The Kate Middleton mystery: A complete timeline of the Princess of Wales' royal family PR disaster

Conspiracy theories surrounding the princess' "disappearance" reached a fever pitch over a doctored photo

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer
Published March 11, 2024 6:07PM (EDT)
Updated March 22, 2024 2:39PM (EDT)
Catherine, Princess Of Wales is seen during the opening of Evelina London's new children's day surgery unit on December 5, 2023 in London, England. (Ian Vogler - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Catherine, Princess Of Wales is seen during the opening of Evelina London's new children's day surgery unit on December 5, 2023 in London, England. (Ian Vogler - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Where in the world is Kate Middleton?” has been a growing question in recent months following the Princess of Wales’ conspicuous absence. But on Sunday, a photo of Kate and her three children was released by the Palace, seemingly to show all was well on Mother's Day in the UK. That reassurance, however, was cut short after online sleuths whipped out their magnifying glasses and asserted that the photo looked alarmingly fishy. The photo seemed like a shoddy attempt by the Palace to silence the slew of conspiracy theories surrounding Kate’s health and whereabouts. And expectedly, people were not happy.

Concerns regarding Kate’s well-being reached a fever pitch last month after William abruptly pulled out of a planned outing to his godfather King Constantine of Greece's memorial service on Feb. 27, People reported. In January, Kensington Palace announced that the Princess of Wales underwent a “planned” abdominal procedure without providing more information on her health. They noted that her medical condition was non-cancerous and that Kate wasn't expected to return to public royal duties until after Easter. She has reportedly been recovering in Windsor since she left the hospital two weeks after her surgery. 

Updates regarding Kate’s condition have been scant, which has encouraged many to further look into what’s really going on with the royal family. Redditors speculated that Kate and William's relationship was on the rocks. Spanish media believed that Kate was stuck in a coma. And folks on Twitter were convinced that Kate had undergone a Brazilian butt lift (better known as a “BBL”).

Last week, a spokesperson for the prince told People that “his focus is on his work and not on social media.” The Palace recently assured the public that the Princess of Wales “continues to be doing well” in her recovery. Kate was also spotted during a car ride with her mother Carole Middleton, although many claimed that the princess wasn’t actually in the photo.

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New developments in Kate's so-called "disappearance" have been coming in by the hour. Here’s a look at what’s happened thus far:

Jan. 9, 2024: Kensington Palace doesn’t make a social media post for Kate’s birthday

Royal experts noted that Kensington Palace failed to make a social media post celebrating Kate’s 42nd birthday. There were no posts wishing Kate a happy birthday nor were there any posts thanking people for their birthday wishes.

The lack of posts isn’t incredibly eyebrow-raising considering that the Palace didn’t make posts about Kate’s birthday or William’s birthday in 2023. Kate’s birthday did receive posts in 2018 and 2022. New pictures of her were also released on her birthday in 2020 and 2022.

Jan. 17: Kensington Palace announces that Kate is in the hospital

The Palace released an official statement, saying the princess underwent a “planned abdominal surgery” and will be hospitalized for 10 to 14 days. The Palace said it is unlikely Kate would return to public duties until after Easter, which falls on March 31.

Multiple outlets reported that William had “shifted his schedule” to help his wife and care for their children. This was also the only day journalists were allowed to report on Kate’s health from outside the hospital.

Jan. 18: Prince William visits Kate at the hospital

William is photographed driving to the London Clinic to visit Kate. Royal experts said this is the only time William is seen visiting his wife.

Jan. 20: Spanish journalist Concha Calleja challenges the Palace’s claims

Calleja claimed that Kate was hospitalized on Dec. 28, despite Kensington Palace’s January announcement, and added that the princess was not doing well. The report subsequently spurred online conspiracy theories. One social media user said they saw a royal convoy heading to a London hospital on Dec. 28. Other sleuths pointed out that the Prince and Princess of Wales’s longtime nanny is Spanish.

