To even the most casual observer, it’s clear the British Royal Family has experienced a rocky start to 2024.


There have been headline-making health concerns, including King Charles’ cancer diagnosis, Prince William’s decision to skip his godfather’s memorial service at the 11th hour, an untimely death in the extended family and, now, news that Queen Camilla will take a week off from royal duties, reportedly “exhausted” from completing 13 official engagements alone in the past month while also supporting her sick husband.

But none of the aforementioned trials and tribulations hold a candle to the online firestorm that ignited over the whereabouts of Kate Middleton, a.k.a. The Princess of Wales.

Some of the wholly unfounded rumours suggest that the Princess might have had a facelift or other cosmetic surgery. Other out-there theories that suggest she’s in a coma or victim of a sinister Palace cover-up were mostly stifled Monday when she was seemingly photographed by paparazzi riding passenger in her mother, Carole’s, car.

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“The Princess was low-key, looking out the window as her mother paid attention to the road,” the eyewitness who claimed to have seen the Princess, told ET Online.

And while it is slightly unusual and concerning that the Palace has been so tight-lipped about why Kate is taking more than three months out of the public eye and has not released many updates or even a message, the issue has spread from the far corners of the internet gossip mill and into the mainstream media, highlighting the intense scrutiny that always seems to disproportionally fall on the female members of the royal family.

Read on for what we know about Kate Middleton’s lengthy absence from public duty and how the internet spiralled into a complex web of conspiracy theories and unhinged gossip.

What we know about Kate’s health

On Jan. 17, Kensington Palace release their first statement about Middleton’s health, informing the world that she had undergone an abdominal surgery the previous day at the London Clinic.

“Based on the current medical advice, she is unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter,” the palace said at that time, adding that she would spend 10 to 14 days in hospital before returning home to recuperate.

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The statement also noted that Middleton preferred that her “personal medical information” remain private and didn’t specify the type of surgery.

A second statement was released 13 days later, in the expected time frame, saying the Princess had returned to the family’s home in Windsor to continue her recovery.

The Princess “is making good progress,” the Palace said on Jan. 29.

Online rumour mill gathers steam

While the Palace was clear that Middleton would not be making any public appearances, and would cancel and back out of official duties until after Easter, rumours about Middleton’s health began to pick up steam in early February, when she was not seen or heard from in about a month.

It’s important to note that in this same time, King Charles was treated for an enlarged prostate and subsequently diagnosed and began treatment for an undisclosed type of cancer. Since his diagnosis, he’s been spotted in public several times, has issued a statement thanking the public for their support and well-wishes and the Palace released a new photograph of the monarch.

This handout photo provided by Buckingham Palace shows King Charles III during the state tour of France in September 2023 on February 5, 2024 in London, England. Buckingham Palace announced the King has been diagnosed with a form of cancer after treatment in hospital for an enlarged prostate.

Samir Hussein – Handout / Getty Images

So, while Charles has been relatively forthcoming about his ailing health, the same cannot be said for Middleton, leaving many with questions about why the Palace has not afforded the masses a similar glimpse into the Princess’s health struggles.

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Well-meaning people began to question if Middleton had truly undergone abdominal surgery, or if it was something more elaborate or severe — perhaps she was facing a more serious health issue than the Palace was letting on?

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Others, however, began to speculate wildly, throwing around conspiracy theories that the Princess was divorcing her husband, being treated for an eating disorder, or, perhaps, had run away from royal life and the Palace was buying time until they could figure out how to break the news to the world.

Concerns turn to conspiracy

The speculation over Middleton’s whereabouts took a hard turn late last week, when the Palace announced at the last minute that her husband, Prince William, was backing out of a royal engagement — a service for his godfather, King Constantine of Greece, who died in 2023 — due to a “personal matter.”

Royal watchers were shocked, as William was expected to give a reading during the memorial service and the vague, tight-lipped nature of the announcement didn’t exactly do anything to curb the gossip mill.

On X (formerly Twitter), the cryptic announcement poured gasoline on the fire. It caused dozens of search terms and hashtags related to the royal family to trend on the platform, surfacing previously quiet conspiracy theories and generating a full-blown heyday of sometimes funny, but mostly toxic rumours, swirling.

