Kate steps up:
the making of a modern Queen
Kensington Palace, a 300-year-old bastion of wealth and splendour in the heart of London, currently shudders to the sound of work crews and the clatter of well-shod courtiers hurrying to strategy meetings. There is much to do and only so much time, for soon the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will make the palace their main home, and in effect re-launch themselves as the real royal thing.
Their relaxed – too relaxed, according to their critics – sojourn in the English countryside is coming to an end. From it, promise their team, will emerge a new-look William and Kate, dedicated to duty and determined to silence their doubters.
The brief, official announcement of the move merely stated that: “Their Royal Highnesses are keen to increase their official work on behalf of the Queen and the charities and causes they support, which will require greater time spent in London.” But behind it lies an acknowledgement that their dream of creating a different kind of royal life has not gone entirely to plan.
So – with some regrets – the Cambridges are reverting to a more traditional model. William, raised in the royal way, will adjust fairly smoothly. For Kate, it will not be so easy.
The Duchess, who turned 35 in January, has made little secret of her preference for staying out of the public eye with the couple’s two small children – Prince George, three, and one-year-old Princess Charlotte – at Anmer Hall, their secluded Norfolk mansion. Never entirely comfortable with the constraints and formalities of the royal grind, Kate has poured her energies into creating a rural idyll.
Yet the Duchess’ efforts to provide a happy haven for her family have come at a cost. The combination of her privileged lifestyle and relatively rare public appearances has provoked criticism that she isn’t “paying her way”. Last year Kate managed only 115 official engagements, compared to more than 300 by the redoubtable Queen, and almost as many by the 95-year-old Duke of Edinburgh, who, on medical advice, has been easing up.
Headlines asking “Where is Kate?” and social media jibes about “Catherine of Arrogance” – a sarcastic reference to Henry VIII’s ill-fated first wife, Catherine of Aragon – clearly stung the
royal establishment, which now takes a much more businesslike approach to running its affairs.
“I’m sure there would be a lot of sympathy for her as the mother of a young family,” says Dickie Arbiter, a former Buckingham Palace press secretary. “We’d all like to raise our children as best we can, but if the feeling arose that she and William weren’t justifying their positions it would be a problem.”
However, an intriguing glimpse of what Kate is capable of came with a remarkable flurry of activity in February. Dressed in a dazzling, off-the-shoulder Alexander McQueen gown, she first stole the show at Britain’s film awards ceremony, the BAFTAS, where William presented a special award to veteran movie comedian Mel Brooks.
The next day a London photo agency was tipped off that Kate would be making a film appearance of her own at a west London sports ground. She duly turned up, wearing a bright red quilted ski jacket, black pants and trainers, accompanied by her husband and his brother, Prince Harry. The royal trio were taking part in filming a documentary on behalf of a mental health charity, for which they ran laps of a track.
Having barely caught her breath, the Duchess turned up 24 hours later to meet RAF cadets at an air base in Cambridgeshire, this time dressed in a stylish, plum-coloured, military-style tunic. And on the same day it was announced that she and William were to pay a two-day official visit to Paris – one packed with engagements, and which also commemorated the death of William’s mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, in the city 20 years ago.
This is the kind of energetic, enchanting, star-powered Kate her fans love to see. “She’s really very good in public, puts real effort in, and makes it look natural, even if it isn’t,” says biographer Marcia Moody. So potent is Kate’s glamorous presence it can actually cause complications. In the run-up to her BAFTA appearance, a story emerged that some senior figures in the awards body opposed her invitation, fearing that she would overshadow other big-name female celebrities.
The account was officially denied, yet it was noticeable that Kate and William arrived at the last possible minute, to be ushered inside well after such stars as Emma Stone, Nicole Kidman and Penelope Cruz had walked the red carpet.
It is the sense that Kate is both too popular and too little seen that has indirectly brought about the move to London. Her appearances will still be rationed, and she will still spend time in Norfolk, but the impression of her and William being “on site”, as one courtier puts it, should help counter the suggestion that they are dodging their duties.
The couple will make their home in Kensington Palace’s misleadingly-named Apartment 1a – which is in reality a magnificent four-storey townhouse with views over formal gardens and Hyde Park. It was previously the home of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and has been expensively renovated since the Cambridges took it over as their base in the city.
