William and Kate: Scenes From a Fairy Tale

On Nov. 16, 2010, just minutes after the announcement that Prince William would marry his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a statement of congratulations, helicopters circled Buckingham Palace, and news channels were looping footage of the young couple sharing intimate moments at a garden party. The nonstop chatter of royal watchers immediately followed, their discussions revolving around what Kate would wear down the aisle and whether that aislewould be in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where William’s parents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, married 30 years earlier, or Westminster Abbey, which wouldn’t raise the specter of his parents’ drawn-out divorce.

Despite the glare of the media spotlight, 28-year-old Kate must have felt a degree of relief. On that day — after an eight-year courtship that had survived constant speculation, relentless pursuit by paparazzi, a high-profile breakup and an even higher-profile reconciliation — the royal family had finally made public what Kate had known or at least privately hoped for years: The future king really had found his queen.

With that single announcement the royal constellation added a new star. Kate pulled an entire nation into her orbit, bewitching royal supporters, everyday Joes, and girls too young to spell her name. The international curiosity stemmed partly from the walls the royal family had erected around her. William, no doubt, wanted to protect his would-be bride from the media intrusion that some say robbed him of his other great love, his mother. Even so, in the months leading up to the April 29 wedding, the media brought an ever-slimmer Kate into sharper focus — not merely as the future Mrs. William Windsor, but also as a commoner who had risen to the apex of British society and a style maven who had launched a thousand knockoff dresses along the way.

By most accounts the wedding showcased Britain at its best. In a spectacular show of pomp and pageantry, austere Britain seemed, for a few hours, anyway, to throw off concerns about the economy, the euro and civil unrest (though rooftop snipers were in position to ward off the threat of terrorism). Rich and poor gathered on the streets outside Westminster Abbey and along the regal thoroughfares leading to Buckingham Palace, hoping for a glimpse of the horse-drawn carriage carrying the newlyweds toward their future. But Prince William and Kate — dubbed Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, that morning — knew the spectacle afforded the public more than an afternoon of free entertainment and that it symbolized much more than the union of husband and wife. For the hundreds of millions of people around the world watching on TV and online, it was a reminder of monarchy’s charm and unifying power. Yes, economic woe grips Britain. Public distrust of politicians is multiplying by the day. And millions of the royal subjects face a potentially less prosperous tomorrow. Yet in the year since their wedding, William and Kate have managed to burnish the Windsor family name. Whether visiting charities that work with homeless youth or walking the red carpet for the London premiere of War Horse, Mr. and Mrs. work as a team. “It’s been a long while since Britons have had a young, good-looking couple to cheer about,” says Robert Jobson, author of William and Kate: The Love Story. “It’s certainly given the monarchy a younger, fresher feel — and a bit more relevance as a result.”

The couple has managed to exhibit a common touch without sacrificing the mystique of royalty. While William, who turns 30 on June 21, pursues his military career as a search-and-rescue pilot with the Royal Air Force, they’ve continued to live in a four-bedroom farmhouse on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. They’ve chosen not to employ a chef, butler or valet, and Kate has declined ladies-in-waiting. In February 2012, a royal aide revealed that William would like to extend his military service beyondmid-2013, when his current three-year commitment ends. That would limit the couple’s public duties and allow them to start a family in relative privacy. “The appearance of normality makes people of their age able to connect with them,” says Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage editor Charles Kidd. “That will inevitably change when the Queen’s reign ends and the Prince of Wales succeeds. These are precious years.”

The public successes the duke and duchess have racked up aren’t put down merely to luck or the skilled hands of their choreographers. They stem from Kate and William’s obvious strength as a couple. Long before they contemplated living as husband and wife, they navigated a long, occasionally tumultuous courtship. William was born into the firm. Kate has had a long apprenticeship.

