On April 9, there was breaking royal news: William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, had undertaken their very first official video call engagement, speaking to primary school staff and children. (And you thought being royal was all finger sandwiches and liveried servants ironing your socks …)
Royal watchers and social media devolved into a lather of excitement over the future king and queen’s tech-savviness and Kate’s choice of a bargain Zara sweater for the occasion, which she paired with her signature cheery, jolly hockey sticks persona.
The world now knows that as the couple Zoomed away from behind the walls of their Georgian country home Anmer Hall, the reality was far, far less rosy.
Earlier this week The Sun broke the news that William had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in early April, with a source saying, “William was hit pretty hard by the virus – it really knocked him for six.”
Given that William will one day be the titular head of a government, army and church, this was a fairly monumental occurrence for the palace machine to decide to keep secret.
While his father Prince Charles’ positive coronavirus result was made public on March 25, the palace explained that the decision to not make William’s result public became “he just didn’t want to worry people. He felt there were more important things going on in the country.”
That keep-calm-and-carry-on-Zooming philosophy does not particularly stand up to much scrutiny, especially given that other high profile figures such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw fit to make their diagnoses public.
Also, after more than a year of the Prince Andrew/Jeffery Epstein imbroglio having cast doubt over the royal family’s transparency, the shrewdness of this William furtiveness is up for debate.
But we’re here to talk about Kate.
While the exact date of William’s diagnosis has not been made public, on March 19 the Duke, alongside Kate, visited the London Ambulance National Health Service 111 Service. The next time he was seen in public, so to speak, was the aforementioned public school video conference, suggesting that he was sick at some point between those dates.
Throughout the COVID pandemic, the 38-year-old Duchess has been widely hailed as having ‘played a belter.’ Faced with the first real test in her (nearly) 10 years on the royal job, Kate has shone as a sort of blow-dried beacon of cheerfulness that princesses-in-waiting are expected to be.
If there is one thing that can be said about Kate it is that she makes being a working member of the royal family look effortless.
When she rolls up to some official do or engagement, there is no clue that she has (very likely) been up since dawn submitting herself to tedious hours-long hair and make-up sessions or that she has sat through the required lengthy pre-engagement briefings.
And that’s why, in retrospect, Kate’s performance during those 20 days in late March and early April is even more remarkable than was thought at the time.
While to the world there she was popping up on Zoom calls and dispensing jaunty support and positivity, her own private life must have been positively hellish.
To start with, William. The Sun has reported that the second-in-line to the throne: “At one stage he was struggling to breathe, so obviously everyone around him was pretty panicked.
“After seeing medics and testing positive – which was obviously quite a shock given how fit and healthy he is – William was determined it should be business as usual though.
“He was determined to fulfil his engagements.”
For Kate, on a purely personal level, having a potentially fatal disease hit her family, a disease that has claimed the lives of thousands of otherwise young and healthy adults around the world, must have been terrifying.
Next year marks the Cambridges’ ten-year wedding anniversary. Surely not one of the 1900 people in Westminster Abbey on that day or two billion-odd who watched it on the telly could have predicted that in less than a decade both the first and the second in line to the throne would be struck down by a global pandemic.
And yet, there was Kate in her mustard Zara number, having faced perhaps the greatest personal and professional test of her marriage and royal career simultaneously, all the while exuding perpetual cheerfulness.
Likewise, Anmer Hall might boast ten bedrooms but the logistics of William quarantining in a house that also included three rambunctious children, a nanny, housekeeper, not to mention the Duke and Duchess’ staff, are far from simple.
During World War II, the Queen Mother (then Queen Elizabeth) assumed saintly status after her performance during the Blitz. She and her husband King George VI refused to quit Buckingham Palace for the safety of the country, even when bombs landed in the grounds of the palace, saying “I am glad we have been bombed. Now we can look the East End in the eye.” Likewise, images showing the 40-year-old touring London bomb sites and dispensing magisterial comfort have become the stuff of legend.
The lesson here is that faced with a once-in-a-lifetime test, the Queen Mother passed with flying (most likely) pastel colours, transforming into an adored, perfumed champion for the masses.
This year, Kate has faced the same make-or-break, history-defining challenge. Because it is during these sorts of moments that the monarchy truly comes into their own and shines: As national cheerleaders on permanent call to jolly along and buck up a tired and scared nation.
In April, the Queen delivered a deeply touching and rare speech saying, “We will meet again.”
Meanwhile, during the UK’s first lockdown (the second started this week), the full roster of senior working members of the royal family – Prince Charles, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Princess Anne, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex, along with Kate and William – took to Zoom engagements like Princess Margaret to a drinks trolley. (That is, with impressive speed and unquestionable fervour.)
But let’s be honest here: While Anne’s steely bouffant and formidable work ethic might be the stuff the court circular is made of, when it comes down to it, what the punters really want are the stars of the show: Kate and William. (And in that order, I’d wager.)
So, with William tucked up in his sick bed, and Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, having long flown the palace coop for a life of dawn yoga and dinners with an occasional Real Housewives of Beverly Hills alum (hello David Foster), all of this responsibility fell onto Kate’s very narrow shoulders.
Sure, she might be wealthy and privileged in the extreme but just for a moment imagine the incredible pressure and the weight of a country and institution that bore down on her during that time.
Despite facing all of this, Kate shone and smiled and charmed and exuded keep-calm-and-carry-on affability with exemplary poise and charm.
And all of this, we now know, she managed to pull off while her husband fought a potentially life-threatening disease and she was forced into quasi single motherhood. (Okay, quasi single motherhood that came with a small cadre of devoted staff and a Norfolk country manor house that probably offers plenty of nooks and crannies where a tired mum can guzzle a glass of restorative pinot grigio away from her rampaging brood.)
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that while Kate was delivering the royal performance of all of our lifetimes, we now know she was doing so while facing the same turmoil and heartache that the million plus other British mums who had to watch a loved one battle COVID have also had to face.
Yet, Kate took the helm and has dazzled throughout this crisis, her performance a well-timed reminder of the royal family’s usefulness aside from being perpetual tabloid fodder and opening the Chelsea Flower Show.
Kate has shouldered all of this burden with her seemingly exemplary poised and polished veneer never ever cracking once.
There are millions and millions of families around the world who have suffered so much more than Kate’s during this pandemic, however, in the context of the royal family, I think we can say that the Duchess has had by far the most challenging and demanding year.
Not only that, but she has passed the greatest challenge of her royal career with flying, dazzling colours.
Celebrated photographer Cecil Beaton once famously described the Queen Mother as “a marshmallow made on a welding machine.” After this year, I think we can safely say that Kate is made of the same sturdy, perfumed stuff.
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