Catherine the Great

May 25, 2020

 HRH The Duchess of Cambridge is crowned Catherine the Great on the July/August cover 

 Kate Middleton’s star is going stratospheric as the country looks to the monarchy for morale. Anna Pasternak charts her ascent 

Has the Duchess of Cambridge suddenly become one of the most influential women in the world? 

Front and centre of the new, slimmed-down monarchy, Kate hasn’t put an LK Bennett-shod foot out of place in the nine years she has been William’s wife. That was clear as the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic and she took on extra royal duties – making public appearances remotely as the country went into lockdown. There she was, clapping for the NHS, speaking to primary-school children over Zoom, offering support to the new Nightingale hospital by telephone from Kensington Palace and giving relatable interviews about the challenges of homeschooling. William seems adrift when Kate is not by his side (take the awkwardly wooden Children in Need skit he attempted with Stephen Fry, for example). Kate is, some argue, a kingmaker. 

Certainly royal courtiers have murmured their approval. ‘Kate understands that the only credo of the Royal Family is duty, duty, duty,’ says one. ‘Whereas with the Sussexes it is constant uncertainty, [the Cambridges] represent stability and continuity.’ It’s easy to forget, with the all-encompassing threat and disruption of the coronavirus crisis, that this tumultuous time follows an extremely busy period for William and Kate. In the wake of Harry and Meghan standing down as senior royals and seeking exile in North America, Kate took on 11 royal engagements in a month – three in the space of 24 hours. It was a gruelling attempt to buffer the barrage of bad news destabilising the House of Windsor on a near-daily basis: the divorces (the Queen’s nephew Lord Snowdon and her grandson Peter Phillips); Prince Andrew’s mortifying fall from grace; the Sussexes’ surly press statements; and those naff Chinese milk adverts. Amid it all, Kate has emerged serene and smiling. 

Out went safe shift dresses, in came silk pussy-bow blouses and softer blowdries. Everywhere, there was talk of Kate, opening up on podcasts about ‘mum guilt’. As a good friend of hers points out, ‘Kate knows what the country needs and wants. Championing how to raise your children is perfect.’ Some say that beneath the yummy-mummy exterior is a spine of steel; that, in many ways, she’s reminiscent of the late Queen Mother, whom Cecil Beaton described as ‘a marshmallow made on a welding machine’. Because surviving, let alone thriving, in the House of Windsor is no mean feat. 

Was it Kate who advised William on his recent modernising speeches and causes while toning down her own rigid body language? Was she instrumental in William’s jarringly woke ‘inclusivity’ Bafta speech? Has seeing Meghan exit stage left from royal life played to Kate’s advantage? Is the royal once dubbed the Duchess of Dolittle because she had so few public engagements stealthily establishing herself as kingmaker – the person to save, and salve, the monarchy? 

In many ways, it’s difficult to get a true sense of the real Duchess of Cambridge – so determined does she seem to project an aura of blandness as part of her regal persona. When I broach the subject, I hear the same sentiments from others, from royal insiders to society figures: ‘I just don’t know who she is.’ One member of the young royal set says: ‘I’ve spent quite a lot of time around Kate and she is impenetrable. There is nothing to like or dislike.’ Yet, the source continues, ‘she has a ruthless survival streak, just like the House of Windsor. It’s why she is so well suited. I think she keeps her head down because the prize of being queen is so great. She appears to model herself on the Queen and now speaks like the Queen.’ 

It’s been a rapid ascent for a girl born into an upper-middle-class family in Reading. She and her siblings attended Marlborough, thanks to her parents’ thriving mail-order business. Then in 2001, at university – Sloane central, St Andrews, where she read history of art – she met William. She reputedly mixed with an almost exclusively grand set and famously appeared in a sheer dress on the student catwalk. Dating William for several years earned her the cruel nickname Waity Katy from the press. The waiting paid off – they married in fairy-tale splendour in 2011 – but the sniping persisted. 


‘In the beginning it was quite difficult for Kate as she wasn’t born into those circles,’ says a royal insider. She suffered the indignity of the ‘doors to manual’ jibe (a reference to her mother Carole’s former role as an air hostess) and needles about her ‘common’ family background – Carole being ‘NQOCD’ (Not Quite Our Class, Darling) for having been born in a council flat in Southall and descended from Durham coal-mining stock. Plus, horror of horrors, Carole allegedly ‘chewed gum’ during William’s passing-out ceremony at the Sandhurst military academy. 

Worse yet, Carole’s brother, Kate’s uncle Gary, is a flamboyant boulevardier on his fourth marriage. He owned a villa in Ibiza, where Kate and William stayed, called La Maison de Bang Bang, and was a victim of a News of the World drugs sting (he said he was manipulated and set up). Yet Kate has never complained about her press drubbing nor disinvited dodgy relatives from her wedding. There seems to exist within her a genuine stoicism. But one wonders if the criticism gets her down. 


Notably, in 2013, the Man Booker-winning novelist Hilary Mantel sparked outrage when she gave a lecture in which she described Kate as ‘gloss-varnished’. In what the press called a ‘vicious’ and ‘venomous’ attack, Mantel said: ‘Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable; as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, oddities, without the risk of emergence of character.’ In fact, the lecture provoked such a maelstrom of opinion that the then prime minister, David Cameron, took time out of a trip to India to refute the ‘completely misguided and completely wrong’ summation of the Duchess of Cambridge and what Mantel called her ‘perfect plastic smile’. No doubt it stung, but Kate bore it silently. In crisis, friends say, Kate retreats to the protective embrace of her family. Her commendable backbone comes from her mother. ‘They are a very close family and totally united,’ says a friend of the Middletons. It helps that in William’s eyes Carole and Michael Middleton can do no wrong. ‘He absolutely adores them. Michael is charming. Really kind, soft and gentle. William loves going to the country to stay with them. Their family life is so soothing for him as it’s so different from his own family.’ 

