On the eve of her 10th wedding anniversary, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, appeared on the steps of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor for a very different sort of formal royal occasion: the funeral of the 99-year-old Prince Philip. She was appropriately somber in a black coat dress and matching hat, with a veil over her eyes lending her appearance a slight frisson of Dynasty-style mature glamour. The look was leavened only by a four-strand pearl choker borrowed from Queen Elizabeth II. After the service family members opted to walk back to Windsor Castle in the pleasant spring weather, and so came the most hotly anticipated moment of the day: Will and Harry together again, walking along at first with Kate—until she discreetly melted a couple of steps behind the brothers and let them walk ahead together.
The Duchess of Cambridge received effusive praise for her appearance at the funeral and perceived role as peacemaker between the warring brothers: “Kate Middleton’s new role as the glue holding troubled House of Windsor together,” the Mirror declared breathlessly in the wake of the funeral, praising the duchess for “tenderly” kissing her father-in-law on the cheek. The Telegraph announced, “The Duchess of Cambridge’s destiny is set, but it was at Prince Philip’s funeral that she showed just how ready she is for the role of future queen,” while the Sun pronounced: “Kate Middleton looked every inch the graceful and stoic royal at Prince Philip’s funeral.”
It was a media anointment in the UK—a coronation, even. Those same papers once tittered about how some people found Kate’s mother a bit vulgar and bandied about the nicknames “Waity Katy” or the “Duchess of Dolittle,” suggesting Kate was shamelessly content to wait around for Will and none too keen on work. Over the last decade, the commoner from Berkshire has successfully fashioned herself into a perfect, smiling, briskly competent but never flashy vision of modern, polished, up-market motherhood—posting her own photographs of the kids on Instagram, chatting kindly through her charity efforts with new mothers struggling to adjust. The Duchess of Cambridge is now the wholesome heart of the Windsors, the maternal figure with an expansive understanding of family ties ready to extend a hand to the prodigal brother, the future queen with the traditional womanly virtues required to bind together an ancient institution as its biggest generational transition in a century looms. This modern queen is the creation of a very old-fashioned playbook—handed down straight from Victoria and Albert.
Born in 1982 to Carole and Michael Middleton, who met working as a flight attendant and a dispatcher at British Airways, Kate’s childhood was prosperous but conventionally happy. Michael is distantly descended from Tudor gentry but more recently from Yorkshiremen who’d struck it rich in wool during the 19th century, resulting in a series of trusts that could be drawn upon for things like fancy private education. Carole is technically a very distant relative of the Queen Mother, but her family tree was full of laborers—including a coal-miner great-grandfather—and she had been born in a council flat. Around the time she had her third child, Carole launched Party Pieces, her party supply company; Robert Lacey puts somewhat dryly in his book Battle of Brothers that her “haggling skills are legendary in the direct mail business.” A source told him: “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth most of the time, but she was a ferocious negotiator—and if the haggling wasn’t going her way, the decibel level rose.”
Between the Middleton money and the party supply business, Kate and her siblings went to the very best schools, including boarding at the posh Marlborough, where according to an old roommate, she had a poster of William on her wall. (Though she denied this in their 2010 engagement interview: “It was the Levi’s guy on my wall, not a picture of William. Sorry!”) Her grades secured her a place at her top choice of university, Edinburgh, when suddenly, she decided to take a gap year and reapply to study art history at St. Andrews, instead—where William had just announced he’d be studying art history. As Katie Nicholl’s reporting suggests, they had most likely already met a time or two, because they already ran in the same posh circles.
By 2002, the pair were friendly flatmates; in March, Kate famously strutted down the catwalk in a sheer dress for a campus fashion show, making William appreciate her in a new way, or so the story goes. (The show was, somewhat inexplicably, arranged as a fundraiser for the victims of the 9/11 attacks.) News of their relationship broke in 2004 after a photographer caught Will kissing Kate on a ski lift in the Swiss Alps. And so began a very, very long waiting period, for the press and Kate both, in which her fitness for the role of the future queen was publicly scrutinized and assessed.
That left Kate without the full protection of the palace—but with the full attention of the paparazzi and the British tabloids. There are scads of pictures of a 20-something Kate, climbing in and out of cabs, bangs frequently obscuring her eyes but not her bright smile. When they broke up briefly in 2007, a Telegraph piece suggested that royal commentators “blamed the yawning class divide between prince and girlfriend for the break-up,” played up that Carole Middleton had been seen chewing gum in public at William’s graduation from Sandhurst, and that William’s friends reportedly snickered “doors to manual” when Kate showed up, in reference to her mother’s former job. A Daily Mail piece from the time insisted, “William is horrified at sneers about Kate’s mum,” while also helpfully rounding up every last thing ever said about Carole. It was cruel, and it was also the truth of monarchy’s centuries-old place at the top of the British class hierarchy; this is an institution that’s fundamentally about birth, blood, and pecking order. But this particular monarchy has also shown itself very capable of adapting in order to survive.
The Cinderella story about the commoner potentially marrying into the royal family wasn’t a universal instant hit. But then, commoners have always had a tough time wedging their way into the British line of succession. His devotion to Wallis Simpson got Edward VIII bounced from not just the throne, but the British Isles as a whole; Princess Diana was an aristocrat with British roots older than the Windsors themselves and even she had trouble making it stick. Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner and 15th century “White Queen” of Edward IV, was accused of witchcraft.
The monarchy entered a new era of media coverage with the couple’s engagement and that lavish, beautiful wedding; finally, Diana’s sons were grown enough to offer the tantalizing possibility of a youthful happily ever after. And despite the institution’s uneasiness with Diana’s legacy, Diana offered a model for Kate as an ascendant princess, and her entrance into the family was framed in such a way as to connect her with her absent mother-in-law. William proposed with his mother’s iconic sapphire engagement ring; Mario Testino shot their engagement photo, just as he shot the iconic final formal portrait of Diana.
