At the marriage of the century, two families will be seated at the front of the ancient sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. On the left will be Kate Middleton’s family; the royal relatives of Prince William will be on the right.
But make no mistake: this isn’t a typical marital merger. It’s a takeover. When commoner Kate Middleton enters the house of Windsor, the rest of her family will stay on the periphery, associated with the royal family yet never part of it. All the milestones of her life from April 29 onward will be celebrated from within the gilded confines of her husband’s world. There will be no sharing of big family get-togethers like Christmas Day—one year with her family, the next with his. She will spend her holidays with her husband’s family on their estates. Forever.
Yet Kate and her family have a huge ace in the hole in this particular corporate takeover—call it the middle-class advantage. For all their ambitions, the Middletons are staunchly middle class, and so are their values. And those values are shared by the most important Windsor: Queen Elizabeth II.
For her nearly 60 years on the throne, the monarch has been a consistent proponent of common sense morals and ethics: hard work, responsibility and, crucially, the ability to not talk to the press. And those beliefs, more than social standing or an impeccable family tree, are shaping the current crop of royal weddings. Indeed, marrying spouses outside the rareified world of country estates has become a trend not only among the Queen’s grandkids but also throughout the younger generation of the extended family. So far only one such marriage has ended in divorce.
Enter the Middletons, a tight-knit family that has thrived through hard work and a desire to better themselves. Michael and Carole Middleton have been happily married for decades. In Britain’s socially stratified society, they are truly “working” class—no one will forget that they are descendents of coal miners and servants—albeit, today, ones with healthy bank accounts. They created a business that is run out of a barn close to their rural five-bedroom house in the village of Bucklebury. Along the way they’ve raised three children—Kate and her younger siblings Pippa and James—all polite and responsible with a strong backbone for work.
Throughout seven years of intense press scrutiny that started the minute Fleet Street discovered that William was dating fellow university student Kate, the Middletons have stayed true to themselves. Better yet, they’ve stayed quiet. It hasn’t been easy. Denied access to the future wife of the future king, Fleet Street has made the Middleton family itself fodder for the news mill: every appearance, however trivial, is now analyzed on the front pages. Are Carole’s above-the-knee hemlines suitable for a middle-aged mother of the bride? Is she on a dangerous pre-wedding diet? By all accounts a woman of drive and ambition, Carole Middleton is cast as a social climber who “pushed” her kids into the top private schools, then to the best universities. (Dad Michael is let off easy as the calming centre of the family.) It is doubly hard for their two other, equally photogenic, children. Pippa, named Tatler’s most eligible society singleton in 2008, is mocked as a party organizer and planner. (Before Kate was under royal protection, she and her younger sister Pippa were dubbed “wisteria sisters,” known for being, as the Daily Mail bitingly described, “highly decorative, terribly fragrant and with a ferocious ability to climb.”) Younger brother James doesn’t fare much better as the founder of a cake-making company.
Earlier this month, the Middletons complained about media intrusions to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) after a London shopping trip during which photographers documented every gesture and step of Carole and Pippa. The PCC, in turn, reminded the press that under their code, “journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.”
That the family has survived such intense scrutiny as a cohesive supporting unit is something that their future son-in-law openly admires. “What Prince William likes about them is the fact that they are not royal,” explains Penny Junor, author of The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor, “that they are a normal middle-class family, a happy family.”
Middle-class Kate will have some natural allies as she enters the extended Windsor clan. Her closest friends may well be the cousins to whom William and Harry are closest: Princess Anne’s children, Peter and Zara Phillips—one married to a commoner, the other about to wed one. Growing up, William, Harry, Zara and Peter holidayed together at the estates of their adoring grandmother, the Queen. Today Peter Phillips works for the Royal Bank of Scotland. His Canadian wife, Autumn, just gave birth to Savannah, the Queen’s first great-grandchild.
As an example of just how acceptable, even preferred, it is for members of the royal family to marry commoners, in July, Zara Phillips, a former world champion equestrian who is training for the Olympics, will wed Mike Tindall, England’s rugby captain. They are such an informal couple that they wore ski vests and jeans for their engagement photo.
