In the early summer of 1997, Prince William was enjoying a cosy afternoon alone with his mother in her sitting room at Kensington Palace.
There was the usual laughter and easy banter as they gossiped about summer holiday plans and his latest school adventures. But they also chatted about growing up, and girls, and how, one day, William would find “The One”.
Then, quite suddenly, Diana turned very serious and looked her 15-year-old son in the eyes.
“Whatever you do,” she told him quietly, “make sure the person you marry is your best friend first.”
That conversation would remain seared into William’s memory forever.
Two months later, Diana was dead and the young prince’s heart felt irreparably broken.
But as William walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey in April 2011, he knew he had made his beloved mother proud. Because on his arm was his new bride, his best friend and his future queen.
And the world could see that in Catherine Middleton, Diana’s boy had finally found The One.
The Princess’s confidante and healer Simone Simmons once recalled, “Diana would have loved Kate because she is down to earth and she understands William inside out.
“When they look at each other, you get the sense of a million words passing between them. I’m sure Diana and Kate would have been firm friends.
“I can see them going out together, having a giggle and enjoying each other’s company.
“She’d have explained that the Royal Family is not always easy to get along with and when it comes to protocols, she should do what she thought was right as well as what was expected of her. I believe that’s what Kate has done.”
William officially met his future bride just four years after that poignant conversation with his mother, when he and Kate became students at St Andrews University in Scotland.
But they had actually played hockey against each other while at school and were both said to have attended a house party thrown by Kate’s school pal Emilia D’Erlanger in 1999.
Their friendship and later romance proved a very slow burner though – and would even earn Kate the hated nickname “Waity Katie”.
But William wanted to be absolutely sure his wife would be able to cope with the pressures of royal life.
Royal expert Duncan Larcombe said, “William always remembered Diana’s advice about taking time to get to know his future bride. He knew she spoke from bitter experience as she had only met Charles a handful of times before they wed.
“When a person marries into the royal family, traditionally they are either the perfect fit or a bull in a china shop battling against the institution.
“William knew his most important royal duty was to marry well, and he found the perfect fit in Kate.”
The future duchess was impressing people with her quiet dignity before she even started university.
She took a gap year, studying at the British Institute in Florence, participating in a Raleigh International programme in Chile, and later crewing on Round The World Challenge boats in the Solent. Rachel Humphreys, who looked after the Raleigh volunteers, says that even then, Kate had “a certain presence”.
That same quality was later recognised by Dr Brian Lang, former vice chancellor of the University of St Andrews, where Kate went to study art history in the autumn of 2001.
He said, “Kate was a very mature girl. She was a very attractive girl, she was a very popular girl – particularly with the boys. But she was always very in control of herself and impeccably behaved.”
Kate recalled behaving rather awkwardly when she first saw William at uni.
”I actually think I went bright red,” she said after they announced their engagement, “and I sort of scuttled off, feeling very shy.”
William was studying art history too (but later switched to geography) and they lived in the same halls of residence, St Salvator’s, or “Sallies”.
They soon became friends although both dated other students. William briefly courted Carly Massy-Birch and Kate went out with fourth-year law student Rupert Finch.
But by the start of 2002, Kate and William were great chums and confidantes.
“We spent more time with each other, had a giggle and lots of fun and realised we shared the same interests,” he said.
But William’s interest rocketed after he paid £200 for a front-row seat at a charity fashion show in March 2002.
When Kate appeared on the runway in a see-through silk dress, William had something of a revelation.
“Wow!” he whispered to a male pal sitting beside him. “Kate is HOT!”
Michael Zhi-Wei Choong, a friend at St Andrews, watched the relationship develop as Kate and William moved into a four-bedroom apartment with two friends for their second year.
“They deliberately kept it under wraps,” he said. “They knew they wanted to be boyfriend and girlfriend, so as a disguise they said, ‘We can all live in the same house, it will look like we’re just friends.’”
In that flat, in the aptly named Hope Street, behind bomb-proof doors and bullet-proof windows to protect an heir to the throne, Kate and William fell in love.
They ate takeaways, watched films and entertained friends for dinner, but also got to know each other’s families.
In autumn 2002 Kate joined a group of William’s friends for a shooting party on the Queen’s Sandringham estate.
And in May 2003 they were snapped in deep conversation at a rugby match, although her father told a journalist he could “categorically confirm they are no more than good friends”.
Their relationship somehow remained secret – until they went skiing together in Klosters, Switzerland, in March 2004. Snaps of them made front-page news.
“Look, I’m only 22, for God’s sake!” William responded when asked about marriage plans. “I don’t want to get married until I’m at least 28 or maybe 30.”
Kate coped well with the attention and they returned to St Andrews, moving in to a new place as a couple. When they graduated in the summer of 2005, Kate’s parents took a photo of her and William, wrapped in each other’s arms and laughing.
