Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, emerges as Britain's reliable royal as she turns 40

At a moment when the Royal Family is facing more than its share of controversy, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, remains in the public eye as the smiling mother of three who can comfort grieving parents at a children's hospice or wow the nation by playing piano during a televised Christmas concert.

Palace releases new photos of Prince William's spouse to mark the day, posing in designer dresses

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, arrives for a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, on Nov. 10, 2021. Kate, who joined the Royal Family when she married Prince William in 2011, turns 40 on Sunday. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

At least there's Kate.

The Duchess of Cambridge, who turns 40 on Sunday, has emerged as Britain's reliable royal.

After Prince Harry and Meghan's stormy departure to California in 2020, the death of Prince Philip last year, and now sex abuse allegations against Prince Andrew, the former Kate Middleton remains in the public eye as the smiling mother of three who can comfort grieving parents at a children's hospice or wow the nation by playing piano during a televised Christmas concert.

"This is the woman who was the commoner who married into the royal family and who has not tripped up, not caused any embarrassment," Katie Nicholl, author of Kate: The Future Queen. "It's not been an easy year, and yet somehow Kate seems to be a bit of a beacon in all of this."

At a moment when the House of Windsor is facing more than its share of controversy, Prince William's spouse has won accolades for her commitment to early education, art and music. The charities she supports gush about her willingness to get personally involved in their causes.

Olivia Marks-Woldman was touched by the care Kate put into photographing Holocaust survivors Steven Frank and Yvonne Bernstein for an exhibition sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Before the shoot, the duchess spent time learning her subjects' stories and used the knowledge to compose the photos, said Marks-Woldman, the trust's CEO.

"It was a really involved, thoughtful participation," she recalled. "But even after those photographs had been taken, the duchess supported the project and supported Steven and Yvonne and took an interest in them and sent them Christmas cards, invited them to the carol service in Westminster Abbey recently and has just been wonderful."

A royal by choice, not birth

Tracy Rennie, deputy chief executive of East Anglia's Children's Hospices, has a similar account from the day Kate visited one of the organization's facilities in 2019. The duchess agreed to talk with the parents and other relatives of a child who had recently died because they wanted to meet her, even though their pain was still raw.

"It was a really supportive conversation actually, to the point we were having a laugh and a joke together as a family before we left — you wouldn't imagine that in such a difficult situation," Rennie said. "They absolutely felt honoured that she'd taken the time out and were overwhelmed by the fact that she was a 'normal person' — their words, not mine. They felt she really cared."

Three new photographs of Kate were released by Kensington Palace on Saturday ahead of her birthday. The portraits by veteran Italian fashion photographer Paolo Roversi will go on tour around Britain this year before being added to the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, of which Kate is the patron.

The portraits were taken at London's Kew Gardens in November 2021 and show her in three different dresses, which British media said were by British luxury brand Alexander McQueen.

A composite of three new photographic portraits of Kate taken at Kew Gardens in November 2021 by photographer Paolo Roversi, released by Kensington Palace on Saturday. (Paolo Roversi/Kensington Palace/The Associated Press)

Kate is a royal by choice, not birth.

The daughter of a flight attendant and a flight dispatcher, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton was born in Reading, England, on Jan. 9, 1982, and grew up with a younger sister, Pippa, and a younger brother, James.

The Middletons, from a well-to-do area of Berkshire, west of London, moved to Jordan when Kate was two years old because of her father's work. They returned to England in 1986, and Kate attended the exclusive Marlborough College, where she was active in sports including hockey, tennis and netball.

It was at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland that Kate first met Prince William, the elder son of the late Princess Diana and second in line to inherit the British throne after his father, Prince Charles.

Prince William and Kate attend the official opening of a new hospital in Kirkwall, Scotland, on May 25, 2021. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

First friends and then housemates along with two other students, William and Kate became romantically linked around 2004, when they were pictured together on a skiing trip in Switzerland. Kate graduated in 2005 with a degree in art history and a budding relationship with the prince.

William complained about press intrusion, and Kate's lawyers asked newspaper editors to leave her alone. Even so, the British media followed every twist in their relationship, including a brief split in 2007. William later acknowledged that the couple's romance wobbled for several months, saying they were both young and trying to find their way.

The tabloids dubbed her "Waity Katie" for her patience during their courtship. The couple eventually married at Westminster Abbey in 2011. They have three children.

Surprise concert performance

During 11 years under the royal microscope, Kate has largely avoided criticism by adopting the royal maxim "never complain, never explain."

This was apparent last year when Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, alleged in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that Kate had made her cry during a disagreement over flower girl dresses in the run-up to Meghan and Harry's 2019 wedding. Kate and the palace responded with silence.

Yet Kate still has the ability to surprise.

For a Christmas Eve carol concert at Westminster Abbey, she sat down at a piano and accompanied Scottish singer Tom Walker on For Those Who Can't Be Here, a song inspired by loss and separation during the pandemic.

Kate performs at a Christmas carol concert at Westminster Abbey in London. (Alex Bramall/The Associated Press)

While it wasn't a secret that Kate had studied the instrument, the pre-recorded performance during a nationally televised concert was something new altogether. Walker said he didn't know what to expect when the palace suggested the duchess might accompany him in performing the new song at the event.

"It was essentially, for the duchess, a giant gamble," Walker told the AP. "It really is jumping in at the deep end and just hoping you can swim. Because I would have my own reservations about rocking up to a venue to play with somebody else's band on a song that I hadn't written and pull it off with absolute grace. It's not an easy thing, so it must have been quite a challenge."

Biographer Nicholl, who has watched Kate for years, said the performance offers an insight into Kate's character, describing her as gutsy and self-assured — a person aware of her strengths.

With Queen Elizabeth preparing to celebrate 70 years on the throne later this year and the focus squarely on the longevity of the monarchy, Kate's place as the wife of a future king and the mother of another will loom even larger.

With files from Reuters