On June 16 royal photographers waiting to capture Britain's Prince William, 26, in flowing velvet robes outside St. George's Chapel, in Windsor, were caught by surprise. Just before the start of the 660-year-old ceremony, in which the Prince was to be made a Royal Knight of the Garter, a car containing his younger brother, Prince Harry, drew up to a side entrance. Climbing out of the car with him and following him to the Galilee Porch of the church was Catherine "Kate" Middleton, a lithe, five-foot-nine-inch brunette, who has been Prince William's girlfriend for more than four years.
Middleton, 26, was smartly dressed in a dark suit with tiny white polka dots and a snappy black-and-white headpiece. She and Harry and Helen Asprey, personal secretary to both Princes, joined a gaggle of royals, including the Duchess of Cornwall and the Countess of Wessex. All of them waited for William, second in line to the throne after his father, Prince Charles, to enter the chapel, where his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II would make the official appointment.
But when William, walking beside his father, came into view, wearing a floppy hat with ostrich plumes, the anachronism of the costume overwhelmed Middleton, who gasped, "Oh my God!," and she and Prince Harry had a giggling fit.
The un-regal behavior might have been hyped derogatorily by the notoriously acerbic British media had it not been for the fact that Kate's mere presence at the ceremony signified a far better story: that Prince William's romance with his former university roommate seems destined for marriage. It was the signal Britain has been waiting for since Middleton was publicly outed as the Prince's girlfriend in 2004.
Since graduating from the picturesque medieval university of St. Andrews, in Scotland, in the summer of 2005, the poised young woman from the small village of Bucklebury, in Berkshire, has been pursued by photographers--a phenomenon jokingly called "Middletonmania," which is eerily reminiscent of the overwhelming media attention suffered by the late Princess of Wales. Middleton has been photographed at horse races and polo matches, on the ski slopes, leaving nightclubs, and--in the most troubling echo of Diana-stalking--she was hounded on January 9, 2007, her 25th birthday, as she left her Chelsea apartment to get into her Volkswagen Golf to drive to work. A pack of paparazzi got dangerously out of control when one of them broke ranks to approach her, and they swarmed around, yelling. It was the first and only time in her relationship with Prince William that the young woman seemed almost to lose her temper. Her usual smile was replaced by tightly closed lips, and her bluish-hazel eyes were stormy.
Normally, she beams prettily for the camera, sometimes with a flick of her long, thick, glossy hair. At the Garter ceremony, she was her usual glowing self. She had plenty to smile about. This was the first time Kate had attended an official royal engagement in public. She has now been at two royal weddings, on William's behalf. "He sent out a message," says the Daily Mail's Richard Kay, who was one of Princess Diana's closest confidants in the British media. "[He's saying,] 'I'm not there, but this girl is very important in my life. She's representing me. Read what you like into that.' And, so, one tends to read into that, well, the girl is almost in the homestretch to be his wife."
Echoing Kay's sentiments, British bookmakers are now taking money only on details surrounding the wedding date--which many think will be in 2009. Some royal correspondents believe an engagement could come by the end of this year. Woolworths at one point even planned memorabilia china bearing the couple's faces.
If these predictions are right, then Middleton, the granddaughter of a store clerk and a builder, will become a princess--an unprecedented elevation, which is both a sign of the times and, perhaps, a tribute to the caliber of the young woman. "In all these years," says a relative of the Prince's, "without any training, quite simply she has never put a foot wrong. It's remarkable."
Still, there are plenty of snobbish insults from people who, despite Middleton's obvious attributes, believe that the monarchy needs to stop marrying "out" of its class. Kate is the daughter of former flight attendants Michael, 58, and Carole, 53, who now run a mail-order and online party-paraphernalia business called Party Pieces. One member of the young polo-playing set in the county of Gloucestershire--known in the British media as the "Glossy Posse"--noted, "Her parents have a tarmac drive, for God's sake." (In England, tarmac drives are held to be a sign of new wealth; old money generally has either gravel or long roads, with tire-flattening potholes.)
