There would have been reason for Kate Middleton to celebrate no matter what last April. Eight years of marriage—every bit of it in the most glaring of spotlights is nothing to sneeze at.
But thanks to Queen Elizabeth II's very special anniversary present, well, we'd imagine there was some champagne being popped in the Cambridge household. Buckingham Palace announced on her April anniversary with husband Prince William that the monarch had appointed Kate Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, a massive and very public sign of her approval and appreciation. While the Royal Victorian Order has five classes, Dame Grand Cross is the very highest in recognition of services to the Queen.
In other words, Britain's long-standing matriarch just told the whole world how much she likes her grandson's wife.
"Queen Victoria founded the Royal Victorian Order for personal services to the Monarch. This is the Queen showing her gratitude for the way Kate has conducted herself," Richard Fitzwilliams, the former editor of the International Who's Who noted to Vanity Fair last year. "It's the Queen's way of acknowledging eight successful years of marriage and also the fact that the Duchess has produced three heirs, thereby securing the lineage of the House of Windsor. She has the beauty, the poise, the dedication and the reliability a Queen Consort needs."
It's quite the gold star. Or, more accurately, a blue sash and badge featuring the Maltese cross and a Tudor crown, that Kate wore atop her Alexander McQueen at June's state dinner with President Donald Trump.
And it represents just how far the two women have come since the days courtiers were whispering that her majesty didn't approve of her grandson's choice in bride. (As if Meghan Markle was the only one forced to deal with such hurtful rumors.)
The chatter, royal reporter Phil Dampier told UK paper The Express, was that the Queen, quite the hard working dame in her tenth decade, felt William's girlfriend wasn't accomplishing enough following their 2005 graduation from the University of St. Andrews. "There was a phase where she appeared to be doing very little really," Dampier told the newspaper, adding, "The Queen once remarked Kate doesn't do very much."
Reticent about pushing his girlfriend fully into the spotlight before their future had been sorted, William wasn't about to have her tagging along to royal walkabouts, so instead the art history took on a job as an accessories buyer for British fashion retailer Jigsaw and involved herself with Starlight Children's Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at providing comfort to hospitalized kids and their families.
Today, though, the mom of Prince George, 6, Princess Charlotte, 4, and Prince Louis, 20 months, is the patron of more than a dozen charities, turning her love of little ones and her deftly acquired parenting knowledge into a pet cause as she keys in on her mission to help disadvantaged youth. As the Queen has begun divvying up some of her responsibilities, she's handed more than a few choice roles to Kate, anointing her patron of The Royal Photographic Society in June and patron of the British charity Family Action in December.
Perhaps even more important than the shows she's made publicly, however, are what she is telling people in private. "The Queen is a fan," a source recently told Vanity Fair. "Kate is unflappable. Her mantra is very like the Queen's keep calm and carry on approach in life, and she has the added benefit of making the Royal Family seem almost normal and in touch."
Part of that is her dedication to being the woman that helps her kids pick out Halloween costumes, devotes herself to charitable endeavors and gussies herself up in couture and a tiara for a state dinner. "She's determined to create a healthy balance between her personal life and her future role," a source recently told Us Weekly of Kate, marking her 38th birthday today. "It's taken a long time to get to where she is today, but she's ready."
She got there by being the most diligent of students. Because when her engagement to William, 37, was announced in 2010, the daughter of two former flight attendants was admittedly unprepared and somewhat reticent about officially accepting a role in The Firm. Never mind that she had received what amounted to an eight-year apprenticeship as she romanced Britain's future king throughout college and beyond.
"It's obviously nerve-wracking, because I don't know what I'm sort of...I don't know the ropes," she admitted in the interview with ITV News' Tom Bradby, the first time much of the world heard her voice. "William is obviously used to it, but no I'm willing to learn quickly and work hard."
She's done both quite admirably. Some responsibilities came less natural than others, with Kate sharing on the 2016 ITV special, Our Queen at 90, that she struggled initially to get the hang of walkabouts: "Everyone teases me in the family that I spend far too long chatting. So I think I've got to learn a little bit more and to pick up a few more tips I suppose."
But to hear insiders tell it, behind the scenes, the soft-spoken duchess is a true force of change. "The Duchess of Cambridge has been labeled work-shy in the past," says Vanity Fair's royal correspondent Katie Nicholl. "But, actually, she's taken on just a few patronages, things where she's really made a difference. Early intervention with young children in primary schools, putting mental health on the map with Heads Together, was her idea. She's been very instrumental."
And incredibly effective. Lorraine Heggessey, CEO of the Royal Foundation, revealed to People it was Kate that suggested they team up to direct their focus towards eradicating the stigma that's long been attached to mental illnesses. "I have found her to be incredibly wise," she told the mag, noting that while she's not the type "who pushes herself forward, she is very confident in her views. She often spots the nub of the issue or a critical thing that needs dealing with."
