WILLIAM’S love match with Kate has passed the seven-year test.
IT was a day when the British royal family had unquestionably good news to share with its subjects but Prince Charles still managed to roll his eyes impatiently when a reporter approached him yesterday for a reaction to his son William’s impending marriage.
“Obviously thrilled,” the Prince of Wales said, waving a hand as if it was a silly question.
Before pushing on with a visit to a village he has developed in Dorset, Charles paused to add one curt joke. “They’ve been practising long enough,” he said before turning and striding off.
From most other prospective fathers-in-law that would be a normal enough crack at the fact that William and his fiancee, Kate Middleton, have taken their time getting married.
But coming from Charles, who is no stranger to self-pity, it was hard not to see the comment as a reminder that he never had the luxury of his own practice period before he married William’s mother, Diana Spencer.
The courtship of William and Kate is widely being seen as a break from royal tradition because Kate is the first queen-in-waiting whose background is not at all aristocratic or connected to the royal court.
Rachel Johnson, editor of the society magazine The Lady, says the union represents an attempt by the royal family to extend its social reach and relevance by “marrying the middle class”.
But the most radical innovation in the William and Kate story is that the future king and queen have not just been dating for seven years, they have been able to live together openly for much of that time as a de facto couple.
Thirty years ago that was unthinkable for Charles, who had several serious relationships before being pressured at the age of 32 to marry a virgin.
The world knows how disastrously that worked out for him and Diana, who was 12 years younger than him, as well as shy and thinly educated, and shared few of his interests.
She also struggled to share his affections, as Diana famously complained when she said that “there were three of us in this marriage” because of Charles’s continued involvement with his old flame Camilla Parker Bowles.
While Diana’s virginity was akin to a matter of state, Kate had already had a serious boyfriend – London solicitor Rupert Finch – before she met William, and for years she and William have shared the experience of other couples of their generation by living under the same roof, be it in a shared room at his father’s Highgrove mansion, luxury hotel rooms across the world, the home that William occupies as an air force pilot, or a hidden-away cottage that the Queen provides them on her estate at Balmoral.
In recent months the pair have been living together in Anglesey, Wales, near William’s air force base, although officially Kate is supposedly living with her parents.
Given that the sex lives of members of the house of Windsor determine the future heads of state of Australia, Britain and a dozen other countries or royal possessions, William and Kate’s contraception practices have been rather important.
The constitutional implications for several nations mean that William having a child out of wedlock would be, well, inconceivable.
The fact that William’s living arrangements have been smiled upon by his grandmother shows how much she and the rest of the royals have changed in the 30 often painful years since Charles and Diana married.
William acknowledged yesterday that his lengthy courtship has been influenced by his parents’ experience.
He and Kate, who at 28 is six months older than William, have been discussing marriage for more than a year but one of his main motivations in delaying was to allow Kate and her family to learn exactly what life was like in the royal family, he says.
“That’s almost why I have been waiting this long, I wanted to give them a chance to see and then to back out if she needed to before it all got too much, because I am trying to learn some lessons from the past,” he said in an interview on Tuesday with his friend Tom Bradby, the political editor of ITV.
The result is that when Kate marries next year, she will be nine years older than Diana at the time of her wedding, much wiser and better educated, and more secure in her relationship.
In their ITV interview the couple were relaxed, confident and clearly comfortable with each other, in contrast with the few awkward public exchanges three decades ago featuring the betrothed Charles and Diana.
This is clearly a love match and the benefits obviously outweigh any cultural affinity that Charles and Diana shared due to her coming from one of England’s grand families, the Spencers.
Kate spoke with a reasonably posh accent in the ITV interview, which was the first time most of her future subjects had heard her voice, but the reaction to her family background from some media and royal hangers-on shows the class system and snobbishness are anything but dead in Britain.
It has often been recorded that some friends of the royals have muttered “doors to manual” when Kate is mentioned, an aircraft landing procedure that is a dig at her mother Carol’s former career as a British Airways flight attendant. Some so-called society writers and gossip columnists have taken a similar line by casting Middleton’s parents as social climbers who sent her to St Andrews University because William was studying there.