There are those in the Glossy Posse who question whether Middleton's poise is natural. One likened her and her younger sister, Pippa, 25, to the Bouvier sisters, with their obvious desire to "marry well." An acquaintance felt that Kate was extremely controlled and controlling. Some have commented on the small number of close friends she and Prince William have--between a dozen and 20--and note that they are nearly all his, from either Eton or college, or family friends from his teenage years, such as popular London club promoter Guy Pelly, 26, Thomas van Straubenzee, 26, and Hugh Van Cutsem, 34.
There are also those who believe Middleton is enigmatic at best, boring at worst. "What are her interests?" asks a newspaper editor. "All she seems to do is go to the gym and go to either Boujis or Mahiki [the current favorite nightclubs for wealthy twentysomethings in London]. She doesn't have a job. She doesn't go to the theater. We don't really have any idea of who she really is, and what we do see is rather shallow."
In May it was reported that Kate had asked people to call her "Catherine." The press was quick to point out the obvious: "Catherine" is a far more regal name than "Kate." All these reports were strenuously denied by Paddy Harverson, Prince Charles's press secretary. Nonetheless, Sunday Express columnist Adam Helliker, who broke the "Catherine" story, told me he had heard about--but had not seen--a "gentle" e-mail sent by Kate to her friends, saying she was reverting to the name she had had until she was in her mid-teens. Helliker said, "It was just a very jokey thing." He stood by his story.
Another report claimed that the Queen wanted Middleton to get a full-time job. In fact, she was quietly working, as her lawyer Gerrard Tyrrell confirms. She has been getting up each morning in Bucklebury, driving to the Party Pieces office in Reading, and, according to Hello! magazine, putting together the catalogues for her parents' company. Adam Helliker says he heard she was taking a technology course to learn how to make digital catalogues, which Tyrrell confirms is correct.
Under the circumstances, it was probably about the only job Middleton felt safe doing--and she saw no need to tell the British media about it. "She's been offered every job under the sun," a Middleton family friend tells me. "Russian oligarchs, fashion designers--everyone wants her. But if she goes out and works, she'll be accused of abusing her connections--or of being used.... What can she do? She's in a very difficult position."
All the royal press--and former courtiers I spoke to--agreed that until Prince William formalizes their relationship Middleton is in an awkward spot. She is not officially entitled to any royal benefits paid for by the taxpayers, such as security; she has no spokesperson and is not receiving any official guidance on what to wear or how to conduct herself in royal circles. Yet the reality is she has become a celebrity. Her main lifeline is Tyrrell, who also represents British model Kate Moss and Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea soccer team. Should Middleton feel harassed, as she was on her 25th birthday, or crowded out on the ski slopes in Klosters, Switzerland, as she was earlier this year, she calls Tyrrell, who sorts it out, providing a backup security detail or sending letters to newspaper editors.
One of Prince Charles's former aides says that he is a very "laissez-faire father" to his two sons. "He likes Kate a lot, but she won't be getting any 'training' or guidance as to how to behave," says this person.
Catherine Elizabeth Middleton is the eldest of three children, sister to Pippa, a party organizer, and James, 21, who also works for Party Pieces. The Middleton parents are unpretentious people, according to a family friend. Michael Middleton grew up in Leeds, and his father was a pilot. Carole Middleton grew up initially in Southall, London; her father, Ron Goldsmith, was a builder, and her mother, Dorothy, was a store clerk. Michael and Carole met while working for the former British airline BOAC. Carole was a stewardess, Michael a steward, who would later train to become a pilot. When the couple had James, in 1987, Carole came up with the idea of starting a mail-order business that would sell partyware--paper hats, glitter, themed costumes, etc. The success of Party Pieces would allow the Middletons to purchase the five-bedroom house in Bucklebury and make them millionaires.
