As the Duchess of Cambridge turns 35, what does her legacy look like?

Duchess of Cambridge 
The Duchess of Cambridge turns 35 on Monday Credit: Tim Rooke/REX/Shutterstock

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge - forever popularly, if anachronistically, referred to as “Kate Middleton” - turns 35 on Monday. As she reaches half her three score and ten, the Duchess finds herself in a seemingly happy marriage, a mother of two young children, who happen to be third and fourth in line to the throne.

She has recently been awarded honorary lifetime membership of the Royal Photographic Society in recognition of the “talent and enthusiasm” with which she snaps images of her offspring. Moreover, the Duchess’s hair and outfits always receive a good deal of attention. However, if, in her public role, she has yet to really distinguish herself, there are signs that this birthday may prove a turning point in seeing her up her game from fashion plate to player.

'Kate’s generation is often accused of being less independent than the generation that went before'

Until now these seems to have been a real sense of caution about her role leading to mutterings in December when Prince Prince Philip, at 95, was discovered to have carried out twice as many engagements as his then-34 year-old granddaughter-in-law, boasting commitments on 110 days of 2016, compared with Kate’s 63.

Catherine’s a supportive wife, a good daughter-in-law, and a devoted motherHugo Vickers, royal biographer

While Time magazine may have voted her one of the world’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2012 and 2013, naturally, “lady-in-waiting” rather than leading lady, duchess rather than queen, dictates a certain reticence; not least where she and her husband play not second, but third fiddle to the monarch, after his father, the Prince of Wales, and heir apparent. Also, unlike Diana, she must not be seen to be becoming “bigger than the show”.

The Queen herself had been a decade into the job at this stage, having acceded to the throne at the age of 25. At 21 she pledged her life to country and Commonwealth, and married, having her first child a year later. Miss Middleton, at this age, was still four years away from her stint at Jigsaw. Queen Victoria, of course, was younger still when she began her 63-year reign at just turned 18. The start may have been a shaky one, yet, during this period, Britain amassed the largest empire history has ever witnessed.

The Queen Mother was 36 when she unexpectedly came to prominence as Queen Consort. Unprepared as she was, the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon became vital to the nation’s morale as war unfolded, described by Hitler “the most dangerous woman in Europe”.

The Duchess of Cambridge during a visit to The Mix in London Credit:  Alastair Grant

And even Diana, Princess of Wales - also initially celebrated as merely mother and fashion maven, also seemed to have found her footing in the world by her mid-thirties. She was famed for her charity work, be it AIDS, addiction, leprosy, or landmines, and was at her zenith by her 35th birthday. She died at only 36.

Kate’s generation is often accused of being “younger” and less independent than the generation that went before them. And Kate seems to be no exception. However, the legacy of Diana looms large. There is a general acknowledgment that mistakes were made, a vulnerable young women given insufficient support. Both her sons have made clear that their partners will not be exposed in the same way.

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Indeed, some would say by keeping in the shadows and devoting herself to her family Kate has played her role perfectly for the last five years. Hugo Vickers, royal expert and author of biographies of the Queen Mother and the Duchess of Windsor, says.

“I think it’s only natural that - if you’re in the third generation - you’re going to play a supportive role,” he observes. “She’s obviously a very important person, but you don’t want to compete.”

“The Queen Mother was the same when she was Duchess of York. There was Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra as well for a time, so she was rather a mousy figure for the first 13 years after she married Prince Bertie. Catherine hasn’t put a foot wrong. She does her duties well, such as her involvement with the National Portrait Gallery and new role at Wimbledon.”

'We’ve got a four-tier monarchy'

“One thing I’ve been told about both Middleton sisters at Marlborough is that, when they took anything on, they put their hearts and souls into it. Catherine’s a supportive wife, a good daughter-in-law, and a devoted mother.”

It is a story that, nonetheless, requires a sequel. As Kate heads towards 40, the signs are that she is now ready to take on new areas of responsibility. 

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Together with William, and Harry she has launched Heads Together, a mental health campaign led by The Royal Foundation in partnership with YoungMinds and seven other charities. Its aim is to challenge mental health stigma and change the national conversation on mental well-being and it is a cause the Duchess obviously feels passionate about.

Look back at her legacy in twenty years time and it is likely to have focused on children, mental health and sport – no small concerns at a time when stress, anxiety and obesity are reaching epidemic proportions.

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In the meantime, Hugo Vickers sees her as a strategic asset not to be underestimated. “She and William have brought the monarchy to a younger generation, making it more informal.”

“That’s the great thing about hereditary monarchy - it regenerates every time. And, right now, we’ve got a four-tier monarchy: the Queen and Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Camilla, Prince William and Kate, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. There’s something for everyone.”

CORRECTION, 16 Jan 2016: This article originally stated, wrongly,  that the Duchess of Cambridge has taken over from the Queen as patron of Barnardo's, Save The Children UK and the NSPCC. In fact, the Countess of Wessex has become patron of the NSPCC, and the Duchess of Cornwall has replaced the Queen as patron of Barnardo's. At time of writing, Save The Children has yet to appoint a new patron. We apologise for these errors.