Hallelujah! Throughout Britain, the announcement of the engagement of Prince William to his long-time girlfriend Kate Middleton has been greeted with an outburst of relief. The eight-year courtship of the student prince and the girl dubbed “Waity Katie” has been dogged by intense and often poisonous coverage by the British press. Incessant media speculation—“Will Will?” “When, Will?”—has strained the nation’s nerves to the breaking point.
Now Kate has passed the test. Hers has been one of the longest examinations in history, but with the disaster of Diana still fresh in mind, deemed vitally necessary. Careful to keep a low profile, averse to self-publicity, happy to take second place, Kate has shown herself royal consort material from the first. And like the universally revered late queen mother, Kate can keep her mouth shut.
We know too that Queen Elizabeth II has decreed that this is the moment to release the news. With the young couple accepted as an item for some time, earlier announcements were reportedly mooted then aborted, most recently in the escalating bank crisis and credit crunch, when the Queen determined that any demonstration of royal rejoicing or monarchical triumphalism could only fuel the country’s fury and feed republican sentiment. But now, two days after Remembrance Sunday, the climax of a week of solemn ceremonies honouring the military’s dead, and with Prince William newly returned from observing the memorial with soldiers serving in Afghanistan, love is seen to follow death in a time-honoured, deeply consoling and deftly ordered arc.
At a photo op at St. James’s Palace in London, a beaming William said, “The timing is right now, we are both very, very happy.” Middleton gave away only snippets of the proposal, which occurred a month ago while on vacation in Kenya. “William is a true romantic,” she said. “We had a wonderful holiday in Africa in a very quiet lodge. It was very romantic and very personal.” For his part, William refused to divulge whether he proposed on one knee.
There were two odes on Tuesday to the ill-fated 1981 engagement of his parents, the late Diana, princess of Wales, and Prince Charles. The ring on Kate’s third finger was the same huge sapphire and diamond one chosen by Diana 29 years ago. William soundly rejected all the talk of a cursed ring, bluntly explaining that it was “my way of making sure my mother didn’t miss out on today and the excitement.” And then in an ode to his father Charles, whose engagement gaffe of responding “whatever in love means” to an “are you in love?” question, William deftly answered a similar query by emphasizing how well he gets along with his fiancée: “We both have a very good sense of humour and we take the mickey out of each other a lot,” adding that she has “plenty of habits that make me laugh that I tease her about.” A happy ending, then?
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a young prince must be in want of a wife, and the British have been preoccupied with William’s since his birth in 1982. Unlike his father, William never played the field, but the on-off nature of the affair with Kate has worn on the nation’s nerves. Now the waiting is over, and William’s mission impossible is done.
For William has always known that he had to make a marriage in keeping with his royal line—no fitness trainers, no Kylies or Joelenes—while also being required as a modern prince to marry for love. Most people find it hard enough to please their parents and friends with their choice of partner. Imagine having to choose a woman to delight the whole world, knowing that her face will be on every magazine cover as Diana’s was, the most photographed woman alive.
The bar was set high for William’s bride, too. The future queen had to be brave but not bold, cheery but not cheeky, a good communicator but tight-lipped everywhere outside the bedroom for fear of provoking a going-over by Britain’s brutal tabloid press. Above all, she would have to be a 21st century woman of spirit, while obeying the age-old demands of religion, patriarchy and primogeniture to bow to her husband’s superiority, and smiling, always smiling, dance backwards for the rest of her life.
Well, they’ve done it, successfully negotiating a minefield of a courtship conducted within the goldfish bowl of international scrutiny. Neither of them are intellectual, yet they have trodden the ever-shifting path between public and private with surprising skill. They know what it is to dance on the knife-edge of press approval, which can slice this way or that on an editor’s whim. One day, they are shown as the spoiled, idle rich spilling out of a London nightclub. The next, the tabloids present them as young people innocently enjoying themselves at a polo match or a ball, Britain’s golden future with William “fulfilling Diana’s legacy.”
Diana’s fate is an inescapable reminder of the need for William not to get this wrong. Failure would spell more than a personal tragedy: it could threaten a national disaster. The future Edward VIII could have taken his pick of the princesses of Europe during the 1920s and ’30s. When he spurned them all in favour of the Baltimore-bred and much-married Wallis Simpson, he provoked a constitutional crisis and the monarchy tottered on its throne.
