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12 March 2024

The Kate conspiracy

The Princess of Wales exists to be photographed. In the absence of images, the public grew restive and feverish.

By Will Lloyd

Listeners to the Today programme on the morning of 11 March had their porridge interrupted by frightening news. The House of Windsor, already facing down illnesses and a brace of erstwhile princes, was besieged by “conspiracy theories”. The problem, according to the veteran BBC correspondent Graham Satchell, was a photo released by the Princess of Wales the day before, on Mothering Sunday.

It showed Princess Catherine, smiling ecstatically, surrounded by her ecstatically smiling children, and was supposedly taken by Prince William. Except it didn’t show that. According to the Associated Press, the Press Association, Getty Images, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reuters the image was “manipulated”. Two of them issued an alarming sounding “kill notice” shortly after the picture was released, and asked their clients to withdraw the photo from their systems.

“It is clear to any experienced digital image professional,” explained Eric Baradat, the photo director for AFP, that the family portrait “has been doctored”. Baradat, perhaps enjoying himself, condemned the picture as “very amateur-ish… very gross”. There were copy and pastes. There was odd blurring. Catherine’s wedding ring was missing. Prince Louis’s fingers looked weird. The ghostly sleeve on Princess Charlotte’s cardigan made no sense. “It was thought the picture would quell online speculation and conspiracy theories,” said Satchell. The picture had the opposite effect. This would not be a week for quelling rumours.

“We’re, like, sort of ducks,” Prince William told ITV’s Tom Bradby in November 2010. A suited, slouched William was announcing his engagement to Catherine Middleton, his demure wife-to-be in a blue silk wrap dress, and Bradby was tossing finely weighted non-questions towards them. The Prince, who did most of the talking, said the couple were “very calm on the surface, but [with] little feet going under the water”. In the 14 years since, “surface” is all Catherine has presented to the public. To be a princess is to be an image before you are anything else. Three times Catherine gave birth. Three times, within a day, she stood outside the hospital and smiled for the photographers. If her “little feet” were whirring beneath the water nobody noticed.

That changed this year. On 17 January, Kensington Palace announced that Catherine had entered hospital for “planned abdominal surgery”. The statement said she would remain in hospital for up to two weeks and was “unlikely” to resume public duties until Easter. What the palace said was odd. If the Princess’s surgery was planned, why had the palace also said that she was “postponing her upcoming engagements”? What sort of planning was that? And what kind of abdominal surgery requires two weeks of recovery? Was it not strange that Kensington Palace made its announcement on the same day that Buckingham Palace told the press that King Charles was to be treated in hospital for an enlarged prostate?

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These were ignoble questions. But monarchy is an ignoble business. As the year progressed, the bareness of circumstantial detail about the Princess invited stranger and stranger public fantasies. When Prince William cancelled a planned appearance on 27 February, citing a “personal matter”, waves of nonsense began to wash over the internet. Kate was dead. Kate, a Spanish journalist claimed, was in an induced coma. No: Kate had donated a kidney to the King, as down payment on her future queenship. No, no, no: Kate was actually in Miami recovering from a “Brazilian butt lift”. Gossip is much sweeter than fact.

This is what happens when the most photographed woman in the world stops being photographed. The entire point of “Kate” was to be reconstituted daily for newspapers and magazines and Instagram. Then her clothes and her face could be picked over by busybody journalists and a voyeuristic public. In the absence of those reliable images, the public grew restive and feverish. For the Windsors, without seeing there is no believing.

The Mother’s Day photo appears to have been a botched attempt to give the people what they wanted: simple, soothing evidence. Two royal eyes, a nose, a mouth, white teeth. The discovery that this image was not “real” – Kate later admitted that she edited the photo, and apologised “for any confusion the family photograph we shared caused” – was even more damaging than it first appeared. Monarchy is an abstraction disguised as an institution. You can laugh at it, you can scrutinise it, but you are not supposed to question its reality.

Catherine Middleton was born in Berkshire in 1982. Her father, Michael, is one of those speechless county dads who looks like he enjoys mowing the lawn. Her mother, Carole, used to be an air stewardess; she perfected her delivery of passenger announcements by playing them back on a tape. The Middletons have been praised for their “bourgeois virtues”. This is another way of saying that they used the millions earned from their party-planning business to fuel their children’s rocketing, Trollopian ascent into the British upper classes.

State-educated Carole’s immediate family were coal miners and builders. Her daughters were educated at Marlborough College, a co-educational Wiltshire boarding school, where Catherine was reportedly “outstanding” at long jump and voted “Person Most Likely to Be Loved by Everybody” in the 2000 yearbook.

The purpose of a machine like Marlborough for an eyes-on-the-prize mother like Carole is to polish and buff and twist your children into convincingly posh shapes. It is striking how well the plan worked. Catherine’s sister, Pippa, married the demi-billionaire heir to the Scottish feudal title of Laird of Glen Affric. When it was announced in 2000 that Prince William would be studying at St Andrews, Catherine suddenly left Edinburgh University and reapplied to the same university.

After the experience of Diana Spencer, the daughters of dukes were wary of the Windsors. The daughters of air stewardesses were not. When Catherine – now known as Kate – married her prince in Westminster Abbey in 2011, there was a look of victory on her face. Solid, unassuming, unthreatening Kate would be, as Tina Brown wrote in The Palace Papers (2022), “unlike the child-bride Diana, road tested in resilience as well as royal life”.

What is that life? A submerged one. Kate reportedly ghosts into empty art galleries early in the morning for private showings. She has her country houses, dogs, children and an Aga. She follows the Windsor dogma that smiling is a better way of communicating with the public than saying anything. She has more control over her face than her wardrobe. If Brown is anything to go by, Kate’s clothes are chosen by dour palace mandarins who craft her styling to show solidarity with working women. When she appeared on the cover of Vogue in 2016, she wore a dull suede Burberry jacket and the kind of durable hat that is rarely seen away from horse shows. Whenever Kate is praised it’s usually with terms that would flatter a horse, or a second-hand car: reliable, suitable, resilient. She appeared, as Hilary Mantel put it in 2013, “precision-made, machine-made”.

That it has taken a manipulated photo to put dents in that machine is telling. The British generally want to believe in their royals. (You do not visit the zoo to question the veracity of the zebra’s stripes.) This unforced error, at a time when all institutions lack credibility and the King is seriously ill, has broken the story the Windsors tell their people. Late on Monday 11 March, another photo appeared. Prince William, accompanied by a cloudy grey smudge in the back of an official car. The smudge was supposed to be his wife. In a strange way it felt like we were seeing Catherine properly for the first time.

[See also: The king of suffering]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

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