But it didn’t automatically fix everything for Kate, either; the tabloids still took their shots, and in 2012, the French edition of Closer published topless sunbathing photos of Kate, taken on vacation. The real sea-change came with the arrival of Prince George. Kate’s current public image was minted on the steps of the upscale Lindo Wing maternity ward of St. Mary’s Hospital where her husband was also born, radiant and fully made up, one future king of the United Kingdom at her side and another safely ensconced in her arms. This was another clear reference to the beloved and missing Diana, who had once stood on those same steps with William, repetition across the generations that seemed to promise the Windsors would get it right this time.
The photographs were central to the process. The palace took to the new social media channels available as enthusiastically as any other celebrity releasing casual, relaxed, cozy family shots. Frequently, they were taken by Kate herself. They were shots that could have appeared on the Instagram of any well-to-do mother, a joke she leaned into with the photos of Prince Louis on his second birthday, when she posted an outtake of his rainbow paint-smeared hands under the caption: Instagram vs reality.
Photography is exactly how Victoria and Albert remade the monarchy in the image of the “royal family.” The dynasty immediately preceding them, the Hanovers, were figures of frequent caricature, conveniently cartoonish figures ripe for satire targeting their many personal flaws. At the dawn of the age of photography, Albert quickly embraced the medium, and the royal family’s involvement helped shape the medium in turn; their collaboration with early photographers helped invent the very visual language of family photography that Kensington Palace now uses to present the Cambridges to the nation and the world as a cheerful, united modern family, the healthy and stable future of the British monarchy.
The images of Kate as a polished, conventional mother were the images that were everywhere; no more was she climbing in and out of taxis, going to and from clubs. Instead, she was cozied up with her family in Amner Hall in rural Norfolk, and in public, she worked overwhelmingly with causes associated with children and mothers; a source identified as a friend told Tatler for a profile: “Kate knows what the country needs and wants. Championing how to raise your children is perfect.” She and her stylists and handlers carefully calibrated her glamour so that it shone beside her husband—never competing with him, unlike her mother-in-law. Meghan Markle’s arrival on the scene cemented her position in the narrative of the British press; they had found the perfect foil for their perfect maternal figure. For the purposes of making a perfect British mother, Kate’s whiteness allowed her to escape her less-than-exalted class background.
In fact, where Kate’s background was once too common for the future monarch, now it’s presented as familiar and reassuring, a balm for the dysfunctional Windsors—and the missing component that will finally complete what Diana started. Her background is now cast as an asset, a testament to her wholesomeness and solidity and an origin story for her ability to hold together a family: “Significantly, Catherine comes from a solid middle-class family. Her parents, Michael and Carole Middleton, have been strong role models and given her traditional values. She is also close to her sister Pippa and brother James and has thrived on the warmth generated by a close family,” gushed a recent Telegraph piece. There again, that Victorian echo. Victoria and Albert’s whole pivot to wholesome “royal family” was prompted in part by the institution’s need to break with the unpopular, dysfunctional legacy of the Hanovers who came before them. The man who would become King George IV spent his life frittering away vast sums of money; he abandoned his wife shortly after their marriage and she decamped for the continent, where she lived a life of scandal until returning to London on the verge of his coronation and practically demanding to be crowned queen at his side.
Victoria and Albert, in contrast, presented themselves as upright citizens of a morally righteous country on the rise, expressed through their conventional family life. (Nevermind that Victoria definitely liked having sex with Albert much more than having children.) Kate, more than her husband’s grandmother, more than her father-in-law, more than her husband, stands to inherit their mantle, her camera in her hand serving the same sort of symbolic purpose as the bonnet that Victoria wore on her head during her procession for her Diamond Jubilee.
At the same time, Kate is resonating with an even older set of traditional associations, reworked for the very contemporary demands of a technically toothless institution. Medieval queens drew their power through their association with their husbands; they were an important part of the world of the court and the performance of monarchy. They dealt with women and children and charity; they acted as intercessors, taking pleas for mercy to their husbands, offering a face-saving ability for a king to back down. They had soft power, in other words, which is the only power left to the Windsors, hence their devotion to charity and public awareness and international goodwill tours. Kate is currently being portrayed as a softening influence on her tough, hot-tempered husband; she’ll deploy that influence again and again in ways large and small and crucial for the continued existence of the monarchy. It’s all the more important because Camilla can’t do it—she’s simply too controversial.
There’s a fascination with the idea of how younger royals are “modernizing” the monarchy. Kate’s public image and the way she and her advisors have created it is about modernizing the monarchy, in the sense that modern techniques are being used in the service of very old narratives about the place of women in an ancient relic of an institution. Kate has never had a career outside of “future queen.” Her public image—not Kate the person, but the figure of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, future Princess of Wales and eventual Queen Consort—is synonymous with a very specific, very white vision of motherhood.
In 2013, Hilary Mantel wrote an essay for the London Review of Books about royal bodies that referred to Kate’s “perfect plastic smile”; the tabloids who’d been content to talk about “Waity Katy” were outraged on her behalf and the prime minister felt obliged to weigh in. But she correctly noted that the role of a royal and a princess specifically is first and foremost to give birth: “They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.” She also accurately predicted that once Kate got over her morning sickness, “the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.” Motherhood is what the monarchy demands of a princess. That’s her ultimate job and the source of her power, and Kate has done it well—better than Camilla and better than Diana. And that’s why Kate is the true queen in waiting.