This is also the first time a UK tabloid hasn’t provided any bizarre gossip story or predictions regarding a royal family issue. Calleja’s report is the first real follow-up story to Kate’s surgery announcement.

Jan. 20: Kate will reportedly work from bed during her recovery

The Sunday Times reported that Palace aides failed to notify Kate’s 30 charities and patronages “to confirm postponing and rescheduling engagements” until one week before her surgery. The newspaper said Kate will be “work[ing] from bed” and “aides insist her work will not stall.” The report fuels more online conspiracy theories.

Jan. 24: More media outlets ramp up coverage surrounding Kate

People’s royal reporter wrote that Kate’s hospitalization wasn’t planned for: “The carefully guarded news about Kate’s situation came as a surprise even to those who work closely with the royal family, PEOPLE understands.” Page Six later reported the same.

Additionally, the UK tabloid the Mirror fueled conspiracy theorists with its story titled, “Kate ‘your best friend one minute and worst enemy the next’, expert claims.” The story is filled with several glaring errors. First, the Mirror sourced the story from “a recent article for the Daily Mail” written by royal reporter Robert Jobson — but links to a post from 2022. Second, it changed its story title just a few hours after publication and replaced Kate’s name with Prince Harry’s. The new and current title of the story is “Prince Harry ‘your best friend one minute and worst enemy the next,’ expert claims.”

The Mirror added an editorial note to the bottom of the post reading, “A previous version of this story erroneously referred to Kate, Princess of Wales, instead of Prince Harry” and removed the link to the 2022 Daily Mail story. The link now redirects to the Daily Mail’s homepage.

Jan. 25: William has allegedly visited Kate in the hospital every day

That’s according to The Sun, which added that Kate’s three children have not visited her yet. Other outlets claimed the children stayed in touch with their mother via FaceTime. 

Jan. 28: Calleja says Kate is in a medically induced coma 

Other Spanish media outlets also reported the same. More conspiracy theorists started taking Calleja’s claims into consideration and the report garnered much popularity online.

Jan. 29: Kensington Palace says Kate will return home to Windsor Castle to continue her recovery

“She is making good progress,” Kensington Palace said in a statement.

Kate’s departure was not photographed, even though members of the media were set up around the hospital in order to photograph the King and Queen.

Feb. 1: A Kensington Palace spokesperson denies Calleja’s coma claim

An unnamed Kensington Palace spokesperson denied Calleja’s “total nonsense” claim that Kate is in a coma to The Times.

“No attempt was made by that journalist to fact-check anything that she said with anyone in the household,” they said. “It’s fundamentally, totally made-up, and I’ll use polite English here: it’s absolutely not the case.”

BuzzFeed News’ former royal correspondent Ellie Hall explained that Palace spokespersons do not go on the record very often. “[T]he fact that someone in the Palace said this and the journalist was allowed to cite it to a spokesperson is significant,” she added.

Feb. 2: Calleja defends her reporting

Calleja claimed she “touched a nerve” by reporting the truth and said she trusts her source  “100%.” Hall explained that it’s “interesting” to see a story like this still be covered in the mainstream media following the Palace’s vocal denial. Reporters like Calleja often “don’t have the credibility to defend themselves.”

Feb. 7: Kate’s brother inspires a few ludicrous conspiracy theories

The princess’ brother James shared a video of his family on vacation in the Alps. Sleuths realized that Kate’s parents, Carole and Michael Middleton, haven’t been spotted since Kensington Palace announced her surgery.

Feb. 7: William participates in first royal event since Kate’s hospitalization announcement

The event was an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle. William presented medals on behalf of his father to several attendees. He also mentioned his father’s and wife’s health in a speech. “I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you, also, for the kind messages of support for Catherine and for my father, especially in recent days,” he said. “It means a great deal to us all.”

Feb. 9: Kate leaves Windsor Castle for her children’s half-term holiday

The Daily Mail reported that the Wales family has relocated to Anmer Hall, at Sandringham. The trip to Sandringham wasn’t photographed.