It is a close-knit family. They frequently go on vacation to the Caribbean island of Mustique, where observers see them out late laughing, clearly having a good time. Significantly, no one in the village of Bucklebury has ever gossiped to the press about them--which, according to Adam Helliker, shows how "squeaky clean" they are. When William comes to visit, the Middletons stop in at the Yew Tree pub. None of the locals ever bother them.
When Kate was 11, her parents sent her to an all-girls school, Downe House, in Berkshire, where she was bullied. They moved her to the co-ed school Marlborough, in Wiltshire--alma mater of the Duke and Duchess of York's daughter Princess Eugenie. There, as "Kate," Middleton grew into a sporty sort, excelling at tennis, hockey, and netball. The only incident anyone can recall where her behavior was anything other than exemplary was when she "mooned" passersby from her dormitory window.
Like many well-off students, she took what the British call a "gap year" between secondary school and college, spending three months of it in Florence learning Italian at the British Institute. While there, friends noticed that, though they frequently overindulged, Kate often nursed a single drink throughout the evening.
In September 2001, she headed off to St. Andrews University, famous for the "niceness" of its student body.
Diana's tragic death, in 1997, left her elder son wary and less certain of things. The two had not been on great terms when Diana died, says American education consultant Tamara Rosenberg, who has known the Prince since his early teens when he was at Eton. "William was starting to chafe at being Mama's boy.... He was trying to be more independent. And then she died. He never really resolved that."
His relationship with his father was solid but distant. A former courtier says that, though the Princes put up with Camilla, they have never forgotten that she was their mother's bête noire for 15 years. William talks about his father and mentions Camilla, says Rosenberg, but "he never talks about his mother."
In 2000, after graduating from Eton, William spent some of his gap year working in Latin America with the British charity group Raleigh International. Then he went to Kenya, where, it was rumored, he grew close to the beautiful Jessica (Jecca) Craig, 26, daughter of Ian and Jane Craig, who run the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Upon his return to England, William began dating Arabella Musgrave, the pretty, brunette 21-year-old daughter of Major Nicholas Musgrave, manager of Cirencester Park Polo Club. She and William secretly started dating, spending many weekends at Highgrove, his father's house in Gloucestershire.
It was with considerable trepidation that William set off in September 2001 for St. Andrews. It was really the first time he was leaving the insulated bubble of friends and family. Tamara Rosenberg says, "Even though there were at least a dozen Etonians there who he knew, I think that was the first time he was out of the environment where he was around people he'd known all his life."
He arrived at St. Andrews a week later than most to avoid what is known as "Freshers' Week," when new undergraduates generally drink too much. Presumably, he didn't want pictures of himself intoxicated appearing in the British papers. Instead, the press was allowed to photograph his arrival with his father.
But then, by prior agreement, the press left--except, ironically, for a video crew belonging to Ardent, his uncle Prince Edward's television company. When they were found loitering, filming inside the city walls, the university's rector, Andrew Neil, who is now the chairman of the Press Holdings Media Group, recalls, Prince Charles got on the phone to his younger brother. "Charles read Edward the riot act.... He was furious," says Neil.
Initially, William, who was officially listed as William Wales from Tetbury, Gloucestershire, chose to live in a public-housing unit, the equivalent of a co-ed dorm, known as St. Salvator's. Kate Middleton had moved in there, as well. The pair soon became friends; not only were they in the same dorm, they were both majoring in art history. Unlike some of the young women in his classes, who may have signed up just to meet him, Kate had a dashing, sporty boyfriend in tow--Rupert Finch, who was from Norfolk, East Anglia.
After his first term, William was so unhappy he was thinking of quitting. He wasn't enjoying his art-history classes, and he reportedly missed Arabella Musgrave. According to Katie Nicholl, a columnist for the Mail on Sunday, who has broken many stories about Middleton, Kate was hugely instrumental in persuading him to stay; like his father and many others, she must have been well aware that quitting school would be disastrous in terms of his public image. Why not try a course he was more interested in, like geography, she suggested, which proved a far better fit for him.
