British Queen celebrates

Britain's Prince Harry said Monday he was "thrilled" to be marrying his American girlfriend Meghan Markle early next year, confirming months of speculation about the one-time playboy royal

and the glamorous actress.

The prince revealed he fell for Markle -- who will inject a little Hollywood glamour into Britain's centuries-old royal family -- "the very first time we met" as the pair posed smiling and laughing for photographers in the gardens of his home at Kensington Palace.

The actress said she was "so very happy" as she held Harry's hand and showed off her engagement ring, which included diamonds that belonged to his late mother Diana.

Markle, who is mixed-race, divorced and an outspoken feminist, does not fit the mould of most British royals.

But Queen Elizabeth II -- Harry's grandmother -- led the chorus of congratulations, saying she was "delighted for the couple".

Harry, 33, has himself railed against the confines of royal life, recently admitting he came close to nervous breakdown in his 20s as he struggled to deal with the legacy of his mother's death.

His father Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, said he was "very happy indeed" that Harry had found love, while his brother Prince William said he and his wife Kate were "very excited".

Harry and Meghan, 36, were introduced by mutual friends in London in July last year, although they did not make their first public appearance together until September this year.

"His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is delighted to announce the engagement of Prince Harry to Ms Meghan Markle. The wedding will take place in spring 2018," Prince Charles' office said.

Harry designed the engagement ring himself, using one diamond from Botswana, a country he visited numerous times, and two from Diana's personal collection.

Markle is best known for her role as a lawyer in the hit television series "Suits" but is said to have quit, and is now expected to become a duchess.

She has reportedly already begun moving her two dogs Guy and Bogart to London, and the couple will live at Nottingham Cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace.

William and Kate, who married in 2011, live in the palace with their two children.

They are expecting their third in April, and with the wedding it looks set to be a busy spring, providing light relief from the dour political headlines as Britain negotiates Brexit.

'Need to modernise' -

Wellwishers gathered Monday outside Buckingham Palace, including John Egan, 72, who said: "It is good for the country.

"The royal family is too tight, too controlled, the older ones exist in the last century, they really need to modernise."

In his younger days, Harry regularly hit the headlines for his partying and his outspoken criticism of the media, whom he blames for the death of his mother.

The first confirmation of his relationship with Markle came when he issued an extraordinary statement last year attacking the "sexism" and "racism" directed at Markle by the press.

He spent 10 years in the British army, serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, but in recent years has focused on charity work, notably with veterans.

Markle is also an active campaigner focusing on women's rights.

William and Kate said "it has been wonderful getting to know Meghan", who grew up in California.

Her parents Thomas Markle and Doria Ragland said they were "incredibly happy".

"Our daughter has always been a kind and loving person. To see her union with Harry, who shares the same qualities, is a source of great joy for us as parents," they said in a statement.

Prime Minister Theresa May offered her "warmest congratulations".

Bookmakers have already started taking wedding-related bets, with Westminster Abbey a firm favourite to host the event and fashion label Alexander McQueen favourite to design the dress.afp