Feb. 17: Kate and William visited a school they are considering for their oldest son Prince George

The visit allegedly happened before Kate’s surgery, the Daily Mail’s Richard Eden clarified on X.

Feb. 27: William abruptly pulls out of his godfather’s memorial service

Concerns regarding Kate’s well-being reached a fever pitch when news broke that William had pulled out of attending a memorial service at Windsor for his godfather, the late King Constantine of Greece. The prince was scheduled to give a reading. Kensington Palace said his absence was due to “a personal matter.”

Feb. 27: Buckingham Palace announces the death of Thomas Kingston

Kingston was a member of the extended royal family. Royal experts noted it was quite odd that multiple media outlets reported that William’s departure from the memorial service was not connected to Kingston’s death. Conspiracy theorists frequently referenced the strangeness of these reports, and pointed to the fact that Kingston once dated Kate’s sister Pippa Middleton.

Feb. 29: Kensington Palace reiterates the princess’ recovery timeline

In a statement made to several news outlets, including Page Six and NBC News, a spokesperson for the Palace said, “Kensington Palace made it clear in January the timelines of the Princess’ recovery and we’d only be providing significant updates. That guidance stands.”

Feb. 29: Wales friends and a former Palace employee talk to the Daily Beast

The unnamed friends and a former Palace employee sat down with Daily Beast royal reporter Tom Sykes to talk about Kate’s “disappearance.”

“If William has read any of this stuff, it will only make him more determined to stick to his guns and keep his wife out of the limelight while she recovers. The stuff people are writing is toxic,” one source said.

BuzzFeed News’ former royal correspondent Ellie Hall explained that “friends” of members of the royal family don’t normally talk to reporters unless they’re given permission.

March 1: William ignores a question about his wife’s health

The question was asked during an official event in Wales. The news, however, isn’t reported until March 4.

March 4: TMZ publishes a paparazzi image of the princess and her mother 

The news outlet reported that the image — which shows Kate in the passenger seat and her mother driving — was taken that morning, possibly after Kate dropped her children off at school. Several media organizations followed suit and published the pictures shortly afterwards.

Several UK news outlets reported that Kensington Palace did not “authorize” the taking of the paparazzi image, adding that they would refrain from publishing it out of respect for Kate’s privacy. Two days later, royal reporter Emily Andrews wrote on X that the Palace “exerted huge pressure on the British media” to not publish the image.

March 5: Kate’s uncle speaks out against the conspiracy theories 

“There’s a reason why [the royal family] is not talking about it and they are giving her a little bit of space,” said Kate’s uncle Gary Goldsmith, a contestant on the reality TV show “Celebrity Big Brother.”

March 5: The British Army posts and removes its claim that Kate will attend Trooping the Colour

Kensington Palace told reporters that Kate’s appearance at this year’s Trooping the Colour event on June 8 had not yet been confirmed. The U.K. Ministry of Defense removed its claim that Kate will be at the event and her image from their website.

March 6: A spokesperson for the prince addresses the conspiracy theories

Speaking to People for its Wednesday cover story, a spokesperson said on behalf of the prince, “His focus is on his work and not on social media.”

March 7: Kate’s uncle says he has spoken to his sister Carole about Kate’s health

Goldsmith spoke about Kate’s health once again when fellow “Celebrity Big Brother” contestant Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu asked about the princess’ whereabouts. “Because she doesn’t want to talk about it, the last thing I’m going to do is [talk about it],” he said. “There’s this kind of this code of etiquette. If it’s announced, I’ll give you an opinion.”

He claimed he has spoken to his sister Carole about Kate’s health and said that she’s getting the “best care in the world” and “she’ll be back, of course she will.”

“All the family has put the wagons down and [are looking] after the family first before anything else,” he said. “They put a statement out, they said, ‘She’s going to take some time to recoup and we’ll see you at Easter.’”

