Just before 9 a.m. local time, 20-year-old Courtney Hughes waved at a giddy Oprah Winfrey walking into the towering St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. Hughes had been handpicked to attend the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle by the bride and groom themselves, and she was clearly in good company at Saturday’s lavish affair, where she had a front-row seat to the entrance of A-list guests like power couple Amal and George Clooney, tennis star Serena Williams, and actress Priyanka Chopra.
Barely a month ago, Hughes was going about her daily life in Didcot, Oxfordshire when she received the modern-day equivalent of a golden ticket in the mail: a wedding invitation from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in recognition of her work with Secret Santa, a charity she started in honor of her grandmother in 2012.
In the six years since, Hughes has packaged more than 20,000 presents and delivered them to elderly homes, hospitals, and hospices as part of her organization. “Christmas is awful if you’re alone, so I want to show some extra love and support,” Hughes says of her aim. “The smiles I get from people when I give them gifts is so emotional.”
A big fan of Prince Harry’s own charity work, Hughes couldn’t wait to attend the wedding on Saturday and support her favorite royal on his big day.
She was one of some 1,200 members of the public invited to the wedding by the royal couple and seated on the grounds outside the chapel. Guests were asked to bring their own lunches (Hughes packed fruit and cheese) and something to sit on if they were unable to stand for “long periods of time” (she chose a picnic blanket). “It was such a nice day,” Hughes tells Cosmopolitan.com. “Being outside was lovely.”
And while it may not have put her in superclose proximity to the bride and groom, she did have a great vantage point as the wedding party arrived.
Hughes says Harry’s 4-year-old nephew, Prince George, and 3-year-old niece, Princess Charlotte, were absolutely ecstatic as they arrived at the wedding, where they took on the important roles of page boy and bridesmaid.
“They were hanging out their car’s window, laughing and smiling and waving their hands,” Hughes says. “They were so excited to wave to everybody!”
Prince George especially soaked up the attention. “He had a big grin on his face,” Hughes says.
On the grounds outside of St. George’s, the air was fragrant with roses, and a harpist and flutist played “beautiful” classical music. The cast of Suits
— Meghan’s co-workers for the last seven years — gathered together and “shared a good laugh” before walking into the chapel.
“They went in as one group and stuck together, kind of like a little family,” Hughes says. “They were all cheerful and joyful and happy. We could hear them laughing — it seemed like they were having a really great time.”
After getting an insider glimpse at all the celebrity arrivals, Hughes listened to Harry and Meghan exchange vows over a loud-speaker (there were no TV screens nearby) before wandering into the chapel where the couple had said I do. “We walked around the hallways after the ceremony and saw massive flower displays of white roses and white blossoms everywhere,” she says. “It smelled amazing.”
The whole day made her think of her late grandmother, who inspired her to create the charity that got her here in the first place: “She was really into the royal family,” Hughes explains, “so I think she’d be amazed that I got to attend a royal wedding and wore her pearls for the big day! I know she’d be really proud.”