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People panicked, wanting to know more about the Princess and her health. Behind most of the discourse was one question: Why had Kate not been seen or heard from since her last public appearance on Christmas Day?

The more well-intended posts questioned what type of abdominal surgery would require such a lengthy and secluded recovery.

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Ridiculous posts joked that perhaps she was somehow connected to the disastrous Willy Wonka event in Scotland that also trended that day. Alternatively, some pondered whether Middleton is Banksy.

Previous outlandish, and wholly hot air, theories were given a fresh set of eyes: the Princess was being held hostage against her will, the Princess was hiding out while recovering from cosmetic surgery, or Camilla had somehow orchestrated Middleton’s disappearance.

Also surfaced was a piece of misinformation cooked up by a Spanish journalist in January, who claimed that Middleton was in a coma. Concha Calleja appeared on the television show Fiesta and said that doctors “had to take drastic decisions” when “the postoperative period didn’t go so well.” She claimed the Princess’s life “was in great danger.”

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The Times of London reported an anonymous Palace source calling Calleja’s story “total nonsense.”

It got so out of hand, in fact, that the Palace was forced to address all the rumours, with a rep curtly telling the BBC last Thursday: “Kensington Palace made it clear in January the timelines of the princess’ recovery and we’d only be providing significant updates. That guidance stands.”

And, on Monday, even after Middleton was photographed riding alongside her mom, the internet was quick to theorize that it was her sister, Pippa Middleton, being used to pass as the Princess.

A lack of details fanned the flames

Monday’s photo evidence proves that Middleton is presumably well enough to be out and about — at the very least for a drive in her mother’s car.

The Palace did not share many details of Middleton’s surgery and, until this week, there were no signs of her, so the doors to speculation and rumour were flung wide open. Contrasted with the relatively forthcoming updates about Charles’ health, it’s clear to see why the public became increasingly concerned about the Princess and confused as to why there weren’t more details to be shared.

It can also be argued that her husband’s last-minute absence from King Constantine’s memorial service fanned the flames of speculation. Some media commentators have argued that the Palace, in this situation, could have shared more about why William did not attend, as it could have dampened further rumours.

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But everything the Palace shared, so far, has been to schedule and on track. Middleton was released from hospital in the time frame initially shared. She is now entering the seventh week of her 10-week recovery, which also follows the Palace’s initial estimates.

Click to play video: 'Kate Middleton released from hospital 2 weeks after abdominal surgery'

Kate Middleton released from hospital 2 weeks after abdominal surgery

Historically, the British Royal Family has kept quite quiet about issues pertaining to personal health. King Charles’ cancer diagnosis has seen him bucking that trend with remarkable visibility over the past month, which has only made Middleton’s absence more glaring.

How much are the Royals obligated to give the public and press?

Middleton, who has maintained a steady and prominent public-facing image, is regularly photographed and the public has become accustomed to seeing her face every few days.

She even stepped out to face the cameras several hours after the births of each of her three children, with a face full of makeup and fully-styled hair, during a time when most women would be sequestered into a state of recovery from the challenges of childbirth.

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge leave The Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital with their newborn daughter, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, on May 2, 2015 in London, England.

Ian Gavan/Getty Images

But even in those appearances, Middleton faced — as royal women are often subjected to — a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t reaction from the press and public. Some people applauded her for stepping out so soon, while others came after her for promoting an unreal expectation for new moms.

And it goes well beyond the stairs outside the hospital’s maternity ward. For years, we’ve been hearing stories of the damage intense public scrutiny and press portrayals have done to the women of the royal family — Princess Diana died in a car chase while trying to flee paparazzi, while the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan Markle, cut ties and left for the U.S. over the racism and fear the pair said Markle faced when she married into the family.

Still, the media landscape is changing, largely fuelled by social media and people’s appetite and demand for more information, more confirmation and more transparency.

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Watching how the last month-and-a-half has played out for the Royal Family, the Palace will likely be rethinking their crisis communications strategy going forward.


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