Newspapers have also invented social gaffes by Kate’s parents, at one stage claiming Carol erred when she met the Queen by saying “Pleased to meet you” instead of “How do you do?”
The truth is Kate comes from a wealthy Home Counties family that could afford to send her to the sort of expensive private schools that open professional and social doors for the upper-middle class.
One of Kate’s grandfathers was a truck driver and her parents met when Michael Middleton was a BA flight steward and Carol was an attendant.
In 1983, when Charles and Diana flew to Australia with a nine-month old William, Michael was working at Heathrow airport as a dispatcher, overseeing BA aircraft movements on the ground.
Four years later the Middletons launched a mail order (and later online) business from their home near Reading. Party Pieces offered everything from balloons to gifts and cakes for children’s parties, and became an early online money spinner.
They made millions, allowing them to move to a five-bedroom home in the Berkshire village of Bucklebury.
They could also afford to take part in the most effective form of upward social mobility in Britain, sending Kate and her younger sister and brother, Pippa and James, to pound stg. 15,000-a-year Marlborough College in Wiltshire.
Aged 10, Kate starred in a school production of My Fair Lady, playing Eliza Doolitle, the epitome of a working-class lass who learns how to act like a lady.
Attractive, sporty and popular, Kate was also a top-flight student whose marks were good enough to get her into St Andrews in 2001.
It was there that she was put into the same hall of residence as William, a fellow student of art history.
In their ITV interview yesterday she said she “went bright red . . . and sort of scuttled off” when they were first introduced.
However, she shot down an often-told tale that she had posters of William on her the wall of her student dormitory at high school.
“There wasn’t just one, there was about 20,” William joked when Bradby asked about the poster.
“He wishes,” said Middleton. “No, I had the Levi’s guy on my wall, not a picture of William, sorry.”
Their university residence was split into all-male and all-female floors and Middleton was still seeing Finch, three years her senior, but she became part of William’s circle of friends.
For their second year at university in 2002, they moved into a four-bedroom cottage on the edge of St Andrews with two other male friends and after about a year as friends, they began dating.
The following year they moved into a more remote cottage with their friends.
The press had agreed to a palace request to basically leave William alone while he was at university, and the relationship was allowed to blossom without much attention.
By the time they graduated, Kate knew that she would have to be constantly wary of press intrusions, so her adult life has been a careful grooming process in which she has learned always to dress and behave in a way that would avoid any embarrassment or flurries of gossip.
While her friends and fellow graduates launched their own careers, Kate avoided full-time work so she could fit in with the travel and social demands of William, who was combining military training with a slowly growing roster of royal appointments.
Family friends who own the Jigsaw fashion chain gave her a part-time job as an assistant accessories buyer and she later did some work for her parents’ business.
This apparent role of a royal wife in waiting earned her the media nickname Waity Katie. If she did not have plans for a life with William, Kate would probably have joined her siblings in working full-time for the family business.
Pippa, 27, works on The Party Times, an online magazine launched by Party Pieces, while James, 23, runs a cake-making company linked to the firm.
Pippa and James have both milked Kate-inspired publicity to promote those businesses, just as Parker Bowles’s son Tom has used the fame of his surname to launch a career as a food writer.
Kate, however, has impressed Buckingham Palace by stubbornly avoiding embarrassing publicity, even when the couple split up briefly in 2007.
In their ITV interview yesterday, William revealed that he had initiated that split.
“We both were very young, it was at university, we were sort of both finding ourselves as such and being different characters and stuff. It was very much trying to find our own way and we were growing up, and so it was just sort of a bit of space and a bit of things like that, and it worked out for the better,” he said.
Kate said it was only in retrospect that she came to see that separation as a learning experience.
“I think I, at the time, wasn’t very happy about it, but actually it made me a stronger person.
“You find out things about yourself that maybe you hadn’t realised, or I think you can get quite consumed by a relationship when you are younger and I really valued that time for me as well, although I didn’t think it at the time.”