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A 'complicated transition': How Kate is stepping up her public role for the royals

The freshness Kate Middleton brought to the Royal Family seemed to fade, but recently there's been an uptick in the Duchess of Cambridge's public role, and Prince Harry and Meghan will be under scrutiny during a trip that starts next week in South Africa.

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Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, visits the Back to Nature festival at RHS Garden Wisley, near Woking, England, on Sept. 10, 2019. (Steve Parsons/Reuters)

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When Kate Middleton was settling in as a member of the Royal Family in 2011, her arrival seemed to herald a new era. The sometimes-fusty and scandal-plagued House of Windsor had a fresh face that was helping it find a more modern groove.

Then, as the years crept on, that freshness seemed to fade. Questions arose — how hard was the Duchess of Cambridge really working? Sometimes the British press wondered whether Prince William's wife should be doing more.

Of course, there was the arrival of three children, and Kate clearly has chosen to make George, Charlotte and Louis a priority.

But recently, there's been a marked uptick in her royal role, and the attention it's receiving.

"Kate is fast emerging as one of the Firm's most powerful players," the Telegraph reported. People magazine had a headline promising a look at "How Kate Middleton Is Cementing Her Role as Future Queen."

For Kate, it's been a "complicated transition," said Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian.

Kate showed off her sporting side in London's Olympic Park on March 15, 2012. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

Kate came to public prominence once it was known she was dating William. She took part in a television interview at the time of their engagement, but didn't make a public speech until 2012. In many ways, it seemed she was being eased into royal duties more slowly than previous generations.

For William's mother, Diana, three decades earlier, "it was a very fast transition into royal life," said Harris.

For Kate, however, there's been a gradual but careful evolution of her public profile, with a significant focus eventually falling on her interest in children's well-being, whether that's their mental health or involvement in outdoor activities.

"Motherhood is clearly inspiring a number of Kate's interests in causes related to her charitable work," said Harris.

"Now that we are seeing Kate taking centre stage in a number of different contexts relating to her charities … we're seeing these two roles as a royal mother and as a public figure" come together.

She's been making more speeches and speaking with more confidence as she promotes those causes. Her efforts have included projects such as gardens meant to encourage children and families to spend time outdoors.

The higher profile comes at the same time much attention has focused on William's brother's wife.

"When Meghan first arrived, Kate looked a bit boring," royal author and biographer Penny Junor said in an interview earlier this year.

Kate visits with children in a garden she co-designed at the Hampton Court Flower Festival in London on July 1, 2019. (Heathcliff O'Malley/Getty Images)

But as the media tide was in many ways turning against the Duchess of Sussex, Junor suggested, Kate was "being seen as the real professional."

Harris said any direct comparisons between Kate and Meghan aren't necessarily fair.

"Their roles in the Royal Family, especially as time passes, are going to be quite different," said Harris. "Harry and Meghan have a little more freedom in terms of shaping their lives going forward."

More and more of William and Kate's time will be taken up with diplomatic duties, Harris said, something that was on display in trips they have made to Norway and Sweden, and will be seen again with a high-profile trip to Pakistan from Oct. 14 to 18.

With George and Charlotte in school now, and Louis coming out of babyhood, Harris expects Kate will undertake more public engagements.

"We're seeing this blending of Kate's personal and public identities."

And there's no reason to think that won't continue.

Watching Harry and Meghan

Harry and Meghan's trip that begins in South Africa on Monday will be closely scrutinized in the wake of controversy the couple has faced in recent weeks. (Peter Nicholls/Getty Images)

Prince Harry, Meghan and their young son, Archie, arrive in South Africa on Monday to start a highly anticipated visit.

But as much as such trips usually attract attention, this one will draw special focus, coming as it does after increased scrutiny and controversy for the couple who welcomed Archie nearly five months ago.

"Can Harry and Meghan's Africa trip get their popularity back on track?" Vanity Fair asked the other day.

