Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales met a certain Catherine Elizabeth Middleton in 2001, during his first term at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland — a small, though prestigious, school of about 7,500 students in a picturesque seaside town. From the outset, they had much in common: Both were 19 years old, living in the St. Salvator’s Hall residence (nicknamed “Sally’s”) and studying art history. Though William had grown up playing in palace corridors lined with Vermeers, Rembrandts and Turners, he would soon lose interest in art history and change his major to geography. The shy, slender brunette who was voted prettiest in residence by the end of their freshman week, however, would prove to have a more fixed hold on his attention.
Kate, as her school friends call her, was raised in the village of Bucklebury, the eldest daughter of a flight attendant and a flight dispatcher. When she was young, her parents, Carole and Michael, founded a successful mail-order business, Party Pieces, to sell party decorations. As the company grew, they moved into a larger house and managed to send their daughter to Marlborough College, a prestigious boarding school in Wiltshire, in southwest England. At school, Kate was, by all accounts, a well-adjusted, popular and fun-loving student. A generally mild-mannered girl, she did have a mischievous side, and enjoyed shocking male classmates by mooning them from the dorm-room windows. Charlie Leslie, a former classmate, told the BBC that Kate was “an absolutely phenomenal girl — really popular, talented, creative and sporty.”
While teenage Prince William was tending to his stable of polo ponies or skiing with the royal family at Klosters, Kate was distinguishing herself as captain of the school field-hockey team and playing first pair in tennis. “She excelled in all her subjects and was an A-grade pupil across the board,” her college master told the BBC. “I don’t think you’d find anyone in Marlborough who had a bad word to say about her.” Unlike many of the other girls at St. Andrews, if Kate was smitten with the royal in their midst, she was careful to conceal it. It was William who invited Kate to join his breakfast table during their first term at Sally’s. A committed athlete, Kate liked to go jogging in the mornings and would usually turn up to the canteen late. William and his coterie of friends had colonized a table next to the grand head table reserved for college deans and wardens. It was there, under the soaring ceilings of the St. Salvator’s dining hall, eating muesli and fruit with their fellow first-year students, that Kate and William struck up a friendship. At the outset, the relationship was entirely platonic. Kate had a steady older boyfriend and William had become entangled in a distraction of his own. The other woman Carly Massy-Birch was a beautiful English-language and creative-writing student whom William had met through friends at St. Andrews. Like Kate, Carly was from a non-aristocratic background — she grew up on a farm in Devon — and while Kate may have been voted prettiest in class, Carly won the title for the best bottom. Part of what attracted William to Carly was her normalcy, and their shared love of the outdoors. “I’m a real country bumpkin,” Carly told Katie Nicholl, royal correspondent for the Mail on Sunday and author of the recently published book William and Harry. “I think that was why we had a connection. It’s such a small place that it was impossible not to bump into William, and after a while there was nothing weird about seeing him around. It was just a regular university romance.” While William was quietly carrying on with Carly, he was also experiencing a crisis at school. When he returned home at Christmas break, he told his father, Prince Charles, that he did not want to return to St. Andrews. “I don’t think I was homesick; I was more daunted,” William said later. Kate, who had become a close confidant, was one of the friends who counselled him over the holidays. He would ultimately credit her for helping him to get past what is now referred to as his “wobble.” Whether she had feelings for William or was simply encouraging a good friend to stay in school is unclear. What is certain is that things were about to change between them.
In March of 2002, Kate was in a charity fashion show at St. Andrews Bay Hotel. Striding down a catwalk in front of whooping students, she radiated sexual confidence in a series of skimpy outfits — including a see-through dress with a black bandeau top and a bikini bottom. William, who had paid over £200 for his front-row ticket, saw his sporty school chum in a whole new light, reportedly telling his buddy, “Kate’s hot!” At the afterparty, William made a play for Kate, flirting heavily and at one point even trying to kiss her. But Kate, who still had a steady boyfriend at the time, was careful to demur. They were in public, after all — William might be a future king, but that did not excuse such boldness. Apparently, her rebuff had William hooked. Years later, Kate was cruelly dubbed “Waity Katie” by the media, but in the beginning it was William who was forced to be patient as Kate wound down her relationship with another classmate. It is not known precisely when the royal romance began, but by the beginning of their second year, they were living together — albeit with two other pals in a shared student house. According to Nicholl, “William and Kate were determined to keep their fledgling romance quiet, and behind the closed doors of 13a Hope Street, they could. Their bedrooms were on separate landings, but by this stage it was nothing more than pretense.”
Did Kate win her prince’s heart by desire or by destiny? Likely a bit of both. But according to Nicholl, the cynics are wrong about the future Princess of Wales. “I’m not one of those people who believe that she set out to snare Prince William at St. Andrews,” she said. “I believe that she’d always intended to go to St. Andrews and that they met through fate. It was a friendship initially, but I don’t think she plotted it in any way. The fact that she’s marrying into the royal family is not about achieving status for her.” Be that as it may, Kate has certainly endured her fair share of snobbery and accusations of social ambition — both from old-school palace courtiers, who believe William should keep with tradition and marry an aristocrat, and from his blue-blooded pals, who liked to whisper, “Doors to manual” when she walked into the room — a reference to her mother’s past job as a flight attendant. But, according to Nicholl, that’s as far as the snobbery went. “I don’t think the Queen ever had a problem with Kate’s class. That they were truly happy together was far more important to the Queen than any class issue. She’d learned that lesson with Diana.”
