For a woman who prefers the simple life, the Duchess of Cambridge is having a tumultuous year. "Phew," Kate no doubt thought as she slipped away with her husband William and their three children for a discreet mid-year holiday on a private Caribbean island – but a much-changed royal scene was awaiting on their return.
In the past year, Kate has established a new home in London, had a third child, acquired a high-profile sister-in-law (who has also just announced her pregnancy) and seen a profound shift in the royal-duty roster. Prised away from the rustic retreat where her first two children, Prince George, five, and Princess Charlotte, three, had their start in life, the 36-year-old duchess now faces some uncomfortable options.
Making room for Meghan Markle, the glamorous American TV star who married William's younger brother Prince Harry in May, could be the least of them. If only for now. While London's gossipy lunch tables hum with talk of "jealousy" and "rivalry" between the pair, Meghan's arrival is rather more likely to have done Kate a favour.
Even after a decade on the royal frontline, Kate remains uncomfortable in the public eye. Her conspicuously modest workload is usually explained away by her desire to be a hands-on mother, but courtiers have come to accept that, while she can rise to the occasion, she will never be a "workhorse" like the Princess Royal or the now-retired Duke of Edinburgh.
So the spotlight's shift to Meghan, the new Duchess of Sussex, is less of an annoyance than a relief to Kate. In any case, say her defenders, she simply isn't the type for feuds and grudges.
"It's strange, isn't it," says royal author Vicky Arbiter, daughter of a former senior aide to the Queen, "how society likes to pit women against women? So because Meghan is suddenly popular, Kate is skulking in the corner feeling sorry for herself. That's not how Kate operates. I think she's happy with her role, and very happy to let Harry and Meghan have the limelight."
Meghan, moreover, appears to be thoroughly enjoying the attention. We have seen her – dressed to kill and beaming luminously – at the polo, Royal Ascot, Trooping the Colour, and accompanying the Queen to the opening of a new bridge in Liverpool. From pearl earrings to protocol, and from big hats to handshakes, the 37-year-old Californian seems to have taken to royal life with relish.
As neighbours in Kensington Palace, there is an obvious incentive for the Cambridges and Sussexes to get along. William and Kate occupy the deceptively named Apartment 1A – actually a magnificent, four-storey townhouse, with views over formal gardens and Hyde Park. It was previously the home of the Queen's sister, Princess Margaret, and has been expensively renovated since the Cambridges somewhat reluctantly took it over as their base in the capital.
Adorned with fine paintings from the Queen's private collection, silk rugs and valuable antiques, the apartment has a staff floor, two kitchens, two nurseries and an exquisite walled garden.
"It makes a lot of sense for them as a home," says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. "There's really nowhere better they could be."
Not that Kate quite sees it that way. The move to London was effectively forced on the Cambridges by a royal establishment impatient for them to play a more prominent role, and the duchess sorely misses Anmer Hall, the secluded country pile in Norfolk that was gifted to the couple by the Queen after their marriage, and where they lived until late last year. She sneaks back there with William and the children as often as possible.
Harry and Meghan are nesting across a courtyard in Nottingham Cottage, a cosy, two-bedroom property known in palace circles as "Nott Cott". It was in the cottage's kitchen, while a chicken roasted in the oven, that Harry proposed to his actress girlfriend.
Kate and Harry have always got along famously, and to royal observers it seems unlikely that the better-established duchess would create problems for a newcomer. Prolific royal chronicler Katie Nicholl insists the two women, "despite being quite different characters", are on good terms, sharing a love of dogs, chocolate and fashion, and see each other regularly.
In her latest column in Vanity Fair magazine, Katie quotes a source as saying, "They speak on the phone, and Kate makes a point of inviting Meghan over. I'd say they try to see each other once a week, sometimes with Harry, sometimes Meghan goes on her own. Kate's really busy, juggling three kids, but she has made an effort with Meghan."
This, though, touches on a bigger problem looming within the walls of 1A. Kate now has three children under six, and is determined to follow through on the pledge she and William made to bring them up as "normally" as possible. To the Cambridges, this means doing as many of the basic, time-consuming chores of child-rearing as they can. They have a nanny, Maria Borrallo, and Kate's indefatigable mother, Carole Middleton, is often on hand to help, but the bulk of the cooking, dressing, bedtime storytelling and school-running they do themselves.
All Kate's pregnancies have been difficult – mostly the result of hyperemesis gravidarum, an extreme form of morning sickness. George didn't sleep well and was difficult to feed. Charlotte was slightly easier, but her arrival left Kate exhausted and – temporarily – resolved not to go through it all again. The arrival of Prince Louis in April followed a similar pattern, and at Harry and Meghan's wedding a month later, several commentators noted that Kate looked "whacked" and "washed out".
Who could blame her? A commoner, raised in an exceptionally close family, Kate was clear from the start that her own brood would be spared the traditional royal fate of being handed over to governesses and tutors in distant wings of ancient palaces, to be imbued with a sense of duty and shaped as jigsaw pieces in the game of alliances that kept things sweet between the crowned heads of Europe.
William's own father, the Prince of Wales, went through something similar to this.
"Never, not even as a baby, did he have his mother entirely to himself," writes Penny Junor in her semi-authorised biography of Charles. "She saw him for half an hour after breakfast, looked in on him briefly at lunchtime, and spent perhaps another half hour with him before he went to bed."