A Royal Courtship

Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born on Jan. 9, 1982, and grew up in the village of Bucklebury, population some 2,000. Strolling through Bucklebury Common — a sprawling, 900-acre park and the town’s visual centerpiece — Kate’s parents may have told their children about the park’s royal legacy. Community leaders planted its inner ring of oak trees sometime in the 1560s to celebrate a visit by Queen Elizabeth I, and more trees were added in 1972, when Queen Elizabeth II toured the grounds. It’s doubtful they interpreted them as signs of their eldest child’s destiny.

The Middleton family’s flight into the upper echelons of British society began at a British airport. Michael and Carole Middleton met in the 1970s working at British Airways — she as a flight attendant, he as a manager. They married in 1980, and the airline transferred Michael to Jordan four years later. Kate, then 2 years old, attended an English-language nursery school in Amman, and Carole stayed at home with 8-month old Philippa. Two-and-a half years later the Middletons returned to Bucklebury. In 1987, Carole gave birth to their youngest child, James.

That’s when she had her multimillion-dollar idea. As a stay-at-home mom struggling to round up balloons and streamers for Kate’s and Pippa’s after-school parties, she decided to set up Party Pieces — a mail-order company selling children’s party supplies such as kazoos and stuffed pigs. As the orders rolled in, the Middletons bought a five-bedroom house and expanded operations from a backyard shed to a series of converted farmhouses. The business, which analysts have estimated could be worth $48 million, catapulted the family into a genteel world where aspirational women hunt wearing pearls.

It also allowed them to send their children to prestigious Marlborough College, a tony English boarding school that costs more than $48,000 a year and boasts alumnae that include Britain’s first lady, Samantha Cameron. Kate didn’t stand out for her academic ability, but she excelled as a leader and athlete, running circles around her classmates as a member of the field hockey and cross-country running teams.

Kate’s decision to study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland fit with her family’s rising ambitions. The school attracts scores of blue-blooded students from south of the Scottish border.That year it also attracted Prince William, who (like his future bride) chose to study art history there instead of pursuing a degree at Cambridge, as his father did. Shortly after his arrival, reporters suggested that many of his female classmates had already purchased wedding gowns. “I suppose they’re saying that tongue-in-cheek,” he responded. “But people who try to take advantage of me and get a piece of me — I spot it quickly and soon go off them.”

The 19-year-old prince also knew how to spot a keeper — even one wearing just a bit of translucent clothing. He had become casual friends with Kate shortly after arriving on campus. During their second term, he paid $320 to support her at a charity fashion show. Kate sashayed down the runway wearing a see-through silk tube with a bandeau top and bikini bottom. She had a fuller figure than we know today and exhibited a degree of daring that will likely never reappear publicly. Photographers snapped a mesmerized William ogling. That fall, at the start of their second academic year, the two became housemates, along with two of their friends.

It’s unclear when the friendship blossomed into something more. Buckingham Palace repeatedly denied a romance. Officials brokered a deal with the paparazzi that allowed William and Kate to grow their relationship in relative privacy in exchange for regular updates on his life. “There’s been a lot of speculation about every single girl I’m with, and it actually does quite irritate me after a while, more so because it’s a complete pain for the girls,” William said ahead of his 21st birthday. But in March 2004, a photo of the couple skiing in Switzerland finally exposed their relationship.

The cloak of security afforded them by the university couldn’t last forever. In June 2005, graduation yanked it off entirely, and Kate had to face the media head-on. Issues of class quickly came to the fore, even before it became common knowledge that her family tree had branches held up by miners and manual laborers. Reporters claimed that William’s well-heeled friends referred to Kate’s mother with the flight-check phrase, “Doors to manual.” Mean-spirited classmates even nicknamed Kate and Pippa, who studied at nearby Edinburgh University, the “wisteria sisters.” The punch line? They’re decorative and fragrant with a fierce ability to climb.