March 10: Kate and William post on Instagram for Mother’s Day

On Sunday, Kate and William’s official Instagram account (@princeandprincessofwales) posted a picture of a healthy Kate posing alongside her three children — Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis — in celebration of Mother’s Day in the UK. It’s the first official photo of the princess shared since she underwent planned abdominal surgery earlier this year.

“Thank you for your kind wishes and continued support over the last two months. Wishing everyone a Happy Mother’s Day. C,” the caption read, adding that the photo was taken by the prince.

The post quickly went viral with many saying the photo clearly looked off. Skeptics claimed that in the photo, Kate’s wedding ring was missing, the right side of her hair was visibly photoshopped and the bottom of Charlotte’s left sleeve was also photoshopped.    

“Tell us the truth! Where’s ar’ Kate Middleton?,” wrote one individual on X (formerly Twitter).

Other users said the image was AI generated — one analysis found that the photo was 77.37% AI generated and only 22.63% human generated. A separate user took it one step further, alleging the Palace of editing Kate’s 2016 Vogue cover photo and using it in her Instagram post.

March 10: Reuters publishes, then deletes the photo 

After Kensington Palace released the Mother’s Day photo of Kate, Reuters published it in an article titled, “In pictures: Kate, the Princess of Wales, through the years,” before deleting it just a few hours later. In a post made on X, the outlet wrote, “We are deleting a post containing an image of the Princess of Wales following a post-publication review.”

Getty and the Associated Press also pulled the images. A kill notification from AP read: “At closer inspection it appears that the source has manipulated the image.”

“The Associated Press initially published the photo, which was issued by Kensington Palace,” the news wire said in a statement to NBC News. “The AP later retracted the image because at closer inspection, it appears that the source had manipulated the image in a way that did not meet AP's photo standards. The photo shows an inconsistency in the alignment of Princess Charlotte's left hand.”

Kensington Palace refused to offer any comment at the time. 

The Daily Telegraph, the British daily broadsheet newspaper that normally writes in support of the royal family, later published the front page story, “Photo from Palace was doctored, say agencies.”

March 11: Kate supposedly breaks her silence on the photo

Kate formally addressed the photo being doctored in an online statement: “Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother’s Day. C”

March 11: Kate is pictured leaving Windsor Castle with William

The Daily Mail reported that Kate was pictured alongside Prince William leaving Windsor Castle in a car. The prince was heading to Westminster Abbey for the annual Commonwealth Day service, while the princess was reportedly heading to “a private appointment.”

In the photo, William is seen looking down at his phone and a person who could be Kate is sitting right next to him. Her head is facing away from the camera and looking out the car window.

March 11: CNN is reviewing all handout photos previously provided by Kensington Palace

The media outlet explained that the royal press team ​​”wasn’t transparent about the fact [the Mother’s Day photo] had been adjusted.”

“That will have damaged the trust between the palace and media organizations — many of which, like CNN, will likely be assessing all royal handouts,” CNN wrote. “The editing storm has undermined the existing relationship and when public interest over any possible cover up escalates, as it has done recently, many news outlets will now take that speculation more seriously.”

CNN added that it’s “unacceptable to move, change or manipulate the pixels of an image” because doing so “would alter the reality of the situation the image is intended to document.”

March 12: The Daily Mail claims Kate is “shell shocked” over the photo blunder

According to “several well-placed sources in royal ­circles,” Kate allegedly found the public fallout over the “edited” photo deeply “upsetting.”

“Everyone, including the Princess, is a bit shell shocked by what has happened,” one source told the Mail. “A mistake was made but she has put her hand up and apologized. It’s been very upsetting all round. But a lot of people feel it is time to acknowledge the error was made in good faith, as was her apology, and move on.”

The Times also reported that Kate was “shaken” by the news agency “kill orders” and decided to “own up” to editing the photo when the subsequent online frenzy reached Kensington Palace.

