This Sunday, the devoted huddle of royal fans at Sandringham church were gathered as usual, waiting to see the Queen arrive for church as she does every Sunday when she is in residence at her Norfolk estate.
Their numbers were swelled by a few photographers who had been briefed that the Queen would be joined by several prominent members of the Royal family and that there would be a short wreath-laying ceremony afterwards to mark the centenary of the ill-fated First World War Gallipoli campaign.
They were expecting the Cambridges, maybe a Prince Andrew. Just about enough to make an early Sunday morning start worthwhile.
So imagine the surprise of the assembled hacks when up the frosty laneway that connects Sandringham House to St Mary’s Church, who should come striding confidently into view behind William and Kate, but the entire Middleton clan (the Queen arrived by car)?
Looking pleased as punch and smiling broadly for the now frenziedly-snapping cameras, Carole and Pippa led the way, followed by Pippa’s brother James and her father, Michael.
The immediate conclusion was that the Middletons must have been staying at Anmer Hall, the Cambridges’ spectacular, 10-bedroom country home which is fast becoming William and Kate’s full-time base, while celebrating Kate’s 34th birthday which fell on Saturday (it is a sign of just how effectively the Cambridges have managed to lock down their household that not a royal reporter in the land had a clue that the Middletons were due to be spending the weekend with Kate and Will).
It was perhaps slightly odd that they all arrived on foot from the direction of Sandringham House, rather than in a car from Anmer, but even odder was that after the church service, as the Queen and Prince Philip spent a few minutes laying wreaths with William and Kate, the remaining Middletons trotted off back in the direction of Sandringham where, according to sources, they were guests at a typical Sandringham Sunday lunch.
They cut quite a sight; James, bearded, hands in pockets in a skinny pale blue hipster suit from Savile Row tucked over Chelsea boots, Pippa, freshly tanned from a recent holiday in St Barts, wore thick black woolly tights and a short dress with an extravagant Russian-style fur hat perched on her head while Kate’s mum, Carole, cut a dash in the kind of glamorous long winter coat that her daughter wears so effectively.
If there was any doubt that the Middletons have been completely embraced by the Queen, this was it. Make no mistake, being invited to attend an informal Sandringham church service with Her Majesty is no meager endorsement.
Says one source, “Given the Queen’s emphasis on duty and religion, this was arguably an even more important moment of acceptance for the Middleton clan than being invited to ride in the royal carriage at Ascot.”
The Queen’s casual invitation to the Middletons to join the Royals for lunch may also have been intended to make up for the fact that they were excluded from Christmas lunch at Sandringham, although William, Kate, and their children did in fact have their turkey at the big house, despite extensive speculation that they were planning a more informal family affair at their own home.
The Queen is undoubtedly making a clear point that she believes the Middletons worthy of respect and full inclusion in the royal circle of trust.
The queen is said to have increasing regard for Carole in particular, coming to admire the woman who has fought her way to the top of business with a resolutely middle-class attitude.
She may once have been mocked by her son-in-law and daughter’s society friends for having been a flight attendant, but Carole is now having the last laugh, having secured for herself an inviolable place at the heart of the new royal establishment.
Intriguingly, Prince Charles has been less welcoming of the Middletons. Always accused of being somewhat prone to snobbish tendencies, he is not believed to have invited the family to his private house at Highgrove.
It doesn’t particularly bother Kate or William, however, and even less the Middletons themselves. “They always were a fairly thick-skinned bunch, and that tendency has only become more pronounced since Kate and William married,” says a family friend.
The monarch once again is leading by example. For although the Middleton clan might divide opinion—some still think it is inappropriate for the future Queen’s mother to be running a website selling party gear and writing articles for magazines about home entertaining—there is no doubt that the strategy of embracing the Middletons has made Kate’s transition to royal life easier.
Inevitably the Middletons will be called on to play a larger and larger role in public life over the next few decades, and, by inviting them to attend church alongside her and join her for lunch afterwards, the Queen is shrewdly making sure she has 100% loyalty, as well as letting them know they can be confident of their membership in the club, whatever reaction they get from Prince Charles and some more sniffy members of the establishment.