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Britain's Prince William, and Kate Middleton exchange rings before the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, during their wedding ceremony In Westminster Abbey, in central London April 29, 2011. (Dominic Lipinski/AP)
Britain's Prince William, and Kate Middleton exchange rings before the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, during their wedding ceremony In Westminster Abbey, in central London April 29, 2011. (Dominic Lipinski/AP)

Will and Kate: A return to the calm pleasures of an elegant wedding Add to ...

Deep inside the tight crush of the flag-draped, the drink-soaked, the silly-hatted, there was a sudden hush, an awed silence, followed by an explosion of noise and light: A roaring cheer, a deafening peal of bells, and, in an almost supernatural apparition, the clouds opening to the day's first rays of sunshine.

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The knot had been tied. The hours of waiting in the grey morning, the bladder-threatening rituals of drinking and cheering, the long flights across the ocean, suddenly had a purpose. The event itself took place beyond the cordon of yellow-coated police and behind the thick stone walls of Westminster Abbey, but for the hundreds of thousands who spilled along the parade route, it seemed to happen in their midst.

For the 750,000-plus people who filled every inch of sidewalk, every corner of Trafalgar Square and much of Hyde Park, the wedding had been, for the most part, an excuse to get together and have a good time. Now, for a blazing hour as the bells chimed and the carriages trundled past, the mood changed, and there was a surge of excitement.

It was a glorious moment, and the crisp faces of William and Catherine seemed to have a hypnotizing effect on everyone. Yet this was not the sort of mania, the emotionally turbulent spectacle, that has defined the British monarchy in the 30 years since the last time a future head of state wed for the first time.

Indeed, this felt more like a return to the calm pleasures of an ordinary wedding, a day of mellow happiness only gently tied to the institutions of state.

If Charles and Diana's nuptials were a garish explosion of wild hope and emotional intensity that tied up an entire city and defined a generation's tastes and emotions, William and Kate's comparatively small, decidedly elegant wedding was the monarchy's soft-spoken shift into the background. The ceremony, the dresses, the music and the spectacle, though organized on a vast House of Windsor scale, were in many ways the royal-wedding equivalent of comfort food - and the crowd responded in kind, by sitting back and taking it in.

For the many ardent monarchists in the crowd - which, tellingly, seemed to contain more Commonwealth citizens, Americans and Europeans than Britons - this was a welcome return to a new sort of monarchy, an erasure of the previous three decades of divorces, deaths, sex scandals and political embarrassments.

"They seem so modern - they're injecting new life into the monarchy," said Ellen Banham of Stratford, Ont., who made the trip to London with her cousin Jane Feltz of Mitchell, Ont., watching the ceremony over tea and scones at the Ritz. The sheer ordinariness of the couple in their comportment seemed as much of a draw as their beauty and evident romantic enthusiasm. "They both took a long time to make this decision," Ms. Banham said, "and they're in it for the long term."

Among the Britons in the crowd, who generally set up lavish encampments on the sidewalks and parks filled with flags, paraphernalia, lawn chairs and ample alcohol, the mood was a mix of quiet pride in a set of royals who carry no taint of shame and the sheer joy of a warm national holiday spent, like a day-long cricket match, in exuberant mass celebration of the absurd.

The locals in the crowd were quintessentially British: both enthusiastic and irreverent, cheering rock-star Prince William with bawdy innuendo and silly facemasks and outlandish hats, drinking great quantities of lager and Pimm's, gossiping and wagering in the midst of high solemnity - and then exploding with excitement as a Rolls-Royce passed by and the Queen, with her yellow wool dress and her uncharacteristic smile, offered a wave.

Britain did not transform itself for this wedding, not the way it did in 1981. Royal-wedding street parties were popular in London and the southeast of England, but hard to find elsewhere. The country did shut itself down, but only because it was a national holiday. Pride in the young royals was mixed with sardonic jokes about the sexual and political foibles of their parents' generation.

"It's a good day out, isn't it, and we ought to wish them well because they're ours," said Panchali Hassan, 41, who wore a Union Jack hat and whose siblings and their children drank beer and gossiped the morning away. "I don't care for the politics; it doesn't matter whether there's a king or queen, but I love to see it all."

That, in fact, seemed to be the overwhelming motive for the countless Americans who flew over to watch the wedding - and whose TV networks devoted much time and enthusiasm to the event.

"Nobody does it like the English - they know how to have a wedding, and everyone's invited," said Yvonne Jobe, a retired nurse from Atlanta, who flew to London on a whim with her friend Janice Cranston. "We don't have princes and princesses in the States, and we don't have any need for them. But they sure have them here, and it's worth coming to see them."

When viewed from a distance, the wedding was largely a vast exercise in crowd control, with the teeming crowd penned in by at least 5,000 police officers and a very visible presence of undercover officers, intelligence officials and rooftop snipers (even the carriage footmen had automatic weapons beneath their ceremonial finery).

Some of this was less than subtle: The police announced Friday that there had been 52 arrests, and many of them had been pre-emptive arrests under a special act that allows people to search, unmask and lock up anyone who looks suspicious. Two or three anti-monarchy protests, one in Soho Square, were disbanded in the morning before they had a chance to form, in what some activists called an overly heavy-handed use of police power.

But for the most part, neither the arrests nor the crowd control were necessary. Most people had come not to be passionate monarchists or wild enthusiasts, but to unfold a chair on the sidewalk, open a beer, and use the ceremony as a handy backdrop for a holiday street party.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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