By Richard Price
Zipping on a motorbike through the country lanes of Anglesey to the local pub, they are little more than a blur, with their faces obscured by helmets.
The only clue is the Land Rover following them, complete with tinted windows and security guards. For one of the leather-clad bikers is none other than Kate Middleton, riding pillion with her husband, the future King.
Were it not for their security team, the public would be hard-pressed to recognise them. This is a couple who crave normality – staying in to enjoy the meals Kate prepares (her favourites are shepherd’s pie and toad-in-the-hole), having a quiet drink in their local, The White Eagle, or going for long walks in the Welsh countryside.
But make no mistake, the quiet brunette who can be seen shopping in the local Waitrose is the most important person in the Royal Family, bar none.
Since that day in Westminster Abbey a year ago, when 2 billion people around the globe watched her marry her prince, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton has undergone a metamorphosis.
Gone is the shy, conservatively dressed young woman, and in her place is a confident style queen. In turn, the willowy beauty has brought the British monarchy bang into the 21st century.
Hard work, patience and a degree of ruthlessness have been needed – most of her old friends, for example, have been quietly sidelined. But the result has been the making of a modern icon.
It’s been an eventful year since Kate and Wills wed For the past year, Kate has been in intensive training for a role only two women have occupied in the past century: Queen Consort. Judging by her public appearances to date she has adapted to this new life quite effortlessly.
Appearances, however, can be deceptive. At just 30, this extraordinary young woman has been marked out as a crucial figure on whose shapely shoulders the future of the British Monarchy rests – and work behind the scenes to mould her into a future queen has been feverish.
She has been given a crash course in elocution, deportment and bafflingly arcane conventions – such as the difference between Earls, Baronets and Viscounts – which make up royal life.
Meanwhile, a crack team of advisers – including William’s private secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton and her own right-hand woman Rebecca Deacon – has been put in place to guide her through the choppy waters ahead. It is all part of a grand scheme which will, it is hoped, see Kate established as a natural successor to the late Princess Diana in the hearts of the nation.
“This is now the most important woman in the Royal Family, and the Queen is taking a personal interest in making sure she gets off to a good start,” says Robert Jobson, a leading royal commentator and author of William And Kate: The Love Story.
“Make no mistake, the future of the aristocracy in this country lies with William and Kate. That is why the senior royals have such a hands-on approach.
“Their marriage simply has to be a success – it is the cornerstone of the modern monarchy.”
But don’t take his word for it. Prince Edward himself recently told his friend Sir David Frost that she has “taken to royal life like a duck to water”.
“She’s very gracious and the family is very proud of her,” he added. “It was never going to be easy for Catherine as the world is watching her every move.”
Given the unprecedented number of people glued to the Royal Wedding last year, this will not come as news to Kate. But for a woman not born to a royal life, it is a daunting prospect. So she has been grateful for the support of the Queen, who recently asked Kate to join her for a Jubilee appearance in Leicester.
“The Queen remembers all too well how it was for Diana, and is determined that the mistakes of the past should not be repeated,” adds Robert.
“Diana complained vocally about the treatment she endured. She was effectively left alone and told to get on with it, which must have been impossible. Kate’s journey is every bit as daunting, but she is being supported through it, and that makes a big difference.”
During Prince William’s tour of duty in the Falklands earlier this year, Kate also met regularly with Prince Charles and Camilla. This close attention appears to have paid dividends, with Kate sailing through her maiden public speech as a member of the Royal Family, at a children’s hospice. Behind the scenes, however, Kate gives credit to a less famous figure: her mum.
Carole Middleton, the 57-year-old former air hostess whose humble background led to her being waspishly dubbed “doors to manual”, has been a constant source of support.
Kate is known to call her mother up to eight times a day – and it was Carole who, night after night, listened to her practising her first speech.
“Carole has been a massive support,” says a member of the Middletons’ circle. “It’s all right for the likes of William and Harry – they’ve been giving interviews and speeches for years – but Kate’s just an ordinary girl.
“It may have looked easy, but that speech took weeks to get right. It’s important for Carole to be there, because family is everything to Kate. She doesn’t have a wide circle of friends.”
Who else can Kate turn to? Much has been made of the “Sisterhood”, with whom she planned to row across The Channel in a dragon boat five years ago. But in truth, she has very few confidantes, and almost all her friends from the past have gradually fallen by the wayside.
Of her friends at Marlborough School, she is only in touch with a couple – including Alicia Fox-Pitt and Emilia d’Erlanger. Her best mates Jessica Hay and Gemma Williamson are no longer close to Kate. Two of her more lasting friendships are with Sam Waley-Cohen – the man credited with bringing her and Wills back together after their brief split – and his chum Holly Branson.
She has learned the hard way about the need to distance herself from some old associates, such as Emma Sayle, who was head of the Sisterhood rowing crew.
Initially a great pal of Kate’s, she was quietly shelved following some ill-advised Facebook comments about illegal immigrants, which led to a police investigation. These days, most of Kate’s wider circle of friends are from the tight-knit group of aristocrats that William has grown up with.
