a season of wintry doubt.”

It’s for historians to judge whether the Queen has lived up to such promise, but there is little doubt that, partly by assiduously avoiding any controversy, she did much to restore the monarchy’s luster. Then along came a young, wounded, starstruck, beautiful girl from Norfolk. She changed everything. Again.

See pictures of British royal weddings.

See pictures Westminster Abbey.

1981
A Shaft of Light and Gaiety

If you weren’t there, it’s hard to imagine just how grim a place Britain was in the summer of 1981. Race riots convulsed its cities. The economy was in ruins, with large parts of the industrial north of England and the Midlands reduced to rusted wasteland. The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not just disliked by half the population; with a vehemence that still seems shocking 30 years on, it was positively loathed.

Into this desperate gloom, the wedding of Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, to Diana Spencer, just 20 – and a very innocent 20 at that – projected a shaft of light and gaiety. (That endless train behind her dress! Kiri Te Kanawa’s voice!) Whatever happened in the half soap opera, half tragedy that followed, the sheer glamour of the wedding endowed Diana with a genuine popularity – no, love – that she never lost. (See pictures of Princess Diana.)

The point about Diana that the royal family did not understand when she was selected for the Prince’s hand was that, like everyone else, she would grow up. The ingenue fairy-tale princess became a confident (albeit devious) young woman, comfortable with the happily mixed-up, multicultural, undeferential society that Britain had become, passionate about controversial causes such as the fights against AIDS and land mines and – in the end – openly contemptuous of the serial indignities to which the family into which she had married subjected her. Even had she lived, Diana’s story would have changed attitudes to the monarchy. The revelation that her husband had continued an affair with his true love (and now second wife) Camilla Parker Bowles while married to Diana – coupled with a rash of royal divorces – replaced the allure and mystery of the monarchy with something much more tawdry. And then Diana died.

1997
The Long Week of Grief

Nobody – nobody – was ready for what happened to Britain in the week after Diana was killed in a Paris car crash. A nation that was supposed to be emotionally stunted, with stiff backbones and stiffer upper lips, descended into the sort of public grief normally reserved for the last act of second-rate Italian operas – except that it was genuine. Stuck at their home in Scotland, the royals seemed woefully out of touch with the sentiments of their people. Only at the last minute did the Queen walk into the crowds that were mourning Diana outside Buckingham Palace and show that she shared the national sense of loss.

The criticism of the royal family that week did not lead to a sustained increase in republican sentiment in Britain. To the contrary: once the Queen returned to London, the numbers of those saying they wanted to ditch her dropped to historic lows. But that extraordinary week changed the nature of the relationship between Crown and people forever. The crowds mourning Diana were not subjects. In a way that the revolutionaries of the 17th century would have understood, they were defining for themselves what they expected of a family, one of whose members was their head of state, and compelling that family to act accordingly. It was as if modern Britain were saying, “We get it. We’re more than happy to have you around. But you do the job on our terms.”

2002
A Link to the Past Is Broken

Before that sentiment could solidify into a modern conception of the monarchy, however, there was one more sad piece of business to attend to. On March 30, 2002, aged 101, George VI’s wife and Elizabeth II’s mother – the Queen Mum – died. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of London to see her coffin. The Queen Mum was a direct link to the tumultuous days of the abdication, to “the war.” (There is only one war in British speech.) But she was a link, also, to a Britain, and monarchy, that is long gone. Deeply conservative, she was a blue-blooded member of the aristocratic class that had once provided wives for royal males. No more. There have been eight weddings in the Queen’s immediate family since 1947, but in only one case – that of Prince Charles – did the royal marry into a titled family. The Windsors have become middle class.

Along with that social transformation has come a constitutional one. Since 348 people signed a document demanding reform called Charter 88 (I was one of them, I am very proud to say), Britain has gone through more constitutional change than in any other period in the past 300 years. Subnational parliaments have been established in Wales and Scotland, London has an elected mayor, a charter of human rights has been constitutionally protected, a new Supreme Court has been set up, taxpayer support for the royals has been reduced, and soon, Parliaments will sit for a fixed term. The Queen remains head of state, but in any real sense, she is the least powerful monarch Britain has ever had. You won’t have heard that among the hushed voices of the global TV commentators who prattle on about Britain’s wonderful sense of tradition, but it is true.

Watch a video on the Royals through history.

See pictures of the courtship of Kate and William.

View this article on Time.com