After the end of his first year, William had grown so trusting of Kate that together with Fergus Boyd, an old friend from Eton, and another friend, they forsook public housing and rented a house several miles outside the center of St. Andrews. In some ways William liked being anonymous; in other ways, not. "When he was in school he would just ... go round doing grocery shopping like a normal guy or just hang out with friends ... but at the same time he would also be going on holidays ... and driving whatever car he wanted and then be able to pick whatever town house he wanted in an area near all his classes," says Tamara Rosenberg, who saw him there during this period.
By now Kate's relationship with Rupert Finch was faltering, and William had ended his relationship with Arabella Musgrave. Toward the end of his first year, he briefly dated a St. Andrews student, Carly Massy-Birch, now an actress.
No one knows exactly when William and Kate became more than just housemates, but everyone at St. Andrews noticed his excitement in April 2002, during a charity fashion show at the university, when Kate paraded down a runway in diaphanous clothing with black underwear visible underneath.
At first their relationship was known only to a very tight group of friends who never talked about it at the time and have kept their silence since. "It's a kind of unwritten policy," says Jules Knight, a musician, who was at St. Andrews with the couple and is still a friend. "We were very protective up there ... and the idea was that that would carry on. Everyone sticks by that code of loyalty."
Each attended the other's 21st-birthday party, but both appearances were sufficiently inconspicuous that the British media paid no heed. In fact, it was Jecca Craig who drew their attention, since she was the guest of honor at Prince William's celebration at Windsor Castle on June 21, 2003. The first the British media had an inkling that the Prince had a serious girlfriend was when he and Middleton were spotted skiing in Klosters in March 2004. On the same trip the following year, William, uncharacteristically, let his guard down when he encountered journalist Duncan Larcombe at a nightclub and told him he didn't think he'd get married until he was at least 28 or 30.
No one among the royal press was particularly surprised by this statement. "He's trying to have it both ways," says Richard Kay. "He saw what happened to his mother and also what happened to his father. His father made a catastrophic mistake in letting the woman he loved [Camilla] slip through his fingers 30 years ago and was miserable for years.... But on the other hand his mother married far too young, and he has not wanted to make the same mistake."
Later that year, worried by exams and feeling claustrophobic, William and Kate did have a break of sorts, and William went on a sailing holiday around the Greek islands--most of his shipmates, reportedly, were women. But within a few months they were back together again, preparing for their final year at St. Andrews.
The two knuckled down, isolated from media scrutiny. In April 2005, Kate did not go with William to the wedding of his father to Camilla Parker Bowles--perhaps because her appearance there would have been a distraction from the main event. But in July 2005, right after they graduated, William took Kate on vacation to Lewa Downs, the Craigs' home in Kenya--and, inevitably, Kate must have seen the gesture as significant: he wanted her to be friends with Jecca, his dear friend.
In January 2006, William followed his younger brother to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in Surrey, for a year of army training; this would be followed by five months spent doing Special to Arm training at Bovington in Dorset, and then he would join the Household Cavalry regiment in Windsor. During his time there he undertook attachments for four months with the Royal Air Force and then two in the Royal Navy during 2008--essential experience for his future job as "head of the armed forces"--though inevitably his training in each branch would be far less arduous than that required of ordinary soldiers, airmen, and sailors. He knew there was no chance, as future King, he would get to see actual combat, unlike Harry, who would serve in secret in Afghanistan for three months earlier this year. It was announced in September that William would be postponing a life full of charity work to begin an 18-month training course in January with the Royal Air Force's Search and Rescue Force (sarf).
Kate, on the other hand, was less sure of what the future held. She was interested in fashion and photography, but as the Prince's girlfriend, she needed to accommodate his schedule. Once he went to Sandhurst the couple would meet either at Highgrove or at the Middletons' house in Bucklebury. Middleton's parents also bought an apartment in London's Chelsea neighborhood. Whenever the Prince was in London, this became the place where, as Katie Nicholl puts it, "he could have a bath, dinner, put his head on her lap, and just relax."
