Witness - From fellow student to Her Royal Highness

LONDON Fri Apr 29, 2011 2:02pm EDT

1 of 2. Royal fans watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on a large screen at St Andrews university in St Andrews, Scotland April 29, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/David Moir

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LONDON (Reuters) - She was just like any other student at St Andrews University, studying in the library, shopping at the supermarket and meeting friends in the pub.

But on Friday "commoner" Kate Middleton became Her Royal Highness, Duchess of Cambridge and a future queen of England when she married Prince William in a glittering ceremony watched by a global audience.

I was in my second year at St Andrews University when the second-in-line to the throne and Middleton arrived in September 2001 to begin their studies in a small picturesque Scottish town, known for its golf courses, beaches and historical buildings.

Little did I know that a decade later I would be reporting on their nuptials at Westminster Abbey.

I had often seen the pair walk around St Andrews as students. Both kept low-profile lives. Often wearing a cap, William walked down the street without being bothered and shopped at the local Tesco supermarket. He was also often seen in the library studying or meeting friends for drinks.

But he did attract attention. It would only take minutes after his arrival at a bar and the place would be swarming with girls, all eager to catch his eye. When he played rugby, girls giggled and tried to photograph him.

Middleton was also discreet. My colleagues at the student newspaper and I stopped to interview her for a feature on Freshers Week one year and she was friendly and chatty.

She was known to be part of William's close group of friends but no one would have predicted what was to come.

"It's total madness," a university friend, who watched the service on television, said. "I used to see her buy groceries at the supermarket, now she's part of the royal family."

TIARA FROM THE QUEEN

The 29-year-old bride received her title after the Queen made William the Duke of Cambridge to mark the marriage.

Middleton, whose mother's family had coal mining roots, is a breath of fresh air for the monarchy, which has in the past been accused of being disconnected from ordinary Britons. She is seen as having the common touch.

Middleton wore a simple ivory dress, a tiara on loan from her new husband's grandmother the Queen and the sapphire and diamond engagement ring that belonged to William's mother Princess Diana.

Bells pealed loudly and trumpets blared as 1,900 guests earlier poured into the abbey.

The Queen, other royals, Prime Minister David Cameron, football and pop star couple David and Victoria Beckham as well as singer Elton John were among famous guests at the service.

"The word surreal doesn't begin to describe it," Leah Lowringer, partner of Nicholas Middleton (Kate's uncle), told Reuters.

Along with millions of people around the world, I watched Middleton walk down the aisle with her father. Outside the abbey along with thousands of well-wishers, I watched the ceremony on a giant TV and was moved by the rousing cheer of the crowd when the Archbishop of Canterbury pronounced the couple man and wife.

"HAPPY ENDING"

It is not known exactly when William and Middleton became an item but rumours point to around Christmas 2003.

As a first year, William lived in halls of residence and it was at the old St Salvator's hall, where he met Middleton.

The pair became friendly when they lived doors apart. They also studied the same subject.

They shared a flat with two friends at the start of their second year. At the time, Middleton was dating another student. The following year, William, Middleton and their friends moved to a cottage outside town and it is there romance blossomed.

Newspapers cite a charity fashion show in 2002 as the moment William's interest was stirred from one of mere friendship to something more serious.

At the show in the student union, Middleton strutted the catwalk in little more than her underwear as she modelled a see-through knitted dress, originally designed as a skirt. William sat at a front table at the show, where guests such as myself, cheered on friends modelling after months of rehearsals.

"Britain's top matchmaking university," St Andrews prides itself on a long tradition of alumni marrying each other. The town is the university's campus which makes for an intimate atmosphere. It has no nightclubs and students socialise through dinner parties and social club or "society" balls.

"London ties up what began in St Andrews so many years ago," another university friend told me after the ceremony. "It's the happy ending we've all been waiting for."

(Additional reporting by Jodie Ginsberg, editing by Paul Casciato)