March 12: Conspiracy theories involving William and his so-called mistress Rose Hanbury begin to brew

The new theories specifically focused on the recent photo of William and Kate in the car. Sleuths on TikTok and Twitter speculated that the prince was actually by himself in the car and a picture of the princess’ head was Photoshopped next to him. Others hypothesized that the woman in the car wasn’t Kate — it was Rose Hanbury, also known as the Marchioness of Cholmondeley (pronounced CHUM-lee).

Unconfirmed rumors of an affair between William and Rose have been circulating since 2019. Earlier this week, The Independent published a profile on Rose, titled “Lady Rose Hanbury: Who is the Marchioness of Cholmondeley?” The story quickly caught the attention of many online conspiracy theorists.

March 12: The photographer who took the car photo speaks out against the conspiracy theories

James Bennett, the professional photographer who took the picture of William and Kate in the car, shot down all the conspiracy theories related to the photo in an interview with the New York Post. “We don’t change our photos in Photoshop other than adjusting the light levels if necessary,” Bennett said.

Bennett claimed that he and his partner were hired by a news outlet to get a shot of William heading to Westminster Abbey for a royal event. “The cars left Windsor Castle and I photographed them a short distance away on Datchet High Street — outside No. 39, to be precise!” he said. “Car shots are unpredictable at the best of times and with some reflection on the glass, it can be difficult.”

He added: “As it happened, it wasn’t until I checked on the back of the camera to make sure I had a frame of Prince William that I realized there was someone sitting next to him. It turned out to be Catherine!”

The photo was syndicated in the US by the photo agency GoffPhotos.

March 13: Palace sources say Kate is “smiling, upbeat, and enjoying being out”

A royal source told Harper's Bazaar that the atmosphere at Kensington Palace offices has been “tense, but there is a sense that this will pass. They aren’t too worried.”

A Buckingham Palace insider added: “Some staff can’t quite believe how badly KP have cocked things up by not paying close enough attention to what was being released to the world. Didn’t anyone there think to check the photo before it went out?” King Charles III is allegedly being “kept abreast” of latest developments, but “isn’t too concerned” about the current situation.

Regarding Kate’s recovery, a Palace insider said the princess is “doing well, all things considered,” adding that she has left the house at least three times in the past two weeks. In one such occasion, which occurred just over a week ago, Kate was “smiling, upbeat, and enjoying being out.”

“[This situation] has caused some stress for the princess, but she tends not to pay attention to online chatter or even the press,” a royal insider said. “I think people forget that this was simply a mother wanting her family to look their best in a photograph that was going to be heavily scrutinized. She was protecting her children.”

March 13: Agence France-Presse says it no longer considers Kensington Palace a “trusted source”

Phil Chetwynd, Agence France-Presse’s (AFP) global news director, told BBC radio that the news agency no longer considers Kensington Palace a “trusted source” following the botched Mother’s Day photo disaster. Chetwynd said AFP, along with other news agencies, tried to get the palace to provide the original photo so they could determine how much of it had been edited. When they received no reply, they issued “kill” notices informing editors not to publish the doctored photo. Such notices are commonly associated with images from the regimes of Iran and North Korea, not the British Royal Family, Chetwynd specified.

“It’s actually not even very well photoshopped,” he said. “[There were] clearly a lot of problems with the photo, so it shouldn’t have been validated. I think as soon as it was, all the photo editors at all the major agencies immediately saw there was a problem and got together and spoke about it and [said] ‘what do we do?’”

Chetwynd added: “You cannot be distorting reality for the public. There’s a question of trust. The big issue here is one of trust and the lack of trust — or the falling trust — of the general public in institutions generally and in the media. And so it’s extremely important that a photo does represent, broadly, the reality that [it was taken in], and therefore it is not, in a sense, telling some kind of lie or some kind of false truth around an event that happens.”

March 14: William comments on Kate’s artistic skills as he prepares for a “joint” appearance with Prince Harry

The prince praised his wife’s artistic skills during a royal visit that took place just three days after Kate apologized for editing her Mother's Day photograph. 

