The latest British polls reveal that at 40, the Duchess of Cambridge is the most popular royal after The Queen and just a nose in front of Prince William, who also recently turned 40. Dig into the detail of the YouGov and Ipsos ratings and the rationale behind the voting paints a telling and heartening picture for this future Queen Consort.
For while Catherine’s media coverage frustratingly continues to labour what she wears and how she looks over what she does, a mere six per cent in the Ipsos poll cited the Duchess’ style as the reason for holding her in such high regard. Rather, Catherine is seen as a symbol of what is good in Britain, a public figure who those polled feel is genuinely concerned about people in need, and someone who is both modern and a good national representative on the world stage. They’re the sort of market research results any politician would kill for!
And while the Duchess rated highly with all ages, the generation who love her most are baby boomers – those born between the end of World War Two and the mid-1960s. This group has observed the full Wills and Kate story in often glaring technicolour.
Baby Prince William in his mother’s arms on the steps of St Mary’s Hospital in London and then in the depths of mourning, walking behind her coffin age 15. William’s achingly long courtship of university flatmate Kate Middleton, a “regular” girl from England’s Home Counties who he finally married and stood with on those same hospital steps with each of their own three children facing that barrage of photographers, some of whom had plagued his mother.
In Catherine, William had found the soulmate for his journey to future kingship. Famously the decision to marry was carefully considered, with his girlfriend dubbed “Waity Katie”, as the Prince pondered and Kate silently faced intense and often cruel media probing.
“He asked Kate to wait essentially 10 years to become his wife,” says Tina Brown, author of The Palace Papers and The Diana Chronicles, who feels William wasn’t questioning the depth of his love – of that he was certain – but needed to be sure that this sophisticated, intelligent young woman could cope with the realities of royal life.
“It was because he knew how extraordinarily difficult it was to live in that institution of monarchy, for two reasons: one, the strictures and the constraints and the need to live in this artificial way a lot of the time; two, because of the scrutiny that is relentless, that is 24/7, that will never end for your entire life. William understood the stresses of that. He’d seen his mother crack up from it. He didn’t want his wife to be someone who could not handle that.
“He’s had a lot of flak from Harry about how he supposedly said, ‘you shouldn’t marry Meghan, you should wait’, but the people around William told me he only meant to say, ‘give her more time to understand what she’s getting into’. Meghan said in that interview with Oprah, ‘I had no idea what I was getting into.’ Well, that’s right, she didn’t, it seems, and needed longer to understand what it would extract from her.”
It was Diana who counselled both her boys to marry for love and then, according to royal biographer Penny Junor, told her eldest, William: “If you find someone you love in life, you must hang on to that love and look after it. You must protect it.”
The Prince has certainly heeded his mother’s words with Catherine and their children, shielding them from the glare of the spotlight as much as he is able. In his own childhood it was the paparazzi who were the most invasive. Who can forget that footage of Diana begging photographers to let her boys holiday in peace on the ski slopes of Austria, or being chased by them down the streets in London as she tried in vain to dodge their long lenses?
“I sadly remember most of the time she ever cried about anything was to do with press intrusion. Harry and I, we had to live through that,” declared William in a 2017 TV documentary about Diana.
The Prince later discovered the mainstream media was equally destructive behind the scenes in ways he didn’t even know about at the time. Both William and Harry’s personal phones were hacked, as revealed in the Leveson Inquiry – William’s 35 times and Harry’s nine. And in order to persuade his mother to take part in the now infamous interview that hastened her own exit from royal life, BBC’s reporter Martin Bashir concocted false documents that William believes exacerbated his mother’s “fear, paranoia and isolation” in the final years of her life.
The national broadcaster has finally owned up to its “deceitful behaviour”, paying damages to those involved, including Prince William, and announcing this month that it will not screen the interview again. But for the family it’s all too late.
Today the landscape is slightly different, but just as challenging. Social media trolls have created a coliseum for vicious commentary and fake news that is virtually impossible to control. And as with Diana, it seems to be the royal wives who are targeted most with a despicable “battle of the Duchesses” narrative raging in which Catherine is pitched against Meghan.
