In November 2010, when the marriage of His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton was announced, it looked as though the modern age had finally hit the monarchy. So it had, in a way, with the man second in line to the throne marrying a woman rooted firmly in the British middle classes.
But, in another way, the match follows the tradition of centuries. Royal marriages always used to be about cementing an alliance – historically, with some foreign power. The difference is that, in the 21st century, it’s an alliance with the British people the royal family needs most urgently.
Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born on 9 January 1982, the eldest of three children to businessman Michael and former air hostess Carole. She grew up in a village in Berkshire and was educated at a series of privately funded schools before taking a degree in History of Art at the University of St Andrews, where she met Prince William in 2001.
The pair’s relationship is said to have begun in 2003. In 2007, they split up, but not for long. The engagement announcement came three years later and they were married on 29 April 2011.
Her independent working life, outside her parents’ company Party Pieces, was limited to a year as a part-time accessory buyer for the Jigsaw clothes chain. But though the absence of any real previous career may represent a gap in her credentials as a contemporary woman, it did mean that, once she married and became Duchess of Cambridge, she was free to throw herself into that job. “Didn’t she do well?” trumpeted the press after the Canadian royal tour in 2011. Most of its readers will have felt they shared her success, at least vicariously.
More than 2 billion people worldwide are estimated to have watched the wedding (as opposed to some 750 million for the wedding of William’s parents Charles and Diana). The mood was overwhelmingly inclusive. The bishop of London declared that “in a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation”. The guest list expressly eliminated foreign dignitaries to make way for such old friends as the landlord of the Old Boot Inn near Kate’s home village of Bucklebury.
When the first of their two children, Prince George, was born on 22 July 2013, the customary formal announcement was placed on an easel outside Buckingham Palace. The next day, Prince William, having taken paternity leave from his then job as a Royal Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter pilot, was seen strapping his son into a baby seat before driving his new family down to Kate’s parents’ home – and privacy. Kate may inevitably have become a media magnet of immense proportions. But – a few significant press intrusions apart – she seems to be managing it her way.
She is a living symbol of the fact that lessons have been learnt – that no future royal will be forced, as Prince Charles was, to marry for a bride’s superficial suitability. Where Diana had been the last in a centuries-long line of virginal, sacrificial royal brides, her son’s match had to be a love story.
But there is some history of commoner brides within the royal family. Edward IV made a love match with Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a mere knight, while only two of Henry VIII’s six wives came from European ruling families. All the same, the advent of Kate Middleton is still something of a novelty.
When the future George IV underwent a ceremony of marriage with Mrs Fitzherbert in 1795, he was able to do so only in the understanding that any child of the marriage could not succeed their father.
Several decades earlier, the future James II (James VII in Scotland) was a mere second son when he married Anne Hyde, because he had made her pregnant. By contrast Kate Middleton married a man who is scheduled to be king. Everyone knew her bloodline will carry forward the monarchy.
The old definition of commoner was anyone not from a royal family, rather than someone who is common or ordinary. In those terms, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the future mother of Elizabeth II) was a commoner and, while her 1923 marriage to the future George VI – another second son – met with widespread approval, it was still seen as innovatory.
The Duchess of Cambridge is “a living symbol of the fact that lessons have been learnt – that no future royal will be forced, as Prince Charles was, to marry for a bride’s superficial suitability,” says Gristwood. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage via Getty Images)
But a number of earlier commoner brides were not in fact such outsiders as might appear. Elizabeth Woodville’s father might have been a mere knight, but her mother, Jacquetta, sprang from the ruling house of Luxembourg. Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, (like her cousin Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife) was a granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk. Kate and William are actually 14th cousins once removed, but it’s still something new to find manual labourers within living memory on her mother’s side of the family tree.
The Queen’s younger children, like her sister Princess Margaret, have all made non-royal and, indeed, non-aristocratic marriages, albeit to those who moved in royal circles. Then again, the British aristocracy, and the royal family too, have always maintained their vigour on a steady supply of fresh blood. Witness here the Downton Abbey-style influx of ‘dollar princesses’ – American heiresses marrying into the British aristocracy – around the turn of the last century. The affection in which the Queen Mother was held paved the way for non-royal brides ahead. And the new wave of royal brides are important – perhaps more so than ever in the new, feminised climate of the 21st century.
The media furore around Kate might look like that around Diana, Princess of Wales. The concern of Prince William – and of Buckingham Palace, of course – has been to ensure it never takes on the same destructive edge. But that cuts both ways. In the years of Diana’s long estrangement from Prince Charles, every story about her was essentially a story against the monarchy. That’s not how it plays today, with the royals’ new media star singing from the same hymn sheet as the rest of the family.
Kate is a willing and able new recruit to what her husband’s grandfather Prince Philip famously called “the firm”. Her impressive contribution to the family’s popularity may be more valuable than ever in the years ahead if, as has been suggested, Prince William’s surface geniality with the press masks a deep and understandable hostility.
In one sense, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is a throwback: a young woman waiting years for that wedding ring, a consort apparently content with that role. As such, in modern terms, she is an anomaly. But the point is that as an educated, 21st-century woman, free from any constraints of family, she had far more options than her predecessors – and went ahead with this choice anyway. Where Diana gave the impression of never having understood just what she was getting into, this was a career for which Kate had signed up even before the proposal. Perhaps she knew that, this time around, the balance of power would be poised more equitably.
When a friend once commented how lucky Kate was to be going out with William, she is said to have quipped back: “He’s lucky to be going out with me.” The point is, the feeling was reciprocal, and echoed by William’s family. “We are so lucky to have her,” Prince Charles told wedding guests. Since then, there has been nothing since to make the royal family think any other way.
The British, it is said, like their queens: this may be truer than ever today. The role of the modern constitutional monarch may even be one that a woman can occupy more easily. The Queen’s function is that which the poet William Wordsworth ascribed to the perfect woman – “to warn, to comfort, and command”. Effectively, she is mother of the nation; the authoritarian image of a father figure may not play as readily.
Despite the recent changes to the rules of succession – decreeing that, had William and Kate’s first child been a girl, she would have taken precedence over a younger brother – the next three monarchs are likely to be male. This makes it all the more important that they should learn to accept a consort’s influence – and gratefully.
Despite causing scandal and provoking hostility, several royal men found their brides outside blue-blood circles
Katherine Swynford (c1350–1403)
When Edward III’s son John of Gaunt wed Katherine Swynford in 1396, she had already been his mistress for around 25 years and had borne him several children. Those Beaufort children later became legitimate, but their right to the throne remained debatable. Nonetheless, their descendents sit on the throne today.
Elizabeth Woodville (c1437–92)
It caused a scandal when the new Yorkist king Edward IV made a secret love match with the widow of a mere Lancastrian knight, but there was propaganda value in the alliance. She was blamed for the extensive hold her family gained on the country, but the marriage was undoubtedly happy.
Anne Boleyn (c1501–36)
The question of Anne Boleyn’s rank was overshadowed by the far greater scandal of the lengths to which Henry VIII went to marry her. His efforts to free himself from his first marriage led to England’s break with Rome. Anne remains – like her daughter Elizabeth I – one of the most debated figures in history.
Camilla Parker Bowles (1947–)
The 2005 marriage of Prince Charles to the divorced Mrs Parker Bowles was likewise controversial, less because of her antecedents than her marital status – and the distress the pair’s long affair had caused to Charles’s wife Diana. It has been said the Duchess of Cornwall has no wish to assume the position of queen, but her stateliness during the last decade has done much to reduce public hostility.
This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Royal Women’ bookazine