Tindall’s rough and tumble background—he comes complete with crooked teeth and a matching nose—is a far cry from those of the two spouses who nearly destroyed the Windsors. Lady Diana Spencer had impeccable breeding and came from a family who had served the Windsors for generations. “She enjoyed being a superstar and the minute that happened she outshone her husband,” explains Junor. “And he was just not used to that. As a royal prince he had been used to being the centre of attention everywhere he’d been.” And just like Diana, Sarah Ferguson grew up on the fringes of the royal family. She didn’t have the grand pedigree of Diana, but she was certainly connected: her father had been an officer in the Household Cavalry and royal polo manager. Yet Sarah enjoyed the limelight and the advantages of a royal life so much that she forgot her most important duty: being a royal wife. “If there is one crime in being a royal consort, it is outshining whomever you’re married to,” recounts the author. Both Diana’s and Sarah’s parents divorced when they were girls; both of their own marriages imploded in 1992.
Ever since then, royal spouses have come almost exclusively from what the British might see as more common stock. They’ve kept their heads down, worked hard, supported their blue-blooded spouses and shunned the spotlight. Who is the most beloved in-law by the Queen? The hard-working, low-key Sophie Rhys-Jones—another middle-class girl before she married Edward in 1999.
Of all the post-Diana and Sarah spouses, Sophie, countess of Wessex, is arguably the most successful. The former PR executive undertook 174 engagements last year while raising their two young children. (Louise, 7, is one of Kate’s bridesmaids.) She has become extremely close to the sovereign after the death of the Queen’s confidantes, her mother and sister, and a frequent visitor at Windsor Castle, having tea or watching TV with her husband’s parents. When the Queen goes to church, it is Sophie who sits beside her. “She’s a non-competitive daughter-in-law,” says royal expert Hugo Vickers, unlike publicity-seeking Diana and Sarah. Her low-key loyalty has been rewarded: in 2010, she was made a dame grand cross of the Royal Victorian Order for “services to the sovereign.”
Like Sophie, who was slowly introduced to her in-laws well before her wedding, Kate enters her new life knowing William’s immediate family. She’s met them all over the years and is familiar with all their quirks and sense of humour (or not). Even more importantly, they get along. She and William even share an apartment in a London palace with Harry. In 2008, when William was admitted into the Order of the Garter, the Queen’s personal order of chivalry, Kate could be seen joking with Prince Harry and Camilla, duchess of Cornwall. And earlier this year, it was Prince Charles and Camilla who took her out for a night at the ballet when William was visiting earthquake-damaged New Zealand and the flooded areas of Australia.
The duchess of Cornwall, like Sophie, never takes centre stage when she’s with her husband. She doesn’t speak to the media and is unlikely to ever do so. There is every indication that Kate Middleton is going to follow in the footsteps of the two wives.
Camilla has another strategy Kate may use to survive and prosper in the rarified world of palaces. “Being with the royal family in that environment, living in their houses, is like being in the middle of a circus,” Junor says. “Camilla is able to keep her sense of perspective by getting out of that goldfish bowl and going home to her house, which is full of muddy paw prints and muddy boots” from her own family of kids and grandkids. “I think that’s kept her sane.”
Kate, too, seems determined to keep her family close to her as she slowly gets subsumed into a cloistered royal life. She might not get to sit around her old dining room table on Dec. 25, but there are plenty of other days in the calendar when she can slip away to the family fold.
There is every indication that keeping Kate grounded and happy is important to her future husband. William made it clear that the Middletons were to be involved in every aspect of planning the royal wedding. They’ve been allocated generous supplies of tickets to the main event, as well as the parties at Buckingham Palace. (Though, to be fair, in return Kate’s parents are picking up a good chunk of the expenses.)
Under the usual royal rules, the Middletons aren’t expected to remain on centre stage after the wedding. Families of royal in-laws never do. Indeed, experts say that though Kate’s parents know Charles and Camilla, they won’t meet Queen Elizabeth II until the day of the wedding. The relationship between the two families is “correct without being cordial,” says Brian Hoey, who has written extensively on the royal family. He thinks the attention focused on the Middletons will be short-lived: “Once the wedding is over we will see nothing whatsoever of the Middletons in royal terms.”
If William and Kate live happily ever after—or happily enough for all concerned—then the trials and tribulations that come from being joined at the hip with the house of Windsor will seem like a bargain for Kate and her family. After all, a future monarch will have Middleton blood coursing through his or her veins.