As one of the world’s most photographed women, who has developed some impressive camera skills of her own, the Duchess of Cambridge understands the power of a striking image.
A single shot, one moment in time, can expose new facets of the person in the frame and change the way we view them.
And sometimes it reveals a bigger picture… a sense of what the future holds.
None of this would have been in Kate’s mind when she gazed out of the window of her car en route to Prince Philip’s funeral in April last year.
She was undoubtedly thinking only of the service ahead and how she could support the grieving Queen at the socially-distanced service.
And yet, the photograph taken of her in that moment spoke volumes about Kate’s decade-long royal transformation. It was a preview portrait of Queen Catherine – consort to King William V, mother of the future George VII and the majestic face of modern monarchy.
As royal expert Duncan Larcombe explains, “That one photograph proved beyond doubt that Kate is now a Queen in waiting. Over the past decade we have seen her go from commoner to duchess to a lynchpin of the royal Firm.
“Through her patronages and charity initiatives, she has made a real impact on public life and highlighted significant causes.
“She has become a style icon and the ‘Kate Middleton Effect’ helps boost the British fashion industry, while Time magazine has voted her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
“But there was something unique and compelling in that photo from Philip’s funeral – the expression in those green eyes above the face mask.
“Looking straight into his lens, head slightly tilted, we felt we were seeing a different Kate. Still warm, genuine, open and kind, but now poised, regal, confident and totally at ease with her destiny.”
Royal expert Katie Nicholl agrees, “Kate now has over 10 years of royal service under her belt and has proved herself up to any challenge.
“Her role has been evolving all the time, but in the last two years she has secured her place as a pivotal – and much-loved – member of the royal family.
“The Queen is incredibly proud of Kate and how hard she has worked to get here.”
Kate’s royal transformation began the moment William slipped his mother’s engagement ring on her finger in October 2010.
She sailed through the official engagement interview the following month, showing the world her intelligence, grace and sense of humour – as well as her style.
But she admitted, “It’s obviously nerve-wracking, because I don’t know the ropes. William is used to it, but I’m willing to learn quickly and work hard.”
She was soon grabbing the ropes with both hands.
In December 2020, Kate and William made their first public appearance together at a Teenage Cancer Trust charity gala in Norfolk. The bride-to-be made a huge impression on young patients she chatted to during the interval who called her “very friendly, relaxed and down to earth”.
In the run-up to their wedding, William and Kate completed a tour of the UK which began in February 2011 as Kate was given the honour of christening a new RNLI lifeboat with a bottle of champagne at Trearddur Bay near Angelsey.
The couple then made a romantic return trip to St Andrews University where they met, and charmed crowds on a one-day visit to Belfast in March.
Kate’s final appearance as a commoner was opening a community college in Lancashire and, following the glorious royal wedding, the Duchess of Cambridge’s first official engagement came in May, when she and the duke met President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle at Buckingham Palace.
Kate enjoyed a few blissful months as an RAF wife, living in a £750-a-month rented cottage in Anglesey where William was flying air-sea rescue helicopters.
They had no staff, apart from a part-time cleaner, and despite the discreet presence of royal protection officers, the pair told friends they planned to live for as long as possible “like any other newly married couple”.
Their carefree days saw them cruising around the countryside on William’s powerful Ducati motorbike and walking the coast with their black cocker spaniel, Lupo.
Kate busied herself making jam and baking cakes, which William would take into the airbase to share with mess-room colleagues. And they would visit the local cinema or pop in to The White Eagle pub in Rhoscolyn for a burger.
But just two months after their wedding day, duty called for the new duke and duchess as they attended the Trooping the Colour ceremony together for the first time.
Then Kate was off on her first royal tour. Nine days in Canada and two days in California – it would be a test for them both.
Could Kate forge her own style without overshadowing her husband, and would he embrace “teamwork”? The answer was a resounding yes.
As they donned 10-gallon hats at the famous Calgary stampede and paddled canoes in the Northwest Territories, Kate was in her element – and William was thrilled at the reception she received.
She even laughed off her “Marilyn Monroe moment”, when a gust of wind at Calgary airport blew her Jenny Packham dress up, revealing a shapely thigh.
By the time they arrived in California for a reception given by the British consul general, Kate seemed completely comfortable in her new role.
Back home in Britain, the Cambridges knew they had very little time left in Anglesey and would soon have to base themselves permanently at their apartment – 1A Kensington Palace.
On St Patrick’s Day in 2012, the duchess gave out shamrocks to the Irish Guards in Aldershot, her first solo military engagement, and Kate shone as she and William supported the Queen throughout her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
That summer they also played a blinder at the London 2012 Olympics, supporting Team GB at a string of events.
And soon afterwards they were touring again, this time to Singapore, Malaysia, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. Kate made her debut foreign speech, addressing staff and patients at a Malaysian Hospice, but also got to let her hair down with some abseiling, and dancing in a grass skirt. She basically wowed everyone she met.
Anthony Phillipson, then British High Commissioner to Singapore, called the Cambridges “global superstars who make the British feel very, very good about themselves”.
Kate loved the colourful tour of the Asia-Pacific region – and it is thought that Prince George was conceived on their travels. Because in December 2012, it was announced that Kate was pregnant.
It was a difficult and trying pregnancy, as Kate suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum – acute morning sickness for which she was hospitalised. But in the later months of the pregnancy, she blossomed and looked stunning on public engagements.
Prince George’s birth in July 2013 marked a new phase in Kate’s life. William quit the RAF and his air-sea rescue role, but joined the East Anglian Air Ambulance based at Cambridge Airport. So the Cambridges moved into the house that the Queen had given them on her Norfolk estate and began making Anmer Hall a family home.
