Kate’s secret prep to become Queen
In the long and winding story of William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's road to the altar there are many iconic moments: The see-through dress that started it all; all that snogging at polo matches; the marauding paparazzi chasing Kate through Chelsea; and the time Carole Middleton nearly scuppered her daughter's chances by chewing gum in the vicinity of the Queen.
This week marked the ten-year anniversary of one of the lesser, but still deeply significant, moments in the annals of Will'n'Kate: Their first outing as an engaged couple.
On November 16, 2010, the world (and Ma Middleton I'd wager) breathed a sigh of relief that William had finally gotten on with it and proposed to his girlfriend of eight-odd years. (Minus the four months they were apart in 2008 which came to an abrupt end when William invited Kate to a Freakin' Naughty fancy dress party and she turned up in a short dress and fishnets.)
During the photocall at St James' palace, they posed for the press, showed off the stonking ring, and said nice, dull things about one another to a BBC interviewer who was on his very best behaviour. Then, they disappeared off back to the wilds of rural Wales, where they were living at the time, while commemorative mug factories the length and breadth of the nation swung into action.
Thus we get to December 18, 2010 a day that will go down in royal history as the first time the couple stepped out together after their engagement for carols evening in rural Norfolk.
Clicking through the photo archives now, it's amazing how young - and nervous - Kate looks.
By contrast, it is truly impressive how poised, confident and at ease the duchess now looks.
In fact, more and more of late, Kate has started to seem like … a queen.
A real one.
And that is no accident. Rather, behind-the-scenes the palace machine has quietly but assiduously prepping the one-time accessories buyer to one day wear an actual crown and take on the exalted - and kinda terrifying - title and all its attendant responsibilities and pressures.
See, when Prince Charles ascends to the throne and becomes King Charles III, his wife Camilla will be known only as Princess Consort and not Queen Consort as she is technically entitled to be called. This bit of fancy regal footwork was cooked up as a sop to the British people to keep them on side when the long term paramours finally tied the knot in 2005.
Therefore Kate will be the UK's next Queen.
It is a job she has been preparing for right in front of our eyes.
In recent years, we have seen the mother-of-three step up and take on more high-profile work.
In January, Kate unveiled her most ambitious project yet as part of her legacy-defining work in early childhood development in the form of a nationwide survey about early childhood. Make no mistake, this is not the royal just rolling up, shaking some hands, giving a nice speech and then dashing off back to the palace for a well-earned round of finger sandwiches.
One of the experts gathered together to help with the project admiringly told the Telegraph of her work: "This is not a flash-in-the-pan campaign, with a well-known name as the figurehead, peripherally involved. Nor is it one person's whimsical idea that it would be 'nice to do something for children'.
"As was absolutely clear at that very first meeting, the Duchess has shaped this project. She is absolutely across the research and the data on early years. It would be easy for her to sit back and hand it to the experts in the room that day, with all their PhDs. But, as we saw, she has worked hard to become an expert herself. That interest in early years will outlast politicians and even scientists."
It was no coincidence that the same month Her Majesty trusted Kate and William to be the hosts of their first official Buckingham Palace reception.
Similarly, in 2019, it was the couple who was tapped by the foreign office to undertake a high stakes official visit to Pakistan. From the moment they set foot in the country, it was a flawless diplomatic performance that surely would not have gone unnoticed by Her Majesty.
When the COVID pandemic shuttered much of the world this year, it was Kate who stepped into the breach and who led the Windsor Zoom charge, bringing her humour, warmth and myriad supply of ladylike frocks to the task.
Like her husband's great-grandmother, the Queen Mother, during a time of national crisis, she was there, doing her bit to try and provide a certain emotional, psychic succour to a suffering nation.
This gradual positioning of Kate as apprentice Queen is a calculated move on the part of the palace machine.
Speaking earlier this year, royal biographer Katie Nicholl said: "We are seeing a Queen-in-waiting. We are seeing the Duchess take on more duties, more royal engagements, more of a public profile than ever before.
"She's taking on more patronages, she's taking on patronages from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
"This is all very deliberate, it's very much part of the Palace machine bringing her from the shadows of Anmer and into the forefront, into the spotlight, because they are very clever.
"They realise the power of Kate and the potential of Kate and William as this young, glamorous, dynamic duo who actually do have the ability to reshape and project the monarchy into the future."
It is a far cry from as recently as 2016 when Kate (and Princes William and Harry) drew fire for the trio carrying out less official engagements that year, combined, than the industrious Princess Anne.
Whatever plans the palace might have already had in store for Kate have potentially only been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. The Queen has been consigned to Windsor Castle, where she and husband Prince Philp have been living in 'HMS Bubble', since March, a state of play that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
While the COVID vaccine might be being rolled out in Britain as we speak, and Her Majesty likely to be near the top of the list of initial recipients, it will be a long time before anything even resembling normal life will make a full throated return.
Key to the royal family's survival is visibility. Given the circumstances, and her much younger and robust immune system, it is likely that Kate will have to rise to the challenge and that we will see more of her - literally - at the forefront of official royal life in the future.
One thing that often gets neglected when talking about Kate is that she is naturally very shy. Consider how many, many years it took (and a pandemic) before the world started to regularly even hear her voice.
She has had to overcome that bashfulness and reticence and the Kate we have seen emerge in the last two years or so is a woman far more at ease with being in the limelight.
Kensington Palace courtiers sagely offered Kate a gradual immersion in working royal life, unlike Diana who was shunted out in front of the crowds and left to figure out what was expected of her. Long gone is that sink-or-swim approach and too precious a commodity is Kate for the institution than for them to allow her transition to Queen-in-waiting but anything but a gentle one.
When the current Queen assumed the throne it came as a devastating blow, not only the death of her beloved father but that she would have to reign decades earlier than she expected.
The biggest gift she might ever give Kate is the gradual immersion in, and preparation for the role.
In late November Kate took part in a rare Q + A to promote the release of the findings of the early years survey and it was something of an unsung watershed moment in her journey to Queen. In the video of the virtual event she was laughing, chatting but always completely in command. The woman who fronted the camera had a self-assuredness that was a far, far cry from the Kate who attended that Norfolk carols night back in 2010.
Some might dismiss her focus on early years as a 'nice' charity project but this year's landmark survey and the work that will flow from it has the strong potential to change millions of lives.
There is another Kate has been surreptitiously been doing all these years: Earning our - and the Queen's - respect. Impressive, huh?
So, all hail one-day Queen Kate. Sorry! Catherine. Queen Catherine. At least we've got plenty of time to get that bit right.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.
Originally published as Kate's secret prep to become Queen