On April 29, Prince William and Princess Kate will celebrate 12 years of marriage. While the world knows and loves her as the Duchess of Cambridge — or more recently, the Princess of Wales — Kate Middleton’s early life is less well-known than her husband’s. Born on January 9, 1982, in Reading, England, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton has humbler roots (though royalty was a presence throughout her life).
Kate’s mother, Carole Goldsmith, came from a working-class family and was a flight attendant before meeting her husband-to-be, Michael Middleton, an airline dispatcher. Michael’s wealthier family had trust funds and aristocratic ties, and had rubbed shoulders with royalty for the better part of a century.
When Catherine was 2, she moved with her parents and younger sister, Pippa, to Amman, Jordan, where she attended an English-language nursery school while her father worked for British Airways for two years. Then, in 1986, the family returned to Berkshire in England. One year later, Michael and Carole welcomed son James and founded a mail-order event planning company called Party Pieces. The firm, which they started in the kitchen of their home, changed everything for the family — it was a roaring success and the Middletons moved up in the world, quickly becoming multi-millionaires (the company is now worth in excess of $40 million).
Kate learned valuable lessons from her parents’ strong work ethic, which she has since put into practice as a member of the royal family. Working mother Carole included her children in many aspects of her business from an early age. “They did a lot of modeling,” the matriarch said in a 2018 interview. “Catherine was on the cover of one of the catalogs, blowing out candles.”
The Middleton’s were always a tight-knit family.
At age 4, Kate enrolled at St. Andrew’s School in Pangbourne, where she remained until she was 13. During her time there, she joined the swim team and starred in two of the school’s productions, playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and starring in the Victorian melodrama Murder in the Red Barn. Eventually, she became a part-time boarder at the school. Her French and German teacher Kevin Allford fondly remembered the future princess as “a hard worker and very conscientious” as well as “a tremendous athlete.”
Although her parents were happy for Catherine, it was a tough adjustment for them to have her living away from home and separated from her siblings. The family of five was “exceptionally close” over the years, as Carole and Michael “enjoyed the vibrancy of their children, the stories and noise and laughter,” Katie Nicholl wrote in her 2013 book, Kate: The Future Queen.
The family looked forward to having dinner together each night and embarking on outdoor adventures, including hiking, sailing, or renting an old cottage on a lake. They had strong and heartfelt traditions for the holidays, like opening their stockings on Christmas morning then working together on a puzzle.
Pippa, only 20 months younger than Kate, later joined her at St. Andrew’s, and the sisters were part of the local Brownies club. Troop leader June Scutter later told People magazine that Kate “was quite easygoing” and that she and Pippa “were just ordinary children, nothing different from any others.”
Kate found her place in sports.
They played sports together and learned to play the flute and piano. Denise Allford, who coached both sisters, once stated that they were competitive and driven, but never tried to one-up each other: “They were very much a team.” Catherine went on to briefly attend the all-girls school Downe House, which was notoriously “cliquey” and high-pressure, according to former student Emma Sayle. “The girls were all high achievers, and there were lots of girls with eating disorders,” Sayle recalled in Kate: The Future Queen. “Everyone wanted to be the best, the fittest, the prettiest. I think Kate was miserable from the start.”
She struggled to make close friends and was taunted for living at home and commuting to school rather than living on campus, as well as for her height. They also mocked her for being “too skinny and meek,” according to another classmate. So, despite Downe being closer to home, Catherine left at age 14 and enrolled at a coeducational independent boarding school, Marlborough College. But things there didn’t start on a good note, either. At the school, boys reportedly rated new students based on both personality and beauty, and Kate was given the score of a two out of 10.
But the future queen had tough skin and didn’t let it get her down. Instead, she quickly formed true friendships and leaned into her athleticism, joining the field hockey team early on, and becoming close with her teammates. “Catherine was able to settle in very easily. She got involved in school life and loved sport and music,” said former housemistress Ann Patching. While at Marlborough, Kate studied art, biology, and chemistry. In addition to field hockey, she enjoyed the high jump and netball.
Kate’s parents played a major role in her beliefs.
The Middletons were extremely supportive of everything their children did, creating what Kate says was a “very happy childhood.” “It was great fun and I’m very lucky I come from a very strong family. My parents were hugely dedicated. I really appreciate now as a parent how much they sacrificed for us,” she revealed on the Happy Mum, Happy Baby podcast in February 2020. “They came to every sports match, they’d be the ones on the sideline shouting, and we’d always have our family holidays together.”
Kate also spoke about the powerful influence her grandmother had on her life. “I had an amazing granny who devoted a lot of time to us, playing with us, doing arts and crafts and going to the greenhouse to do gardening, and cooking with us,” she said, admitting that she was inspired to incorporate those experiences into time she spends with her own children.
Catherine has also cited “the simple things” from her childhood as leaving the biggest impact on her, including going on country strolls with her parents or hanging out at home. She still enjoys curling up on the sofa at her parents’ 18th-century, $8 million, seven-bedroom home, Bucklebury Manor.
“Life now is so busy and distracting and sometimes simple things like watching a fire on a really rainy day provides such enjoyment. As children, we spent a lot of time outside and it’s something I’m really passionate about. I think it’s so great for physical and mental well-being and laying those foundations,” she said in 2020. “It’s such a great environment to actually spend time in, building those quality relationships without the distractions of ‘I’ve got to cook’ and ‘I’ve got to do this.’ And actually, it’s so simple.”
Kate Middleton was never a shrinking violet.
After finishing high school, Kate changed her plans to attend the University of Edinburgh and instead headed to Florence, Italy, in the summer of 2000 to study abroad at The British Institute during a gap year. She studied Italian for three hours a day in the Palazzo Dello Strozzino, a palace built in 1458, and lived in a basic apartment with three other girls that cost $680 a month.
During the first weeks of 2001, a 19-year-old Catherine went on a 10-week expedition to Patagonia in South America with Raleigh International, the same sustainable development charity that Prince William had worked with during his gap year a year earlier. During the Chilean adventure, she carried her food in a rucksack while trekking through the wilderness.
“She was by herself, like most people,” expedition leader Malcolm Sutherland told the Evening Standard in 2011. “She was definitely one of the fitter and stronger members of her group, which assisted her, for sure. At times it was physically demanding. She was pretty easygoing. There are no hair dryers, and there are very few showers to be seen. Even if you are a princess, it’s very hard to operate as a princess.”
Following her expedition, Kate crewed on the Round the World Challenge, traveling for three weeks on an inflatable boat, assisting British and Chilean scientists in researching marine life. She also helped construct a fire station before wrapping up her gap year and heading to Fife, Scotland, to attend St. Andrews University, where she would go on to meet her prince.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Kate.