Kate's own approach was summed up in a touching personal letter she recently wrote to a children's hospice charity: "Spending quality time together is such an important aspect of family life, and for me as a mother it is the simple family moments like playing outside together that I cherish."
Yet the Cambridges' commitment to the heavy-lifting of parenthood comes with complications; one of them being a perception that they are also avoiding the heavy lifting of royalty. Last year William and Kate between them performed only around eight per cent of the total number of royal engagements – fewer than the Queen, 92, managed on her own.
The move to London was largely intended to quell the view in the press and on social media that "Work-shy Wills" and his wife were failing to put in the hours.
While much of this criticism is unfair, there's no doubt the couple like their downtime. Since Louis' christening on July 9, they have barely been seen in public, and reports of them whooping it up with Mick Jagger and his daughter Jade at a beach party on the jet-set Caribbean island of Mustique will not have thrilled Buckingham Palace's stiffer element.
"Overall, the monarchy's in remarkably good shape," says a former courtier, "but that's mainly because the whole operation is now much more professionally run, and aware of how it is seen. There's a rapid response mechanism for problems, and you've seen it with Andrew [the Duke of York, who got into trouble over his links to a dodgy American businessman] and the rehabilitation of Harry. I'm not saying the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are considered a problem, but if it's deemed necessary, adjustments will be made."
Additional pressure on the couple comes from the recent changes at the top of the royal order. The stalwart Duke of Edinburgh, 97, has retired, and the Queen no longer travels abroad. Charles has taken on extra duties, but will be 70 in November, and, along with his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, divides opinion. The lesser royals perform their duties diligently, but without generating much excitement. Which, with Harry and Meghan preoccupied with each other, rather leaves Kate and William.
The Cambridges are in no mood to make further concessions. Those close to them say they have opted to play the long game. The Queen may be easing up, but she has no intention of abdicating, and with Charles sharing those indestructible Windsor genes, it could be 20 years or more before William becomes King. Why not sit back for now and enjoy – as few other royals in their position have been able to – the sight of their children growing up?"
"It goes so fast, doesn't it?" as Kate often says to the mothers she meets on charity engagements.
George will soon be in his second year at school, the $30,000-a-year Thomas's Battersea in south London, where he is known as plain George Cambridge. Charlotte attends a private nursery near Kensington Palace. Both are avid book-lovers, according to their father, who also claims Charlotte is "obsessed with fashion". Louis made his first public appearance at his christening, and reportedly slept through it.
Kate has little love of city life. Raised in the village of Bucklebury, Berkshire (population 2000), she went to a genteel Marlborough boarding school, snuggled among green hills and meadows, and met William at the University of St Andrews in Scotland – the most remote and isolated place of learning in Britain.
After their marriage, the couple lived on the storm-lashed Isle of Anglesey, off the coast of north Wales, where William was stationed with the RAF. The contentment she later found in Norfolk, "a life of dogs, home cooking and country walks", according to one visitor, only confirmed her sense she isn't cut out for city life.
The duchess is now the age Diana, Princess of Wales, William's mother, was when she died. The two never met, and while their backgrounds were very different, they increasingly appear to have things in common. It was Diana who set the template for bringing up royal children to have some familiarity with the real world, and Kate has built on that.
Diana, despite her misgivings about her husband's family ("that lot", she called them), believed strongly in the power of royalty to do good. Kate chooses her causes carefully – most in the field of children's care and mental health – and her support is more than token.
"She is a wonderful asset, a massive help to what we do," says Dame Benita Refson, head of Place2Be, a charity that helps schoolchildren with mental-health problems.
As with most modern families, the Cambridges' lives are a balancing act. The big advantage they enjoy is having a high-powered back-up team to keep them standing. Their core advisors are mostly drawn from the business and public-relations worlds, and bear little resemblance to the starched-collared aristocratic courtiers of a generation ago.
Kate's private secretary, Catherine Quinn, previously ran the prestigious Said Business School at the University of Oxford, while her communications secretary Jason Knauf is an American-born, New Zealand-educated PR whiz, who previously advised former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark.
Crucial, too, is the counsel of veteran diplomat Sir David Manning, a former British ambassador to the US, who is credited with "turning Kate into a royal".
In a monarchy that has been transformed during the Queen's lifetime from something remote and mysterious into a quasi-corporation that takes its interests and image seriously, there are always new challenges. The current one, argues London PR executive Duncan Larcombe, a former Fleet Street royal correspondent, is "keeping William and Kate relevant when they are no longer the biggest show in town".
Even an institution as venerable as the British monarchy understands the value of a new attraction. There hasn't been anyone like Meghan – American, mixed race, showbizzy – in the House of Windsor before, and if prodigious efforts are being made to help her fit in, it's because the lessons of the past have been painfully learned.
Diana bitterly recalled being told to "just get on with it", while Sarah Ferguson managed to spend just 34 nights with her Royal Navy officer husband Prince Andrew during the first year of their doomed marriage. And, in older minds, there is the memory of Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée, who almost brought the house down.
A measure of the effort underway is that the Queen herself is heading the induction committee. Kate had to wait several months after her wedding for an invitation to accompany the monarch on an engagement. Meghan's opportunity came in weeks. It has been swiftly followed by a summons to Balmoral, the Scottish castle where the Queen spends a chunk of each summer.
As Kate will doubtless warn her new sister-in-law, it rains a lot, the castle is haunted, the midges eat you alive, the food is terrible and the main entertainment is blasting game birds from the sky. If Meghan can handle that, she can handle anything.
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