For nearly two years now, the crises that have buffeted Britain’s royal family come down to two men who are defined by what they are not.
Both Prince Andrew and Prince Harry – one a self-serving fool, the other a man who first dedicated his life to service and then to Netflix – share the same inglorious status as royal “spares” to their elder brothers as heirs.
But there is another thankless supporting act in the royal house that has come into focus this week with the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh – consort – and another member of the house of Windsor staring down the same role – Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.
While officially the next person to hold the title of consort will be Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Clarence House reaffirmed last year that when her husband Prince Charles ascends to the throne, she will be styled as the Princess Consort, not Queen Consort.
Given the lingering antipathy towards Camilla, despite her having proven again and again what a dedicated, surprisingly mould-busting HRH she is, the couple will have to accept the lesser title for her.
There is also the question of time – Charles’s reign, given the advanced age at which he will succeed his mother, will be much much shorter.
All of which adds up to the fact that the next person who will step into the lifetime (or thereabouts) consort job will be Kate.
What many people might not appreciate is quite how much the Duke, who died at the age of 99 last Friday, has influenced the mum-of-three’s life.
Pivotally, Philip and the Queen’s early years of marriage provided the blueprint for William and Kate.
In 1949, Philip, then an ambitious young naval officer, was posted to Malta where he and the then-Princess Elizabeth enjoyed a taste of quasi-normality.
The couple, known as the Edinburghs, socialised with other navy couples, Philip took up polo and his Lilibet would drive herself around the island nation, paying visits to the hairdresser and swimming in the sea.
While that “ordinary” period in their life was cut shockingly short by the death of her father King George VI in 1952, it was still a foundational moment in their enduring union.
Knowledge of what a formative role the couple’s so-called “Malta moment” played informed the palace’s strategy when it came to the Cambridges.
After their wedding, the Queen gave the newlyweds perhaps the greatest gift of all – time.
Rather than plunging headfirst into their new roles, Her Majesty is said to have offered them the chance to enjoy two years living in Anglesey and a stay of execution in terms of them being expected to step up and throw themselves into working royal life.
Days after more than 2 billion people watched the Cambridges wed in 2011, they were back on the remote Welsh island of Anglesey they called home, with the newly minted Duchess even photographed shopping into the local supermarket. (And thus making history as the first person to ever marry into the royal family and pop out for a litre of skim milk in the same week.)
“It’s all very normal. The last time I went round, William was pottering around making tea and toast, very chilled and relaxed,” one of their friends told Vanity Fair in 2012.
All the lovely normality and hot buttered sourdough aside, what fundamentally unites Philip and Kate is that their marriages have also demanded they find and fulfill the unspecified niche that is being a consort (or future consort).
After the Queen’s coronation, Philip faced endless comparisons to the last man to hold his particular role, Prince Albert (from whom both he and his wife were and are descended), and was left to try to cobble together some sort of schematic of what the job might look like in the 20th century.
While the consort gig comes with precisely zero guidelines, it is riven with pitfalls and opportunities to spectacularly fail.
Consider what is required: to be popular, but not too popular lest it overshadows the sovereign; to work hard, but not so hard the person with their face on the coins looks work-shy; to forge one’s own path, but not to appear to stray too far from the role of devoted supplicant.
It is a position which demands a subjugation of ego and a giving of self in lifelong service to a largely redundant, symbolic ideal.
That was the tightrope act which the Greek-born royal ultimately navigated with aplomb and the very same one that Kate herself is now following more than 70 years later.
The Duke dutifully walked two paces behind his wife and Kate’s thinking clearly aligns with Philip’s example. As royal biographer Penny Junor recently told the Times, “Kate is being very careful to ensure she doesn’t outstrip William. She is not on an ego trip, and her head has not been turned by celebrity.”
Likewise, Andrew Morton, to whom Diana turned to tell her story in the early 1990s, said of Kate earlier this month: “She sees her role as supporting her husband, just as Prince Philip saw his role supporting the Queen.
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“Two couples who supported each other through the vicissitudes of royal life.”
Over the last decade, Kate would often be spotted during outings enjoying a giggle with the Duke. (Who else imagines his jokes would have been gloriously rude and wickedly funny?)
While the elderly Duke and the glamorous Duchess might outwardly have appeared to have little in common, they were both outsiders who had, thanks to love, breached the palace gates and found themselves in demanding, exacting roles, with nary a rule book to be found.
They both had to, and are still having to, work their jobs out as they went along with nothing less than the weight of the monarchy resting on their shoulders and with ajudgemental world watching on.
The Queen and her “liege man of life and limb” enjoyed just over 73 years of marriage. As Kate and William get set to celebrate 10 years of wedded bliss later this month, they have a way to go yet to equal the indomitable couple – but so far, so good.
Only six decades more of best behaviour, Kate.
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
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