The making of a very modern Duchess: We celebrate Kate’s first decade as a royal

As Kate marks her 39th birthday this weekend, Hannah Betts looks back at the decade that saw Miss Middleton become a Royal force to be reckoned with.

Kate Middleton
The making of a very modern Duchess. Image: Getty Images/Max Mumby/Indigo

Yesterday, the Duchess of Cambridge turned 39. In April, she will celebrate her tenth wedding anniversary, 20 years after she and her husband became friends at the University of St Andrews. Most of us experience our 30s as a period of change. However, for the woman who started this decade as a middle-class girl from Bucklebury filling in time at her parents’ business, and ends it as a national campaigner and future queen, the evolution has been seismic – and played out on a global stage.

On that fairy-tale wedding day on 29 April 2011, 29-year-old Kate Middleton walked down the aisle a commoner to emerge a royal ingénue, wary in her new role and frequently looking rather terrified. A decade on, she has not only done her dynastic duty in providing The Firm with the requisite heir and not one but two spares, she’s forged a role as a key – and confident – royal player.

royal engagement
She said yes! The then Miss Middleton and Prince William get engaged, 2010. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library 2013

As a confirmation of her new-found status, in 2017 the Queen presented the Duchess with the Royal Family Order of Queen Elizabeth II, an honour only given to certain female members of the Royal Family. In 2019, Kate was promoted to the highest female rank in the Royal Victorian Order (awarded by the Queen to people who have served the Royal Family) – that of Dame Grand Cross. These public shows of respect appear to have given Kate the seal of approval she was waiting for. Since then she has stepped ever more assertively into the public eye.

Last year alone, she’s launched her Early Years campaign, clapped for carers, hosted virtual bingo, spearheaded the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Hold Still’ project, overseen her offspring interviewing Sir David Attenborough and travelled the country on a morale-boosting train trip. All the while caring for three young children, and coping with a husband and in-laws suffering from Covid.

Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge
A Queen in the making. Image: Samir Hussein/WireImage

After Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Second World War, the Queen Mother famously declared that she could now look the East End in the eye. Today, her great granddaughter-in-law could claim the same after facing down Covid. Naturally, she has done so from a large degree of privilege, during a pandemic that has struck the underprivileged full force. However, this does not negate her efforts, nor the gratitude the public has felt for them.

Queen Mother biographer Hugo Vickers, whose latest books lead the charge against inaccuracies in the Netflix TV series The Crown, observes: ‘Initially, all the Duchess had to do was smile sweetly, dress beautifully and be a lovely mother. However, the pandemic has necessitated the Queen and Prince Charles spending time in isolation, and Kate has 100 per cent stepped up. We have begun to hear her speak, and speak very well. The Royal Family always has a place – but particularly in times of crisis – and Kate has been sensational: reassuring us, helping us and cheering us up.’

She has been tested and revealed to have a cool but compassionate head in a crisis, in a way that bodes well for her future roles first as Princess of Wales, and later as Queen. Where once she faced accusations of laziness – initially during her years as ‘Waity Katy’, then as a new parent – the Duchess has proven herself invaluable (Weighty Katy, if you will), as slow but steady in her approach as her role model the Queen. Like Her Majesty, the Duchess is robust in her work ethic. Her Early Years support mission, launched last November, is intended to be her ‘legacy’ project, in the way that Prince Charles has championed the environment, and Diana, Princess of Wales was associated with Aids. Her interest in this issue preceded having children; it was born of her decade-long involvement with charities such as Family Action, Action on Addiction and the Anna Freud Centre, which taught her that infant experiences are linked to success and failure in later life.

Kate in Los Angeles
Kate in Los Angeles, looking every inch the new Duchess, 2011. Image: Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian

As with Kate, William and Harry’s Heads Together project (conceived by Kate), which changed public attitudes towards mental health, the Duchess is trying to change the conversation about the role childhood plays in adulthood. Her aim is ambitious: putting early years development on a par with the other great challenges we face as a society.

Katie Nicholl, royal correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of the definitive biography of the Duchess, Kate: The Future Queen, says: ‘Kate is the personification of dedication to duty. As she nears her tenth wedding anniversary, she’s finding her voice and becoming a fully fledged member of the Royal Family. From now on, she’s going to be seen – and heard – differently. ‘It’s taken a decade for her to find her feet. Like the Queen, she’s careful, cautious, not like Meghan. For a long time, she toed the line and, in doing what was expected of her, was criticised by the likes of Booker Prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel. She was portrayed as a Stepford Wife. But all the time she was quietly plotting for this moment. Her Early Years project is not just for now, but the rest of her life; her raison d’être. I’ve spoken to mental-health specialists, neurologists and teachers, who say she is now an expert in her own right.’