But more tours followed in 2014 – three weeks in New Zealand and Australia with George accompanying them, just as William had joined his parents on their Australia visit in 1983.
Announcing her second pregnancy in September 2014, Kate bravely hid the fact that she was struggling once more with morning sickness while, later that year, they attended a three-day mini-tour of Washington and New York. The couple also visited President Obama at the White House and attended a charity dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
By the time Princess Charlotte arrived in May 2015, Kate and William knew time was running out on the quiet family life they were leading between the foreign tours. So Kate treasured the occasions she could slip into jeans and a Breton jumper to take George to watch his father play polo.
In October 2015, the duchess attended her first state banquet at Buckingham Palace, held to host Chinese President Xi Jinping, and also dazzled at the premiere of the 24th James Bond movie, Spectre, at the Royal Albert Hall.
In March 2016, the Cambridges took George and Charlotte on their first ski trip to the French Alps, before setting off on their highly successful tour of India and Bhutan.
Later that month, the couple welcomed the Obamas to Kensington Palace – and George got to stay up late and meet the US leader.
He later joked, “Prince George showed up for our meeting in his bathrobe. That was a slap in the face. A clear breach of protocol…”
In September 2016, the Cambridges toured Canada again – this time as a family of four – and the following month Kate made her first solo foreign trip to the Netherlands.
By now, she was taking every new challenge in her stride – dazzling at the BAFTAs one moment and, the next, racing her husband in a sprint to raise awareness of mental health.
And 2017 also proved a hectic year, with trips to Poland, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. In September, it was announced that Kate was expecting a third child.
She and William visited Sweden and Norway the following February and baby Louis Arthur Charles arrived on 23 April – St George’s Day.
Just a month later, Kate was all smiles at Harry and Meghan’s wedding in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
In January 2019, the Earl and Countess of Strathearn – as the Cambridges are known in Scotland – opened the £80 million V&A Museum in Dundee.
In February that year they carried out a two-day visit to Northern Ireland and in June Kate took her first royal salute on behalf of the Queen at the annual Beating Retreat at Horse Guards Parade in St James’s Park – the colourful annual military pageant.
And in May the Queen was there to support Kate as she unveiled the Back To Nature Garden she had co-designed for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
October saw William and Kate visit Pakistan, the royal family’s first visit to the country in 13 years. The couple gave an interview to CNN in Lahore while visiting the SoS Children’s Village and the duchess gave
a speech relating to her work on early years issues. The diplomatically tricky trip was a key moment in Kate’s royal journey, showing she has the tact and skill to represent the monarch whenever called upon.
Another sign of the Cambridges’ maturing roles saw them carrying out a joint engagement with Charles and Camilla in February 2020.
Following the trip to the Defence Military Rehabilitation Centre in Loughborough, the royal team were dubbed “The Fab Four”.
But Kate’s growing confidence and regal poise began to emerge more clearly as 2020 turned into a royal year like no other. She won huge respect for the way she dealt with the shockwaves of Megxit, and the hurt and acrimony caused by the Sussexes’ interview with Oprah Winfrey.
And the leadership she and William showed as Britain and the rest of the world descended into Covid chaos saw their popularity soar.
They launched their own YouTube channel and released clips of their Zoom meetings and morale-boosting chats with frontline workers, the elderly and their charities.
They shared photos of themselves getting their Covid jabs and led the nation in Clapping For Carers. They appeared on podcasts, revealing their vulnerabilities as parents in the pandemic and talking about mental health.
And, through social media videos, they could speak directly to the public in a way the royals have never done before.
Kate was also able to use her photographic talents to capture a historic snapshot of the nation in the midst of a pandemic through her Hold Still exhibition.
And throughout her time as a royal, she has stuck steadfastly to her principles.
Duncan explains, “Kate and William are an impressive team, but Kate now has a strong platform of her own. There have been several occasions over the past year that have shown how far she has come. One was that keynote speech she made in November 2020, revealing the key findings from a 54-page Royal Foundation report on childhood. That’s a serious piece of research which she has driven and which could make a real difference to so many families. She’s become a real expert in her field.
“But I was also struck by her reaction to the horrific murder of Sarah Everard in March – the fact that she went to lay flowers on Clapham Common during a vigil. We know Kate the mum and Kate the duchess, but this was Kate the modern young woman. She can’t display her feminism credentials or ‘political’ views… so that was a telling moment.
“It showed that while she is now part of a historic institution, she has not abandoned her natural character and personal opinions. It was surprising that she went, and I’m sure she was politely advised to reconsider if this was wise as, by royal standards, it was incredibly spur of the moment.
“But she was determined to follow her gut. She felt so strongly about this young woman and the issues her death raised that she had to react.”
He continues, “Kate’s ordinary background has shaped her view of the world and it has given her a unique perspective on the strange royal world William was born into.
“Kate has been a rock to Prince William, as seen in October when she supported him at the inaugural ceremony of his Earthshot Prize, an environmental programme.
“She has helped him to see a new future for the monarchy. Kate is a fresh pair of eyes, and we saw that in the extraordinarily beautiful photograph taken of her at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.”
But Katie Nicholl remembers another striking photograph of the Duchess of Cambridge, taken in 2005.
She says, “Kate Middleton, just 23, was sitting on the top deck of a double-decker bus heading down the King’s Road in London, gazing out of the window daydreaming.
“One wonders now just what she was dreaming about. Might it have been a future as a royal princess? Well, here she is – a future Princess of Wales, a future Queen consort and an absolutely sparkling asset for the royals.
“What a journey it has been.”
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