More worrying were the paparazzi who stalked Kate through the streets of London, publishing photos of her on the bus en route to a job interview and cycling to the gym in athletic shorts. The Palace provided Kate with 24-hour security through the Royal Protection Group (SO14), beginning in February 2006. Journalists gritted their teeth and kept up their occasionally lawless hunt for information. In January 2007, the former royal editor of the News of the World admitted to intercepting phone messages between William, Harry and their aides. He and his co-conspirator, a private investigator, served jail time.

The low point came in March when the couple split during a ski holiday in Switzerland. William reportedly wanted to enjoy the bachelor life while in the military. Rather than sulk at home, Kate decided to take to the town. Photographers snapped her looking glamorous and apparently unmoved by the snub from her wayward prince. Catherine Ostler, former editor of the high-society magazine Tatler, believes Kate’s poise during that period ultimately boosted her popularity. “She came out of that breakup rather well,” Ostler told Time on the day the engagement was announced. “She went out, looked great, and eventually he went back with his tail between his legs. It made her look like the triumphant underdog.”

Just two months after their split, the media started publishing reports of a reconciliation. Joint appearances in public — including at the July 2007 memorial concert for Princess Diana — confirmed it. When the two hit the slopes in Klosters again in March 2008, the press wondered aloud when “Waity Katie” would get her proposal. It came in October 2010, during a 10-day safari in Kenya. William took Kate to the Rutundu Log Cabins, accessible only by air, horseback or a nine-mile walk from the nearest road. He carried his mother’s sapphire engagement ring, now worth about $150,000, in his backpack. “It was very romantic,” Kate said in her first televised interview. “There’s a true romantic in there. I really didn’t expect it. It was a total shock … and very exciting.”

The Making of a Duchess

As royal-wedding fever spread across the world, Kate retreated into the cocoon of the royal estates. In January 2011, the Palace announced that Kate had left her part-time job at her parents’ party business to “concentrate full-time on preparing to become a member of the royal family.” Three decades earlier, Palace staff had assumed that Diana — who came from one of the country’s oldest aristocratic families — could intuitively manage royal protocol and the anxiety of a dissected life, despite being just 20 years old. They couldn’t have been more wrong: Diana suffered years of torment at the hands of the media before she learned to manipulate it. “The experience must have led the Palace to realize that a new bride in this very public role has to have care and training and a lot of backup,” says Debrett’s editor Kidd. “Catherine is of course from a very different background. This has sharpened everyone up a bit.”

The eight-year courtship gave her a running start. Although she rarely appeared publicly in the lead-up to the wedding — she poured champagne on a new lifeboat in Wales in February and flipped pancakes in Belfast in March, both times alongside William — she seemed at ease. Crowds responded at every turn, partly because of Kate’s million-dollar smile and willingness to engage with them, but also because of their own desire to be swept up in the romance.

On April 11, during her final public outing before the wedding, she and the Prince traveled to Darwen in Lancashire, a village 180 miles northwest of London, to open a school. As their motorcade pulled up, 2,000 well-wishers clapped and cheered despite the pouring rain.Kate emerged from her car wearing a navy-blue skirt suit and three-inch heels — and sheltering under a massive umbrella, which she carried herself. “She’s just beautiful,” Marion Riley, 57, told Time after seeing Kate for just a few moments. “There could have been more guards around her, but she didn’t want them. She went to shake hands, and she waved at everybody.” Margaret Worthington, 71, seemed even more moved. “She really does appear a nice person,” she said. “It brings tears to my eyes.”

The next time the world would see Kate, she’d be wearing white.

On April 29, the wedding unfolded like a red carpet, rolling out smoothly from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace and into the living rooms of viewers around the world. All the Queen’s horses (well, 187 of them) and all the Queen’s men (including 5,000 police officers) took their positions, and a million spectators flooded London’s parks and sidewalks. At precisely 10:51 a.m., Kate and her father departed the nearby Goring Hotel. She smiled throughout the seven-minute journey and maintained a serene expression as she stepped onto the carpet outside the cathedral. Trailed by a 9-ft. ivory train, her sister and six young attendants, she made her way toward William.