It would not be made public for several years but, at the ceremony, there was a hint of things to come when the Principal, Dr Lang, told students, “You may have met your husband or wife here.”
Soon afterwards, they attended the Oxfordshire wedding of William’s friends Hugh van Cutsem and Rose Astor before jetting off for a romantic holiday in Kenya.
But then they had to face the real world. William went to Sandhurst for military training and Kate moved to London to work as an accessories buyer for Jigsaw.
Their relationship continued as their lives got busier, and Kate was seen watching William playing in the old boys’ Eton Field Game match in 2006.
They enjoyed a holiday with friends in Mustique and, after Kate’s two grandmothers died that summer, he cheered her up by chartering a yacht off Ibiza.
Kate and her parents attended William’s passing out parade in December that year and the couple were seen kissing on another ski trip to Klosters.
By 2007 an engagement seemed inevitable. But William was rattled by headlines asking, “Is this the next People’s Princess?” and began to wobble.
When photos emerged of him on nights out with other girls, Kate was furious, and the couple split over Easter 2007.
But determined to shake off “Waity Katie”, she threw herself into training with an all-female Dragon boat crew. She also went clubbing – and photos of her looking stunning with “a mystery male friend” emerged.
William realised what he was missing and, at a friend’s birthday party in June, they began talking. The following month Kate was a guest at the Concert for Diana organised by William and Harry – although she sat behind them with her brother James.
Later that year William whisked Kate off for a romantic getaway on the idyllic Desroches Island in the Seychelles, and talked about a future together.
When they got home, Kate left her job at Jigsaw to work for her parents’ party supplies business and began appearing at William’s side in public.
She was there when he was given his RAF wings in 2008 and represented him at his cousin Peter Phillips’ wedding, as William was at a prior engagement in Kenya.
And she was invited to join the royals on Garter Day when he became the 1,000th Royal Knight of the Garter – proof that her relationship with William was becoming very serious.
When he decided to begin training as a search-and-rescue pilot at RAF Valley in Anglesey, the couple quietly moved in together.
In a whitewashed rented cottage with views of Snowdonia, they settled into a low-key lifestyle with their beloved Spaniel, Lupo. They strolled along the beaches, walked in the hills and shopped at Tesco and Waitrose.
They even joined a group of William’s colleagues and their wives at the Empire picture house in Holyhead for a fancy dress showing of Toy Story 3. Jean Owen, manager of the cinema, simply couldn’t believe her eyes.
“They turned up in fancy dress and wore big wigs. Prince William’s was purple, if I remember rightly,” she said. “No one knew they were coming – and they said they were wearing the wigs for charity.”
Another staff member added, “Although they were trying to be incognito, people recognised them instantly – but no one would have dreamed of taking a photograph. That’s just not the way things are done on Anglesey.”
Kate seemed happy in their committed relationship, ring or no ring.
But then, in October, 2010, William took her by surprise. On holiday in Kenya, he flew her up to a secluded wooden hut on the shores of Lake Rutundu and, from his rucksack, produced a small box.
Inside was his mother’s priceless sapphire engagement ring which he slipped on her finger, asking Kate to be his wife.
“I really didn’t expect it all,” she said later. “It was a total shock when it came.”
She added, “It was very romantic. There’s a true romantic in there.”
“I’d been planning it for a while,” William admitted later. “Then it just felt really right out in Africa.”
For the rest of the nation it was a delightful surprise. The engagement announcement came at 11am on November 16, 2010 in a formal statement from Clarence House. In tune with the modern age, the news was also posted on The Queen’s Facebook page and on the royal Twitter account.
Then Kate was formally introduced in the red-and-gold grandeur of St James’s Palace.
As Kate showed off her ring to a barrage of camera flashes, William explained, ”It’s very special to me. And as Catherine is very special to me now, it was right the two are put together.
“It is my way of making sure my mother didn’t miss out on today.”
The official engagement portraits, taken a few days later by Diana’s favourite photographer Mario Testino, proved to the world that this truly was a royal love match – with the couple embracing, cheek to cheek.
They made several TV appearances at the time and talked candidly about the early days of their romance.
“We were friends for over a year first and it just sort of blossomed from then on,” William said. “She’s got a really naughty sense of humour, which kind of helps me because I’ve got a really dry sense of humour. We had a really good laugh and then things happened.”
Kate even talked about their brief break-up.
“At the time I wasn’t very happy about it,” she said, “but actually it made me a stronger person. You find out things about yourself that maybe you hadn’t realised, I think you can get quite consumed by a relationship when you are younger. I really valued that time for me as well… although I didn’t think it at the time.”
Kate was asked if she felt intimidated by Princess Diana’s iconic status.
