June 29, 2011 12:00 PM

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect—or more apt. At the very moment that Kate Middleton stepped out of the Royal Family’s glass-topped Rolls-Royce Phantom VI and onto a plush red carpet outside Westminster Abbey on April 29, the sun peeked through a layer of gray London clouds and cast a bright glow on the bride and the thousands who had gathered to catch a glimpse of her. Fittingly, the event that was about to unfold—for all its perfectly choreographed regal pageantry, and despite its massive audience (1,900 in the church, another million gathered outside, and 2 billion watching on TV)—would go down as one of the warmest public occasions in the history of Britain’s royal family. “It felt like being at a family wedding, albeit quite a large one,” said a guest and friend of the Middleton’s, Tim Hirst. “It was very intimate, very comfortable, very friendly—you had to keep pinching yourself to remember that this was the most amazing wedding of the future King and Queen.”

The crowd of well-wishers outside needed no reminder, rocking the reverent hush of the 766-year-old Abbey’s vaulted nave with thunderous cheers after William and Kate exchanged their traditional vows. But it was the smaller, personal moments that really made the day: the groom’s touch of humor when he reportedly greeted his father-in-law at the altar with a joking “we were supposed to have just a small family affair”; the couple’s subtle tribute to Princess Diana during the service, by including her favorite hymn, “Jerusalem” (which, as one guest put it, “sent a real tingle down your spine”); the tender awkwardness of their first public kiss—followed by a delightful do-over—on the Buckingham Palace balcony. And who will ever forget that surprise cruise down the Mall in Prince Charles’s convertible Aston Martin Volante? “I don’t think any royal has ever done that before!” says wedding guest Claudia Bradby. “It really showed their sense of fun. They are a young, cool couple.”

Since they announced their engagement on Twitter in November 2010, William and Kate have put their own youthful stamp on the occasion. Even before the bride walked down the aisle in a lace and satin gazar gown from the cutting-edge British fashion house of the late Alexander McQueen, she and her groom had penned their own prayer for the ceremony, invited neighbors from her hometown of Bucklebury and prompted royal watchers to speculate that they might finally shake the dust off the scandal-worn image of the Windsors. As Richard Chartres, the Bishop London, proclaimed during the ceremony, “This is a day of hope.”

By 3 a.m. on the morning after the wedding—as revelers trickled out of the Buckingham Palace disco that Prince Harry had arranged and city workers swept up plastic champagne flutes and crumpled Union Jacks from one of the biggest street parties the United Kingdom had ever seen—there was certainly a sense that a new era had dawned. But the greater wish, shared by royalists and cynics alike, was that this dashing prince and his beautiful bride would indeed live happily ever after.

Here comes THE FAMILY

When the groom’s grandma is the Queen of England, it’s tough for the mother of the bride to feel special. But Carole Middleton held her own as she stepped out of a Jaguar and into the Abbey, escorted by her son James. Although she and her husband, Mike, had only met the Queen 10 days earlier—at a lunch the monarch hosted at Windsor Castle to break the ice—there were warm smiles all around. After all, the Middletons, who have met Charles and Camilla several times over the years, have been like a second family to William, who has described his in-laws as “very loving and caring and really fun,” and even reportedly called Mike “Dad” long before he had proposed to his daughter. During the ceremony, Kate flashed frequent smiles at her parents, who seemed, to at least one attendee, to be “more nervous than their children.” By the end of the service, however, the Middletons were mingling and chatting with the royals as if they’d known them for years, and rode off with them in carriages to the Buckingham Palace reception, looking, as one guest noted, like “very much one family.”

THEIR PRAYER

“God our Father, we thank you for our families, for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage. In the busyness of each day, keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life, and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy. Strengthened by our union, help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen”

Pippa, THE IMPRESSIVE

It was, without doubt, her sister’s day. But when the confetti had settled, maid of honor Pippa Middleton, 27, was the talk of the town. She was dubbed “Her Royal Hotness” by the British press, and her star turn in an Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton gown inspired eager chatter about a flirtation with Prince Harry (to which her boyfriend, businessman Alex Loudon, might object) and even a Facebook page, with more than 160,000 followers, devoted to her flawless figure. At the wedding, Pippa seemed unaware of all the fuss, as she assisted Kate and kept tabs on the little bridesmaids. Afterward, “she was relieved,” said a guest, “but incredibly happy that it had all gone off with such precision.”

Britain’s MOST ELIGIBLE BACHELOR

He’s funny. Great with kids. And third in line to the throne. No wonder the women of Britain are just wild about Harry. “My friends and I hope he stays single a bit longer so we have the chance to become princesses too!” gushed Holly London, 19, summing up the feelings of the crowd outside the Abbey. Though on-again, off-again girlfriend Chelsy Davy attended the wedding, the best man spent much of his time calming his brother’s nerves and tending to the little bridesmaids who were “in tow around his legs” at the afternoon reception, according to one guest. He managed to extract himself long enough to deliver a “humorous, witty—just brilliant” speech, said another insider. “The best brother anybody could ask for.”

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