“My wife is the arty one. Even my children are artier than me,” William said while decorating biscuits with children at the new OnSide Youth Zone in Hammersmith and Fulham, London. The prince went to go see the brand-new purpose-built facilities that will soon be available to young people in the area.

Later tonight, William and his estranged brother Prince Harry will both separately take part in a ceremony paying tribute to their late mother at the Diana Legacy Award.

March 16: New video shows Kate out-and-about with William

TMZ obtained a clip of Kate and William visiting Windsor Farm Shop, a local supermarket and cafe that’s said to be about a mile from their home in Windsor. Onlookers said Kate looked “happy, relaxed and healthy” as she walked around the store, per The Sun.

In the video, Kate is seen smiling and wearing an all-black athletic fit, which included a zip-up jacket, leggings, sneakers and calf-length socks. Despite the recent sighting, online sleuths were convinced that Kate was actually a body double. “Doesn’t really look like her and DEF doesn’t look like the person in the car with Carol[e]. Even a little iffy on it being William tbh,” one skeptic said about the video, referring to the March 4 photo of Middleton in the car with her mother Carole.

“That isn’t her. Higher cheekbones, different smile, different walk, slimmer build. Carrying bag after abdo surgery. Body double,” said another.

March 16: Kate’s friends say the princess may open up about her health struggles soon

Friends of Kate told The Times of London that the Princess of Wales may reveal why she got abdominal surgery after she returns to her duties this spring.

“They will want to be clear and more open, but they'll do it when they feel ready,” one unnamed friend of the royals told the outlet. “I would expect that to be her instinct and it will be her call. They're not going to be rushed.”

Another royal source said Kate and William would speak about the princess’ recovery “out on engagements.”

March 18: Rose Hanbury claims the affair rumors are false

Hanbury said through her lawyers that the rumors of an affair with William “are completely false.” This is the first time Hanbury has publicly addressed the affair following the online rumors.

March 19: William comments on his wife’s absence following the farm shop video

While visiting a housing workshop in Sheffield to promote his new homelessness project, the prince commented on his wife’s absence. “That’s my wife’s area, she needs to sit here,” he said, referring to Kate’s commitment to the Early Years Project.

March 20: Information Commissioner's Office investigates clinic staffers trying to access Kate’s medical records

Three unidentified staffers at the London Clinic, where Kate underwent a “planned” abdominal procedure in Jan., reportedly attempted to snoop on the princess’ private medical records, according to ITV News, which broke the news first. On Wednesday, the Information Commissioner's Office, the U.K. privacy and data protection watchdog, told ABC News it had received a security breach report involving the clinic.

"We can confirm that we have received a breach report and are assessing the information provided," an IOC spokesperson said in a statement.

Al Russell, CEO of the London Clinic, said in a Wednesday statement that the clinic takes “enormous pride” in caring for its many high-profile patients.

Kensington Palace declined to comment on the reported security breach. The Palace told ABC News, “This is a matter for the London Clinic.”

Kate is said to be aware of the reported data breach involving her medical records.

March 22: Kate announces she has cancer and is undergoing chemo

In a new video shared by Kensington Palace on Friday, Kate revealed that she has been undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer.

“In January, I underwent major abdominal surgery in London and at the time, it was thought that my condition was non-cancerous. However, tests after the operation found cancer had been present,” she said in the video.

Kate said the news came as a “huge shock,” adding that she and William plan to “manage this privately for the sake of our young family.”

“As you can imagine, this has taken time. It has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment,” she said. “But, most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be OK.”

Kate is the second member of the royal family to receive a cancer diagnosis this year. On Feb. 5, Buckingham Palace announced that King Charles III was diagnosed with cancer after undergoing a procedure for benign prostate enlargement. The Palace did not specify what kind of cancer but said it wasn’t prostate cancer.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.