As the second in line to the throne, Prince William and his family are seen as fair game, public figures for whom such interest is an unfortunate by-product of their privileged lives. Learning to manage that world is part of the job and it’s unquestionably a lot to cope with.
But following the examples of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, William and Catherine have doggedly refused to rise to the bait, forging on with their work and consolidating their roles at the heart of the family business, which as the popularity polls show is winning them many more fans than detractors.
At the same time, the slimmed down monarchy that has resulted from Prince Harry, Meghan and Prince Andrew all stepping back from royal duties means that the Cambridge family workload has increased, and even the children are more visible at engagements. Also, with the Queen entering her 97th year and health issues continuing to limit her public appearances, the pressure is on her heirs to step into the breach.
“As crisis followed crisis, smiling Catherine hasn’t put a foot wrong,” writes veteran royal reporter Robert Jobson in his incisive new biography William at 40. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the immaculate mother-of-three backed up her husband, took on extra engagements, making scores of public appearances remotely, as the UK was forced into lockdown and, as soon as they could, publicly.
“The Cambridges, despite William being struck down by the virus, were ever present, it seemed, thanking NHS staff or Zoom-calling children of essential workers. With Catherine at his side, the Prince seems more assured, their chemistry clear for all to see. Every step of the way, Catherine has put duty first.”
Vanity Fair reporter Katie Nicholl has spent the past couple of years investigating the future make-up of the House of Windsor for her upcoming book The New Royals (coming to Australian bookstores in November) and agrees that the Duchess of Cambridge is a powerful asset in the monarchy’s future.
“Although Harry and Meghan standing down has put a lot of pressure on William and Kate as they have stepped up and taken on an increased workload, it has also had its advantages for William and Kate. They can take the lead, and it’s a role they have embraced. They have turned the situation into an opportunity.
“Kate particularly seems to have come into her own. She is more confident and focused than ever and perhaps that’s because there isn’t a sense of competition from Meghan or the comparisons that did overshadow the ‘Fab Four’. I think she seamlessly filled the void left when Harry and Meghan left and has shown herself to be serious, hardworking but also very kind and compassionate.
“I think two key events saw the Cambridges and their children take on centre stage roles. These were ‘Megxit’ and the pandemic,” Katie explains.
“Both events required William and Kate to take on more work, supporting The Queen and Prince Charles, and it was a real change for them as a family. We have seen more of the Cambridge children in recent years than ever, something which was always going to happen, but which was accelerated by Harry and Meghan leaving Britain, which meant there was a chasm for William and Kate to fill. They used the pandemic to their advantage, showing the nation why the royal family was essential during times of crisis.”
WATCH: Princess Charlotte updates medal board at SportsAid house. Article continues after video
Meanwhile Catherine has strengthened her portfolio of initiatives and patronages. One area she has passionately dived into is the crucial role of early learning for children, especially those facing societal challenges. She has spent the past nine years studying the field, gathering knowledge from experts and setting out her aims.
In June 2021, Catherine launched The Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood to drive action in a bid to transform society for generations to come. “I believe the early years should be on par with the other great social challenges and opportunities of our time,” she announced.
When she first joined the family, Catherine was a lot more tentative and rarely spoke in public, and while it’s a cliché to say she’s found her voice, it really does feel like that.
“I think she had already found what she wanted to say, especially on the early years and how children are affected by addiction within the family and children’s mental health and mental health in general. But she was waiting to become better acquainted with the facts before talking publicly in detail,” explains Simon Perry, royal correspondent for People magazine, who has been impressed with the intensity of the Duchess’ work.
“Those in the mental health world tell us about how she has become a leading advocate voice in the subject and does so after really delving into it. Her setting up of the foundation has been backed by those in the charitable area of children and mental health and development, and crucially the scientists involved too. This is something she is going to be involved in throughout her public life in the coming decades and she is only growing in her expertise and knowledge.”
Robert Jobson says watching Catherine carve out her role has been fascinating. “She spoke candidly on podcasts about the guilt mothers feel when having to work and has not been afraid to talk about how she raises her family, conscious all the time of her financial advantages. Beneath that soft smile there is a tigress, passionate about her husband and a modern woman who will fight tooth and nail for her family.”