She said, “Obviously I would have loved to have met her and she’s obviously an inspirational woman to look up to.”
“There’s no pressure though,” William added. “It is about carving your own future. No one is trying to fill my mother’s shoes, what she did is fantastic. It’s about making your own future and your own destiny and Kate will do a very good job of that.”
That was clear from the first engagements that Kate carried out with William in the run-up to their big day.
In December 2010, the couple attended the Teenage Cancer Trust charity gala together. They then set off on a tour of the UK, starting with a romantic trip back to St Andrews. They then delighted crowds in Belfast, Wales and Lancashire.
But, comparisons with Diana were inevitable as Kate connected instantly with the public and demonstrated her natural empathy, elegance and charm.
And, when the royal wedding day arrived on April 29, 2011, the excitement across the nation felt as great as it did when Diana wed Charles 30 years earlier.
Well-wishers had been descending on Central London all week to watch the pomp and ceremony, pitching tents on the pavement to secure the best view. William and Harry, who had spent the night before at Clarence House, even went outside to chat to some of them – and William admitted he was “terrified of fluffing his lines”.
As dawn broke, the roads between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey were packed with people standing 30 deep. And by 10am, when bells across the city began pealing, the excitement had reached fever pitch.
Prince William set off for the Abbey in a state Bentley, dressed in the uniform of a Colonel of the Irish Guards. But now he was also the newly created Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus – and a very nervous-looking one.
But Prince Harry, also looking impressive in his Blues and Royals’ officers uniform, cracked jokes to relax him. By the time they reached Westminster, William seemed much more composed.
There were many famous faces among the 1,900 guests, but the Queen had allowed William and Kate to tear up the formal list drawn up by courtiers and invite their own friends instead.
Kate’s mother Carole arrived, elegant in a sky blue Catherine Walker coat, accompanied by her son James.
The junior royals were shuttled from Buckingham Palace in a fleet of minibuses and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie stood out in their striking fascinators. Prince Charles arrived with his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, who wore a champagne-coloured silk dress and hand-embroidered coat. Then a fanfare by the State Trumpeters heralded the arrival of The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh – Her Majesty in a sunny, primrose-yellow crepe outfit.
As the guests took their seats, the crowd outside could hear cheers rippling towards them, as the bride approached in a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI.
At the Abbey, Kate emerged from the car with her head bowed, taking a moment to compose herself. And the world got its first proper glimpse of the dress – an ivory satin and lace gown, designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, embroidered by the seamstresses of the Royal School of Needlework with the national emblems of the rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock.
Her “something blue” was a silk ribbon sewn inside the dress while the “old” and “borrowed” were combined in the 1936 Cartier halo tiara, lent to her by The Queen.
Kate clutched a perfumed bouquet made up of myrtle, ivy, lily-of-the-valley, hyacinth and sweet William – a nod to her groom.
Michael Middleton took his daughter’s hand as sister Pippa, the Maid of Honour, manoeuvred Kate’s glorious 9ft (3m) train and marshalled the pages and bridesmaids – who included Lady Louise Windsor, the Earl and Countess of Wessex’s then seven-year-old daughter.
Then, as the choir began to sing The Procession Of The Bride (The Introit) – I Was Glad, Kate began her three-and-a-half minute walk down the red-carpeted aisle to her destiny.
Harry turned to look, before telling his anxious brother, “Well, she’s here now – and she looks beautiful, I can tell you that!”
William stared dutifully ahead until Kate reached him.
Then he leaned towards his future father-in-law Michael and joked, “We were supposed to have just a small family affair!”
The formal service began, with prayers, hymns, fanfares, anthems, organ and orchestral music.
By the time they reached their vows, you could hear a pin drop. William’s voice was clear and strong but Kate’s was barely a whisper as she struggled to contain her emotions. He fumbled, trying to slip the ring on her finger.
But when the Welsh gold band was finally in place, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams pronounced them husband and wife – and a roar swept in from the crowds listening to the ceremony thanks to the huge speakers outside. It was a day of national joy, with an extra Bank Holiday granted especially for the occasion, and the crowds couldn’t wait to see the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
So, when they emerged onto the red carpet outside, the cheers almost out-rang the pealing bells. The noise continued as the couple made their way back to Buckingham Palace in the 1902 State Landau. But it reached a crescendo as the couple appeared on the balcony – for the long-awaited kiss.
William turned to Kate and said, “OK? Look at me, let’s kiss.”
As they locked lips the crowd roared – and a second sent them wild.
The Cambridges radiated happiness and joy and their powerful bond was obvious. The 650 guests at the Queen’s champagne reception could see it and the friends at the evening “do” hosted by a proud Prince Charles were left in no doubt either.
And looking down, as she surely was, Diana would have recognised it too.
Because William had indeed married his best friend, Kate, who had always been The One.
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