That popularity has taken a hit on a number of fronts, particularly with questions raised over the public funds that covered refurbishment of their new home and the secrecy surrounding the birth and christening of Archie.

Criticism ramped up a few more notches when it emerged that the couple — who have made much of their interest in promoting a sustainable world — had taken four private jet flights in 11 days over the summer.

So it perhaps comes as little surprise that they are flying commercial to South Africa for the 10-day trip that will focus on many of their interests and charitable causes, including youth and environmental issues and support for women's education and entrepreneurship.

Harry will travel solo to Botswana, Malawi and Angola, and will, among other issues, highlight the problems posed by landmines in a continuation of work done by his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

The trip comes as Meghan returns to royal duties after Archie's birth. While she launched a clothing line to support women in the workforce recently, she has otherwise been out of the public eye. (Except for a trip to the U.S. Open to watch her friend Serena Williams play in the final against Canada's Bianca Andreescu.)

While Archie will be along for the trip, given the family's interest in privacy, it's unlikely there will be many opportunities to see the royal baby.

Royals at Downton 

Phyllis Logan, left, stars as Mrs. Hughes, Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary Talbot and Jim Carter is Mr. Carson, the retired butler who returns to Downton Abbey as it prepares to host a royal visit. (Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)

A cinematic version of how a royal visit might have played out at a stately home in the 1920s hit the big screen Friday with the official North American opening of the Downton Abbey movie.

The much-anticipated film flowing from the award-winning British TV period drama revolves around a visit by King George V and Queen Mary to the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff in 1927.

For those downstairs at Downton, their pride in what they do is on the line.

"There's a lot of loyalty and a lot of respect in this movie," said Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, the cook, during a visit to Toronto a few days ago.

"But this brings it to another level, serving the King and Queen," actor Phyllis Logan, a.k.a. housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, chimed in.

Of course, any good movie needs a bit of dramatic tension, and there is some downstairs skulduggery, when the staff's ability to do an appropriate job for the royal guests comes in doubt.

"What a privilege and honour for this household to serve [the King and Queen] and then for that to be in jeopardy … we can't let that happen," said Logan.

  • For more on the Downton Abbey movie and the comfort and reassurance its style of drama can offer audiences in a time of global turmoil, click here.

Royally quotable

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, arrive at the Princess Elizabeth Hospital during a visit to Kenya on Feb. 3, 1952, three days before her father, King George VI, died. (Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty Images)

"This will be such a shock."

— Prince Philip's cousin, Pamela Hicks, has recounted in a podcast about what the Duke of Edinburgh said when he learned his wife had become Queen during a trip to Kenya in 1952.

Royals in Canada

Prince William and Kate take part in a tea party with their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, at Government House in Victoria on Sept. 29, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/Reuters)

Victoria served as home base when William and Kate made their second visit to Canada three years ago.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, along with George and Charlotte, arrived on Sept. 24, 2016, to begin an eight-day visit.

George and Charlotte remained largely out of the public eye while their parents carried out engagements in British Columbia and Yukon, although the royal youngsters were the centre of attention during a children's party.

Royal reads

  • Former British prime minister David Cameron has sparked a certain "amount of displeasure" at Buckingham Palace after he admitted seeking support from Queen Elizabeth during the referendum for Scottish independence. [The Telegraph]

  • Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is signalling the Queen should stay out of any future vote on Scottish independence. [The Guardian]

  • The BBC has apologized to Prince Harry for not warning him it would be broadcasting an image of him showing a gun to his head along with the words "race traitor." [The Independent]

  • William says he wants to train as a crisis counsellor who would offer support via text message and is backing an app that aims to help children battle cyberbullying. [The Telegraph]

  • When Meghan wished Harry a happy 35th birthday on Instagram, she included a previously unseen photo from Archie's christening. [Harper's Bazaar]

  • And in a true feel-good moment, a five-year-old Australian girl was reunited with her toy monkey after she left it at Buckingham Palace, and royal staff returned it to her. [Evening Standard]

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About the Author

Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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