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Kate Middleton

Worlds End - Vivienne Westwood's shop in the King's Road, Chelsea

Royalty is one of the slowest changing of institutions, since the provision of stability is one of its functions. But over the centuries there have been changes, and one of the most far reaching involves the isolation of royalty from the rest of society. From the period of the Greek and Roman civilisations onwards laws and customs were in place to keep royalty separate. This was particularly true in matters of marriage and fashion. As far as fashion was concerned, certain clothing or styles were limited to the ruling class and could not be worn by anyone else. The Roman emperors had an exclusive claim on the colour purple. There were similar limits on clothing in the Byzantine empire, where silks were reserved for the ruling class (see for example Byzantium and the Crusades by Jonathan Harris P27). These rules endured into the medieval period, and irritated a lot of European women (see for example A Bitter Living: Women, Markets and Social Capital in early Modern Germany by Sheilagh Ogilivie). But slowly over the centuries the sense that royal families were closed off from the rest of society began to weaken. And this was reflected in a relaxation of restrictions on exclusive fashions. James Laver points out that during the Peasants Revolt in sixteenth century Germany one of the insurgents' demands was that: "they should be allowed to wear red clothes like their betters" (Costume and Fashion, A Concise History P86). This hint of change in the fixed exclusivity of fashion became much more powerful in the late seventeenth century. In France Louis XIV and his forward looking minister Colbert were anxious to encourage the French textile trade and wore its products themselves hoping to lead by example. Meanwhile in England Charles II was setting fashion trends which were copied by people generally. In October 1666 Charles decided to create a fashion that would make him distinctive. He chose a Persian inspired coat, over a long vest. This style eventually developed into the waistcoat and overcoat, which were copied widely. Society was now able, and even encouraged, to follow the style of its leaders. Fittingly Chelsea's King's Road, now one of London's most famous clothes shopping streets, was originally Charles II's private route from London to Kew. Hundreds of years later a wealthy young woman called Kate Middleton was to live in Chelsea and shop for clothes in the King's Road. And, after marrying a prince she would become a fashion icon herself.

 

Westminster Abbey, where Kate Middleton married Prince William 29th April 2011

And this brings us to marriage, which has also traditionally been used to separate royal families from the rest of society. Powerful families protected their position by carefully choosing who their youngsters married. And in the most powerful families, the choice would often fall on a cousin, so that power would not be dissipated outside the family circle. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire some historians suggest that the Church tried to boost its own power at the expense of family dynasties by making marriage to cousins illegal, and promoting the disruptive, unpredictable idea of marrying for love. The Church's philosophy of marriage came to dominate western society, but was resisted by royalty who continued with their old self protecting traditions. There was one example of a medieval monarch marrying for love - Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville in 1464. But this led to power struggles with the Wydeville family, was widely viewed as a bad match, and was hardly ever emulated. In the sixteenth century Henry VIII reversed laws forbidding marriage to cousins, and of course famously used a number of arranged marriages to try and secure a son and heir. Arranged marriages to cousins were the norm in the English royal family right up until the 1947 marriage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who are second cousins. Queen Elizabeth's son Prince Charles seriously considered marrying his second cousin Amanda Knatchbull, and actually proposed to her. It was only the assassination of her father Lord Mountbatten by the IRA in 1979 which caused her to reject any idea of entering the royal family. So Charles famously married Diana Spencer in 1981. Diana was not a close relative of Charles, and the media tried to make her out as an ordinary girl, a kindergarten teacher, who had miraculously married a prince. This was romantic illusion, since Diana, as a Spencer, was a member of one of England's oldest noble families. So the idea of ordinary girl Diana breaking down the final exclusive marriage restrictions around the royal family is rather misleading. But Kate Middleton, who was to marry Diana's eldest son, is a different matter. Kate was not in any sense a member of a noble family. She was daughter of a mother who had spent her early childhood in a council flat in Southall. The story of Kate Middleton is one which indicates the continuing breaking down of barriers which have surrounded royalty for so long. Kate would set fashion trends, as royalty had been doing since the reign of Charles II. She was also to be a girl from a non aristocratic background who married a prince. This would indicate that even in the area of marriage, where royalty had long put up a struggle to maintain a closed world, the barriers were coming down.

