As a put-down, it could scarcely have been more withering. It was May 2007 and Kate and Pippa Middleton, as they mixed in aristocratic circles, were dubbed The Wisteria Sisters. ‘They’re highly decorative, terribly fragrant and have a ferocious ability to climb,’ was one mocking taunt.
Underpinning this bitchy barb was the implication the Middleton girls were getting above their station.
‘It was like something from a Jane Austen novel,’ recalled a family friend. ‘Would they have been insulted like that if they were ordinary-looking or weren’t being feted in the media? I doubt it. As well as blatant snobbery, it was also motivated by old-fashioned jealousy.’
The nasty label failed to stick. But it followed equally unpleasant jibes about the girls’ mother, Carole, a former British Airways stewardess. Sneering references to ‘doors to manual’ were accompanied by mutterings about her supposedly sharp elbows and long evenings plotting her family’s social advancement.
And, cruelly, the notion persists to this day among some that she engineered her daughter’s Royal romance, choreographing Kate’s path from the kitchen table of her home in Bucklebury, Berkshire, as strategically as a wartime general. Although untrue, it will always remain an irresistible script: the pushy matriarch whose grandfather was a coal miner and who helped her daughter snare a prince.
There is no shortage of people, though, who say that William is mighty lucky to have Kate, and that her family, far from ruthlessly ‘trading up’ at every turn, represent a shining example of social mobility in action. ‘Carole isn’t pushy in the least,’ said Kate and Pippa’s friend. ‘She’s just worked hard to give her children opportunities she never had. She’s a fabulous mum.’
As a put-down, it could scarcely have been more withering. It was May 2007 and Kate and Pippa Middleton, as they mixed in aristocratic circles, were dubbed The Wisteria Sisters. ‘They’re highly decorative, terribly fragrant and have a ferocious ability to climb,’ was one mocking taunt
Kate Middleton is pictured in an undated photograph singing My Fair Lady
At first, home for Kate in her early years was a small semi-detached house in the village of Bradfield Southend, Berkshire. After giving birth to Pippa 18 months after Kate, followed by son James three years later, Carole and her fellow ex-British Airways employee husband Michael set up Party Pieces, a mail-order children’s party toys business, in 1987 and the whole family was involved. Carole targeted local mothers with catalogues featuring photos of Kate and Pippa – dressed in T-shirts with their initials on the front – modelling the merchandise. It was hard work but the firm was successful, enabling Carole and Michael to educate their children privately, and by the time Kate left Marlborough College in 2000, as well as being an excellent sportswoman she could act, sing and dance. She had also developed a love of the arts and a passion for photography.
One mother, whose daughter was in the same house as Kate at Marlborough, said: ‘There was always something slightly galling about having your child at school with the Middletons. Every pristine item of their clothing would have a beautifully sewn-in name tape, for instance. It was unthinkable they would resort to marker pen on labels.’
Kate and Pippa had the ‘smartest tennis rackets’ and huge picnics at sports day. ‘It made other families feel rather hopeless,’ recalled the mother.
One who knows ‘the Mids’, as the family are known, observed that Carole’s perfectionist trait, which Kate inherited, might be irritating were it not for the fact that she ‘is kind, down to earth and damn good fun’.
Still, one niggly issue has long dogged Kate and Carole. Can Kate’s university meeting with Prince William really be ascribed to serendipidity? Although when Kate was applying to university, it was unknown where he was intending to study, it has been suggested that Kate’s mother persuaded her to reject her first choice, Edinburgh, on discovering William’s destination and, instead, take up an offer at St Andrews, like him.
Her A-level grades had been exactly those required to secure a place to study art history at either university, but a friend from this period says: ‘She just changed her mind. A lot of her friends were going to St Andrews. Traditionally, it attracts a big crowd from Marlborough.
Kate, 26, donned a lurid redstriped top, fury arm cuffs, an oversized hat, braces and huge yellow sunglasses for an Eighties ski-wear fancy dress party
Kate’s first boyfriend Harry Blakelock was in the year above her at Marlborough School. When they split up, Kate was heartbroken
‘To anyone who really knows Kate, the idea this was all part of some grand plan is ridiculous.’
