It would be unfair to suggest Prince William put St. Andrews on the map. After all, Scotland’s oldest university has consistently ranked among the UK’s most prestigious and educated its fair share of politicians, CEOs and at least one king.
But when 18-year-old Wills announced in 2000 that he’d be matriculating with the freshman class the following fall, applications to the historic institution shot up by 44 percent, with reports that some eager coeds had even ordered wedding gowns just in case.
The hysteria was so high-pitched, the royal felt the need to address it in an interview he gave shortly after arriving at the seaside campus in September 2001. For the record, he said, he was well adept at identifying desperate would-be princesses. “People who try to take advantage of me and get a piece of me—I spot it quickly and soon go off them,” he told BBC News.
More than anything, stressed the art history major, he just wanted to be seen as an ordinary college kid. “I mean, I’m only going to university,” he noted. “It’s not like I’m getting married—though that’s what it feels like sometimes.”
Well, it was his first step down the altar. Mere days after he granted that interview, he’d cross paths with Berkshire-raised Kate Middleton, a fellow first year in his dorm. Their journey to forever was notoriously long, involving nearly a decade of dating and at least one split. But their slow-and-steady method has proved successful as they celebrate seven years of marriage and the arrival of their third heir.
And William has said he got at least a glimmer of their future as one of Britain’s most beloved couples during that 2001 introduction. “When I first met Kate I knew there was something very special about her. I knew there was possibly something that I wanted to explore there,” he explained during their engagement interview with British journalist Tom Bradby more than nine years later. “We ended up being friends for a while and that just sort of was a good foundation. Because I do generally believe now that being friends with one another is a massive advantage. And it just went from there.”
Despite reports Kate actually met William before college and swiftly changed her school of choice, the “there” William was referencing is St. Salvator’s residence hall, known to students simply as Sally’s. Though Kate recalls that meeting as more mortifying than magical.
“I actually think I went bright red when I met you and sort of scuttled off, feeling very shy,” she said in their engagement interview. “But we did become very close friends from quite early.”
Because while Kate was the descendant of coal miners and her parents’ titles of business owner (dad Michael) and flight attendant (mom Carole) didn’t really measure up to prince and princess, she and the second in line to Britain’s throne had a fair bit in common.
As Katie Nicholl outlined in her book William and Harry—excerpted in Vanity Fair‘s December 2010 issue—William loved that country-raised Kate had an affinity for sports. (At her boarding school, Marlborough College, she ran cross-country, swam and played field hockey and tennis.) They were also both keen skiers, who had spent their pre-university gap year traveling. While William bounced around from Belize to Chile to Kenya, Kate spent several months in Florence. As such, she had a lot to share about the Renaissance artists they’d be studying as art history majors.
And often, college pal Ben Duncan told E! News in 2011, the pair found themselves together in the stained-glass window-lined dining hall for 8 a.m. breakfasts. “They sat at separate tables, he with the boys and she with the girls,” said Duncan. “But they would have noticed each other there, because not many people got up for breakfast at 8.”
But while William certainly took note of Kate—”He found her attractive,” said Duncan—it was English-language and creative-writing student Carley Massy-Birch he asked out on a date.
“I’m a real country bumpkin,” Massy-Birch told Nicholl. “I think that was why we had a connection.” After interacting, as she called it, “through the general St. Andrews melee,” they began enjoying dinners at her parents’ and nights at local pubs. “William was very taken with her, which was completely understandable,” a pal told Nicholl. After all while Kate was considered the prettiest girl living in St. Salvator’s, Massy-Birch was thought to have the best bum in the whole of the student body.
Soon, however, their short-lived romance was in the rearview, with William reportedly reconnecting with former flame Arabella Musgrave during visits with dad Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla at Highgrove House in Gloucestershire, England.
Then Kate strutted back into his consciousness.
As the story goes, William paid some $275 to score a front row seat at the annual Don’t Walk charity fashion show on Mar. 27, 2002. And Kate was tapped to model a see-through dress—crafted by designer Charlotte Todd for roughly $40—and a black bra and underwear set. As she made her way down the runway in St. Andrews Bay Hotel, William was stunned, reportedly turning to pal Fergus Boyd and whispering, “Wow, Fergus, Kate’s hot!”
