Note: This article is from the Guardian.
Beautiful, intelligent and down-to-earth, the commoner turned down the proposal of marriage from the prince, “afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”. In the end, though, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was persuaded to marry the man she knew as Bertie and became the much-loved Queen consort to King George VI, expertly performing royal duties across eight decades.
If Kate Middleton is suffering similar jitters as the TV towers rise on the Mall, she may take heart from the example of the Queen Mother, supposedly the last “commoner” to marry a man who would be king. For all the hyperbole of the royal wedding tearing asunder Britain’s rigid class system – Middleton’s first 13 years were spent living in a semi-detached house! Her great-great-grandfather was a coalminer! Her uncle is a ne’er-do-well! – there is plenty that is unique about the bride and the recognisably modern relationship that her wedding will celebrate.
Defenders of our hereditary monarchy aver that one of its great strengths is that we know exactly where our kings and queens come from – we watched them grow up, unlike politicians who arrive with an act in place and skeletons shoved firmly in closets.
Kate, or Catherine, as she is known by her family and her pre-university friends, is different. In the final hectic days before her marriage to William in front of a billion or more observers, she is still almost completely unknown. Despite books, documentaries and column miles devoted to her, she has given just one short interview, with William, on the day of her engagement. What are her qualities? What sort of consort to the future king will she be? What public role will she play? And how will she cope with our scrutiny?
Look back into anyone’s life and you can identify wry coincidences and apparently prophetic events. Myths and legends already swirl around Kate that suggest this royal romance was meant to be, despite her isolation from the aristocracy. She was born at the Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading on 9 January 1982, the first child of Carole and Michael, who met while she was a flight attendant and he was a steward with British Airways. Kate went to the local village primary school until Carole’s thriving business, Party Pieces, enabled the Middletons to pay for Kate, her younger sister, Pippa, and brother, James, to enjoy an upper-class-style schooling at private establishments.
Tall for her age, Kate excelled at sport after joining St Andrew’s school in Pangbourne, Berkshire. She was in the crowd one day when Prince William, then nine, visited to play hockey. Kate also enjoyed drama and starred in a number of plays including one Victorian melodrama in which she fell in love with a handsome, wealthy gentleman called William, who proposed marriage. (The denouement is less auspicious: Kate’s character and her child are abandoned by the ungallant William.)
Another legend from Kate’s childhood was that she stuck a poster of the prince on her wall while boarding at Marlborough school as a teenager. Kate insists it was the Levi jeans guy but this legend endures because it buttresses another myth – that Kate’s supposedly ambitious social-climbing mother urged her to go to St Andrews University after her gap year just to snare the prince.
Accounts of Middleton as a young woman are uniformly pleasant. No one speaks ill of her, privately or publicly. Middleton is described as intelligent (she got a 2:1 in history of art at university) but not goody-goody, and beautiful without being full of herself.
The childhood incident that has attracted greatest scrutiny, however, is her abrupt switch from Downe House school to Marlborough, aged 14, which convincing reports ascribe to bullying. The only old school friend from Marlborough who has talked at length, Jessica Hay, said Middleton was bullied because she was perceived “as quite a soft and nice person”. The headteacher of Downe House at the time denied Middleton was badly bullied although conceded the “catty” atmosphere may have left her feeling “like a fish out of water”.
This bullying seemed significant when it was revealed that one of Kate and William’s wedding charities was Beatbullying. Middleton could find a compelling role in tackling bullying issues but Prince William’s staff at Clarence House downplay this. The couple chose 26 different wedding charities “to reflect interests close to both of their hearts” says an aide.
Perhaps more can be gleaned of Middleton’s personality and passions from the present day. Here, the absence of information is telling. The royalty historian Hugo Vickers is amazed by the lack of leaks about the wedding. “It’s just so calm and discreet. It’s like the Kremlin,” he says. When Sarah Ferguson was getting married to Prince Andrew her former boyfriends came out of the woodwork; Kate’s only confirmed ex is invited to the wedding and has said nothing.
The couple are surrounded by a professional press operation. But royal sources insist that the lack of stories about Middleton is down to Kate and William themselves. “The couple are genuinely incomparable. They are one of the most high-profile couples in the world and yet you don’t know what they do in their private life, how they spend their time, what they enjoy, who their friends are,” says an aide. “There’s a reason for that – they are surrounded by an incredibly loyal group of friends who have never once spoken yet.”
This “vow of silence” has always been William’s way of doing things, says the aide; his way of finding a normal life “inside the bubble”. While celebrity couples are surrounded by “friends” who plant stories in the press, William and Kate ensure their friends say nothing about them. It’s said William used to pass false stories to friends to test them. “They are very single-minded about their life together,” says the aide.
Privately William is characterised as being strong-willed and knowing his own mind. “And Catherine does as well. They are cut from the same cloth in that respect,” says the aide. “She’s a very strong woman. You’d have to be.”
There are ample reserves of sympathy for William and Harry after the death of their mother, Diana, and some people welcome the fact that William’s marriage, after seven years of cohabitation (inconceivable at the start of the Queen’s reign), is so different from his father’s nuptials with his first wife. Kate, too, is very different from Diana: almost 10 years older and the first future queen to have a degree.
“She’s older, she’s better educated and comes from an ordinary family,” observes Judy Wade, Hello!’s royalty correspondent. “Diana came from a broken home – Kate doesn’t.”
Diana, Fergie and even Sophie Wessex all visibly changed and grew into their royal roles. “Kate is already there. She’s got her act in place,” says Vickers.