Things were easier when the bride of the future king was chosen for him at an early age. The future Edward III was only 14 when his mother Isabella, the “she-wolf of France,” betrothed him to the daughter of the duke of Hainault in 1326, trading him for an army of mercenaries to overthrow her husband, Edward II. Prince Arthur, the heir of Henry VII, was only two when he was engaged to the two-year-old Catherine of Aragon, and 15 when they wed in 1501.
The ill-starred teenagers had only four months together before Arthur died. For Catherine, losing one prince of Wales might have been carelessness, but failure to marry his brother would have meant a rupture in Christendom between England and Spain. So the young widow was shunted into the arms of the lad now born to be Henry VIII, and we all know how that turned out.
But sudden heirs to unexpected thrones often had to accept their dead brothers’ leavings as their own. The future Czar Alexander III of Russia saw his duty plain when his older brother Nicholas died in 1865, and took the czarevich’s betrothed, the Danish princess Dagmar, as his bride. As recently as 1893, Prince George dutifully married Princess Mary of Teck, the fiancée originally lined up for his older brother Prince Albert before his death in the European flu epidemic of 1889-92. Later, during the nationalistic fervour of the First World War, George and Mary ditched their German titles and created the oh-so British House of Windsor.
Not all Britain’s future kings toed the line as obediently as George. An earlier George, the wayward son of George III, made a secret marriage with the commoner Maria Fitzherbert in 1785, an act doubly illegal since it took place without the permission of the king, and Fitzherbert was a Catholic. Forced to take an official bride, he was matched with Princess Caroline of Brunswick, who stank so badly that on first meeting her, “Prinny” half-fainted into a chair, muttering “Get me a brandy!” After the marriage, he treated her so cruelly that the whole country turned against him, foreshadowing the unpopularity Charles incurred over Diana, an experience the royal family has no desire to live through again.
Nor does the country. Underneath the jubilation at the engagement sounds the silent swell of the nation’s unspoken prayer, “For God’s sake, get it right this time!” For the painful, public and protracted failure of that earlier marriage is the spectre overhanging William and Kate, a trauma that all involved are determined not to repeat.
Significant changes began at William’s birth. Despite senior royal discomfort with Diana’s ideas of mothering, the late princess spent a great deal of time with William and his brother Harry in the nursery, developing a far closer relationship with her boys than was customary. Diana later became the first royal mother in British history openly to place her children above her duty to her husband, even if she did later exploit them as her major battle tanks in her war against “the firm.”
As he grew, William was sent to private schools. Once at exclusive Eton—chosen in part because of its proximity to granny at nearby Windsor Castle—William was given a far wider set of earlier experiences than Charles had enjoyed at the remote, austere Gordonstoun, to promote the confidence that Charles in his early years had so signally lacked. Crucially, when William went to the University of St. Andrews in a small Scottish town, Buckingham Palace cut a deal with the British press to extend to him the protection of the cordon sanitaire that has enveloped him since the death of his mother, Diana, in 1997. Thus it was as William’s “flatmate” that Kate first came to the attention of the press. The great British public was painlessly eased into the idea that the couple had lived together for some time, before the full understanding of that filtered through. When it did, few disapproved.
Most now recognize that when Charles and Diana met and married, they hardly knew each other at all, let alone themselves. Both were driven by desperation and inflamed by a fantasy of fulfillment, floundering in a pit of neediness too deep to plumb. Their brief hour of love flourished and died in a cloud of unknowing only made denser by the age gap between them and the lack of common interests on every front. Through Kate’s unwavering discretion, it is not known if William drops his underpants on the floor, squeezes the toothpaste from the wrong end or snores in bed, but one thing is clear: if he does, she already knows and can live with it.