Pal Duncan caught the moment firsthand. “She was in a very daring dress, in a sheer, stocking-like dress,” he told E! News in 2011. “He was sitting front row and his eyes were like stalks.”
Though Kate was dating fourth-year Rupert Finch, William decided to make a move at the show’s after-party, leaning in for a kiss as he toasted her performance. “It was clear to us that William was smitten with Kate,” a fellow partygoer told Nicholl. “He actually told her she was a knockout that night, which caused her to blush. There was definitely chemistry between them and Kate had really made an impression on William.”
Kate smartly played it cool, says the partygoer, “and at one point when William seemed to lean in to kiss her, she pulled away. She didn’t want to give off the wrong impression or make it too easy on Will.”
His charm offensive continued the following year as they rented a two-story top-floor apartment with friends Boyd and Olivia Bleasdale.
“We moved in together as friends,” William explained in their 2010 engagement interview, “and it just sort of blossomed from there really. We just saw more of each other, and you know hung out a bit more and did stuff.”
In an attempt to turn up the heat on their relationship, William—a frequent visitor to the nearby Tesco grocery store—would take a stab at crafting elaborate meals. “When I was trying to impress Kate I was trying to cook these amazing fancy dinners and what would happen was I would burn something, something would overspill, something would catch on fire,” he recalled, “and she would be sitting in the background trying to help, and basically taking control of the whole situation.”
Remembered Kate, “He would always come with a bit of angst and a bit of anger if something had gone wrong and I would have to wander in and save something that was going.”
Their flatmates, meanwhile, watched in bemusement. “I think at first they were a bit surprised that it had happened, then they realized it was really nice and it was good fun and we got on really well,” said William, “they were good friends of ours as well so we had a good giggle with them.”
Because while the new couple took pains to hide their romance from the whole of the university, leaving their house at different times, coordinating arrivals at dinner parties so it was clear they didn’t come together and never ever holding hands in public, wrote Nicholl, “William and Kate had fallen in love and were enjoying a conventional university romance.”
The coupling became an open secret at St. Andrews, but the rest of the world hadn’t caught on, still attempting to pair off the world’s most eligible prince with bold-faced names such as Britney Spears.
William did what he could, declaring during a 21st birthday interview in 2003, that he was still single. In reality, however, his union with Kate was so serious that they had ditched their roommates in favor of their own love nest: a four-bedroom cottage on two acres of land surrounded by a six-foot stone wall.
In their private quarters, they were free to enjoy long strolls and wine-fueled picnics. And with Queen Elizabeth II‘s bestowing her grandson access to Tam-na-Ghar, a cottage on the outskirts of her Scottish Balmoral estate, they were able to spend weekends hunting for pheasants and grouse and snuggling by the fire under the careful watch of his protection officers.
It seems they got so used to letting their guard down, that William didn’t even think about it when he wrapped his arm around Kate while waiting for a ski lift during a trip to Klosters, Switzerland. But with that simple gesture, he unwittingly uncovered his romance. The photos were splashed on the pages of The Sun newspaper Apr. 1, 2004 under the headline, Finally…Wills Gets a Girl.
The question then became if he could keep her. Just as the world came to terms with William’s seemingly new, but really not-so-new, commoner girlfriend, the prince started feeling claustrophobic in the relationship, Nicholls said. As he planned a boys-only Greek sailing outing that summer, Kate returned home. And soon Nicholls was reporting they had separated. “Tellingly,” she wrote in her book, “there was no denial from Clarence house.”
Come fall, the pair was once again physically close, still sharing their farmhouse, but in an effort to give William space, says Nicholl, Kate would often spend weekends with her parents. By the holidays, though, they had reunited. And they were together at their June 23, 2005 graduation to hear the seemingly prescient words from vice-chancellor Dr. Brian Lang.