However, while her prince was away, life in London during the week was lonely and stressful for Kate, who began to be followed by paparazzi on shopping excursions and photographed on nights out. Sometime in 2006 she sought the help of Gerrard Tyrrell, who told me that she has a hotline to him, should she require it.
Yet, unlike Diana, Kate has almost never seemed to be rattled by the cameras. In fact, to the contrary, many British commentators have rather waspishly commented on how fresh she always appears--particularly in the early hours of the morning, when her companions, including Prince William, look obviously intoxicated as they leave their favorite nightclubs. It has been suggested that Middleton's wholesome appearance after a night on the dance floor is the result of drinking cautiously and carefully touching up in the ladies' bathroom before facing the cameras. "Has she ever heard of leaving via a back door?" one member of the Glossy Posse sniped.
In November 2006, Kate got a part-time job as a fashion-accessories buyer for Jigsaw, a chain-store company owned by John and Belle Robinson. In July, Belle gave an interview about Middleton, painting her as a down-to-earth sort, even though Kate had asked for a job with "an element of flexibility to continue the relationship with a very high-profile man and a life she can't dictate," according to Robinson. Yet, the older woman liked her part-time employee. "She sat in the kitchen at lunchtime and chatted with everyone from the van drivers to the accounts girls," Robinson told the London Evening Standard. "She wasn't precious. A lot of people have distorted it to say we're friends with her parents, but I've only met them four times.
"I have to say I was so impressed by her. There were days when there were TV crews at the end of the drive. We'd say, 'Listen, do you want to go out the back way?' And she'd say, 'To be honest, they're going to hound us until they've got the picture. So why don't I just go, get the picture done, and then they'll leave us alone.' "
Throughout 2006, Kate and William were photographed mostly on vacation, leaving nightclubs, or on the polo field. These images increasingly began to leave a somewhat negative impression--the British media referred to the young Princes as "boys" or, even worse, as "playboys."
"It doesn't play well," says Richard Kay. "They are being mocked in lots of circles as just a pair of prize Sloanes [Sloane Rangers] spending vast amounts of money on disgusting cocktails. They spend an awful lot of time in nightclubs for people who are supposed to have jobs in the army."
Interestingly, of the tight-knit royal clique who hit the clubs with increasing regularity, perhaps the most aware of the bad impression they were creating was Middleton. On vacation in 2006, Prince William and Guy Pelly, an old friend in the group, often referred to as the "court jester," were careening around on mopeds in front of a rented house on Ibiza. According to a source, Middleton came out of the house and, matron-like, told them to stop. "She said, Anyone could be watching.... Go out the back and stop behaving like this."
Like chastened schoolboys, the two did what they were told. William may not have liked it, but Middleton's judgment was almost certainly right.
Kate's confidence in her role as the royal girlfriend steadily grew. "She is very self-assured--Kate has always been buoyed by her mother's confidence in her," says Nicholl. Certainly only a young woman with great poise would retort to a friend who commented on her luck in dating Prince William that "he's lucky to be going out with me!"
She went to dinner several times with the Queen, who liked her, as did Charles and Camilla. Harry, according to one friend, took longer to warm up to her. Kate, with her demure outfits (fitted jackets over a dress, drop pearl earrings) and self-control, was the complete antithesis of Harry's blonde Zimbabwean girlfriend, the wealthy Chelsy Davy, who dresses in a far more provocative style. Chelsy is not afraid to be photographed with a glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other. "She looks sort of like an unmade bed," says Richard Kay with a chuckle. "The passion attraction between the two of them [Chelsy and Harry] fizzles and crackles. You can see they just want to rip their clothes off."
Lately, however, Harry and Kate are said to have become closer.
