At their wedding reception, in Buckingham Palace on 29 April 2011, the couple that was still very much known as Kate and William danced their first dance, miming the words as they went, to John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s You’re The One That I Want. Ten years on, even if that much remains true, almost everything else has changed.
The recent death of the Duke of Edinburgh has suddenly made the idea of succession real. Suddenly, the way the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have lived out their marriage, which has never been a private affair, starts to matter. At least some of the tension that exists between William and his brother Harry is about their order of birth. Even before Harry and Meghan left for North America, William and Kate were the future of the monarchy.
From the moment they started dating, as university students in St Andrew’s in 2003, the William and Kate story has been the modern chapter in the book of monarchy. The way they met, when Kate caught William’s attention at a charity fashion show at St Andrew’s University, is a world and a generation away from the formal arranged liaisons of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh or Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, which seem like work engagements by comparison.
The earlier generations seemed like episodes in monarchy. The drama of Kate and Wills was sold as an episode in life. That’s the message of the new pictures that were released to mark their ten years together. It is impossible to imagine the Prince of Wales commissioning Chris Floyd, a photographer closely associated with Britpop, to take his picture. William is dressed as your everyday centrist dad while Kate is wearing a £195 dress by Ghost, which says simultaneously vintage and modern. It is a good description of what monarchy tries to do.
Kate was not always so adept. She used to be known, rather disparagingly, “the Queen of Mustique”, for spending so much time there on holiday and “Waitie Katie”, as if all she had in life was the hope of a ring around her finger. The coverage was cranked up when Kate turned up at Sandhurst to watch William graduate as an Army officer in December 2006. The strong assumption thereafter was that she would not be an accessories buyer for Jigsaw for long. In fact there were spells when Kate was not waiting. From April 2007 the two of them had a brief separation and, even when they got back together, it was three years before Kate and William do the routine thing for the contemporary couple and moved into together. William was at the time posted in Anglesey and they lived together, the first royals to live in Wales since Henry VII, for three years.
Kate’s wait, if that is what it was, was officially declared by Clarence House to be over on 16th November 2010. While they were on holiday in Kenya, William had proposed. They posed for the press at St James’s Palace, Kate wearing a ring that William’s mother had worn before her. On 29 April 2011 they were married, with all the obligatory pomp and cap-doffing. The best wedding present they received was Anmer Hall, a country home on the Sandringham Estate, from the Queen. Then the monarchy started reproducing its line. Prince George was born in July 2013, Prince Charlotte in May 2015 and Prince Louis in April 2018. From the point of view of the Firm, ensuring it can keep on going, that’s a job well done.
So too has been the philanthropic aspect of the Kate and William story. The model of monarchy inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth is that the royal family should lend its stature to good causes. During their ten year marriage, Kate and William have complied with the rules of the family firm. William’s big cause is the environment; Kate’s is children and the earliest years of life. They have shared an interest in mental health questions, on which they have both spoken up, again a major contrast with their predecessors. Kate launched Mentally Healthy Schools and a mental health awareness campaign called “Heads Together” in which her partner was her brother-in-law, Harry. Kate talked openly about her struggles as a young mother, her lack of confidence and ignorance and the guilt she felt as she struggled to balance the demands of royal duty and motherhood. William has discussed the pain of losing his mother at such a young age, and having to grow up in grief in public.
There is a major cleavage in the monarchy here. William is the child of two parents, Charles and Diana who, to all outward appearance, had next to nothing in common. Charles represents a royalty of severity, stiff upper-lipped and reserved. Diana was open, theatrical, all too ready to talk. Diana always wanted her little “wombat”, as she nicknamed her eldest son, to have a broader life experience than most other royals. She took them to Walt Disney World and for a burger at McDonalds. She bought them video games. As much as life can ever be normal in the gilded cage of the modern monarchy, Diana wanted William and Harry to see some of the world.
One obvious inheritance, to William from his mother, is an antipathy to press intrusion. In September 2012 the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge filed a criminal complaint with the French prosecution department over topless pictures of the Duchess that had been published in the magazine Closer. They kicked back hard in August 2015 over paparazzi attempts to get pictures of their eldest two children.
But the attempt at being a modern marriage has gone beyond the understandable desire for privacy. The best move that William made, which ended too soon, was his desire to work. William joined RAF Search and Rescue Force just before he was married. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and, in January 2010, took a search and rescue job at RAF Valley in Anglesey. It was real and serious work. In November 2011 William was involved in a mission to rescue a cargo ship that was sinking in the Irish Sea. Two sailors were in peril and William helped to bring them to safety. In 2014 William moved to the East Anglian Air Ambulance but soon gave it up because royal duties were starting to grow.
William and Kate might soon look like trailblazers. All the informed commentators suggest that Prince Charles’s innovation, when he takes to the throne, will be a much slimmer monarchy. Gyles Brandreth, friend and biographer of the Duke of Edinburgh, has said that only five of the family – himself, Camilla, William, Kate and Prince Edward – might be in line for civil list funding. The rest can go out into the world and earn their keep.
Which is precisely what William’s little brother has decided to do. The biggest story, and the saddest story, of Kate and William’s decade has been the rift between the two brothers. It is really impossible to know, in the whirl of claim and counter-claim, where the blame or the responsibility lies. In late 2018 rumours began to circulate that Meghan had made Kate cry and that Harry and William had fallen out because the younger son accused the elder son of not welcoming his wife into the family. The better story was, in the title of a documentary of the time, Kate v Meghan: Princesses At War but the real fight was within the brotherhood.
In March 2019 it was announced that the Cambridges and the Sussexes – Harry and Meghan - would no longer share staff and in June of that year the Harry and Meghan left the charity they had established jointly with Kate and William. They would always be brothers, as Harry said, but “we’re certainly on different paths at the moment”.
The path that William is on will take him, all being well, to the top job, though perhaps not for a long time yet. It may not be Kate who waits. We may be wondering soon how Waity Will can cope with a long regency. We will wonder too how the marriage, ten years in, will signal a new era in monarchy.
In a way Kate was supposed to be a signal of an open royal family. A woman from Chapel Row near Newbury whose ancestors were from Leeds on one side and County Durham on the other, met a prince on an Art History course at St Andrew’s and the rest was history. But they both have found, over a decade in the public eye, that monarchy is a burden as well as a privilege. And not necessarily the one that they want.