Public duties are deceptively difficult and the history of royal pratfalls is long in the modern media age. In the runup to the wedding, Kate has performed public engagements near the home she and William share in Anglesey, and in Lancashire and St Andrews, and royal watchers are impressed with her poise and self-assurance. “When she first came out at the engagement she was a bit overwhelmed by it all,” says Chris Jackson, Getty’s royalty photographer. “Since then she’s obviously had some training … because there was definitely a change when she visited the Anglesey lifeboat station.”
“You’d expect her to be shy but no, very confident,” says the royalty photographer Mark Stewart. “When Kate got out of that car in Wales it was like she had been doing it all her life.”
A successful royal partner needs more than fickle press approval, however. There is also the Firm, and its staff. Camilla has apparently remarked, “we are so lucky to have her”, but is Middleton well-liked by more humble members of the royal household? “Massively so,” says one aide. “What you see in public is what you get in private – very warm, very kind, very thoughtful, sensitive, very down-to-earth, very intelligent.”
But then again, warns Wade, every newcomer to the palace is feted at first. “She needs to be streetwise – Coronation streetwise. A final word of warning – be very careful of fake sheikhs.”
Royal aides say you can infer plenty about Middleton’s personality from the royal wedding. It is said that Charles and Diana were only permitted to invite a handful of guests each among the 3,000 dignitaries at their wedding in 1981. Kate and William have personally invited more than 1,000. Middleton has chosen the music (she has a passion for classical music) and everything “from carriages to canapes” says the aide. “She has taken a lead on all the things that have a creative input and has stamped her mark on it.”
As well as being sporty Middleton is a keen photographer (“not just happy snaps, pretty decent stuff which could be displayed in a gallery” claims a royal source) and does watercolours. Her unspectacular career at Jigsaw and then at Party Pieces, where she was responsible for the website and catalogue, has at least demonstrated an interest in design, marketing and fashion.
Middleton dresses herself “without any advice or input from the palace”, according to the royal source, and her style has attracted attention around the world. Salons in New York have reported customers asking for “a Kate” cut and her preppy look is credited with inspiring a Sloane revival.
The scale of the global interest in the royal couple is bigger than ever before. There is predictably intense interest in the US (NBC alone is sending 250 journalists to cover the wedding) but also in unexpected places, such as China and eastern Europe. “The world is after them,” says the publisher John Blake, who has sold rights around the world to his publishing house’s two Middleton books. “Everybody is interested. Diana was unique and such a creature of her time. Kate is more of a girl next door but her soap opera is only just beginning.”
A soap opera … can Kate cope? “The nickname she was given, Waity Katy, sums up her strength,” claims the royalty historian Robert Lacey, who likens her, favourably, no”t to Diana or the Queen Mother but to Prince Philip; like the Duke of Edinburgh, Middleton understands hers must be a supporting role. “Willingness to take second place is a very important attribute of being a royal consort. That’s something you never felt Diana took on board.”
A modest, subordinate role might suit the monarchy but will it fulfil popular expectations? Won’t Middleton need to take on a more dynamic role to be a popular modern woman? “It’s important to understand them as a couple rather than two individuals,” says a spokesperson for Clarence House. “He’s a search and rescue pilot and he’ll be that until 2013, based in Anglesey. Their life will be in Anglesey.”
Middleton is expected to develop links with charities that fit with “her two big developing areas of interest”, the arts and sport, but at first they will only do royal engagements together. “Their intention is for the first couple of years of marriage they conduct their public life together so that Catherine will begin to learn the ropes as to how to conduct herself. And they want to be able to support each other too,” says the spokesperson.
“She’s going to die of boredom in Anglesey,” predicts Wade, who is also fearful of the eight days tour of Canada that Middleton will be dispatched on six weeks after her wedding. The planes at 5am, the crowds, the pressure to look gorgeous all the time. “It’s going to be a shock for her,” she says.
Safe, dutiful and not another Diana; isn’t there a danger that a bored Kate will bore the public? William has a reputation for being adventurous on royal tours and the press desperately hope the couple will prove to be active and interesting. “Hopefully they won’t just be planting trees,” says Jackson.
Vickers says: “If they are to any degree boring that’s quite a good thing. Better to be boring than to be showbusiness. It’s much better when they are plodding around doing their duties than when they are going to parties in Hollywood or Palm Beach polo matches.”
After her day watched by the world, Middleton is unlikely to be a very different person from the Kate of today – and we are unlikely to know her any better. As well as William’s determination to have a private life, the royal family knows that in an era of celebrity their “mystery and mystique” is part of their “enduring appeal”, as a member of the household puts it. “She’s got the rest of her life to be known … members of the royal family are not celebrities.”
Lacey adds: “They are both children of the celebrity era. You see that in their self-assurance in front of cameras and ability to appear natural … But retaining the privacy of their souls is a wiser, more important, attribute. You can see how William learned this through bitter experience but Kate seems to have got it as well.”
A protest group with Middle Eastern connections has warned police that it is planning disruptions during the royal wedding this Friday.
As Scotland Yard negotiated with Muslims Against Crusades and the English Defence League over their proposed protests, it emerged that a man from another group, who was understood to have Middle Eastern links but whose identity has not been confirmed, walked into a police station at the weekend to formally apply for permission to demonstrate.
Officers have powers to ban big protests along the main route in London that Prince William and Kate Middleton will take for their wedding, but they are unable to rule out static protests at other nearby locations in the centre of the city.
Six protesters wanted in connection with violence during the TUC marches were arrested in the past week, said police. The six have received bail conditions stopping them from entering central London on the 29 April. Several more arrests are expected as part of covert investigations.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010