Meanwhile, William and Kate have refined their post-college set of friends. The new group contains Jamie Murray Wells, for example, a bright entrepreneur who started his own business, Glasses Direct--but in the main it consists of William's old friends from St. Andrews and from the polo-world and millionaire sets: Arabella Musgrave, head of public relations for Prada, and her boyfriend, brewery heir James Tollemache; Holly Branson, the doctor daughter of entrepreneur Sir Richard; Jecca Craig; Alice Warrender; Guy Pelly; Lady Natasha Rufus Isaacs; amateur boxer James Meade; Henry Ropner; Emilia D'Erlanger; Olivia Hunt; the Honorable Virginia Fraser; Lady Mary and Lady Iona Douglas-Home, the granddaughters of 1963-64 prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home; and Henry Conway, a promoter of Mahiki.
This group knows the rules: no gossiping about the couple and absolutely no talking to the press. According to Katie Nicholl, William has even been known to test people before allowing them into his group. He has good reason to be careful.
In September 2007, Guy Pelly was flown to Las Vegas in a setup by a tabloid, according to Katie Nicholl. He was plied with alcohol and lap dances. He thought he was discussing expanding his club empire, but he soon noticed a recording device sticking out of one of his companion's bags and terminated the meeting. His loyalty has been rewarded. Both Prince Harry and Prince William are often to be found at the nightclubs for which Pelly is director of marketing--the Polynesian-themed Mahiki, in Mayfair, and now Whisky Mist, in Park Lane.
But Middleton is ever watchful that a bad impression be avoided. Two years ago Nicholl was dining at Automat, a restaurant in Mayfair, when she saw Middleton enter and do a sweep of the restaurant to ensure that the booth she had reserved was basically hidden and that William would be able to have his back to the other diners. "When she had the seating all worked out, William came in with Arabella Musgrave and James Tollemache," recalls Nicholl. "I just thought, Gosh ... I don't think I've ever met another 24-year-old who would have done such a thing."
In December 2006, William graduated from Sandhurst. To the media's astonishment--and delight--Kate and her parents were invited to the ceremony, along with the Queen, Prince Charles, and Camilla. Kate wore a scarlet coat over a black camisole with a big black quasi top hat. The Middletons arrived using the same route as the Queen--slipping into the front row just before the ceremony.
That Christmas, the Middleton family rented a house in Perthshire, Scotland. William would be at Balmoral, also in Scotland, but hundreds of miles away, for New Year's.
In March, just around the time William started army training in Dorset, the couple attended the Cheltenham Gold Cup races in traditional tweed suits. The press covered their attendance ironically, noting how much like Charles and Camilla--nicknamed "Fred and Gladys"--the pair looked in their old-fashioned clothes. William was said not to be amused.
A few days later Kate, looking far more youthful and modern in a warm coat and Russian-style fur hat, went to the races on her own. Lord Vestey, a friend of Prince Charles's, was hosting a lunch for Charles, Camilla, Camilla's children, Tom and Laura, as well as Zac Goldsmith and Camilla's nephew Ben Elliot, among others. When the royal party heard Kate was there, she was invited to join them in the royal box.
There was speculation, however, that William did not like just how comfortable Kate had become in the royal-family fold. He felt claustrophobic.
On April 14, 2007, it was leaked to the Sun that the young couple had split. There were rumors that William had been enjoying nights on the dance floor both in London and in Bournemouth, near his army barracks, with pretty blondes. Officially, the Palace said that the decision to split was mutual and amicable. But within hours the story changed. Suddenly, there were reports that courtiers and other unnamed friends of William's had swayed him with snobbish views about Middleton's background, in particular her mother's early career as a stewardess. The Queen, it was reported, had frowned on Carole Middleton's middle-class manner of speaking. For example, she reportedly says "pardon" instead of "what" and "toilet" instead of "loo."
No sooner had the media reported the story than the inevitable backlash started, fueled when Prince William's spokesperson, Paddy Harverson, told those who bothered to ask that the reports about snobbery were just not true. For one thing the Queen had never met Mrs. Middleton, even though they had been at the same event.
