Why Kate Middleton doesn’t quite have the same right to privacy as the rest of us

That dodgy picture is none of our business, right? Part of me strongly wants to believe that. But if you are a true believer in monarchy, you have to accept it’s a keen matter of public interest...

March 15, 2024
Image: The Prince and Princess of Wales / Prospect
Image: The Prince and Princess of Wales / Prospect

Is this 1936 all over again? Is there a secret royal scandal brewing about which we, as loyal subjects, will be kept in the dark until a foreign newspaper or obscure bishop blurts it all out?

If you believe that, then happy hunting. Five minutes on Google or X will provide you with enough circumstantial “evidence” to keep you absorbed for days. You, too, can become an expert in lesser-known abdominal medical conditions, the esoteric byways of the Norfolk aristocracy and the intricacies of what can be amateurishly achieved with Photoshop.

Or perhaps 1995 is a more useful reference point? A vulnerable young woman has married into the royal family and is struggling with trying to survive in a constant, 24/7 unforgiving glare while trying to create something that passes for a normal life for her children in a weirdly dysfunctional family.

Or maybe it’s more like 1966? A senior royal is admitted to the King Edward VII hospital in December. A statement from Clarence House refers coyly to “abdominal surgery”. And that’s that. It’s more than 40 years before the Queen Mother’s official biographer, William Shawcross, reveals that, in fact, a team of surgeons led by Ralph Marnham had worked to remove a cancerous tumour. No need for us to know.

And I don’t know. I’m as in the dark as I assume you are. It seems to me any of the above scenarios is plausible. God knows, enough royal marriages have hit choppy waters from time to time. I’m equally prepared to believe that Kate (if I may) is a woman who needs occasional time off to pay attention to her mental health while trying to fulfil a role that would drive most of us entirely round the bend.

Or maybe “planned abdominal surgery” is just what it says it is? They said she’d be out of action until after Easter—and that’s still two or three weeks away. We should all calm down, ignore the dodgy picture, and wait until, in due course, she assumes her rightful place on the Times front page.

It’s none of our business, right? Part of me strongly wants to believe that. In theory, Kate Middleton, princess though she may be, is entitled to the same privacy rights as the rest of us—including, one might add, her sister-in-law, Meghan.

Partly this is human decency: we all need some sort of buffer zone of protected space around us, no matter what our public position or role. And this is especially true of the need for a cloak around family life; around anything affecting young children; around mental health issues or medical matters. We have no automatic right to know.

And yet—if you will forgive a clumsy double negative—it’s not entirely none of our business. Not if you are a true believer in monarchy. A system based on bloodline has to accept that the bloodline is a keen matter of public interest—and not just in the sense of the public being interested.

The Prince of Wales is not a job, it’s literally a birth right. It’s a piece of patrimony, of pedigree, of prerogative, of privilege, of power, of inheritance. William (if I may) is the heir to a monarchy that dates back to Saxon times. Whomever he marries, and/or has children with, is directly relevant to that bloodline.

Kate is now inescapably part of the bloodline, and is the mother to a future king as well as a queen in waiting. We can try all we like to draw fine delineations between the personal and the pedigree, but it’s not easy to trace exactly where that line lies.

My instinct with regard to all power tends to transparency. How ridiculous it now seems that editors felt they had to protect their readers from the love affair between Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson in 1936. In the bloodline business, it absolutely matters whom the King intends to marry, and we subjects surely have every business knowing.

In September 1951 they covered up the fact that George VI, a heavy smoker, had had his left lung removed—merely issuing a vague statement about “structural abnormalities”. Seventy-odd years later we are allowed to know about our own King’s prostate—but not the cancer doctors discovered while probing the royal nether regions.

But a monarchy depends on acts of inheritance, and it may, or may not, be—we don’t know, and it feels tasteless to speculate—that our present King isn’t long to reign over us. In which case the Princess of Wales—present condition and/or circumstances unknown—could soon become Queen. Or not, depending on the undisclosed illness of the King. For what it is worth, he apparently spent Wednesday pricking a list of high sheriffs. You read that right: he uses a bodkin to punch a hole through a piece of parchment. It’s the way Elizabeth I did it, so why change?

The monarchy feels a little precarious at the moment. The small roster of ribbon-cutters, parchment-prickers and medal-pinners has dwindled to single figures, a number of them really quite old—some of them ill, in exile, purdah, disgrace or hiding.

This quandary of how much we can expect to know about what’s going on isn’t confined to us, as subjects: the royals themselves can’t make up their mind. How else to explain how, having told us to wait until Easter for news of Kate, they, or their courtiers, rushed out a photograph which, on close inspection, had been doctored with the digital equivalents of a scalpel, glue, paint and airbrush?

But maybe openness, candidness and monarchy don’t go together. The fifth in line to the throne recently wrote an account of life on the inside which was—even its critics agreed—searingly honest. But the amount of ordure sloshed over poor Harry’s head suggests that many of us prefer not to know.

Don’t let daylight in on majesty, warned the constitutional historian Walter Bagehot 150 years ago. Be careful what you wish for, all you who are clamouring for the truth about Kate. The fairytale is more comfortable.