Newly released images Kate Middleton and Prince William are raising eyebrows for one unusual reason.
The royal family does not have a great track record when it comes to public displays of affection. In 1947, then-Princess Elizabeth married naval officer Prince Philip, lifelong regal stalwart and occasional terror on the roads. There is not a single photo of them kissing at the wedding. The Queen, in an iconically sad move, greeted her three-year-old son Prince Charles after months away overseas by barely pecking the top of his head. In fact, Her Majesty and her son have never been photographed hugging. Ever.
When Diana, Princess of Wales arrived in the Windsors’ starchy midst, she weaponised public displays of physical affection to devastating effect. Embracing her own children as well as AIDS and leprosy sufferers became core components of her public image.
In 1991, she was famously photographed, arms wide and jubilant, greeting her sons Prince William and Prince Harry when they were reunited on board the HMS Britannia (and in convenient full view of the press).
The 20th century brought with it not only concessions to modernity in the form of a Buckingham Palace Twitter account but regular occasions during which members of the royal family affectionately and tactilely greet one another in public.
When Prince Harry met Meghan Markle (and managed to persuade her to trade a paying job, independence and having an ocean between herself and Princess Michael of Kent’s racist jewellery) for life in London, the duo appeared inseparable. Literally. From their very first official outing together in 2017, they seemed abjectly unwilling to not be attached to one another at all times.
Keep all of this in mind when I break some truly astounding news to you: William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have released a series of official photos of themselves taken at this week’s Earthshot Awards touching. Yes, touching.
Shall I pause here while everyone collects themselves?
In one intimate shot Kate’s hand rests tenderly on William’s lower back, in another they laugh and joke together.
Now over the years, we’ve seen officially sanctioned pictures of them awkwardly holding one another (as in their Mario Testino engagement shots) and moments such as the 2012 Olympic Games when they spontaneously indulged in such wild intimacies as hugging.
Generally though, when the Cambridge couple venture outside the palace gates and are photographed, they do not engage in anything really verging on a public display of affection.
In fact, based on the vast, vast majority of images of the couple taken over the 10-plus years of their marriage, it feels like something of a miracle they conceived three children at all.
(Remember at Princess Eugenie’s wedding in 2018 when Kate was spied with her hand on William’s thigh? I’m not sure if Princess Anne turning up in a skin-tight, Kardashian-approved Herve Leger bandage dress would have shocked the world more.)
Which is what makes these new pictures just so much more of a departure from the usual Kensington Palace MO.
This was no accident because nothing, aside from William’s lack of follicular abundance is, left to chance on Planet Royal. These shots, released notably to People in the US, would not have been selected hurriedly and fired off by a lowly aide at random. Carefully tending and maintaining their image is one of the key responsibilities of being a working HRH, along with knowing how to launch a ship and genuinely enjoying Eggs Drumkilbo.
The interesting question today is, does the choice to put out these touchy-feely images represent a turning point in the way that William and Kate want the world to see them?
In April this year, the Cambridges celebrated a decade of marriage but go back to the Duchess’ first years as royalty and the impression you get is of a woman perpetually fretting about putting a foot wrong. Sure, it will be decades before any sort of crown sits on her head but the gravity of her role – and the responsibility to not stuff things up – has clearly weighed on her since the first time anyone curtsied to her.
What Kate understood from the word go was that her every utterance, blink and handshake directly reflected on the Queen and the monarchy. Dignity, poise and restraint were the name of the prim and very dull waiting game that came with the role. Any mistakes would not be her own but would be brought to bear on the thousand-year-old plus institution.
Heavy is the head that occasionally wears some hideous headbands.
However, especially since 2017 when William and Kate became full time working members of the royal family, the Duchess, who is naturally shy, has clearly grown in comfort in front of the camera and confidence in her role.
Likewise, there has also been a marked willingness on the Cambridges’ part to let the public into their lives in a very careful fashion. Take their anniversary video in April of the couple and their three children playing on the beach in Norfolk, gambolling around their country house garden and enjoying a Ralph Lauren-esque bonfire with marshmallows.
It was all very charming, even if it looked a tad too much like a commercial for a mid-priced family saloon being marketed to accountants.
Still, what came into focus with that video was how much of their branding is focused on cultivating the image of them as idealised couple and family.
It’s a savvy move.
They are not just selling an incredibly ambivalent Britain on a monarchy but on them as the figureheads of said institution. Like politicians on the hustings, they don’t just need the hoi polloi to support the crown but to believe that they are the right people to be wearing the glittering numbers.
This strategy also serves as something of a backup plan. Dislike the notion of a hereditary head of state? Fine, but how great are these two and their photogenic kidlets and all their big world-changing ideas?
Moreover, selling the image of King William V and Queen Catherine as paternal and maternal figures tenderly watching over the nation has long been part of the regal playbook. It was Queen Victoria herself who pioneered this very move and who used her family in a monarchical rebranding effort to extraordinary effect.
In 1860, Buckingham Palace released a set of 14 photos of her and Albert’s family known as the Carte de Visites. Despite the steep price tag, they still sold 60,000 copies and thus doomed future generations of British royalty to have to grin and bear it for the camera.
The Cambridges’ popularity could end up proving critical to ensure that the throne remains in play until Prince George is old enough to wield a sceptre and to deal with a weekly phone call with Boris Johnson. (Oh, the humanity!)
There is another element potentially at play here too because a more cynical mind might argue that that video and this week’s images are designed to project the image of a big happy family as a carefully calibrated counterbalance to the rift between William and Harry which has dominated royal coverage for years now.
But let’s assume not. Let’s assume that these People pictures are a tiny peek into William and Kate’s marriage and that behind-the-scenes and away from the press corp it is all spontaneous clinches, tender smooches and doe eyes.
Diana once reportedly said of Charles: “The only thing he learnt about love (from his parents) was shaking hands.” Imagine how different things might have been if an occasional hug had been involved.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with Australia’s leading media titles.