 

Kate's Middleton's story begins amongst Durham miners, who figure prominently in her family history. While Prince William's great grandfather was George VI, King of England, Kate's great grandfather was Thomas Harrison, a carpenter, who had learnt his trade to escape the traditional family occupation of mining. Thomas, considering London as a more lucrative place to live than Durham, moved his family to the London suburb of Southall. Thomas's youngest daughter Dorothy married a lorry driver named Ron Goldsmith, and it was in a Southall council flat that Kate Middleton's mother Carole was born in 1955. Both of Carole's parents were determined to better themselves, and by 1966 the family had moved into their own semi detached house in Kingsbridge Road, Norwood Green. When Carole left school she became an air hostess with BOAC. She met a flight attendant named Michael Middleton, whose family enjoyed the benefits of a family trust fund set up by Francis Lupton, a wealthy nineteenth century mill owner. The Middletons lived in Slough, and then in Broadfield Southend, a small village in Berkshire, convenient for getting to work at Heathrow airport. Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born at the Royal Berkshire Hospital on 9th January 1982, a sister, Philippa, following just over a year later. In 1984 the family moved to Amman in Jordan where Michael was now working in a much more senior capacity for British Airways. Returning to Broadfield Southend in September 1986 the family's rising fortunes were given a further boost by Carole's decision to set up a company called Party Pieces, providing children's party items via mail order. Now with a healthy income, the Middletons were able to send their daughters to an expensive local private school called St Andrews. Kate did well academically, and excelled at sports. There was a brief and painful interruption to her progress when she moved on to secondary education at another expensive school called Downe House. Kate was badly bullied here, and was quickly moved to Marlborough where she was much happier and continued her quiet and efficient progress.

 

The beach at St Andrews

 

Kate did well at Marlborough, passing eleven GCSEs, and getting good grades in her A levels in art, chemistry and biology. She then spent a gap year on a course in art history in Florence, and working as a hostess looking after guests on yachts taking part in the BT Global Challenge yachting programme. The original plan was then to go to Oxford Brookes University, but this was changed to St Andrews. The possible reason for the switch was Prince William's decision to attend St Andrews, which had enhanced the university's prestige. At St Andrews Kate found herself, at least initially, on the same art history course as Prince William, and living in the same residence - St Salvator's Hall. They started talking on the touchline at a rugby game, a shared interest in sport smoothing their initial conversation. They became close, and moved into a house with two other friends just outside St Andrews. For William there was much royal travelling around the world, and linking of his name with many other girls. But when William and Kate graduated in June 2005 with 2:1s they were still an item. Kate moved to a flat her parents owned in Chelsea, and spent a rather aimless period looking for a job, clothes shopping in the King's Road, and enjoying nights out at exclusive clubs. She eventually found work at the Jigsaw clothing company, who it seemed wanted an association with the famous Kate rather than any specific skills she could bring to them. Meanwhile William had entered military training. In 2007 William was training on tanks at Bovington Camp in Dorset, and a drunken night out with his mates ended with photographs of a royal hand on the breast of a Brazilian girl. A short split followed, with William apparently celebrating at a club, spending £5000 "drinking the menu" and shouting "I'm free!" (see Unofficial Kate P144). This clearly isn't a fairy story, in which the protagonists live on a higher plane, as it would have been presented in the past. Just like everyone else, William and Kate had their moments. They were soon back together again, however, with their reconciliation kept secret in an effort to give them a bit of breathing space. The decision to marry seemed to be made on the island of Desroches in the Seychelles in August 2007. But marriage wasn't imminent. There were still a few uncomfortable moments for both Kate and William to get through. Kate had to endure news stories about a rather embarrassing uncle who the News of the World didn't think was royal material; and William got into trouble for using the RAF helicopter he was learning to fly as a very large and expensive play thing. William's landing a Chinook in a field near Kate's family home, now in the hamlet of Bucklebury, had to be presented as essential training in landing in difficult locations. Using the helicopter to go to a stag weekend in the Isle of Wight was "open water training". All such high jinks came to an end in September 2008 when William announced that he would train as a search and rescue pilot with the RAF, based in Anglesey. Successful qualification as a pilot followed in September 2010, with the royal couple living a rather more settled life in a house at a secret location In Anglesey, overlooking Snowdonia. The following month a formal proposal of marriage was made in a remote log cabin in Kenya. The engagement ring was Princess Diana's. An announcement was then made on the British monarchy's Twitter page on 16th November 2010. The wedding followed on 29th April 2011.