Recently her most directed focus has been on helping the country's most vulnerable youths, a humanitarian issue she intends to be her legacy, aides tell Vanity Fair. And, of course, she's preparing for her future as William's most fervent supporter.
With Prince Harry and wife Meghan officially splitting off from the Cambridges to form their own Sussex household, "There seems to be a shift at the palace," a source told the outlet. "There's a focus on William being set up as a future king and Kate as his Queen Consort."
To that end, Kate has been spending increasingly more time with the Queen herself (so much that they were nearly in sync at last Sunday's church outing), an opportunity afforded her since she and William relocated to London in 2017.
"Kate and the Queen have always had a special bond, but they developed a deeper friendship after she and William moved from Anmer Hall, Norfolk, to Kensington Palace, which is within walking distance of Buckingham Palace," a source explained to Us Weekly. "Sometimes they'll casually catch up over afternoon tea. But other times, they'll have more formal meetings, where the queen will give intense one-on-one training about taking on the crown."
Such schooling largely amounts to conversations about the direction of the monarchy and how Kate can carve out her specific niche. But, as Kate pointed out in Our Queen at 90, she's never attempted to steer her to a particular way of thinking: "She's been very generous and not, sort of, been forceful at all in any of her views. I feel she's been there, sort of, a gentle guidance really for me."
And an invaluable one at that, with an insider noting to Us Weekly she's "really taken Kate under her wing. The two of them will often spend hours discussing royal life and the future of the monarchy."
Kate, naturally, will play a sizable role and is using the years before her husband officially ascends to the throne as a lengthy test run. "Kate's been taking on new responsibilities little by little over the last few years, so it won't be a shock when the time comes," royal expert Rebecca Long told Us Weekly.
One such obligation saw her joining the Queen for a March 19 visit to King's College in London to where the ruler serves as patron. Her first-ever solo outing with her majesty, it came much later than Meghan's, which happened just weeks into her marriage to Harry, but it'd be a waste to read too much into the timing.
It's not as if Kate hasn't notched one-on-one time. A year into her new life as duchess, she joined the monarch for a visit to Leicester as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour, though with Prince Philip along for the ride it wasn't technically seen as a solo venture.
More than 11 years after their first face-to-face talk at the 2008 wedding of William's cousin Peter Phillips and his bride Autumn Philipps ("She had wanted to meet Kate for awhile, so it was very nice for her to come over and say hello, we had a little chat and got on very well," William shared in their 2010 engagement interview) the Queen has developed a deep admiration for Kate, a source told Us Weekly: "She sees her as intelligent, warm and professional."
Perhaps more importantly, she also just really likes her.
That much was evident early on when Kate nervously picked out her very first Christmas present for the Queen. As gifting high-ticket items, or even something as benign as a sweater or cashmere scarf, is not the done thing during the three-day celebration at Sandringham, Kate had to dream up a gesture that was modest, yet, thoughtful.
"I was worried what to give the Queen as her Christmas present. I was thinking, 'Gosh, what should I give her?," she shared in Our Queen at Ninety. "I thought back to what would I give my own grandparents and I thought, 'I'll make her something' which could have gone horribly wrong. But, I decided to make my granny's recipe of chutney."
Admittedly, she was nervous how a jar of sauce would go over, "but I noticed the next day that it was on the table," she continued. "I think it just shows her thoughtfulness, really, and her care in looking after everybody."
Such kindness extends to the youngest members of the family as well, with Kate revealing in the documentary that then-two-year-old George had taken to calling his great-grandmother "Gan-Gan" and excitedly anticipating each of her visits. The 93-year-old, she shared, "always leaves a little gift or something in their room when we go and stay, and that just shows her love for her family."
And now for Kate, she seems to be bearing a new level of respect. Last spring's honor bumps the duchess into the upper echelons of The Firm alongside Prince Charles' wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Edward's bride, Sophie, Countess of Wessex and the Queen's daughter Princess Anne, who was appointed to the position of Grand Master in 2007. (Harry was named a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 2015.)
To hear palace insiders tell it, the Queen has been increasingly pleased with how Kate has represented the family, whether turning up solo in June to represent the royal family at the annual Beating the Retreat musical event or giving her first-ever TV interview during their October tour of Pakistan.
"It feels very much like this has been Kate's year," her biographer Claudia Joseph told Vanity Fair in November. "She looks happy, in control and there's a new confidence about her." Continued Joseph, "I think Kate seems much happier than a year ago. She has three lovely children, has been honored by the Queen for her hard work and is really well liked not just here but around the world."
(Originally published May 4, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)