We are family
For Kate, however, her party- planner sister Pippa, 28, and her brother James, 24, who runs a cake-making company, are her bedrock. In the run-up to the wedding she virtually lived with Pippa and in recent weeks, with Wills away flying his RAF helicopter in the South Atlantic, she has stayed at the family flat in Chelsea with Pippa a number of times.
“Kate may only have a few close friends, but she’s no shrinking violet,” says a well-placed source. “She’s blossomed since the ‘Waity Katie’ days. Back then she was so sensitive about that nickname, she asked her friends to call her Catherine.
“These days, she really likes the informality of Kate – it’s funny how being a Duchess makes you more relaxed about these things.”
Buoyed by this growing confidence, Kate has forged ahead with her royal duties. She is now the patron of four charities – The Art Room, The National Portrait Gallery, East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices and Action on Addiction. She is also set to be a local volunteer leader with the Scout Association in Anglesey, north Wales, where she and William have their marital home.
It has been a good start, but the pressure to step up her duties will soon grow. It has been noted that she has performed 34 official engagements in her first year as a royal wife, compared to Princess Diana’s 170.
As Robert Jobson puts it: “Kate has done a great job, but she hasn’t done a great deal. Certainly not very much compared to Diana’s first year as a royal.
“My concern is that it won’t necessarily warm her to the public going forward. It’s an unfortunate fact that some people don’t like her because she has never had a career. There’s a perception that she has been lazy, and the only way to counteract that is by working very hard from now on.
“Prince Philip in particular, who is very influential, has said that he wants the younger generation to take over.
“It was interesting that while William was away in the Falklands, Kate actually did more. It seemed to confirm the suspicion that he is more reluctant to take on public engagements than she is. Kate has always followed his lead,” Robert says.
Some senior courtiers are said to be frustrated by William’s reluctance to carry out more engagements. He has inferred that he intends to remain in the RAF until 2016, rather than take on a full-time royal role, but there is growing pressure on him to revise his position.
As royal biographer and editor of Majesty magazine Ingrid Seward says: “They need Kate and William to connect with the public or the Royal Family will cease to exist. They can’t afford to rest on their laurels because nobody knows what is around the corner.
“William may not want to do it, but he doesn’t really have a choice. Prince Harry has already taken on more. He’s doing a brilliant job and if you compare the two brothers, he is the one with the natural flair his mother had.”
She does not believe, however, that Kate is as comfortable in her royal role as she appears.
“Kate is the sort of person who would look comfortable anywhere, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy,” Ingrid says.
“I imagine she’s very nervous when she’s with the Queen, but she doesn’t let on. It’s a bit of a front. In the early days Diana didn’t know how to deal with the Queen. Kate seems to be different – and that will put her in good stead.”
One unwavering source of support that has helped Kate cope with her first year as a royal, is her husband. William has always been determined she should not endure the difficulties his mother experienced. Together with Kate, he has accepted the guidance of respected courtiers, including his private secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton.
And while Kate has been criticised by fashionistas for her predominantly high-street style, this is deliberate. The plan is to model her and Wills on the Queen and Prince Philip: the dashing military man and dedicated wife.
“The strategists are convinced the monarchy does better when it is perceived as being a little bit boring,” says Robert. “As for the criticism of her high-street style, Kate’s in a no-win situation. If she dressed from head to toe in designer labels she’d be slaughtered for being spoiled and out of touch. And people are obsessed with her weight, but if you spend any time with her it’s obvious that she’s a healthy young woman.”
Kate enjoys the outdoor life Anglesey affords her. Her rambles on the private beach close to her and Wills’ farmhouse with their cocker spaniel Lupo means 5ft 10in Kate – who is a slim size 8 – doesn’t need to worry about her figure.
But north Wales can be a lonely place, so she is grateful for the company of her protection officer. Sergeant Emma Probert, 40, has guarded the Duchess since she became engaged to William in November 2010. One of several officers providing 24-hour protection, she is at first sight an unassuming figure, but carries a lightweight 9mm Glock pistol.
More support comes from Rebecca Deacon, who Kate personally selected to be her assistant. At 29, she is a year younger than Kate, and is responsible for organising her day-to-day commitments.
It is thought to be only a matter of time before she appoints a lady-in-waiting. Contrary to reports, Pippa is highly unlikely to take the job, but as her commitments grow, Kate will be thankful for another female presence in her entourage – someone to kick her shoes off with at the end of a long day.
Whatever she does, it seems that courtiers are thrilled at the way Kate has already transformed the popularity of the Royal Family – especially abroad.
“William and Kate are hugely popular in America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia,” says Ingrid. “It’s nothing like on the scale of Diana, but that is seen as a good thing. Diana’s fame was unmanageable.”
One pressure she does share with Diana is to have a family. Two years ago, the senior Royals mapped out her future: 2011 for the wedding of the century, 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee, 2013 for the most famous baby in the world.
For all her poise, beauty and charm, Kate’s role really boils down to something very simple. Next year will be time to produce the heir. So far so good, but the pressure is very much on.