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Prince William and Kate Middleton royal wedding: Do monarchies still matter?

Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding may have tinges of the turreted-castle fairy tale. But from romantic to ruthless, more than 40 modern monarchies, including Prince William's family, still influence global realities for better or worse.

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The British Empire may not be what it once was, but the House of Windsor holds symbolic sway. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of Britain and 15 commonwealth realms, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

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The wedding of William and Kate highlights the principal role of the modern European monarchy. It's symbolic, a family and institution that embody the hopes, dreams, and virtues of a nation.

"Before the 20th century, a royal wedding was a largely private thing. They really weren't public spectacles," says Noel Cox, chief of the legal department at Aberystwyth University in Wales. "The reason it changed was, with lost political power the monarchy reinvented its function, no longer political but symbolic. It provided entertainment."

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This wedding of Prince William and Kate – a commoner who would one day be queen if William takes the throne – won't be the most lavish royal spectacle of them all, and certainly won't match the grandeur of William's parents' ill-fated walk down the aisle. The 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer at St. Paul's Cathedral was big in every way, from the bride's 25-foot-long train of ivory taffeta and antique lace to the worldwide television audience of 750 million.

That union, of course, ended in scandal and divorce. In 1997, trailed through the streets of Paris by press photographers, Diana was killed in an auto accident, along with her companion, Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul.

Diana's memory looms over her children – William and his younger brother, Harry – and her country.

"I think there is excitement," royal biographer Hugo Vickers says of the upcoming wedding. "I don't think it's quite the same as 1981. That was built up as such a fairy-tale occasion and it put too much pressure on the couple [Charles and Diana]. I think people are a little nervous to do that again."

Instead, this wedding is billed as something a little smaller. Well, as intimate as you can get inside Westminster Abbey, the coronation church since 1066.

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