However, according to Royal biographer Robert Lacey, she and two close friends from Marlborough, Alice and Emilia, had already travelled to Edinburgh together to set up their lodgings. But when Kate learnt William was going to St Andrews, she ‘immediately changed her mind’ and switched. Like him, she too took a gap year.
Lacey leaves the question hanging: ‘What was the reason for her life-changing decision? Did Catherine Middleton, 18, suddenly discover the virtues of the history of art course offered by the University of St Andrews? Or did she apply to St Andrews because she wanted to meet a prince?’
Friends are convinced she had no interest in the Prince at this time and in 2001 she headed to Florence for three months – yet once more she found herself followed by the name William Wales, as it was rumoured he would visit the Tuscan capital for a similar pre-university art course.
For her part, Kate was still pining for Harry Blakelock, her Marlborough first love. A friend told The Mail on Sunday: ‘When Kate arrived in Florence, she was really hung up about Harry. She spoke about him all the time and he seemed to have messed her around quite a bit. He seemed to have blown hot and cold with her when they were at school and she was always talking about how she could get him back. He was also in Florence at the same time but from what I can remember, nothing happened.
‘Despite attracting male attention, she was always very shy around boys,’ said the friend. ‘Loads of boys found her attractive but when they approached her she would always get very embarrassed and bashful.’
While in Florence, Kate shared an apartment with four other girls and relished being able to roam unfettered, photographing the city cathedral and countless Renaissance treasures.
Pictured: Kate Middleton (now Duchess of Cambridge) as a first year student at St. Salvator’s Hall, St Andrews University
Despite speculation in the Italian media, William never made it to Florence. Had he done so, it is probable their paths would have crossed.
While in Italy, Kate was visited by her parents who took her and her friends out to dinner.
A friend on her course said: ‘Carole teased Kate about an Italian waiter, saying, “Isn’t he handsome?” She would try to get Kate to take an interest in boys and say things like, “Let’s go and buy you some nice clothes, darling.” ’
Towards the end of the course, there was a fashion show held by Johns Hopkins University, the American college. Basically, it was an opportunity for English and American students to get together. Kate attended the show and it may have given her the idea when she got to St Andrews to participate in another fashion show – one that famously attracted Prince William’s eye.
Prince William on the beach at St Andrews on Wednesday May 28, 2003
Perhaps too bruised by her break-up with Harry Blakelock, Kate failed to find romance in Florence. But later in her gap year, while working on the BT Global Challenge yacht in Southampton, she met fellow deckhand Ian Henry.
A fellow crewmate said: ‘Everyone called her Fit Kate and the lads were very jealous when she got together with Ian. It was a summer romance, nothing serious, and it ended when they went their separate ways to start university.’
Meanwhile, in between roughing it with the Welsh Guards in the Belize jungle, travelling through Kenya and teaching English in a Patagonian mountain village, Prince William found time for a summer fling.
He enjoyed romantic picnics in the Gloucestershire countryside with Rose Farquhar, his first serious girlfriend and the daughter of Captain Ian Farquhar, master of the Beaufort Hunt. On one occasion the couple were interrupted by a farmer who stumbled across them canoodling in his field.
By September 2001, with the world reeling from 9/11 terrorist attacks, two young history of art students, whose schooling had both begun in Berkshire, were ready to travel 450 miles north to begin studying at university on Scotland’s east coast.
Kate was driven to St Andrews by her parents, and dropped off at St Salvator’s Hall, her home for the next year. William’s appearance a week or so later was less conventional. Having politely turned down the offer of a welcome dinner with the principal because he wanted to be treated ‘like any other student’, he was nonetheless met by 5,000 cheering onlookers.
William had arrived with Prince Charles at the wheel of their car, only for his father to overshoot the entrance. Hurriedly, Charles executed a swift reverse.
In an interview published the previous day, William came across as a confident, modest young Royal, seemingly well equipped to handle the pleasures and the pitfalls of university life.
William, 19, said: ‘People who try to take advantage of me and get a piece of me, I spot it quickly and soon go off them.’ Nevertheless, he said he was hoping to meet new friends. ‘I just hope I can meet people I get on with. I don’t care about their background.’
As Charles headed back to his Highland home, William unpacked his belongings.
Watching the drama among the student wellwishers, one imagines, was Kate Middleton.
The stage was set for a historic meeting.