THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The line starts here for centuries of royals-watchers

By Julie Flavell
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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LONDON — The date has barely been set, but US tourists are already forecast to boost the British economy as they cross the Atlantic for the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton next April.

Our infatuation with Britain’s royalty is no secret. Supposedly we Americans, living in the vortex of a super democracy, yearn for the certainties of crowned heads and ivied ruins. While Britain’s tourist authority tries to turn a profit with the online Royal Engagement Trail — said to be aimed at US visitors — more thoughtful observers complain their country is being used as “a period drama theme park’’ by Americans who do not know the real Britain.

But if you are hankering for a glimpse of the royal wedding, rest assured that it has nothing to do with the Disney-fication of Britain. Royal-watching is an American tradition that dates for centuries, to the days when Ben Franklin was at the Court of St. James, trying to catch sight of George III’s little heir. Franklin felt only admiration upon seeing the “lovely’’ 9-year-old Prince of Wales, who would one day be notorious as the first British king to try to divorce a popular wife and marry a mistress.

It seems strange to hear Franklin talk of his joy at seeing the royals close up, because he was in London on a mission to defend Colonial rights. Just a few years later he would be signing the Declaration of Independence. But then so would John Hancock, who, in London in 1761, wanted to see the coronation of George III. He expected it to be “the grandest thing I shall ever meet with.’’

The fact was that seeing royalty was a thrill that was not on offer in the Colonies, and the dispute over rights and liberties had nothing to do with it. Boston Son of Liberty William Palfrey, who was in London on business while his countrymen were shedding their blood at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, went out of his way to see the royals as often as possible. He was in luck when he spotted the royal family at Drury Lane Theatre. The little Princess Amelia waved to the audience, and Queen Charlotte glittered with diamonds on her head, throat, and bodice, “said to be worth 15,000 pounds,’’ wrote the awe-struck Yankee. When Palfrey saw the king and queen again outside Green Park, he waved loyally and got a nod of the royal head from his majesty.

Palfrey did his royals-watching around the royal parks and palaces of Westminster.

They are still there today, as elegant as ever. St. James’s Park and Green Park are oases of greenery adjacent to St. James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace, where, in the 18th century, stood George III’s Buckingham House.

But for the more resourceful there were other opportunities. Henry Marchant, a red-hot patriot from Rhode Island, went to the King’s Lodge at Kew Gardens hoping to catch a glimpse of the royals through the windows. He could see nothing through the curtains, but he had another idea. One Sunday he paid five shillings to be admitted to the service at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace — where services are still held today — and was finally rewarded with a sight of their majesties at worship.

The fascination did not pale even if one was in London on a secret mission. Bostonian Josiah Quincy crossed the Atlantic as an unofficial spokesman for the Continental Congress in 1774, in a last-ditch effort to avert war. His peace mission failed, and he ended up gathering military intelligence. And in January 1775 he could not resist going to court on the queen’s birthday. She was charming, and the whole affair was “splendid and magnificent beyond anything I had ever before seen.’’ He forgot about the revolution for the evening, as he experienced something he would never see at home.

For Americans today, royalty is as exotic as ever. The Colonial royals-watchers were forebears of the pilgrims who will travel the Royal Engagement Trail hoping for a glimpse of Wills and Kate. If you do plan to go to London for the royal wedding on April 29, you will see the royal parks at their springtime best, when they surround the palaces with a garland of green.

Julie Flavell, author of “When London Was Capital of America,’’ can be reached at julie.flavell4@gmail.com.

If You Go

The Royal Engagement Trail begins at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where the couple met. It moves to London for their twentysomething years, when she worked at the Kew branch of a popular boutique and they clubbed in Kensington, then visits the St. James’s Palace environs, and ends on the Welsh island where they will live. www.media.visitbritain.com/Visit-Britain-Royal-Engagement-Trail
For St. James’s Park, Green Park, and Kew Gardens go to www.royal parks.org.uk. For the historic royal palaces, go to www.hrp.org.uk. St. James’s Palace is not open to the public, but you can attend Sunday service at one of the historic chapels royal, the Queen’s Chapel, next to St. James’s Palace. For service times, go to the royal residences at www.royal.gov.uk.