x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Kate Middleton: Britain's middle class princess

If Catherine Middleton reigns happily ever after as Queen Consort to the future King William V, she will make history as the first queen of Britain with a university degree.

If Catherine Middleton reigns happily ever after as Queen Consort to the future King William V, she will make history as the first queen of England with a university degree.
If Catherine Middleton reigns happily ever after as Queen Consort to the future King William V, she will make history as the first queen of England with a university degree.

If Catherine "Kate" Elizabeth Middleton reigns happily ever after as Queen Consort to the future King William V - and given the marital record of the House of Windsor, a qualifier is regrettable but probably provident - she will enter the history books as the first queen of England with a university degree.

Queen Catherine, BA (Hons) history of art, University of St Andrews, to be precise. Her most recent predecessor as consort to the monarch was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the beloved "Queen Mum" and mother of the present queen, whose titles included Queen Empress of India and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, but whose education was largely completed, by a private tutor, at the age of 13.

As a royal bride, Princess Catherine (as she will become, in front of the high altar at Westminster Abbey next April 29), therefore seems a thoroughly modern woman and a thoroughly modern choice as the House of Windsor enters its second century on the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and other Realms and Territories.

Plain Kate Middleton (although she is rather pretty and not plain at all) is not like any other royal bride. While comparisons have inevitably been made with the late Diana, princess of Wales and - not so much - with Sarah Ferguson, the impecunious duchess of York, it is not just that the latter concluded her education at secretarial college and the former left school at 16, having failed her "O" levels twice, that makes her different.

To begin with, she is a commoner, that peculiarly mediaeval distinction that divided society between the hereditary aristocracy, who ruled, and the yeoman classes, who provided for them.

So whereas, Diana Spencer was the daughter of the 8th Earl Spencer and Viscount Athrop (the same person), Kate's father is Mr Michael Middleton, of Chapel Row, Bucklebury, Reading, West Berks, RG7 6P.

Mr Middleton is a former British Airways flight despatcher who met his wife, Carole, while she was working as a flight attendant for the airline. The genealogy of the British aristocracy is chronicled in some depth in publications such as Burke's Peerage and Gentry and Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage. The lives of common folk, though, are dissected with perhaps even greater vigour by Her Majesty's Fourth Estate, the British press.

So we learn from Christopher Wilson in The Daily Telegraph that ancestors on her mother's side are horny-handed sons of toil from Country Durham, including coal miners, domestic servants and "roadsweeper James Dorsett, still working at 73 when he died of exhaustion".

For more up-to-date information, there is no better source than the Daily Mail, whose editors have an unrivalled sense of what outrages and entertains Middle England. The Mail has decided that Kate is the "Middle-Class Princess" and has virtually adopted her in the process.

At the same time the intricacies of the English class system come into play with the Middletons, who are quite wealthy after setting up a highly successful mail-order firm selling party trinkets in the 1980s and can afford a £1million, five-bedroom detached house and to chip in for their daughter's wedding expenses.

Because they earned their money rather than inherited it, though, the family has been on the receiving end of a certain amount of snobbery, even, it is claimed among some of the prince's circle of friends, who were reported to have made fun of his girlfriend's mother's original occupation by whispering "doors to manual" whenever Kate entered the room.

All the initial indications suggest that the next Princess Catherine ought to be able to take this in her stride. She seems a nice, uncomplicated, well-brought-up young woman and certainly better able to cope with the media spotlight than Diana, even to the extent to accepting her late mother-in-law's engagement ring without flinching.

Then again, she is 10 years older than Diana at the time of her engagement to Prince Charles, a crippling shy nursery assistant still in her teens. Middleton's relationship with William has been tried and tested over time. Again, unlike Diana, who emerged as a prospective royal bride in a matter of weeks, Kate and William have been an item for more than eight years. One of her tabloid nicknames was "Waity Katie". As her prospective father-in-law, erring just on the right side of taste and decency, put it: "They've been practising for long enough".

The couple met at university where the prince is said to have been smitten at a student fashion show when Kate took to the catwalk in a particularly diaphanous dress.

Until that point, her life might best be described as "comfortable". A child of the English shires, she is the eldest of three children (a brother and sister). She was educated at a village school, then at Marlborough College, a private boarding school with fees of Dh139,000) whose alumni include Samantha Cameron, the wife of the present British prime minister, and where she achieved the rank of hockey captain.

The Gap Year, that parentally funded middle-class rite of passage followed, with visits to Italy and Chile. Her A Level results - two As and a B - were probably not strong enough for a place at Oxford or Cambridge, but in any case she had already accepted a place at St Andrews (prompted, some gossips said, by her mother, who was anxious to propel her daughter into the prince's arms).

The story of their courtship is chronicled elsewhere far more extensively than can be done here. Briefly, the relationship began some time in either 2002 or 2003 when they shared a flat with other students, but emerged into the unblinking public eye the following year when they were seen holding hands during a skiing holiday in Switzerland.

By 2005, the year both graduated, the attention was such that the Middletons' lawyers were sending threatening letters to the press. The following year, Kate and her mother were guests of the prince at his Passing Out Parade at Sandhurst.

Was it the sight of Mrs Middleton chewing gum just a few feet from the queen that caused the couple to split a few months later? Even if it was, it was not for the synthetic and almost certainly invented outrage attributed to the monarch by some newspapers.

Still, seeing your mother pilloried in the tabloid press might be enough to make any girl think twice about what she was getting herself and her family in to. Kate has said since that she "wasn't very happy about it", the "it" many suspect being the lack of attention she was getting from her royal beau given what she was going through on his behalf.

They were back together within months. This time Kate seemed much closer to the royal inner circle. She went stalking with William and his father at Balmoral, the family's Scottish estate, and was a guest at the wedding of a Windsor cousin, even though William, now an RAF helicopter pilot, was unable to attend.

In many ways the couple's relationship since then has been so stable for the past three years that to almost all appearances they were already a married couple. Except they were not. Yet the announcement of their engagement seems to have taken most people by surprise, even though the prince has always said that he hoped to be married by his late twenties.

Inevitably she is filling something of the void left by the death of the princess of Wales. She is already becoming something of a fashion icon and her face (and figure) are appearing in newspapers and magazines all over the globe. The Franklin Mint has already fabricated a doll. The royal wedding will be an international event likely to pump billions into the ailing British economy and provide a much needed fillip to the national psyche. And it's all on her.

In the end, what she will probably have to work hardest at is not being the new Diana. That and producing an heir to the throne. Even for the Middle Class Princess, certain obligations come with the job.

 

KATE MIDDLETON: BIOGRAPHY

January 9, 1982 Catherine Elizabeth Middleton is born in Berkshire, England

1987 Her parents, Michael and Carole Middleton found Party Pieces, a mail-order company that will make them millionaires

August 2000 Passes her A-level examinations at Marlborough College and wins a place at the University of St Andrews in Scotland

September 2002 After befriending Prince William, the heir to the British throne and a fellow student, she shares a house with him and two other students in their second year

June 2003 She is a guest at the prince's 21st birthday party, but he denies having a steady girlfriend

March 2004 After they are seen together skiing in Switzerland, their relationship becomes public

June 2005 Kate and William graduate from St Andrews and have lunch together with their families

April 2007 It is reported that the couple have split; royal officials do not deny the claims

July 2007 The couple are said to be back together

June 2008 Kate makes her first appearance at a formal royal event, the Garter Ceremony at Windsor Castle

October 2010 Prince William proposes on holiday in Kenya and asks her father for permission to marry

November 16 Her engagement to the prince is announced, with a wedding at Westminster Abby on April 29

 

jlangton@thenational.ae