Chris Jelf /Kensington Palace via Getty Images
Chris Jelf /Kensington Palace via Getty Images
When Prince George nervously attended his first day at school this week, holding the hands of his mum and dad, it was a big moment for royal fans around the world. But it was more than just a personal milestone for the two-year-old; it was the clearest sign yet that Kate Middleton has single-handedly transformed the royal family forever.
Tomorrow the Duchess of Cambridge turns 34. Behind the walls of her sprawling estate in Norfolk, she will likely spend the day privately with her doting husband and kids. There will probably be a cake (homemade, of course), balloons and presents to unwrap. But while the small celebration may resemble any other family gathering in any other household, it'll be far from it, because Kate is no ordinary girl anymore, she's the girl who did the impossible, and will one day be Queen.
So, how did this very ordinary girl from Berkshire do it? E! News charts her journey from commoner to becoming one of the most powerful women in the world.
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1. She taught Prince William what family is all about.
Princess Diana's tragic death from a car accident left a deep gash on the British landscape. As a result, Prince William and Prince Harry grew up filled with a huge sense of loss, while also trying to balance on shaky foundations as the royal family was forced to prove their purpose to a nation, which felt more disconnected from them than ever before.
William's world was full of contradictions. He had his life at boarding school (Eton), where he was treated just like all his schoolmates, as an equal. And then during school vacations, he was reminded that he was anything but…once inside the various castles and palaces, the formality of royal life would come crashing down on him like a ton of bricks (think Downton Abbey multiplied by a hundred). Suddenly he wasn't just William the boy, he was William the Prince, existing inside a Royal bubble devoid of any free will, his fate mapped out from birth. In some ways it must have been a very isolating experience, better likened to living inside a prison rather than a palace.
Kate's upbringing, on the other hand, was as carefree as can be. Sure, her parents had made a few bucks from their successful party planning business, enough to send her to a posh private school, but she was still middle class and would fill her holidays with playing tennis with her siblings.
But then William met Kate at St. Andrews University. The heir to the throne, the offspring of a love-less marriage, fell head over heels. Their fairytale romance reinvigorated the family. And the crisis that once threatened to bring down the monarchy was long forgotten.
Their closeness forced William to look at life through a different lens. Family life didn't have to be made up of formal dinners with butlers and servants and rules and regulations. It could be messy and frenetic; the table didn't have to be set with the best china and a small army of different sized knives and forks. It could be cozy and fun!
Their life together after graduation continued to open William's eyes. The pair shacked up together in a farmhouse on the island of Anglesey, hundreds of miles away from the gates of Buckingham Palace. It gave them a new sense of what their future as a family unit could look like (by now they also had Lupo the dog). They were able to grow as a regular couple, have friends over for dinner. Kate would go to the supermarket and make William roast chicken dinner for when he got home from work. It was eye opening for a man who had only ever been taught royal family values. Class barriers were banished. Kate taught William that while his was a job for life, there was a way to make it feel more normal than he could have previously imagined.
AP Photo/Alastair Grant
2. With marriage came confidence.
Kate spent her first year as William's wife going along with royal protocol. She had a lot of learn about life in the pubic eye. She had known William for over a decade by this point, but the expectations were extremely high. Now she was a bona-fide senior member of The Firm (as the royal family are sometimes known) and everyone, including the public, was insistent she didn't buckle under the pressure.
But while she was very keen to do everything she could to fit in, and be the perfect pairing for her beloved husband, while gradually adapting to royal protocol, her confidence grew and she was able to set some of her own ground rules. She was determined that her own family—mom Carole Middleton, father Mike Middleton, brother James Middleton and sister Pippa Middleton—would not be made to feel second best. She didn't want her new royal duties to interfere with her close-knit unit. William agreed. Kate's family had become his family, too; he was as close to them as ever, after multiple holidays abroad together, and countless weekends at the Bucklebury family home, he enjoyed a familiarity with them that was rare in traditional royal circles. Having the Middletons close meant that Kate and William were able to keep their feet on the ground and be constantly reminded of what civilian life is like. It provided a framework for family intimacy.
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3. And then came the kids.
William and Kate have now been married for almost five years, and the Kate Revolution has well and truly been realized. There's been a seismic shift in the way things are done. Now with Prince George and Princess Charlotte by their side, they have been able to carve out a new royal existence, a compromise that remains true to the tradition of William's childhood but is more focused on the normality of Kate's. In some ways, George and Charlotte will grow up as much Middleton as Mountbatten-Windsor, their parents determined to shelter them from the royal realities of their future.
The Cambridge's Christmas is now celebrated with both families, the senior royals at Sandringham and Kate's family at Anmer Hall. The kids open presents on Christmas Day, rather than just Christmas Eve. It's crazy and manic and a far cry from the stuffy occasions other royals grew up with, where kids would sometimes even eat their meal on a separate table.
They are taking huge strides to send a clear message to the world: George and Charlotte are children first, public figures second. Unlike William, who was accompanied on his first day at school by the huge lens of the world's media, the only photographer recording George's big day was mum herself (pictures were then released to the press but Kate owns the copyright). There can be no unauthorized use of the pics (that means no cheap teapots or mugs will go on sale), ensuring no one can make money off the milestone day in her young son's life. A clever decision, and it's not the first time she's done it.
By making Anmer Hall their main residence, Kate has taught William that he can have both a personal and a private life. Norfolk is home. Apt 1A in Kensington Palace, London, is more geared to public duties. And even inside those walls, her impact is felt. Gone are the stuffy traditional furnishings, and instead Kate consulted with interior decorators to spruce up both addresses and bring modernity to the family environment.
There was a time when we viewed her as "Waity Katie," a meek girl patiently waiting for her prince to come and sweep her off her feet. But now it's clear she was always much stronger than that. She has pressed the reset button on an institution that seemed to know only one way to do things. Her influence behind the scenes has been substantial, and brought the royal family into the 21st Century. Diana may have been the people's princess, but hopefully one day Kate will become the people's Queen.