A middle-class girl studied hard, got good grades, went to university, fell in love, became a princess.
A fairy tale? An aspirational dream? A snob’s nightmare? Kate Middleton’s story is all these and is as well a window on the intricacies of Britain’s complex, inescapable class system.
For some, the fiancee of Prince William is an ordinary woman from a hardworking family whose acceptance into the royal “firm” shows a monarchy embracing modernity in a country where class is no longer a barrier. For others, media obsession with Kate’s class background shows a country still ossified by status envy.
In the eyes of an elitist few, the descendant of coal miners is not good enough for the future king.
“There are those purists who say he should marry a princess from one of the European royal families,” said William Bortrick, editor of Burke’s Peerage and Gentry, the genealogical bible of British blue bloods.
That is not a widely held view in Marlborough, the prosperous market town 60 miles (100 kilometres) west of London where Middleton went to school. Many here welcome the infusion of ordinary English blood into the aristocratic Euro-hybrid of the royal family.
“It hasn’t really worked out, marrying a cousin, has it?” said photograph vendor Lou Eastham, dismissing centuries of royal matchmaking.
Down the street at the Marlborough Conservative Club, retiree Peter Goddard agreed that Middleton’s “humble origins” were an asset.
“Two hundred years ago, her family didn’t live in a castle,” he said. “Good for them.”
Since nothing is ever simple when it comes to class in Britain, it is not surprising that a furious debate is raging about just how common Catherine Elizabeth Middleton really is.
Unlike the United States, whose most powerful uniting belief is that anyone can rise to the top through hard work, for centuries in Britain birth was destiny, and that legacy still resonates. If you were born into the upper classes, you are likely to remain there even if you lose your fortune. The penniless aristocrat who cannot afford to heat his castle is no less aristocratic than the wealthy one.
Even now, in an arguably more socially mobile era, class origins stick more than elsewhere. Mick Jagger remains for many a faintly disreputable rock ’n’ roll rebel despite a knighthood that made him Sir Mick. And for all his millions, David Beckham’s working class accent is as much a part of his persona as his looks and soccer prowess.
As for Middleton, she is not a member of nobility or the aristocracy, which makes her an unusual bride for the man who will likely be king one day. William’s mother Princess Diana was the daughter of an earl, and Prince Andrew’s ex-wife Sarah Ferguson also has aristocratic ancestors: her great-grandfather was a duke.
Middleton’s maternal ancestors were manual labourers and coal miners, a fact trumpeted in tabloid headlines like “From pit to palace.” The tabloid Sun claimed that her family’s journey from “slag heaps . . . to the heart of the Establishment is a remarkable and uplifting story of social mobility.”
Kate is not exactly working class, nonetheless. Middleton’s paternal ancestors have been affluently middle-class for more than a century: merchants, lawyers and mill owners in the northern English county of Yorkshire who amassed comfortable fortunes, sent their children to private schools and became pillars of the community.
Kate’s parents Carol and Michael Middleton are millionaires who run their own party-planning business. Before that they worked in the airline industry — Carol as a flight attendant, Michael as a flight dispatcher.
They sent Kate to Marlborough College, a 30,000 pound ($47,000) a year boarding school whose handsome red-brick buildings and neatly clipped lawns dominate one end of the town. Alumni include the poets John Betjeman and Siegfried Sassoon, musician Chris de Burgh and a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II — Prince William’s cousin Princess Eugenie.
“She’s not middle-class,” said Neil Clarke, a workman digging a hole in the road just outside the school’s tall iron gates. “You wouldn’t be able to afford that on a middle-class salary.”
Middleton’s Marlborough education helped give her an ease around the upper classes and, on the evidence of her one television interview, polished manners and a genteel accent to match those of her royal fiance.
Accent is still a key class signifier, although times have changed since those of humble origin had to shed all hints of working-class or regional origins if they hoped to rise in the world. Today it is just as common to find upper-class kids adopting “mockney” — mock Cockney — accents in an attempt to seem cool.
Yet Middleton’s background is ordinary enough to launch the often-repeated story about William’s posh friends quipping “doors to manual” as a gibe at her mother’s former job. Or for commentators to snipe about Carol Middleton chewing gum during William’s military college graduation ceremony, attended by the queen.
Such reactions suggest Britain is still far from a classless society.
Will Atkinson, a sociologist at Bristol University who has studied the class system, said social mobility in Britain has been stagnant since World War II.
“Kate Middleton has taken a very unusual path to the top,” he said. “It’s not a path that’s open to most people.
“You get the occasional David Beckham. You get the occasional Kate Middleton. But most people will reproduce their parents’ class.”
That is backed up by educational charity the Sutton Trust, which says England lags behind many other developed countries in social mobility. It points out that 60 per cent of ministers in the British government went to private schools, which are attended by just 7 per cent of the population. Almost 70 per cent of the Cabinet went to Oxford or Cambridge, the country’s two most prestigious universities.
Others, though, argue that the walls of the upper-class citadel have been hammered down, the old ruling class replaced by a new elite, based on wealth and education rather than birth.
Peregrine Worsthorne, the impeccably posh author of Democracy Needs Aristocracy, said the royal family was making a canny move by marrying William “into the dominant class: the bourgeoisie, the rich but not well-born.”
“I don’t think they sat him down and told him ‘Look, sonny boy, you’ve got to marry into the bourgeoisie,”’ he said. “Nowadays they are the people he would be likely to meet. It’s part of a natural historical process.”
And not, for Worsthorne, an entirely welcome one.
“We’ve got a meritocracy and the results don’t seem very encouraging,” he said. “They’ve led us into the most ungodly financial mess.”
Class purists appear to include the former editor of “Burke’s Peerage,” Charles Mosley, who was quoted by the Daily Mail newspaper as saying William should have married someone from its pages, noting that “even if you take out the men, the married women and those too old that would still leave around 10,000 for Prince William to choose from.”
His successor is more relaxed. Bortrick, the grandly titled “executive and royal editor” of “Burke’s Peerage,” turns out to be an affable 35-year-old modernizer who has wrenched the tome into the 21st century by including offspring of unmarried couples — though not, he stresses, “children of scandalous liaisons” — and listing children in order of birth, rather than putting the boys ahead of the girls.
He thinks the marriage of William and Kate is “a very positive thing for everyone, for the family and for the country.”
That sentiment is reflected on the streets of Marlborough, where the romance of the royal union has warmed many hearts, including that of Jane Corbett, a milliner who has made hats for Middleton in the past.
“What I think is special is he’s chosen the woman he’s in love with, regardless of her background,” she said. “It will make for a very modern monarchy.”