In The Crown season six, episode seven, a young Kate Middleton meets Prince William for the first time. He’s outside on a London street with his mother, Princess Diana, collecting holiday donations for the needy. Carole Middleton, played by Eve Best, gives her daughter a few pounds and pushes her to the front of the crowd. “What’s your name?” Princess Diana asks the preteen Kate. “Catherine,” her mother immediately responds. That night back in the suburbs, Kate cuts out pictures of William and hangs them on her bedroom walls.
The show then jumps forward a few years later. Prince William is at a press conference, announcing his decision to go to St. Andrews University in Scotland. “Not Edinburgh?” a reporter asks. “No,” he replies. “I considered it, but St. Andrews is closer to Balmoral.” Then, he shares he’s taking a gap year in Chile on a Raleigh International expedition. A captivated Carole Middleton watches him on the television at home.
As Prince William goes to take a seat during his first class at St. Andrews, the camera pans to a young woman sitting a few rows ahead of him: Meg Bellamy’s Kate Middleton.
The rest of the episode shows the two circling each other. Kate swims in the lane next to William at the pool. They jog by each other on campus; William asks his protection officer if she smiled at him. At the library, Kate has the books William needs. Yet they don’t immediately get together—in fact, both go on to connect with other students for the next few months.
When Bellamy’s Kate brings her partner home, she picks up what she believes is a sense of disappointment from her mother. Kate confronts her: “You’ve always loved the idea of me and William together. I was all set to go to Edinburgh University straight after school with all my friends. Then you suggested I change it to St. Andrews after a gap year with none of my friends. That was no coincidence.” Carole replies: “You said you liked him!”
At the end of the day, The Crown is a piece of historical fiction. However, its plot points often closely follow real-life events. In the case of Prince William and Kate Middleton, how did the couple really meet, and was it as orchestrated as the show suggests? Or is the plot just television melodrama?
During their 2010 engagement interview with ITV’s Tom Bradby, the couple gave a joint account of how they met. They stated it was during the first few weeks of freshman year at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Although William said he doesn’t remember the exact moment, Kate recalled to Bradby that she went “bright red” and “scuttled off” when she encountered the young prince for the first time. (Although she likely wasn’t the only one who was nervous: In Katie Nicholl’s 2010 book William and Harry, the author reports that William noticed Kate as soon as he arrived on campus. The boys in their dorm, St. Salvator’s (nicknamed Sally’s), had unofficially crowned Kate as the prettiest girl there. She was the talk of their freshman class.)
While routinely bumping into each other in class—both were studying art history—and around Sally’s, Kate and William discovered they had things in common: They loved swimming and skiing, for example. Within weeks, Kate and William, alongside their new university friends, had breakfast together.
It took some time, however, for a romance to begin. During the first semester, William was with Carley Massy-Birch and also continued speaking with Arabella Musgrave (supposedly his first love). Kate, meanwhile, was seeing the tall, dark, and handsome fourth-year student Rupert Finch—considered the ultimate catch at St. Andrews, according to Tatler.
The turning point? A student charity fashion show in March 2002, just like The Crown depicts. William paid 200 pounds to sit in the front row. As Kate shimmied down a runway in a tube dress by Charlotte Todd, the young prince was taken.
In another book by Nicholl, 2013’s Kate: The Future Queen, mutual friend Andrew Sands recalls them spending time at a house party after the show. “They were both standing up in the corner of the living room, and I recall seeing them out of the corner of my eye. It was dark, there were lots of people, and the music was playing very loud. Everyone pretended that they weren’t taking much notice, but it went round St. Andrews like wildfire afterwards,” he said.
One major difference between real life and The Crown? It wasn’t Kate who made the first move on William. Other people at the party told Nicholl that she pulled away. This account was also echoed in Tina Brown’s 2022 book about the House of Windsor, The Palace Papers.
Despite sparks flying, the two didn’t become an official couple until several months later. At the beginning of their second year at St. Andrews, they moved into the same apartment with two other classmates. A friendship soon turned into a full-blown relationship. “We moved in together as friends because we were living together,” William told ITV. “We lived with a couple of others as well, and it just sort of blossomed from there, really. We just saw more of each other, hung out a bit more, and did stuff.”
Did Carole Middleton encourage her daughter to pursue Prince William, as the show suggests? That is a complicated question. In the mid aughts, the British tabloids frequently painted the Middletons as advantageous social climbers. Carole, a former flight attendant, often bore the brunt of the cruel, and often classist, remarks. “She is pushy, rather twee, and incredibly middle-class. She uses words such as pleased to meet you, toilet, and pardon,” an anonymous source jeered to the Daily Mail in 2007. The papers also claimed those in aristocratic circles called the middle-class Kate and Pippa the Wisteria Sisters. (Wisteria is a beautiful and fast-climbing plant.) In her book, Brown reflected on the tabloid treatment Kate, Carole, and the rest of the Middleton clan received: “Her family came under scrutiny with barely veiled sneers about her mother’s lower-middle-class origins,” she wrote.
However, it is true that Kate switched from the University of Edinburgh to St. Andrews. Jasper Selwyn, the careers advisor at Middleton’s boarding school, told Nicholl she was originally accepted at the former university. A switch may not have been as strategic as The Crown implies, she wrote: “When the news was announced in 2000 that Prince William would be spending his university years at the small Scottish university of St. Andrews, Kate suddenly bailed out of Edinburgh University 50 miles away and reapplied at St. Andrews. Andrew Neil, a former rector at St. Andrews, told me it is not uncommon for students to apply for both universities and decide at the last minute, often depending on where friends are going.”
Instead, Kate took a gap year. She spent some of it studying art history in Florence before heading to Chile. As it turns out, William attended the same South American program a mere few weeks earlier. Was it a coincidence or a strategy? It’s impossible to deduce. But Brown has this to say: “Kate had a Zelig-like ability to keep appearing on the edges of William’s life.”
Except for a brief few months when they parted after university, the two remained almost inseparable for the next decade. In 2010, they announced their engagement to the world. The rest is now (royal) history.
Originally published in Vogue.com