 

View of Snowdonia across the Menai Straits - according to Sean Smith, Kate Middleton enjoys a similar view from her bedroom window on Anglesey

 

So in many ways Kate Middleton's story is a unique one for the British royal family. Very few heirs to the throne have married for love in the past. And very few monarchs or heirs have married outside their extended family, or into a family which has a humble background in the very recent past. It is true that Kate's background isn't totally unique for a royal wife. Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour has been described as giving Henry "one brother-in-law who bore the name Smith, and another whose grandfather was a blacksmith at Putney" (quoted in The Life and Death of Anne Bolyen by Eric Ives P4). But Kate Middleton surely represents a milestone, in the way she became a princess one generation on from a council flat in Southall. And of course she continues very much in the pattern which began during Charles II's reign, as a royal fashion trend setter. Sean Smith reports that within a week of Kate wearing a £380 sapphire blue Issa dress for the engagement announcement, Tesco had launched its own version, for £16. It sold out online within an hour. Copies of the engagement ring were also made. Debenhams produced one for £6, which was their fastest selling piece of jewelry ever (Unauthorised Kate P212). So overall we can see Kate as a culmination of changes which have broken down the barriers between royalty and wider society over hundreds of years.

 

But in conclusion there is one way in which a sense of difference has been maintained, even in the thoroughly modern marriage of Kate and William. We might no longer see the royal couple as inhabiting a higher plane. We might hear about embarrassing uncles, and drunken nights out in Dorset. But the fact remains that the story of Kate Middleton is traditionally royal in the sense that it has been told in terms of destiny. When Kate went to Marlborough she was put in a room with a girl called Jessica Hay. Much has been made of the fact that a previous occupant of the room had left a poster of Prince William above the bed. Kate took the poster down after a while, replacing it with a picture of the male model who was featuring in a Levi's Jeans advert. But for the short time that William adorned the wall there was much banter between the girls about him. As Sean Smith says: "Kate would look at it and declare 'I'll be his wife one day'. Jessica would respond, 'No you won't because I will be going out with him'. It was just a laugh, although as Jessica says, 'It's funny when you think about it - like fate I suppose' " (Unauthorised Kate P49). Smith also mentions a sixth form review in June 1995 in which Kate is told that she will marry "a handsome man, a rich gentlemen" (see P247). Throughout history there have always been attempts to portray royal figures as fated, using a sense of destiny to separate them from the rest of society. Coronation ceremonies have borrowed the symbolism of priestly initiation rituals to give the sense of supernatural selection for a separate role. Royalty, not fussy about what kind of supernatural support it gets, has also long been associated with astrology, once an art that was almost exclusive to royalty. With coincidences being used as harbingers of a royal future, Kate's story has been presented in a very traditional light, both in the popular press, and in the biography by Sean Smith which I used as the main resource for this page. The fact that many girls must have had posters of William above their beds, and did not marry him, doesn't enter into it. And, fittingly, Sean Smith's biography finishes with a review of Kate's stars by Madeleine Moore. She's a Capricorn, apparently, with lots of disciplining Saturn in her chart, indicating a controlled personality and a slow and steady rise to prominence. Perhaps the most powerful way in which monarchs, or celebrities of any kind, are separated from other people is in a sense that they are destined to be where they are. If destiny chooses to make you famous than you will be, and if it doesn't then you won't be. There seems to be no way over this last boundary between them and us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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