Catherine is painfully aware of the public thirst for photos of the royal children and in a canny move took the reins herself, developing her photography skills and taking perfect shots for the media. With Mum behind the lens there is no artifice, and none of the angst William and Harry used to have when being photographed. The latest of Prince George on the beach on holiday, released for his ninth birthday, is a delight.
This has also meant that when Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis are in the public eye – as they were significantly throughout the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June – they are happy being snapped and preparing for the public roles that will soon be part of their agenda.
“They will always be protective, but we are seeing more of the Cambridge children and this is deliberate,” notes Katie Nicholl. “It’s partly because they’re older now, and comfortable in the media spotlight, but it is very much about projecting a positive image of the future which is crucial to the continuity and success of the monarchy.
“The decision to allow the children to have such a high profile at the Platinum Jubilee celebrations was significant, and we saw George and Charlotte joining their parents on an official visit to Wales. I don’t think this is going to become commonplace, but it’s an acknowledgement of the roles the children will have in the future. It’s all being carefully stage managed at a pace William and Kate are happy with.”
If there has been one blip this year for Catherine and William it was their tour of the Caribbean in March, representing Her Majesty to mark the Platinum Jubilee and to underpin a commitment to royal ties with the region. Photos of this perfect white couple shaking hands, waving and at one point greeting Jamaicans through a wire fence smacked of outdated colonialism and hit a nerve of simmering resentment regarding a lack of reparations at governmental level for the past atrocities of slavery.
“To be honest, when I took the pictures of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge shaking hands through the fence I didn’t feel there was anything wrong with it,” Shutterstock royal photographer Tim Rooke tells me.
“They carried on meeting extremely enthusiastic people in the street as they made their way to Bob Marley’s house. I also photographed them in the Land Rover which did look a bit dated, but as I understand it was suggested by their hosts.”
People’s Simon Perry was also there watching the tour unfold. “It must have been hard for the Cambridges to fathom the reaction in some way, as the negativity wasn’t felt from among the people they came face to face with – everywhere they went, including in Jamaica where the Prime Minister had told William directly that he wanted to start the ball rolling on not having the British monarch as head of state, crowds were welcoming, friendly and largely charmed by the couple.
“It was out there, as it were, among commentators and politicians that the atmosphere changed. William saw that, and talking to his staff, intervened more than he might have done on previous tours. I think that is a sign of how, going forward, he will react clearly and quickly and not leave things unsaid.”
Tim Rooke doesn’t feel the tour has impacted negatively on the couple and Catherine especially is continuing to evolve. “I think as she has grown into the role, she has obviously become more confident. While I’m not sure any one royal is crucial to the future of the monarchy – it would carry on regardless – having someone who wasn’t an aristocrat or a foreign royal but a middle-class woman marry into the family can only be a good thing for its future.”
As we go to press, the Cambridges are preparing to move out of London and Norfolk to base the family in a new home within the Crown Estate in royal Windsor. “I think there are a number of reasons for the move,” says Katie.
“They want to move out of the capital and had been looking at other schools for George and Charlotte. Windsor means they will be closer to the Queen which is very important to them, and closer to Kate’s family in Berkshire. It also gives them a lot more space and privacy and, long term, I think it signals that we can expect to see the Cambridges living at Windsor Castle and so it therefore puts them one step closer to the seat of power.”
They will be on the doorstep of Harry and Meghan’s UK home, Frogmore Cottage, but royal watchers are not expecting a happy reunion.
“The rift between William and Harry has had a big knock-on effect on Kate, who was always very close to Harry,” says Katie. “Behind the scenes she has tried to make the peace, but she has also been hurt by what Meghan said to Oprah when she claimed it was Kate who made her cry, and she feels Harry has behaved very badly in all of this.
At the moment the focus for Kate is on supporting William and she is fiercely loyal to her husband.”
As for the future, the idea of the girl from Bucklebury as Queen Consort one day feels more and more appropriate.
“Kate has always proved herself to be an equal partner, a loyal consort and a constant support to William. She never eclipses him and they make a brilliant team,” says Katie. “
She reminds me very much of the Queen Mother and also the Duke of Edinburgh, she is the linchpin that keeps the family together. She knows what is expected of her and she always fulfils her duty with a smile.”
You can read this story and many others in the September issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now