As she prepares to turn 40 next weekend, the Duchess of Cambridge knows that by her next landmark birthday, she’ll have become the Princess of Wales — a title that’s lain dormant since the death of Diana, the mother-in-law she never met.
As with everything associated with the Royal Family, her apprenticeship as future queen has been slow. Too slow, say some. But, astutely alert to the royals’ unflustered ways, Kate has refused to be rushed.
Of course, one of our monarchy’s immutable strengths is its repudiation of the modern fad to bend to prevailing fashion.
Significantly, too, Kate has brought another unswerving value to the Royal Family: the Middletons’ way of doing things. Steadfast and unflashy. These principles have steeled her to deal with life in the public eye — and, crucially, to handle the toxic fall-out of Prince Harry and Meghan’s break from the family.
To mark the duchess’s birthday, I have talked to many of those closest to her — some agreeing to speak for the first time — about how she has, at long last, come into her own and is blooming, both professionally and personally.
Her private secretary, Rebecca Priestley (nee Deacon), who worked for the duchess for seven years, recalled how newlyweds William and Kate approached the daunting task of a life committed to public service together as if it was a ‘blank piece of paper’.
In tune: The duchess performing at a royal carol concert last month
All three were in Anglesey in 2011, where the couple had chosen to spend their first years of married life while William worked as an RAF Search and Rescue pilot.
Rebecca says of their conversation: ‘I said: ‘Right, what next? You have the philanthropic world at your feet. There are so many directions you can go in terms of causes you can get involved in.’
‘Catherine [as William prefers her to be known] had clearly put a lot of thought into it and made very clear that, for her, it was about listening and learning.’
For his part, William had impressed on his bride the need for them to take their time.
Another of the couple’s collaborators told me: ‘And that’s exactly what she has done — with William as her guide. He’s encouraged her to do things gradually, saying: ‘This is for you to work out how you want to do it.’
‘He may not shout from the roof-tops about equality, but theirs is a true partnership.’
Some critics felt frustrated at the new duchess’s cautious approach, and she was cruelly dubbed the Duchess of Dolittle.
The public had waited years for a young, glamorous new member of the Royal Family, but, wisely, Kate realised it would be a fool’s errand to try to take on Diana’s mantle. Instead, she assumed more the Queen Mother’s ‘steel marshmallow’ character.
Pictured: With Meghan on the Buckingham Palace balcony in 2019
‘Catherine wanted to get under the skin of this new role and the challenges she was about to take on,’ says Rebecca Priestley.
‘She wanted to learn. There were a lot of under-the-radar visits and she saw people privately to help her understand the issues she wanted to put her name to.
‘These were lifelong decisions she was taking. She wanted to have credibility when she spoke. And that actually takes huge strength of character.’
This approach — refusing to buy into her overnight popularity — has stood her in good stead. With the help of a small team, she has established a clear public vision for her work, focusing on core issues, such as helping vulnerable children and young people, and promoting sport and the arts.
Heads Together — the mental health campaign fronted by William, Harry and Kate — was her idea. ‘Not that she would ever be so self-absorbed as to tell you that,’ another friend says.
Similarly, her Early Years initiative, highlighting how experiences before the age of five can have a bearing on such issues as addiction and social exclusion in later life, has been close to her heart.
Close bond: William and Kate wish the world a happy New Year
Rebecca says: ‘It’s been wonderful to see Catherine achieve what she wanted to and it’s all the more powerful because it is so genuine. Mental health, the Early Years and addiction are all being talked about more openly because of her interventions.’
That’s not to say royal life has always been plain sailing for Kate. Initially, there was a definite sense of ‘defensiveness’ towards the newcomer from the other royal households — particularly Clarence House. It is no secret that William didn’t enjoy the best of relationships with his father at the time.
Charles and Camilla were clearly fond of their new daughter-in-law, and Camilla had given her a gold bracelet engraved with two letter ‘Cs’ as a ‘welcome to the family’ gift. But there was an element of professional envy within their household at Kate’s burgeoning popularity.
The fact is there was no precedent for such a delicate dynamic. Charles was 62, still years from becoming king, and there was a fear in some quarters that the Cambridges’ glamour was starting to make him look irrelevant.
Pictured: The Queen, Prince Charles, Kate, Camilla, William, Harry and Meghan in 2019
A courtier told me: ‘The co-ordination required with three generations working alongside each other has been tricky.’
The situation was frustrating for the duchess, whose priority as a new member of the family was to contribute as part of the team.
But tensions persisted. ‘It took a while to get the balance right,’ the courtier said.
When Kate was due to give birth to Charlotte in 2015, it was the May Bank Holiday weekend and Charles and Camilla were told by William that visitors would have to wait to see the new baby.
Two days later, however, staff were tipped off that Kate’s parents were driving from their Berkshire home to see Princess Charlotte at Kensington Palace.
When a dismayed Charles was alerted, he had to undertake a rather unedifying dash from Highgrove to see his first granddaughter, fearing he would be criticised as uncaring if he didn’t.
Pictured: Kate’s parents Carole and Michael and her sister Pippa at the Westminster Abbey community carol service on 8 December
That was more than six years ago, and the situation is much more relaxed now.
‘Family relations are markedly better and everyone is really pulling in the same direction,’ a source says.
Indeed, Charles is inordinately proud of the way his daughter-in-law has navigated her public role.
Other members of the Royal Family have been equally impressed by Kate’s quiet determination to keep ‘the show on the road’.
Most notably, the Queen has nothing but admiration for her and feels comforted that the future of her dynasty appears assured. Prince Philip was also a particular source of support for Kate — often writing her ‘very warm and loving’ letters.
By then, she had lost her own grandparents, so his advice was much-welcomed and he became something of a role model.
