In a sea of mourners at the Queen’s funeral, it was impossible to tear your eyes from the Princess of Wales. She stood tall among the immediate family, immaculately turned out, holding her two young children’s hands, her sombre face veiled and her neck adorned with the Queen’s pearls. We are, of course, accustomed to opining on Kate’s fashion sense, and her neat sense of sartorial propriety, but there has been a noticeable, if subtle, gear change in the last 10 days. It wasn’t just that the Duchess of Cambridge had become a fully-fledged princess, there was a something stateswoman-like about her.
Nowhere was this more evident than in events the night before the funeral. In the hour before a reception hosted by King Charles at Buckingham Palace for more than 500 dignitaries who had come to pay their respects to the late Queen, Catherine, Princess of Wales, sat down for a private chat with Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine.
It was the most outwardly political move Kate has ever made. It was also a solo engagement, made without her husband, Prince William – a choice made more poignant by the fact that Zelenska was attending without her own; President Zelensky having remained in Ukraine on account of the still ongoing conflict with Russia. The meeting is singular for myriad reasons. Not only does it place Kate on a political platform like never before, it is understood to be the only private audience a member of the royal family conducted, outside of the King’s individual meetings with the leaders of nations of which he is now head of state. The choice to send the Princess of Wales for this significant meeting, is notable.
The two women, just four years apart in age, have both been catapulted onto the world’s stage thanks to their husbands, with the comparatively private Zelenska stepping into her role of First Lady as recently as 2019. Her name and image become globally recognised this year, for the most tragic of reasons. Kate and Olena were, in a way, meeting at a moment of intersected grief: the passing of an iconic world leader and the ongoing horror of the war in Ukraine, though one assumes the latter will have largely dominated discussions.
It is not known what formed the bulk of their private talk, but the Prince and Princess of Wales have been open about their support for the Ukrainian people. When the conflict began, the royal couple tweeted: “In October 2020 we had the privilege to meet President Zelensky and the First Lady to learn of their hope and optimism for Ukraine’s future. Today we stand with the President and all of Ukraine’s people as they bravely fight for that future.” The couple were also seen, several weeks later, volunteering at London’s Ukrainian Culture Centre, packaging donations for volunteers. This followed a sizeable private donation given to the relief effort by the Queen herself.
This moment marks the beginning of a new role for Kate. Not just a princess title, but a more prominent position on the world stage. This year will see a seismic shift in the way the royal family operates, and our new Princess of Wales seems destined to be at its epicentre. It is not just that the death of the Queen has irreparably altered the hierarchy of the family; The Firm itself was already adjusting to other ‘vacancies’– notably the voluntary stepping back of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the stripping of Prince Andrew’s duties. King Charles has long stated he would be overseeing a more streamlined monarchy and now we are about to see it in action. As such, the new Princess of Wales looks set to take on even more patronages, charities and royal engagements, though will be keen to make the role her own; and still remain close to the causes she has long championed; including mental health and early years development.
An awareness of this seemed etched in Kate’s bearing over the last few days. She presided over the family at the funeral as its would-be matriarch, perhaps aware of the Queen Consort’s discomfort for the spotlight, or perhaps even her comparative lack of popularity. There is also the plain fact that our new King and Queen Consort have acceded to their roles later in life. They will be leaning heavily on younger members of the family, and there can be no avoiding the uncomfortable reality that the throne, for both William and Catherine, is far closer than it has ever been. What we are seeing now is no longer a duchess in a crowd, but a queen in waiting.
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