William, Kate and Harry launching the Heads Together project
William, Kate and Harry launching the Heads Together project, 2016. Image: Getty Images/Nicky J Sims

The Duchess takes motherhood seriously, but executes what she has learnt with ease. Her pregnancies appear well-planned. She gave birth to Prince George when she was 31, to Princess Charlotte when she was 33, and to Prince Louis at 36. She gives every appearance of being a wonderful mother, without making Diana’s song and dance about it. Where the Queen is the Duchess’s professional role model, so her mother Carole is her parental inspiration. The Cambridge brood are said to be well-mannered, while allowed to be themselves. Neighbours near the Cambridges’ Norfolk home regularly spot Kate and her charges digging on the beach, our future queen never looking happier.

Happiness is very much the point. Kate and William were friends before they became lovers, and this friendship becomes ever more palpable as their marriage enters its second decade. Observers note the way in which the pair – while not being theatrically clingy – are naturally tactile once the cameras switch off. They’re the kind of couple who finish each other’s sentences. If Kate did once idolise her spouse – she’s rumoured to have had a poster of him on her wall, and applied to St Andrews in the hope of snaring him – then she now sees him right-sized – a partner rather than a prince.

This sense of partnership had never been more apparent than during 2020, the year of so-called ‘Megxit’, when the ‘Fab Four’ became the ‘Dutiful Two’. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s January announcement that they would be stepping back as senior royals put the focus on the remaining brother and his wife. The timing of the official Sussex departure – shortly after Britain went into lockdown – also highlighted a sense that, while Meghan and Harry targeted their ambitions at the world stage during this difficult time, William and Kate were content to keep their focus on Britain. Critics go further, pointing out that Meghan largely confined herself to a ‘me, me, me’ agenda (new agents, Netflix deals, and a tell-all biography that some believe she must have collaborated on), whereas Kate’s engagements have been about others, not herself.

Above: Kate rocking a tux for a virtual awards ceremony in October

Whatever the truth of this, the Duchess of Cambridge’s efforts have reminded this writer, for one, of the Queen Mother, branded by Hitler as ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’, such was her uplifting effect on the wartime mood. Like Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, as the Queen Mother was formerly known, Kate has been instrumental in holding together both the Royal Family and the nation during a difficult and divisive year, showing every sign of becoming a vital power behind the throne. There is charm, but there is also grit. Meanwhile, qualities that might once have been seen as bland are today viewed as steady, rock-like – the stuff of which dynasties are made.

Diana may have been proud of her ordinary touch; Kate is ordinary – one of us who now happens to be one of them. Slowly, steadily, this commoner who will one day be Queen is changing the Royal Family, not with a flouncing ‘my way or the highway’ attitude, but by making her influence felt in an example of soft – and extremely strategic – power.

In doing so, the Duchess has found not only her voice – herself, even – but her look. Where once she dressed too young for her role, then too old for it, so, in her late 30s, she acquired a globally recognisable chic. Royal fashion expert Bethan Holt, author of The Duchess of Cambridge: A Decade of Modern Royal Style, says: ‘I’m not sure any observer in the early 2010s could have predicted that by 2021, Kate would be combining classic regal style with of the-moment trends she’d made her own, but she’s managed it.

Kate at the Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey
At the Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey last March. Image: Getty Images/Max Mumby/Indigo

‘In her early 30s, she might have been in a comfort zone – a rut, even – from which she could feasibly never emerge: all those tea dresses and beige heels. Maybe there was fear that too much, too soon would backfire. Great style makes a splash, so the decision to hold back on the fashion front until the Cambridges grew into their roles was a masterstroke.

‘Now she is comfortable in the limelight, she has the signature look to match. When you think of hairbands, pussy-bow blouses and glitzy cocktail dresses, it’s Kate who comes to mind as their poster woman – quite a feat in a world crammed with influencers and celebrities. I love that you’d still use lots of the same words to describe Kate’s look now and then – ladylike, elegant, demure – but today it has this cool, confident twist that’s made her more exciting, without ever veering into clothes-horse territory.’

Royal dressing is a fine line, and Kate has elegantly traversed it. As she celebrates her 39th birthday, she can afford to be uncharacteristically self-satisfied. She entered her 30s a girl; she leaves them a woman who both knows – and has very much earned – her place. As Katie Nicholl notes: ‘The lineage is secure, the future looks positive, and a lot of that is down to Kate. The Queen has every confidence that the future of the monarchy can work and will work, and feels it will be safe in William – with his wife by his side.’

Above: A royal round of applause: Kate and William with George, Charlotte and Louis, clapping for the NHS

Kate’s most magical moments

She was 29 when she married William. A decade on, the couple and their three children embody the new Royal Family.