It was very hard not to empathize with Kate and her family as the weeks of commentary about their role in a possible class war escalated--until, that is, Kate seemed to take matters into her own hands and turned all the press attention to her advantage. Quite suddenly in May, looking thinner and dressing younger, she was photographed frequently going out, mostly with her sister, Pippa, a dark-haired beauty who had just split up with banking heir J. J. Jardine Paterson. I saw the Middleton sisters in May 2007 as they entered the Mayfair jewelers Asprey one evening to celebrate the launch of Young Stalin, a book by historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. As they came into the room, the atmosphere turned electric. Photographers went berserk, clicking madly. Both young women looked stunning, but Kate particularly so in an ivory sheath that set off her tanned, glowing skin and streamlined figure.
Suddenly the sisters were everywhere. William, back in his army barracks in Bovington, could not have helped but see the images of his ex-girlfriend looking like a movie star, in slinky halter-neck dresses. "Unsurprisingly," says Richard Kay, "he wanted her back."
After all, whom else did he know as well? Whom else could he trust? Who else wanted to take on the role of royal consort?
He talked to friends such as Tamara Rosenberg during this time and basically expressed his confusion. On the one hand he loved Kate and wanted it to work. But he wanted to be sure he'd explored all his options. As he told a source, "I think it's a good idea to 'sow my wild oats.' " What he discovered was that the other women he was interested in were occupied or not interested in him. "I don't think he found it that easy to get a replacement," says Kay.
Katie Nicholl believes Middleton played her hand brilliantly. "She knew that by giving him time and space she could probably get him back, and she did so by being very clever, stepping out at his favorite clubs, looking glamorous and fabulous, and making him realize ... that's the only thing."
In fact, the split lasted only a few weeks. In June 2007, William invited her to a "Freakin' Naughty"-themed party at his army barracks. Kate wore a nurse's uniform. "He could not take his eyes off her all night," a source told Nicholl.
The relationship was secretly back on from there, but became public only in July, when Harry and William hosted a gala at Wembley to mark the 10 years since their mother's death. While Harry sat next to Chelsy Davy, Middleton was placed more discreetly a few rows back, but the cameras picked her up immediately.
'He could of course dump her and get away with it, but it's unlikely," said Nicholl over tea in a London hotel not long ago. "He would look like a real cad now. It's gone so far."
And, indeed, in the past year the couple have increasingly looked as if they are readying themselves for an engagement. In November, Middleton apologized to Belle Robinson and said she needed to leave her job at Jigsaw. She needed some space. The couple has sneaked away on vacations when they could. Prince Charles has been photographed teaching her how to shoot--unlike the late Princess of Wales, Middleton seems to enjoy outdoor life.
She was seated prominently when William graduated in April 2008 from R.A.F. Cranwell, just as she would be at the Garter ceremony in June--and at the weddings of Peter Phillips and, later, Lady Rose Windsor.
Her fashion sense has changed: she took the advice of fashion consultant Leesa Whisker and is often seen in the label Issa; the clothes are more sophisticated than the High Street chain-store outfits she used to wear, but not as expensive as couture labels. Increasingly she is looking more effortlessly regal.
In September Clarence House reorganized P.R. staffing so that Prince William and Prince Harry would have their own press secretary, Miguel Head. Perhaps this signifies more than just a change in the bureaucracy. Unlike Charles, Camilla, or indeed Diana, William and Kate do not yet have "conduits" in the British media to convey messages when they want to. "If they did," says Richard Kay, "then there wouldn't have been so much rubbish written."
Patrick Jephson, Diana's former equerry and spokesperson, hopes Kate is a sign that, with William, the British monarchy will return to the days of authenticity. Jephson points out that both the Queen and, before her, the late Queen Mother--who, like Middleton, was not born a royal--always put royal duty before anything else. "Will Kate Middleton be like Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon?" he asks.
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who became the Queen Mother, always had the love of the British people, particularly for her exemplary bravery when she stayed in London, against advice to move somewhere safer, during the World War II Blitz. Jephson's question is hypothetical, and no one yet knows the answer. But the signs are that the young woman from Berkshire may well be up to the task.
This article was originally published by the Vanity Fair