Adorned with fine paintings from the Queen’s private collection, silk rugs and valuable antiques, the apartment has a staff floor, two kitchens, two nurseries and an exquisite walled garden. “It makes total sense for them as a home,” says royal author Ingrid Seward. “There’s really nowhere better they could be.”
Yet for all its grandeur, the palace will have some painful memories for William, who grew up here at Kensington in Apartment 8, with his parents, Diana and Charles, the Prince of Wales. After the couple’s separation, when William was 10, he and Harry remained with Diana, until her death.
The more immediate problem with the palace is maintaining privacy. This is a major preoccupation for the Cambridges, who have gone to extreme lengths to avoid unwanted attention at Anmer. Two years ago, they secured a “no-fly” zone over the property, banning any aircraft from coming within 2km, and have issued drastic legal
warnings to paparazzi, who they have accused of stalking them.
So it was no surprise when the joggers and dog-walkers who pass by the palace each day noticed a vast screen of fastgrowing conifers being planted in the grounds. The trees have been strategically positioned to block out any view of William and Kate’s new quarters.
For William, at least, the road ahead is now clear-cut. He has abandoned his job as an Air Ambulance helicopter pilot, and will devote himself full-time to royal duties. This was bound to happen at some stage, but the fact that it has come around sooner than he had hoped only complicates Kate’s position.
She has little love of London. Raised in the quiet Berkshire village of Bucklebury (population 2000), she went to a genteel boarding school at Marlborough, snuggled among velvety hills and meadows, and met William at St Andrews University in Scotland – the most remote and isolated place of learning in Britain. After their marriage, the couple lived on the storm-battered Isle of Anglesey, off the coast of north Wales, where William was stationed with the RAF. The contentment she has found in Norfolk, has, by most accounts, only confirmed her sense that she isn’t cut out for city life.
There is a further complication. Behind the regular, excitable – and so far untrue – claims of Kate expecting another child, lies the assumption that she would like a larger family. And having just hit 35, an age at which a woman’s fertility begins to decline rapidly, there is added pressure. If and when a third baby comes along, there is little doubt that Kate would prefer to give the new arrival the kind of start in the countryside that her other children have enjoyed.
For now, though, her days are full with George and Charlotte. The Cambridges’ much-publicised pledge to give their children a “normal” upbringing has proved to be more than just a soundbite. Apart from their Spanish nanny, Maria Borrello, and Kate’s indefatigable mother, Carole, the couple do almost all the childcare themselves.
By royal standards, this is revolutionary. Generations of little British princes and princesses have been raised by stern-faced governesses and tutors in draughty palace nurseries, often having only minimal contact with their parents or other children their age. William’s father, Charles, has spoken in harrowing terms of feeling lost and neglected in his early years. His parents were away for his first three birthdays, and there is poignant newsreel footage of the Queen returning to London in 1952 after a four-month tour of the Commonwealth to be greeted by assorted ministers, dignitaries, members of the Buckingham Palace staff and, finally, her three-year-old son, who receives a polite handshake.
“It wasn’t that these kings and queens didn’t love their children,” says David Cohen, a London psychologist and author of a book about royal upbringings. “They absolutely believed they were doing the right thing, in preparing them for the life ahead. But it wasn’t easy for the children.”
In Kate’s mind, Anmer, an easy stroll from the Queen’s estate at Sandringham, provides an echo of her own happy childhood. She does her own shopping at the local stores, serves ready-meals straight to the table and reads George his favourite bedtime story, The Gruffalo. The family’s cocker spaniel, Lupo, has recently been joined by a hamster called Marvin, and the house is often busy with company. A number of Kate’s closest friends live around Anmer, including ex-model Rose Hanbury, the 33-year-old Marchioness of Cholmondley, and Sophie Carter, daughter of a Norfolk construction tycoon.
Her mother and sister, Pippa, are regularly in residence. Their presence is no problem for William, who, as the product of an infamously bad marriage, admires the cheery informality and closeness of the middle-class Middletons. “He actually adores being around them,” says royal author Angela Levin. “He sees them as a genuine, loving, normal family of the kind he’d like to have.”
