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Like a normal family wedding (if you happen to be royal)

Britain's Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, hold hands as they leave Westminster Abbey after their wedding ceremony in London April 29, 2011.

POOL/REUTERS/David Jones/Pool

Away from the cameras, it could have passed for a normal family wedding. The brother of the groom kept up a string of chatter in a valiant attempt to calm his big brother's nerves. Aging relatives lined up to use the bathroom. (The queue was 30 minutes long.) Colourfully dressed guests hugged each other in the aisle, reminiscing that they hadn't seen each other since the last big gathering - was it a state funeral? Or a prince's christening?

A royal wedding, seen from inside Westminster Abbey, is a lot like any other wedding, except that the groom says "I do" on the same spot where he will one day become king. Fortunately, Prince William was spared the embarrassment of having to look at the coronation chair, the ancient and beat-up seat on which he may one day sit and which is currently at Windsor Castle being repaired.

All the other chairs in the Abbey are remarkably, even defiantly, humble. Most regular brides would reject as too plain the straight-backed chairs that were adorned with simple slips of paper reading Queen of Spain and Grand Duke of Luxembourg. There was no little slip for the ambassador from Syria or the Crown Prince of Bahrain, after it was decided that violently repressing one's own people was incompatible with the spirit of romance and revelry. I was sorely tempted to pocket one of the seating cards as I made my way back to the bit of Poet's Corner where a couple of dozen British journalists, one New Zealander, one Australian and I had been given seats.

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Before the wedding party arrived, the atmosphere inside Westminster Abbey was as jolly as a garden party - or at least as jolly as a party can be where no alcohol is served. There was little gawking, because so many were gawk-worthy. Someone accidentally stepped on the Grave of the Unknown Warrior - the one grave in the church that is sacrosanct and must never be trod upon - to the sound of gasps from the few people who noticed.

Soccer celebrity David Beckham arrived with his pregnant wife, Victoria, and facial stubble so precisely calibrated that it may have required its own entourage of grooming technicians. Music star Elton John came with his partner, David Furnish, but not baby Zachary, and appeared to be wearing a hat of human hair, which turned out on second inspection to be his own hair.

Mr. Furnish was not the only Canadian on hand: Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to decline his invitation in favour of running the last few kilometres of campaign trail, but Governor-General David Johnston, his wife, Sharon, and James Wright, the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK, all represented their country.

Heads of state, William's RAF colleagues and the butcher and postman from the Middleton's home village of Bucklebury mingled together in what looked like an English forest. It was the inspired decision of Kate Middleton - sorry, now the Duchess of Cambridge - to have six maple trees and two hornbeams planted in giant pots up Westminster's centre aisle. Somehow, they enhanced the dignity of the 1,000-year-old Abbey, which has close ties to the royal family, being the seat of all coronations and many funerals and weddings (though it is officially neither a cathedral nor a parish church, but a "royal peculiar.") The place must have special significance for the bridegroom. It was here that Prince William was a fidgety page boy at his Uncle Andrew's wedding to Sarah Ferguson, and later attended the funerals of his great-grandmother and his mother. Yesterday, there was definitely a vacuum in Westminster Abbey where Diana should have been, but she was present in the way her son looked up through his lashes and smiled, and in his warm and easy interaction, the night before, with the crowds who gathered outside Buckingham Palace. He went out among them as his mother would have done, and shook their hands and bent to talk to their children.

If Prince William was feeling her absence, he didn't show it, although there were definite nerves on display when he and his brother (in the uniforms of the Irish Guards and the Household Cavalry, respectively) showed up at the Abbey's Great West Door. Prince Harry looked like he needed a shot of something stiff. But his older brother was clearly feeling the solemnity of the occasion.

The happy buzz in the Abbey subsided to a reverent quiet as video screens showed the Queen and Prince Philip leaving Buckingham Palace, the Queen bright in daffodil-yellow with a blue blanket on her knees against the morning chill. Suddenly, everyone put on their dignity cloaks.

A fanfare greeted the arrival of the Queen as she and the Duke of Edinburgh began to walk down the aisle they travelled together at their own marriage in 1947. Now everyone was gawking, because there are few people on earth with star power to rival an 85-year-old great-grandmother with lead weights in her hems.

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Necks craned even harder at the arrival of Ms. Middleton, on the arm of her father, Michael. She seemed remarkably calm for a woman who was entering church with one life and leaving with another. As she walked up the aisle, Prince Harry kept turning back to glance at her and whisper to his brother. When she arrived at the altar, serene but with a death-grip on her father's hand and looking like she could use a glass of water, her future husband whispered something to her, and it sure looked like he was saying "You're beautiful." And then, a completely human and screwball moment that any groom - and Lucille Ball - would understand. The ring was a tiny bit too small. He struggled. They were both probably laughing inside. They'll probably laugh about it later, when two billion people are not watching. But then it was on, and shortly after it was time to sign the register, out of sight of the congregation, near the tomb of the English king and saint, Edward the Confessor.

Finally, at the moment when any family wedding turns to music for emotional release - Pachelbel's Canon or My Heart Will Go On - we got music, too: Except in this case, it was a specially composed fanfare for trumpets, and the hymn Jerusalem, with 1,900 voices raised in a song of hope for England's bright tomorrow.

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