Anyone — even a future king — can feel small beneath the towering spires of Westminster. During Kate’s three-minute walk down the aisle, a nervous and slightly fidgety William bit his lip. “Wait till you see her,” his best man, Prince Harry, told him. Kate arrived, and despite the grand setting, the gaze of onlookers and years of expectation, William leaned into her and whispered, “You look beautiful.” It took lip-readers to deduce that for the press, but anyone watching got the message.

“That blend of formality with a relaxed atmosphere is something very special,” says Richard Fitzwilliams, royal watcher and the former editor of International Who’s Who. “People’s spirits were uplifted with the knowledge that they seemed so at ease with one another and that the succession is now so secure.” For months the royals had stressed the human dimensions of the wedding, including the fact that the father of the bride would contribute toward its costs. Because William is second in line to the throne, behind Prince Charles, the wedding was not an official state occasion, which gave William and Kate the freedom to make it their own. They didn’t face pressure to invite heads of state like President Obama. Instead, they filled the aisles with schoolmates, representatives of their charities, and celebrities, notably Elton John, who had comforted Princess Diana during trying times. After their balcony kisses in the afternoon, they drove away from the palace in an Aston Martin decorated with balloons and a license plate that read JU5T WED. That evening they hosted an intimate after party inside Buckingham Palace. Around 2:30 a.m. the DJ played the official last dance: “She Loves You” by the Beatles.

Beyond Westminster Abbey

The Duchess of Cambridge walked down the aisle a commoner and glided back up a royal. She looked calm, even joyful. If she was quivering beneath all the lace and flowers, we may never know. In the many public appearances she and William have made in the year since their wedding — mingling with Michelle and Barack Obama at Buckingham Palace during a state visit, painting at an inner-city arts school in Los Angeles — they appear stronger together than they do apart. But Kate — she of the perfectly coiffed hair and immaculately tailored gowns — hasn’t yet given the world an opportunity to see the soul beneath the polished exterior. “I wouldn’t say she’s establishing an identity of her own just yet, because we haven’t seen enough of her on her own,” says writer Robert Jobson. “It’s a conscious decision to present William and Kate as a team and a couple.”

Occasionally there are glimpses of a rich inner life. In January the duchess announced the four charities she will support as an official patron. Two of them — the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Art Room, a charity that uses art as therapy for children — reflect a lifelong interest in the arts. Her choice of East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices, based in Cambridge, hints at her desire to make her role as Duchess of Cambridge more than titular. And, according to a Palace source, working with Action on Addiction, which helps children and families coping with substance abuse, reflects her observation that addiction is “at the heart of many of the social issues she was looking at.” On Feb. 8, while William was deployed in the Falkland Islands, the duchess made her first solo appearance, at the Lucien Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. On Valentine’s Day she visited a Ronald McDonald house in Liverpool, and sampled smoothies at a non-alcoholic bar called The Brink. At each event cameras flashed, the duchess smiled, and crowds cheered a woman standing on her own.

She does have support, of course. During William’s six-week tour of duty, which ended March 21, Kate grew even closer to the royal family. On March 1 she looked delighted as she accompanied the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall on a tour of Fortnum & Mason, a luxury department store in London with a celebrated teashop. It was the trio’s first official joint engagement; they wore varying shades of blue in a show of togetherness. A week later Kate accompanied the Queen and Prince Philip to Leicester, where they watched a student fashion show at De Montfort University. Kate frequently whispered into the Queen’s ear, underscoring the comfort and ease of their relationship. “The Queen has made a lot of time for the duchess,” a senior royal aide told CNN at the end of April. “[Kate] gets on very well with the Queen. They have a warm relationship as was evidenced in Leicester.”