When it comes to the Middletons, continues the friend, ‘The big thing in their family is control.’ Another member of their circle concurs: ‘In person, Catherine is a bit warmer and slightly more fun than in public, but you are aware that she is always aware of how careful she has to be. There is a level of control that she has to retain. I don’t think she’d know how to fully let her guard down now, even if she wanted to.’ 

It’s true that when she speaks, in her carefully modulated voice (coached with the help of the late Anthony Gordon Lennox, Old Etonian nephew of the Duke of Richmond – friends say that Kate’s accent became ‘posher’ at Marlborough and that now she sounds ‘even more plummy than William’), she says all the right things, and more often prefers to be called Catherine. But where is the passion? Maybe this is a defence against appearing like Diana, Princess of Wales, who put The Firm’s backs up by being over-emotional, volatile, vulnerable and skittishly complex. But God, she was loved for it. 

Publicly, Kate may not inspire Lady Di levels of adoration, but she certainly has a following: a big one. And as time has gone on, the other royals have developed great respect for her because she’s doing the job so well. ‘She doesn’t create press headaches or court scandal, which, given everything else that is going on, is an almighty relief,’ says a courtier. 

Her loyalty has been noted and duly rewarded. In 2018, the Queen bestowed on her granddaughterin-law the Royal Family Order. One of the highest orders that the monarch can bestow upon a female member of the Royal Family, this is undoubtedly well deserved. 

Not everyone is pro Kate. It’s no secret that the royal sisters-in-law never got on. ‘I don’t think that she ever pulled Meghan under her wing and said, “I’ll show you the ropes,”’ says a friend. ‘Catherine and William were very circumspect from the beginning about Meghan, which hurt and incensed Harry. William rightly cautioned Harry to slow the relationship down. That’s why they all fell out. As the rift got deeper between the brothers, Kate, who used to be so close to Harry, tried to pacify things. But her loyalty will always be to William.’ 

‘Then there was an incident at the wedding rehearsal,’ another friend of the Cambridges’ claims. ‘It was a hot day and apparently there was a row over whether the bridesmaids should wear tights or not. Kate, following protocol, felt that they should. Meghan didn’t want them to.’ The photographs suggest that Meghan won. Kate, who has impeccable manners, sought the opportunity to put Meghan in her place, reprimanding her for speaking imperiously to her Kensington Palace staff. ‘In the palace, you hear numerous stories of the staff saying so-and-so is a nightmare and behaves badly but you never hear that about Kate,’ says a royal insider. Another courtier says: ‘Kate keeps her staff whereas Meghan doesn’t. Doesn’t that say everything?’ 

Kate’s loyalty extends to a coterie of friends that is incredibly small, tight-knit and long-standing. Yet you never see her out lunching with girlfriends, as we did Diana, papped giggling on the steps of San Lorenzo. Her group, on the face of it, appears more staid – or cautious. 

‘Kate is one of us in the sense that all her friends are Sloanes and aristocrats,’ says one of her group. ‘She’s very much decided that that’s her tribe, even though she wasn’t actually born into that background.’ Commendably, she’s kept her girlfriends from Marlborough, including Emilia Jardine Patterson and Trini Foyle, as well as blending with William’s friends such as Lady Laura Meade and her husband, James Meade, and Thomas van Straubenzee and his wife, Lucy Lanigan O’Keeffe, who teaches at Thomas’s Battersea, where Charlotte and George go to school. 


Then there’s the matter of the Sussexes’ awful timing. As the Queen gave a historic speech urging the public to adhere to the government’s pleas for self-isolation – and on the day the prime minister was taken to hospital gravely ill from the coronavirus – Harry and Meghan chose to announce a new charity endeavour, Archewell, from their haven in LA. 

‘I think Meghan and Harry have been so selfish,’ says a friend of the Cambridges. ‘William and Catherine really want to be hands-on parents and I think that the Sussexes have effectively thrown their three children under a bus. There goes their morning school runs as the responsibilities on them now are enormous.’ More’s the pity. For it is Kate’s presentation as an everywoman that has endeared her to the public lately. There she was, catching the £73 Flybe flight to Scotland; expertly making roulade alongside Mary Berry on TV last Christmas; popping into the pub with her fellow school mums in Chelsea; and, during a visit to a children’s centre in Cardiff, talking about feeling lonely as a new mother. 

There she was too at the school gates. One mother at Thomas’s says: ‘Kate has grown in my esteem because she is genuinely involved with the school. She does the drop-off herself, comes to coffee mornings and even queues to get her own coffee after drop-off, like the other mothers.’ Which, of course, she is, and she isn’t. 

Perhaps Mantel had it right about Kate – up to a point. The aura of blandness is practised. In her future role as queen consort, her enigmatic containment will enhance her sovereignty. She is a royal ballast, William’s most trusted adviser, and someone who puts duty above all else. 

Whatever the truth, as the woman behind the man who will reign from what Winston Churchill called ‘the greatest throne in history’, Kate has emerged as the ultimate power player. Underestimate Queen Catherine at your peril.