28 Apr 2011

Kate Middleton: the middle-class princess

Kate Middleton’s origins – unlike those of the blue-blooded Princess Diana – are unspectacular, not to say humble. We look back over the life and times of the woman who could become the next Queen.

Kate Middleton, whose marriage to Prince William takes place on 29 April 2011 (Getty)

February 1981. Diana Spencer, a descendant of King Charles II, marries Prince Charles, first in line to the throne. The country is led by Margaret Thatcher, the Oxford-educated daughter of a provincial grocer.

April 2011. The world awaits the marriage of Prince William, son of Prince Charles and second in line to the throne, to the eldest daughter of an air hostess and pilot. The country is led by David Cameron, an Old Etonian (there have been four Eton PMs since 1945) and Oxonian (there have been eight post-war Oxford-educated premiers). His blue-blooded wife is said to be descended from King Charles II.

The complexity and fluidity of relations between classes in this country is neatly summed up in these two snapshots. On one level, it is easy to see why Kate Middleton should be held up by some as the embodiment of a less class-ridden United Kingdom.

From an anti-monarchist viewpoint, however, she is marrying – notwithstanding her origins – into an unelected institution at the top of a social and political system that is ossified, unrepresentative and undemocratic.

A certain snobbery

Discussion of the background and motivations of the future monarch’s wife has undoubtedly been informed, in some quarters, by an element of snobbery. And it cannot be disputed that Kate Middleton’s origins, if not humble, are unspectacular.

She was born on 9 January 1982, the eldest daughter of Carole and Michael. Carole Middleton is descended from a line of miners from the Durham coalfields, while Michael Middleton’s family were solicitors in Leeds for several generations.

More from Channel 4 News: William and Kate are (very) distant cousins

One of those solicitors, Noel Middleton – Kate’s great-grandfather – married Olive Lupton, scion of one of Leeds’s best-known and most influential families at the start of the 20th century.

Royal author Christopher Wilson argues that the media’s delight in unearthing details about Kate’s background is not necessarily the result of innate snobbery, however. “There is a certain snobbery,” he told Channel 4 News. “But more than that, it’s the job of finding something new. It’s exemplified by the discovery that she has a hairdresser cousin in County Durham.”

There is a certain snobbery about Kate Middleton’s background. But more than that, it’s the job of finding something new. Christopher Wilson, royal author

When Kate’s parents married, in 1980, they were both employed by British Airways. Four years later the family moved to Jordan, where Michael Middleton worked for two and a half years.

By 1987 Kate had a sister, Pippa, born in 1983, and a brother, James, born in 1987. In that year the Middletons founded Party Pieces, a mail order firm which describes itself as “the UK’s leading online and catalogue party company”.

Eight years after setting up Party Pieces (which is thought to employ around 30 people), Carole and Michael Middleton were wealthy enough to send their eldest daughter to Marlborough College in Wiltshire (current boarding fees: £29,310 per year). Pippa and James attended the same establishment. In 1995 the Middletons settled in the Berkshire village of Bucklebury.

Kate was at Marlborough (motto: God gives bounteously) for five years, from 1995 to 2000, becoming a school prefect, captaining the school hockey team, and earning two grade As (including one in art) and a grade B at A-level.

Romantically linked

After a gap year which included visits to Florence and Chile, in 2002 Kate began a three-year History of Art degree course at St Andrew’s, Scotland’s oldest university. The St Andrew’s undergraduate course in art history is one of the highest rated in the country.

Kate started moving in the same circles as Prince William, who was also studying History of Art, during their first term. Anecdotally, she is credited with persuading her future husband to switch from the study of History of Art to Geography ahead of his second year.

Towards the end of her first year, Kate famously appeared in several revealing items of attire for an Yves St Laurent-sponsored Don’t Walk charity fashion show. Prince William was among the onlookers as she moved down the catwalk in a sheer black lace dress. The dress was sold at auction for £65,000 earlier this year.

Kate Middleton’s sheer black dress was sold at auction for £65,000 earlier this year.

The friendship between Kate and William was cemented when, at the start of the new academic year in 2003, they moved into a maisonette along with Fergus Boyd, one of William’s friends from Eton, and Olivia Bleasdale, who was also studying History of Art. By 2004 the couple were being romantically linked.

Both Kate and William graduated in 2005, Kate earning a 2:1 degree. Since 2005 she has worked for her parents’ company, Party Pieces, and for the clothing company Jigsaw, whose owners, Belle and John Robinson, are friends with Carole and Michael Middleton. In 2008 Kate launched First Birthdays, a junior brand to Party Pieces.

‘Booze and Royals’

Kate Middleton began to appear regularly in an official capacity at public events in 2006, notably at Prince William’s passing-out parade at Sandhurst on 15 December of that year. Photographs of her mother chewing gum during the parade prompted a flurry of articles in which the Middleton family was deemed “too common”.

The relationship foundered in the spring of 2007 amid stories that Kate was looking for more commitment from the 24-year-old prince. William, meanwhile, had joined the Blues and Royals regiment, part of the Household Cavalry – nicknamed the “Booze and Royals” for its love of partying.

When she becomes Queen Catherine, Kate will be the first wife of a British monarch to have graduated from university. Claudia Joseph, royal author

Of the couple’s temporary separation, Claudia Joseph, author of Kate: The Making of a Princess, told Channel 4 News: “I believe that William wanted some freedom to party with the other officers, but Kate kept her head held high and was seen out on the town with a string of eligible young mean. And he soon came running back.”

A year later, in April 2008, the couple made another public show of togetherness ahead of a reception at the RAF College in Cranwell.

The announcement of the couple’s engagement on 16 November 2010 has given further impetus to discussion of the bride’s lineage. On the positive side, there has been speculation that she might reinvigorate perceptions the monarchy, as Princess Diana did after her marriage to Prince Charles.

The Unofficial Royal Wedding on Channel 4

But Britain in 2011 is a different place to the country that took Diana Spencer to its heart in 1981. Claudia Joseph even suggests that the pervasive intrustions of reality TV may, perversely, have made the Royal Family seem even more remote and inaccessible.

But Kate Middleton’s biographer is optimistic that her presence in royal circles will bring a fresh perspective to an institution that is relentlessly criticised for being elitist and out of touch. “When she becomes Queen Catherine,” Claudia Joseph notes, “Kate will be the first wife of a British monarch to have graduated from university, displayed her lingerie on a catwalk, and lived with a king out of wedlock.”