Matthew Bell

Just the ticket

Matthew Bell on the many virtues of Kate Middleton, who is being tipped to marry Prince William

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Kate Middleton is a Home Counties brunette with pretty, if not quite supermodel, features who has been Prince William’s girlfriend for just over two years, and naturally speculation is flourishing that she will one day be his Queen. The couple are now reunited following William’s first official tour in New Zealand, and though the media largely spared them while they were both at St Andrews University, television and tabloid coverage is already threatening to be ruthless, especially since it now emerges that they will share a house in London. Despite the earlier denials of the Prince, friends now believe this is the prelude to marriage.

Kate first came into the public eye in 2002, when she was identified as one of three friends with whom William was to share a house for their second year at university; since then the romance has been marked by a promising absence of publicity. The nearest the tabloids have come to excitement was when William splashed out £200 to watch her parade on a catwalk in bra and knickers at a charity fashion show.

At Marlborough College she was a housemaster’s delight, the solid all-rounder. She played hockey for the school, was in the first pair for tennis and performed reasonably well academically, though she by no means dazzled. Friends remember her being exceptional at high jump, beating all the boys in her year.

For public school teenagers, looks are crucial to success, and nowhere more so than at Marlborough, where the in-crowd sport the tanned and tousled look of studied public-school nonchalance. Kate was never in that crowd, perhaps because she was a late starter: after St Andrews in Pangbourne, a mixed prep school of 300 pupils, Kate left for Downe House, but following two unhappy terms she ditched single-sex life for the more varied company of Marlborough, where she blossomed into a demure beauty. She arrived as Catherine, but left as Kate. She is said by degrees to have lost her prim and dowdy image, and I have concluded — in a finding that we trust will be pleasing to the Palace — that she did nothing more discreditable to her long-term reputation than to moon out of a dorm window.

In an exceptionally able year, it would be fair to say that Kate showed no great sign of academic distinction, though she more than compensated for any lack of intellectual pretension by her tact and good sense. She was swiftly elevated to the rank of prefect, and carried out her duties with vigour and authority. One girl four years younger than her still distinctly remembers the mortification of being told by Kate to ‘jolly well tuck your shirt in’. At prize day, Kate was awarded so many honours for the excellence of her conduct that she could not return to her seat, and had to remain blushing on stage throughout.

One former member of staff says she came from an ‘excellent family, and Marlborough brought out her best qualities; it developed the dignity and good manners that she learnt at home’. Her mother Carole, 49, a former air hostess, is recognisable as a classic yummy mummy, while Michael, 53, like many of the fathers, exudes the confident aura of a self-made millionaire. They are almost a typical Marlborough College family — good-looking, rich and contented, but not blue-blooded, being genteel rather than gentry. Their children (Kate’s younger sister Pippa and brother James also attended) would have been used to mixing with celebrities; among their contemporaries were Sting’s daughter, Mickey Sumner, and latterly Princess Eugenie. But the Middletons appear neither in Debrett’s nor the rich list. One social commentator has remarked that the family name sounds slightly more establishment than it really is, like the double-barrelled maiden name of the Countess of Wessex.

Kate’s parents are energetic business folk, running a highly successful mail-order company called Party Pieces, which sells hats, streamers and toys for children’s birthday parties. Their modern five-bedroom detached house in the village of Bucklebury, near Newbury in Berkshire, is a typical stockbroker pile, while the business is operated from a series of converted barns in a neighbouring village.

The truth is that Kate Middleton is an entirely ordinary upper-middle-class girl who happens to have attracted the eye of the second in line to the throne. The most interesting point about her is that she is nothing like either William’s mother or his stepmother, which must be deemed one in the eye for Freud. Her lineage can’t be traced much further back than the suburbanisation of Berkshire, and she is not part of the county set. Diana was a complicated and difficult woman from one of the oldest families in the country; Kate couldn’t be more affable. On top of which, it now emerges that the Queen has already formed an affectionate bond with the young woman since meeting her for the first time on the day she and the Prince graduated; and if this is so, it is more than can be said about the feelings of the monarch towards Diana or Camilla.

William himself is the safest of all the royal family, having never made a public gaffe in his life. At a photo call in Klosters it was Wills who urged his father to force a smile and it is he who mentors Harry in his occasional moments of difficulty. Kate herself is immensely discreet and, touchingly, William has always been anxious not to blight her life with the baggage of his publicity. To anyone who has seen William and Kate together socially, it is clear they have an intimate relationship, depending on one another in equal measure — neither assumes a dominant role. When William suffered a crisis of confidence in his university career, it was Kate who successfully persuaded him to stay on and switch from history of art to geography. He went on to get a good 2:1, making him the highest qualified royal.

How can such a perfect match have been found after a history of disastrous royal pairings? William is Kate’s first serious boyfriend, and if her reputation is as squeaky clean as it seems, this suggests she may still have her V-plates intact and thus satisfy the age-old requisite for future queen consorts. At a time when very few 23-year-olds manage to sustain a relationship for more than a few months, it is hard to believe that William has already met Miss Right. He has had other girls, of course, but has quietly dropped them on parental or courtier advice. He remains close to his gap-year flame Jecca Craig, whom Kate first publicly met, somewhat awkwardly, at Hugh van Cutsem’s wedding in June, but such is Kate’s maturity and relaxed manner that she is now holidaying with William at Jecca’s 45,000-acre ranch in Kenya.

Kate’s gradual introduction into the royal family has been carefully managed, and has been a tremendous success. Not only has she gained the Queen’s approval, but the Duke of Edinburgh is said to be especially fond of her, and Charles and Camilla already see her as part of the family. Compared with Diana’s very formal presentation to ‘the firm’, the low-key approach has worked much better. On their return from holiday, William and Kate are said to be moving into a house in London together, with a view to marrying in the near future. While there is no pressure from his family, the Prince himself is said to be keen on marrying sooner rather than later. Just as his father adored the Queen Mother, so William enjoys a very close relationship with his grandmother, and he has doubtlessly inherited her staunch sense of constitutional duty.

On Kate’s side, some insiders wonder whether her university meeting with Prince William can really be ascribed to coincidence. Although at the time of making her application to universities it was unknown where the Prince was intending to go, it has been suggested that her mother persuaded Kate to reject her first choice on hearing the news and take up her offer at St Andrews instead. William has certainly caused a phenomenal increase in the number of applications to the tiny Scottish university — an interest that has survived his departure, such is the cachet of a royal connection.

At the pair’s graduation ceremony, the Vice-Chancellor of St Andrews told students, ‘You will have made lifelong friends — you may have met your husband or wife. Our title as the top matchmaking university in Britain signifies so much that is good about St Andrews. So we rely on you to go forth from St Andrews and multiply.’ As the Queen, Prince Philip, Charles and Camilla looked on, the same thought must have run through their minds: ‘Let’s bloody hope so!’ And the same could be said, one imagines, for Michael and Carole Middleton.