Even if she flourished with her husband away, the true magic of Will and Kate may lie in the “and.” Prince Charles and Diana seemed to recoil from one another in their engagement photographs, and throughout their marriage he resented that she overshadowed him. William, however, openly admires his wife and values her influence. As he said not long before their wedding, “She’s got a really naughty sense of humor, which kind of helps me because I’ve got a really dry sense of humor.” His public speaking engagements now seem less wooden, as if her glamour rubs off on him, giving him the confidence to speak straight from the heart. “She knows her task is to support him,” says Fitzwilliams. “It isn’t a competitive relationship. When they are together you see how strong the teamwork actually is.”

It’s an exportable commodity and one that will help them preserve the link between Crown and Commonwealth — the band of 54 independent countries that once made up the British Empire, 16 of which retain Queen Elizabeth as symbolic head of state. Polling data from May 2011 showed that 55% of Australians age 14 or older prefer to keep the monarchy — the highest level since 1991. In August, Canada quietly restored the “royal” prefix to the Royal Canadian Armed Forces.

More than any other event, the couple’s 11-day tour of Canada and the U.S. in the summer of 2011 cemented faith in their ambassadorial abilities. Only 18 international journalists followed Queen Elizabeth II on her Canadian tour in 2010. Nearly 300 followed the duke and duchess in 2011. “It was a real rejuvenation of the monarchy in Canada,” says Christina Blizzard, a Canadian journalist who trailed them for her book Young Royals on Tour. “And the crowds weren’t just made up of traditional monarchists, who one would assume are older white people.” Locals praised their patience: The military timing of the tour mattered less to Kate than giving high-fives to children. William managed to win over crowds in Quebec City — a bastion of republicanism — by delivering a speech in French.

The defining moment, however, came in Calgary, when the duke and duchess met a 6-year-old cancer patient on an airport runway. Diamond Marshall, whose mother had passed away from cancer four years earlier, had written to the Children’s Wish Foundation asking to meet “Princess Kate.” Wearing a pink hairband across her bald head, she presented the duchess with flowers and a friendship bracelet before diving into her arms. Kate seemed delighted, and Diamond broke into tears. “Kate didn’t make the mistake of bending over Diamond. She got down and talked to her on her level,” Blizzard says. “There were some very cynical journalists on that runway, but there wasn’t a dry eye in sight.”

Happily Ever After?

While Kate the commoner has helped make monarchy modern, she must soon embark on the most traditional role of any royal consort: producing and raising an heir. Both Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana announced their pregnancies within six months of marriage, at the ages of 21 and 20, respectively. Kate, 30, surely has that on her mind.

The media is willing her on. In September 2011 an American tabloid claimed she was pregnant with twins. Buckingham Palace swiftly issued a denial. Denials, however, don’t dampen the anticipation. Every movement she makes — from holding a clutch purse near her stomach to declining peanut paste while sampling a UNICEF food package in Denmark — is analyzed as a prospective sign that a new royal is on the way. For its February 2012 issue, Tatler magazine — the social bible for the horse-and-pony set — ran a cover story warning Kate what to expect if she becomes pregnant in 2012: “At the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games [in London] you are going to have to dig deep into your soul to find any enthusiasm,” the magazine warns. “All you’ll be able to think about is whether the baby is distressed by the sudden loud noise.”

She won’t, however, need to worry about the gender of her first child. In October 2011, Commonwealth leaders unanimously agreed to change the Act of Succession, which for 300 years has dictated that the English crown pass to the oldest male heir, even if he has an older sister. “Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen,” British Prime Minister David Cameron explained. Cameron said the previous arrangement was “at odds with the modern countries that we have become.”

That suggests, rightly, that Britain’s royals exist not merely to influence the values of their countrymen but also to reflect them. Prince William’s heir, whoever he — or she — may be, will enter a family where a commoner can become queen and a prince can marry for love, where the crown worn by one is held up by many. Children will come in time. For now, William and Kate can rest assured that the next chapter of Windsor history is already written.

Excerpted from the book The Royal Family: Britain’s Resilient Monarchy Celebrates Elizabeth II’s 60-Year Reign. Now available in bookstores everywhere, and online.