‘Philip was famous for writing letters in the family, but he was particularly thoughtful towards Catherine. He guided her to understand that royal service is what you make of it and was a valuable sounding board,’ a family insider tells me.
Indeed, Charles is inordinately proud of the way his daughter-in-law has navigated her public role. Pictured: Charles and Camilla
‘They spent a lot of time together in Norfolk and she looked up to him enormously.’
According to another source, it has ‘not been easy’ for Kate to combine being the mother of three young children with fulfilling a busy schedule of public duties. ‘She’ll be the first person to say how lucky she is to have the help of a nanny and staff.
‘But going from being a mummy, worrying if a child is not well or had a good day at nursery, to transforming herself into a public figure and shining at an evening reception is tough emotionally. Ultimately, her children are her priority.’
I have been told by several different sources that as a first-time mother, Kate struggled initially to cope with the adjustment of doing the nursery drop-off, then racing to London for meetings and to attend official functions such as state dinners.
This was particularly the case when William was an air ambulance pilot in Norfolk, often leaving the house himself at 5.30am.
She was also deeply concerned about how to protect their young children from paparazzi, after several ‘upsetting’ encounters, and worried whether she and William would ever be able to create a sense of normality for them. ‘But Catherine is not a quitter and she determined that she and William needed to work harder at finding a better balance for their family,’ says a friend.
Kate struggled initially to cope with the adjustment of doing the nursery drop-off, then racing to London for meetings and to attend official functions such as state dinners. Pictured: Prince William on his first day with the East Anglian Air Ambulance in 2015
Of course, they have help from their nanny and a housekeeper. But Kate is very much a hands-on mother and, as a member of staff says: ‘It’s all about organisation.
‘If there’s an evening event, Catherine tends to get her hair ready between meetings during the day so she can finish up while the children are eating dinner, which allows her the time to put them to bed.
‘Her attitude is always ‘we will just make it work’.
‘And nowadays, she has more confidence [during the planning process] to say: ‘No, that is too much for that week.’ ‘
Although her job can be lonely, Kate has found an ally in Prince Edward’s wife, Sophie Wessex.
Seventeen years her senior, the countess is a confidante and a sounding board. They both, I’m told, ‘repeatedly’ reached out to Meghan after she first spoke of her unhappiness in 2019.
Although her job can be lonely, Kate has found an ally in Prince Edward’s wife, Sophie Wessex (pictured)
However, I am also told that both Kate and Sophie were ‘rebuffed’.
There is no doubt Harry and Meghan’s acrimonious departure from the Royal Family, and repeated attacks on it, have deeply upset Kate and William.
The duchess has been accused by some in the Sussex camp of being ‘cool’ towards Meghan — an accusation those close to her vehemently deny.
‘As individuals, they have nothing in common. But Catherine wanted to see Harry happy and felt she was very welcoming to Meghan,’ one friend tells me.
Much has been made of the ‘row’ between the two women during a bridesmaids’ fitting in the run-up to Harry and Meghan’s wedding.
As the Queen might say, recollections may vary as to who made whom cry. I’ve been reliably told that the account which suggests it was Meghan’s behaviour towards Kate’s daughter, Charlotte, possibly over whether she should wear tights, that prompted the dispute is ‘broadly true’.
The duchess has been accused by some in the Sussex camp of being ‘cool’ towards Meghan — an accusation those close to her vehemently deny. Pictured: Kate at an 8 December carol service at Westminster Abbey
Meanwhile, the allegation that the notoriously private Kate schemed to have details of the incident leaked to the media (in fact, there was a number of witnesses present) is laughable. In short, it is her maxim to stay out of family rows.
A well-placed source says of her approach: ‘She treated the whole issue in terms of supporting her husband who, while angry at some of what was being said and done, was largely just consumed with sadness about what was happening with his brother.
‘Deeply aware how very, very upset William was, Catherine’s focus was on supporting him and making sure that they, as a couple, never did anything that was contrary to their values.’
The use of the word ‘values’ is deliberate, given some of the (heavily denied) allegations about Meghan having mistreated palace staff. ‘Catherine was focused on how her and William’s staff were treated,’ I am told.
Sources close to Meghan, however, have continued to indicate that she found Kate cold and unsupportive.
‘All I can say is that no one who has worked for her [Kate] has ever seen any evidence of that,’ my source contests.
‘But is it really so surprising that in the middle of such terrible family difficulties, she made her own husband her number-one priority?’
Above all, William is her partner in everything.
A source says: ‘He flies off the handle at any sign of Kate being patronised and stamps that out very quickly. It’s one of his triggers. Over the years, many people have come up with great ideas for her, but if they are put across in a dismissive way, they’ve got pretty short shrift from him.’
In private, they couldn’t be tighter, and rarely spend time apart aside from when working.
Above all, William is her partner in everything. Pictured: William, Kate, Charles and Camilla
And on the occasions I’ve spoken to him over the years, William has always been far keener to speak about his wife’s achievements — praising the hours she puts in for the organisations of which she is a patron — than his own.
There’s a deep intimacy between the couple. All the big decisions are taken together. Their diaries are approved only after the other one has agreed.
As we begin a new year, the duchess is working on a new set of long-term projects, chosen to showcase more of her creativity and vision.
Rebecca Priestley says: ‘Catherine has very strong, very good instincts. She knows what matters and where she can make a significant difference.’
Thanks to her Middleton upbringing and deep, abiding love for William, Kate’s core values have changed little over the years. But her confidence to strike out and define her royal role as she sees fit has soared.
When Her Majesty turned 40, she had already been on the throne for 14 years. For Kate, this milestone birthday marks another turning point in her apprenticeship to becoming queen.