The closeness was highlighted by the Cambridges’ decision to skip the Queen’s traditional Christmas lunch last year to spend the day with the
Middletons. Pippa, in a magazine article, gave some idea of what goes on. “My father has developed this funny tradition of surprising us at some point by appearing in fancy dress,” she wrote. “He buys a new costume each year and typically gets a bit carried away – a couple of Christmases ago he appeared in an inflatable sumo outfit.”
You don’t get that at Sandringham.
For the past year, George has been at a Montessori school near Anmer, with around 30 other children, mostly from local farming families. By all accounts he is a typically boisterous little boy, who, William claims, reminds him of Prince Harry. Charlotte is described as “rather ladylike” and something of a puzzle to her father. “Bearing in mind that I’ve never had a sister,” William explained, “having a daughter is a very different dynamic. So I’m having to learn about having a girl in the family.”
Following the move to London, George will attend Wetherby School, an exclusive, NZ$10,000-a-term, all-boys pre-prep, close to the palace. Past pupils include both William and Harry, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, actor Hugh Grant, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Brooklyn Beckham, son of footballer David and fashion-designer Victoria.
Fortunately for the Cambridges, the Queen has been broadly supportive of the couple’s desire to live a low-key life on the fringes of the royal fray. As has their most trusted aide and “ideas man”, the American-born, New Zealand-educated Jason Knauf, who believes the process of modernising the monarchy must include allowing members to experience a semblance of normal life.
A sign that Kate remains in the Queen’s favour, is the likelihood that she will receive a royal honour later this year.
Currently, the Duchess is the only senior member of the family without either the Royal Victorian Order or the Family Order – both given personally by the sovereign for service to the royal family. It is expected that Kate will be honoured during future celebrations for the Queen’s Sapphire year, marking 65 years on the throne.
Yet the same process of modernisation holds that royals must be seen to be earning their privileges, and – as the huge popularity of Prince Harry shows – the harder you work, the better the public likes you.
Twenty years on from Diana’s tragic death in a Paris underpass, the monarchy is a much smarter, slicker and more image-conscious institution than before. In a sense it was the outraged public reaction to the loss of Diana that made it possible for a girl like
Kate Middleton – the daughter of a small businessman and an ex-airline hostess – to become the future Queen of England.
No longer could the ancient rules of protocol and pedigree demand that a prince marry a fellow noble with an unblemished past. No longer could love and compatibility be seen as side issues. The subsequent rise of the commoners has been the great rejuvenator of the royal line, and Kate is fully aware of how much she owes Diana.
Amid the current buzz and bustle surrounding Kensington Palace, two things illustrate how important the memory of the Princess remains to William and his wife. A blockbuster exhibition, telling the story of Diana’s life through her most famous outfits, will run throughout this year at the palace. And a new statue of Diana will be sited in the palace grounds. William and Kate, with Prince Harry, have been closely involved in both projects.
Kate today is only a year younger than Diana was at the time of her death. Comparisons are misleading, for they are very different women, living in very different eras. Some things, however, never change, and one is that there’s usually a new contender coming up in the glamour stakes.
Meghan Markle, a 35-year-old, divorced American TV star, who is currently sharing Prince Harry’s life (see our story on page 32), is seen as the sternest test yet of the court’s revised “acceptability” test. Harry appears besotted with the Hollywood-based brunette, although it is fair to say the prospect of a marriage between them is rattling nerves within the royal establishment.
Kate, at least, is making Meghan welcome. In January she made a special visit to London to meet the actress – taking Charlotte with her – and the two reportedly got on well.
Kate is particularly fond of Harry, and keen to see him settle down. And with a new life beckoning and the many challenges that lie ahead, she may need all the friends and allies she can find.
Kate is fully aware of how much she owes Diana.
ABOVE: Kate and Prince William attending a British Embassy dinner in Paris during their official visit to France in March.
TOP: Anmer Hall, Kate and William’s country home in Norfolk. ABOVE: Kensington Palace in London will soon be their main home. RIGHT: The Duchess in the Alexander McQueen gown she wore to this year’s BAFTAs.
TOP: The young royals attending church on Christmas Day, 2016, which they spent in Berkshire with Kate’s family instead of joining the other royals at Sandringham. ABOVE: Kate, seen here with her one-year-old daughter Charlotte, is determined to be a hands-on mum.
ABOVE: In the public’s perception, Kate’s popularity is closely aligned to her commitment to duty.