Charles married Diana in obedience to three imperatives: his bride had to be a virgin, she had to be tall, and she had to be a blueblood. William was working with a different set of requirements from the start. Virginity in the West is no longer the supreme fetish it was. Height is still in demand, but aristocracy is no longer so favoured, since Diana turned out to be more blue-blooded than Charles, with the Stuart King Charles II in her family tree, an ancestor who trumps the wretched Hanoverians hands down. When William marries Kate, he will be the first present or future sovereign to choose a true commoner as his future queen since Anne Hyde married the future James II in 1660, and, as most stout English hearts would say, all the better for that.
Whoever William married, the weight of history would be on his shoulders. Happily, he will not feel it very much. Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, who was introduced to constitutional history but never taught higher mathematics, since a queen would never need to add up, William has been given a more “normal” education. Normal, that is, for his sex and social status, which means that he has spent his school days in all-male environments designed to reinforce gender dominance and class superiority. Then he went into the army and air force where he met more of the same, reaching his maturity in an element where the whiff of testosterone could knock a civilian out.
As objects of mirth, women sometimes fare no better than other ranks in this circle of upper-class pachyderms. Kate has already been the butt of the jibe, “Doors to manual!” in reference to her mother’s previous career as a flight attendant. There will be plenty of this and certainly more to come, which as before, she’ll have to take in her stride.
Still, it’s always assumed that she’s the lucky one, that by marrying William, she’s won the lottery of life. From now on she’ll never have to work for a living or even remember her front door key whenever she leaves home. Now it will be chandeliers, champagne and caviar all the way, and all the dresses, shoes, and gaudy baubles her heart desires.
Not so. Yes, the cash will be there, but she’ll have no control over it, and whatever she gets, she’ll have earned every red cent. As those close to Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, will confirm, they’re hard work, these Windsor boys. Charles is the ultimate high emotional maintenance man, and there’s every sign underneath the modern exterior that William is a chip off the old block.
Character is destiny, Thomas Hardy said. The reverse is still more darkly true. How can William escape the sense of being No. 1, king-in-waiting of one of the world’s oldest monarchies, a pride of place drummed into him before he could walk? From infancy he has known that despite any bad behaviour and without any great achievement, he will become king of Britain, Canada and 14 other realms scattered around the globe, as well as one of the most famous people on the planet. Ah, the glory of primogeniture! William has been fed a diet of royal jelly every day of his life. All he has to do is to stay alive, and Lady Luck will drop everything into his lap.
Or will she? Wealth and position are no guarantee of a good life, as the ghastly post-abdication, almost posthumous existence of the duke and duchess of Windsor can testify. Marriage is society’s traditional way of making men grow up and settle down. In William’s case, this means settle down to the real business of life, his raison d’être, producing an heir, then the whole jolly marriage carousel can turn again, ting ting! But what if he can only father girls? What if the longed-for heir is born with a birth defect? And discreet tests on both will undoubtedly have been done, but fertility is a capricious goddess: what if no offspring appear at all?
But let’s cut the carping, when there’s so much to enjoy: the happiness of young love and the approval of that wise old bird, the Queen, without whose consent none of this would occur. What happens now? For William, nothing much till the big day, scheduled with deliberate vagueness for “spring or summer of next year.” But the life of Kate and all her family changed radically at dawn on the day of the announcement, when police cars discreetly blocked access to the family home and anywhere else a Middleton might be. In a rare break after years of silence, her parents met the media on the day of the engagement, though Michael Middleton spoke from what looked like a “don’t say anything controversial” script: “As you know, Catherine and Prince William have been going out together for quite a number of years, which has been great for us because we have got to know William very well. We all think he is wonderful and we are extremely fond of him. They make a lovely couple, they are great fun to be with, and we’ve had a lot of laughs together. We wish them every happiness for the future.”
Protected like royalty, Kate herself will now be known as Catherine, a name deemed to have the dignity due to a future queen and redolent of royal associations with Henry VIII’s three queens, Aragon, Howard and Parr (a proleptic choice by the Middletons when they named their baby girl, not to mention adding the middle name “Elizabeth”).
And after the marriage, how will the born-again Catherine be styled? It is rumoured that the Queen will make William duke of Cambridge, in that odd British paradox akin to the Russian which makes a duke posher than a prince. But if the Queen dies before Charles, and he becomes king, will Catherine then become the princess of Wales? Will they risk stirring up Diana’s still unavenged shade? We shall have to wait and see.