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Historians critique England's monarchy as world watches the royal wedding

Event in honor of Northwestern alumna Meghan Markle as she joins the House of Windsor
Historians on stage
Deborah Cohen and Scott Sowerby lead the discussion. Photo by Morgan Searles

EVANSTON - More than 150 people gathered to hear two British historians from Northwestern University discuss the evolution of England’s monarchy during a tea and conversation event May 18 on the eve of the royal wedding of Northwestern alumna Meghan Markle to Britain’s Prince Harry.

Watch complete video of the event.

Professors Deborah Cohen and Scott Sowerby considered “The British Monarchy — Then and Now” in a wide-ranging conversation that examined both the modernizing royal institution and the un-refurbished monarchy of the past — and how members of the royal family Markle is joining function as modern day celebrities.

“It was the reality show before the reality show,” noted Cohen at one point. “It’s the longest running reality show.”

In honor of the Royal Wedding, members of the Northwestern community were invited to hear a discussion that touched on subjects including Mad King George, Queen Victoria and Diana, Princess of Wales, as well as the popular Netflix TV show, “The Crown.”

“Is the British monarchy an agent for common feeling or disunity — or both at the same time?” asked Cohen, who is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “What difference will it make to have an American married into the family?  How conservative is the British monarchy, really?”

She was joined by Sowerby, an associate professor in the Department of History in Weinberg and an expert on Britain and its empire.  Both professors took turns asking questions of the other, and they took questions from the audience.

The event took place Friday, May 18, in Harris Hall, room 108, on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. It was sponsored by the Department of History and the Office of International Relations. English tea and sandwiches were served afterwards.

Markle graduated from Northwestern in 2003 with a double major in theater and international studies. She was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. After the wedding, the couple will live in Nottingham Cottage at Kensington Palace.

The wedding took place May 19 at Windsor Castle in England, where Markle formally joined the House of Windsor. The couple were given the titles the Duke and Duchess of Sussex by Queen Elizabeth II after they married.

Cohen, who is also Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, is a historian of modern Britain and Europe. She is currently at work on a book (under contract to Random House) about American foreign correspondents who reported from interwar Europe and Asia. Her most recent book, “Family Secrets,” was published in 2013 by Viking Penguin in the UK and by Oxford University Press in the U.S. It was awarded the American Historical Association's Forkosch Prize for the best book on Britain after 1485 and the North American Conference on British Studies' Stansky prize for the best book on Britain after 1800.

Sowerby is a historian of early modern Britain and Europe with a particular interest in comparative history and transnational issues, including religious toleration, state formation, military power, and cosmopolitanism. His book, “Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution” (Harvard University Press, 2013), was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for the best first book on British history.