Friday 29 April 2011

Image: Getty Images/Chris Jackson

We do! At 11am HRH Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton were married in Westminster Abbey.

January 2012

Kate visiting an Action on Addiction project in Liverpool
Visiting an Action on Addiction project in Liverpool. Image: Getty Images/WPA Pool
Kate in Ipswich for East Anglia Children’s Hospices
In Ipswich for East Anglia Children’s Hospices. Image: Tim Rooke/REX/Shutterstock
Kate with members of The Scout Association, Leicester
With members of The Scout Association, Leicester. Image: Getty Images/Matt Cardy
Kate at the National Portrait Gallery, alongside director Sandy Nairne
At the National Portrait Gallery, alongside director Sandy Nairne. Image: Anthony Upton/REX/Shutterstock

Kate is assigned her first four patronages.

9 January 2012

Kate War Horse
Image: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

On her 30th birthday Kate attended the royal gala premiere of War Horse alongside director Steven Spielberg and actors Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch. During the screening, she was reportedly moved to tears.

11-19 September 2012

Kate Diamond Jubilee tour
Image: Getty Images/Chris McGrath

The Duke and Duchess embarked on the Diamond Jubilee tour on behalf of the Queen to Singapore, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

22 July 2013

Kate with Prince George
Image: Getty Images/Mark Cuthbert

Prince George was born at 4.24pm in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.

7-25 April 2014

Kate New Zealand and Australia
Image: Getty Images/Mark Nolan

Eight-month-old Prince George accompanied the Duke and Duchess on the official tour of New Zealand and Australia.

9 March 2015

Kate attends the Commonwealth day service at Westminster Abbey
Image: Getty Images/Max Mumby/Indigo

Kate attends the Commonwealth day service at Westminster Abbey for the first time.

June 2016

The cover star for Vogue’s centenary edition. ‘The Duchess liked the idea of being photographed in the countryside,’ said then-editor Alexandra Shulman. ‘She wanted the pictures to reflect an element of her private existence’.

28 February 2018

Fab Four
Image: Getty Images/Chris Jackson

With Prince Harry, Meghan and William at the first engagement of the so-called ‘Fab Four’ in London, which showcased the programmes run or initiated by the Royal Foundation. Kate was nearly eight months pregnant with Prince Louis.

19 March 2019

The Duchess’s first solo engagement with the Queen
Image: Paul Grover/REX/Shutterstock

The Duchess’s first solo engagement with the Queen, at King’s College London.

9 April 2020

Duties by Zoom! The royal couple meet primary schoolchildren during lockdown.

11 December 2020

The Cambridges at the London Palladium
Image: PA Wire/PA Images/Aaron Chown

The Cambridges make their red-carpet debut together for a pantomime at the London Palladium.

‘Kate was a queen in a past life’

Kate’s astrology chart – where the placements of the planets at the time of our birth can explain why we act in certain ways – reveals that there is plenty of depth below the surface, says astrologer Carolyne Faulkner. But what does it all mean for Kate’s future?

Born on 9 January 1982, the Duchess’s star sign is Capricorn. This is the traditional sign of royalty as it is ruled by the planet Saturn, known as ‘the Queen of the Stars’.

This isn’t the only element which indicates that Kate is innately royal. Her chart also shows she is Capricorn in her South Node placement, which astrologers believe is indicative of both where we have come from and past soul memories. If you believe in reincarnation, as I do, then it’s fair to say that Kate was likely a queen in a past life – which may explain why she is professional, dignified and seemingly unfazed by either becoming a member of the Royal Family or the demands of public life.

Planetary movement in March 2010 meant that she managed to overcome insecurities about her role within the family. Simultaneously, Jupiter (which gives us the opportunity to progress) helped her expand her reach and confidence. Since then, her role has steadily increased, both as a public figure and the wife of the future king.

But there’s more in store for Kate, who has three placements (Mercury, Venus and the Part of Fortune) all in Aquarius – the sign tasked with raising awareness and serving humanity. These placements show that her work as a humanitarian is innate, rather than stemming from a drive for public affection. Her service and charity work is far stronger than her need to be number one.

Aquarius placements also push people to unite and think like a community, as seen in Kate’s work with children. Highlighting that the first five years of life are key to helping all children, parents and carers will change the way we raise future generations.

The tail end of last year saw us moving into the Age of Aquarius (a new astrological age) where changes are afoot! Kate’s recent work is just the beginning: she will make a huge impact by raising awareness and using her power as a tremendous force for good.

For more information on Carolyne’s work, visit dynamicastrology.com

READ MORE: How it really feels to meet the Duchess of Cambridge