Once it was clear that William was serious about Kate, the Palace took his girlfriend under its wing, inviting her to some official engagements (though not, significantly, Camilla and Charles’ wedding in 2005) and, according to Nicholl, offering her a hotline to the prince’s aides and lawyers and, eventually, her own palace protection. Never before has a royal girlfriend been treated in such a welcoming manner. This was not only because the royal family wholly approves of Kate — she is calm, poised, reasonable, retiring and, most important, utterly devoted to William — but because the palace had learned from past mistakes, namely Diana. While Kate has been welcomed into the royal family with open arms (her parents were even invited to Balmoral to shoot before the engagement), Diana complained bitterly that she felt like an outsider with her in-laws during her courtship and marriage to Charles. While the virginal Diana and the much-older Charles were rushed to the altar after a whirlwind romance (Diana was barely out of adolescence at the age of 19), Kate and William took their time, got to know each other, travelled together and even set up house and shared a bed before deciding what the future would hold.
Kate and William have enjoyed an amount of freedom previously unthinkable for a future king and his girlfriend. And that freedom paid dividends when they appeared in their first official interview together after the big announcement, looking supportive and very much in sync. While their nine-year relationship is now being characterized in the media as a “modern-day fairy tale,” at many points it must have seemed more like a waking nightmare to Kate. Like Diana before her, she has been hounded by paparazzi since the moment her courtship with the prince became public. With tabloids speculating for months about their relationship, the cat was officially out of the bag in 2004 after Clarence House refused to deny that the young couple were dating, but it was only after graduation that the media’s gloves truly came off. Not since Diana had the British press had such a beautiful and succulent royal consort to feast upon. Kate was stalked by paparazzi outside her Chelsea flat and photographed going in and out of swanky nightclubs like Boujis in South Kensington with William and members of their close circle of friends. The Queen was increasingly unamused by her grandson’s drunken antics. Kate has never actually been much of a party girl, preferring quiet weekends stalking deer in the countryside with William to carousing on the London club circuit. But there was concern at the Palace that Kate lacked sufficient structure in her life. Her brief career as an accessories buyer for the retailer Jigsaw ended after she complained that the constant paparazzi attention was simply too much. Palace lawyers wrote threatening letters to the major London dailies, asking them to back off. And while she was still very much within the royal fold, the public pressure to marry had begun to mount, causing cracks in the relationship.
In February of 2006, Woolworth’s began stocking royal-engagement china and mouse pads emblazoned with Kate’s and William’s faces and the slogan “200? Celebrating the Royal Marriage of William and Kate.” (In what must have been an immense relief for the couple, the retailer went out of business shortly thereafter.)
By 2007, things between William and Kate were rocky. In March, they were photographed at the first day of the Cheltenham Festival race looking distant and unhappy, and a split was announced shortly thereafter. While the breakup was brief, the couple made the most of it. Both were photographed separately out on the town with friends, celebrating their new found freedom in aristo It spots like Mayfair’s tiki-themed Mahiki (where a “treasure chest” champagne cocktail will set you back £100). By June, though, they were solidly back together, jetting off to Balmoral for the weekend and the Seychelles on holiday. As the rumours of an impending engagement reached fever pitch, Kate came under criticism from the press for forgoing a career in favour of holding out for an engagement ring. The truth, however, was that she had begun working for her family’s mail-order business, and eventually she set up house with William in North Wales, where he is working as a Royal Air Force search-and rescue helicopter pilot.
When the couple finally delighted the world by announcing on November 16 that they will marry within the year, the international media went wild. Speculation on when, where and in what style they would wed abounded. They have put it all to rest by quickly picking a date, April 29, and a venue, Westminster Abbey. The princes’ private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, said the couple chose the venue for its “staggering beauty” and that they want the day to be “a classic British occasion with good spring weather.” After the wedding, Kate (or “Catherine,” as Palace protocol now demands she be called) will officially become Her Royal Highness Princess William of Wales and, if the Queen bequeaths the couple a title as a wedding gift, as she is expected to do, a duchess (several titles are available, including Clarence, Cambridge, Connaught and Sussex). Those hoping for an “austerity wedding” because of the economic crisis will be disappointed, says royal biographer Robert Hardman. “Big royal events are part of the social fabric of British life,” he said in an interview. “Moreover, they’re an excellent excuse for a party.” The royal family will foot the bill for the wedding and the cost of security will be met by the taxpayer. William and Kate appeared at a press conference at St. James’s Palace showing off the engagement ring — the same diamond-encrusted sapphire Prince Charles had given to Lady Diana 30 years earlier — and a barrage of inevitable comparisons between the two royal fiancées ensued. The superficial parallels are obvious — both young women are tall, gorgeous fashion plates — but that’s where the similarities end. Because while Diana was a blushing, uneducated virgin bride with little in common with her much-older groom, Kate and William are a thoroughly modern couple. Their love is not a pleasant fiction to be engraved on commemorative china, but one honed over nearly a decade of adult life.
To get more up-to-date news on Kate and William’s wedding plans, check out our Royal Wedding Watch blog!