For many years, there was a sort of royal image that would hit the picture agencies with predictable regularity: A beaming Kate Duchess of Cambridge wedged between her husband Prince William and her brother-in-law Prince Harry. Time and again editors the world over were lumped with images of the duchess being perennially bookended by the two cheery, balding princes.
There they were during the Queen's 90th birthday celebrations! There they went in matching and adorably naff headbands in aid of their mental health charity Heads Together! Off they went to France for a commemoration ceremony! It's time for a touchy feely family moment at the London marathon!
Like a sort of invite-one, get-two-free bargain, Kensington Palace used to wheel out the troika of titled 30-somethings all together in a constant battle to make the whole enterprise of the monarchy seem even vaguely appealing to the tens of millions of Brits who don't remember the '70s oil crisis and when Sheena Easton ruled Top of the Pops.
The William-Kate-Harry era, which was always going to flounder once the younger prince met The One, came to a speedy conclusion when Harry was set up on a date with Meghan Markle, thus setting in motion events which saw a cable actress transformed into a bona fide member of the royal family.
The Sussex years were barely even that – it was only 20 months after Harry and Meghan's Windsor wedding that they announced they wanted out as full-time working members of the royal household.
And just like that, gone from the frame was Harry and gone was Meghan, leaving Kate … kinda alone.
In hindsight, 12 months on since the tumult of those days and weeks, I think one thing has become clear: Megxit has been the making of Kate.
Left to hold the fort with husband William, Kate has been forced to stand front and centre and by golly, the Kate who has emerged over the past year is a woman not only ready but willing to take the lead.
It is worth noting that 2020 was always going to be a milestone year for the duchess. In January, as Megxit roiled the palace, Kate launched the most high-profile project of her royal career, a landmark childhood survey as part of her Early Years work.
Now, it would be so easy to write her Early Years work as following in the long tradition of Windsor women taking on "nice" charities. After all, helping little kids is just the sort of bland, inoffensive do-goodery that seemingly fits the royal brand.
Au contraire. This is legacy-defining stuff.
Her Early Years work is the culmination of years and years of surrounding herself with, and learning from, industry experts and immersing herself in the research. Underpinning it all is the simple but profoundly powerful notion that ensuring kids have the best possible start will help make substantial headway in reducing homeless, addiction and mental health problems in adulthood.
If nothing else had gone on in the world in 2020, this alone would have been a watershed moment in Kate's career. But of course, the pandemic had other ideas and as February gave way to March, Covid was beginning to wreak its terrifying havoc.
So, just like that, one of the biggest crises in royal history – Megxit – coincided slap bang with the greatest global crisis since World War II, forcing Kate and William to take on unprecedented responsibility to safeguard the future of the monarchy.
While the Queen might have delivered a historic TV broadcast in April, invoking Dame Vera Lynch's message of "We'll meet again" the vast majority of the royal legwork, especially during the lockdowns, fell to the Cambridges.
As the only two members of the royal household who were working HRHs and (I'm guessing) had their own iPhones at the ready, the onus of manoeuvring the royal household through the emergency fell to the couple.
Now, sure, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla Duchess of Cornwall along with the Queen, Princess Anne, Sophie Countess of Wessex and even Princess Alexandra all did their digital bit, but unequivocally the majority of the burden of bucking up a miserable nation fell disproportionately on William and Kate's shoulders.
Time and again they appeared on screens, undertaking video chats with everyone from nurses from Malawi to calling the bingo numbers at an aged-care home. (Between them, and despite Britain's lengthy and multiple lockdowns, they still logged more than 200 engagements.) They lead the way for the palace to embrace the available technology in an attempt to create the best simulacrum of real-world royal work, modelling a commendable willingness to adapt to circumstances.
While (I'm guessing) teaching Gan Gan how to Zoom is good stuff, a far bigger achievement for the Cambridges was the emotional and psychological role they assumed, acting as beacons of dependable affability in the midst of rising public stress. Not only did they symbolise monarchical steadfastness in the face of a horrifying virus, they projected composure and calm and the sort of psychic stability an anxious nation (make that, world) was desperately craving.
And that is where Kate really shone.
The circumstances of 2020 forced Kate – an intensely private woman – both literally and figuratively speaking to invite the world into her personal orbit. Not only did she appear, repeatedly, in front of a vast audience from her actual living room, but we watched her come out of her shell. When her smiling face and seemingly endless supply of innocuous cardies popped up on video screens, what was marked was the warmth, ease and on occasion – prepare yourself – humour.
In the nation's moment of need, she proved not only mettle but her sense of fun and, as the world watched, Kate came into her own.
Essentially, throughout her decade-long stint as an HRH (she and William will mark their 10-year wedding anniversary in April) she has always proven herself to be a dependable foot soldier. However, the confluence of the pandemic, and the departure of the Sussexes, left her with no choice but to assume her general's stripes and lead the way.
As royal biographer Katie Nicholl told the Telegraph recently: "The Queen asked them to step up as frontline royals during the pandemic, and Kate has done that with grace and humility. This is a girl who has a sense of duty as a natural asset to her personality. I think they have both realised, with the Sussexes out of the picture, what an important role they have to play in shaping the future of 'The Firm'."
Beyond that, last year Kate not only found her voice but seemed to embrace speaking up. In November she did what would once have been nearly unthinkable, taking questions from the public (in connection with her Early Years) work as part of a social media Q and A. Laughing and smiling, the four-minute video shared via the palace Instagram account is by far the lengthiest clip anyway of Kate speaking – and while wearing a Gucci blouse to boot.
As the UK endures its third lockdown, with Kate, William and their three kids staying put at their Norfolk home, it seems the monarchy is in safe hands … so long as someone remembers the Wi-Fi password that is.
• Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years' experience working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.