The social anthropologist, wrote Nicholl, told the graduating class they had built lifelong relationships: “You may have met your husband and wife. Our title as the top matchmaking university in Britain signifies so much that is good about St. Andrews so we rely on you to go forth and multiply.”
But before William and Kate could go forth and produce Prince George, 4, Princess Charlotte, 2, and days-old Prince Louis, they had more rough patches to endure.
As William joined his little brother Prince Harry, 33, at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Kate began scoring invites to key royal events such as the May 2006 wedding of Camilla’s daughter, newspapers began speculating about when Kate would receive William’s ring. Woolworths even began production on wedding memorabilia, including a set of William-and-Kate china. Already adept at handling press attention, Nicholl said, Kate took the predictions in stride. But William bristled. He had, after all, told The Sun that he was far too young to wed, insisting, “I don’t want to get married until I’m at least 28 or maybe 30.” (Tellingly, he wed Kate two months before his 29th birthday.)
Distance—while Kate accepted an accessories buyer position in London with British boutique Jigsaw, he was undergoing training three hours away—also placed a strain on their union, as did photos of William partying at various nightclubs, insists Nicholl. And over the Easter holiday, the pair split once more.
“We were sort of both finding ourselves as such and being different characters and stuff,” William explained in their 2010 engagement interview, “it was very much trying to find our own way and we were growing up, and so it was just sort of a bit of space and a bit of things like that and it worked out for the better.”
Of course that’s a bit of clarity Kate wasn’t afforded in the moment. “I think I, at the time, wasn’t very happy about it,” she said in the 2010 chat, “but actually it make me a stronger person.”
Physically stronger, actually. Because in addition to spending time in Ibiza with brother James and enjoying the nightlife with sister Pippa, the former athlete joined a group of 21 women planning to row a dragon boat nearly 22 miles across the English Channel into France to raise money for charity. Team leader Emma Sayle told Nicholl the early morning workouts became Kate’s “therapy.” Explained Sayle, “Kate had always put William first, and she said that this was her chance to do something for herself.”
But her relationship with William didn’t become water under the bridge. “She was in touch with William the whole time, revealed Sayle, “and by the end of her training she was back together with him.”
Though the break was brief—roughly two months—it was beneficial. “You find out things about yourself that maybe you hadn’t realized,” said Kate, “or I think you can get quite consumed by a relationship when you are younger and I really valued that time for me as well although I didn’t think it at the time.”
Even after their reconciliation, Kate—who switched careers to take on a project manager role at her parents’ party supply business Party Pieces—had to endure three-plus more years of the cruel “Waity Katie” taunt. But this time she knew that 18-carat sapphire engagement ring was in her future.
“We’ve talked about this happening,” William said of his proposal during their a 2010 holiday in Kenya, “so Kate wasn’t in the dark at all when we were planning it for at least a year if not longer, it was just finding the right time and that’s what most people say about couples, it’s all about timing.”
Of course for this particular pairing, there was the added challenge of making sure Kate was ready for life in The Firm, the name the royals have given their family. Having the benefit of seeing the mistakes they made throwing Princess Diana into the fold, palace aides began training Kate for her future life well before she accepted William’s ring. At his request, she was given access to his press team and her own protection officer when she was out with her prince. She also received training on how to cope with the ever-present photographers—lessons that included watching footage of Diana cope with the endless flashbulbs.
“Her and her family, I really want to make sure they have the best sort of guidance and chance to see what life has been like or what life is like in the family,” William explained in their engagement chat, “and that’s kind of almost why I have been waiting this long, as I wanted to give her a chance to see in and to back out if she needed to before it all got too much.”
So, yes, they hit a “few stumbling blocks” during their decade-long courtship, but ultimately, “we really picked ourselves up and carried on.”
Having scaled each hurdle, they were able to celebrate during a trip to St. Andrews three months after their engagement. Launching a fundraising campaign for a scholarship created in their honor, William gave a speech citing how “very special” the moment was for him and his bride-to-be, sweetly announcing, “It feels like coming home.”
Or, really, full circle.