On a garden bench, amid a sea of daffodils: how Kate dropped her bombshell news | Catherine, Princess of Wales

There was no carpet of roses outside Windsor Castle yesterday, no bunches of daffodils blocking the entrance to Kensington Palace – just an occasional bouquet. The royal family wanted things to be business as usual after the Princess of Wales revealed her cancer diagnosis the day before, and the public has been keen to oblige.

Tourists watched the changing of the guard at Windsor, while visitors in London trooped into Kensington Palace to see the regalia of past monarchs, or posed outside for selfies.

The sense of normality is vital for the royal family at a moment of high vulnerability. Little more than a year after the death of the Queen, King Charles is focusing on his own cancer struggle. The Prince of Wales is juggling royal duties with caring for his wife and their three children, and there is no sign of an end to William’s estrangement from Prince Harry.

Among the more junior royals, Sarah, Duchess of York is also dealing with cancer, while the public is being reminded of Prince Andrew’s past behaviour by two new films. The king’s optimism about reinventing the royals as a slimmed-down, modernised monarchy during his reign could be soured by a string of anni horribiles.

The Royal Household will be heartened by the well-wishers at the royal residences, as well as the world leaders and celebrities, sports stars and charities who praised Catherine for speaking openly about her shock at learning of her illness, her preventative chemotherapy, and the trouble she and William had taken to explain to their three children what it meant.

The king and Princess Catherine in 2021. Both are now undergoing treatment for cancer. Photograph: Chris Jackson/AP

At Kensington Palace, Terry Jackson, who had come to visit from his home on the Fylde coast in Lancashire with his granddaughter Ellie, said it was shame Kate had felt the need to release the statement.

“It has been tough for them,” the 66-year-old retired kitchen fitter said. “The king as well, with his cancer scare. But, unfortunately, that is what they are in. If they don’t say anything, they get it. If they do, they get it.”

Katie Nicholl, author of The New Royals and Vanity Fair’s royal correspondent, said she hoped it would finally end “the wild, and frankly, salacious and irresponsible conspiracy theories”.

“It really shouldn’t have taken the Princess of Wales having to issue an unprecedented personal video message to do that,” she said. “Although that’s not the reason she has done this – she’s done it because she wanted to address the public in her own way, on her own terms, in a timeline that works for her and her young family.”

At the start of the year, the royal family was only a few months into the king’s plan to reinvent itself as a slimmed-down, modernised monarchy. But those plans were dismantled in early January when Kate was admitted in secret to the London Clinic for abdominal surgery, a week after her 42nd birthday.

The next day, 17 January, Kensington Palace revealed she had undergone an operation and barely more than an hour later, Buckingham Palace followed suit by announcing that Charles would also go into the private hospital for surgery on an enlarged prostate. Neither was said to have cancer.

Gossip about the health of the king and future queen began to seep across social media. The king’s cancer diagnosis, on 5 February, provoked a flurry of interest in cancer charities but the absence of information about Catherine created space for speculation.

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Terry Jackson said it was a shame Kate had needed to release the video. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

People on social media tried at first to calculate her condition from the scant details about her treatment – newly minted experts on hysterectomies, tummy tucks and bowel obstructions. But the digitally manipulated Mother’s Day photography unleashed a torrent of conspiracies.

That all came to an end on Friday evening when Kensington Palace released the video message, recorded at the Frogmore House estate in Windsor two days earlier by a BBC camera crew. She sat on a bench, shining in the spring sun with an early bloom of daffodils behind her, and told the world she had cancer.

“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,” she said. “As I have said to them; I am well and getting stronger every day by focusing on the things that will help me heal; in my mind, body and spirits.”

Simon Lewis, former communications secretary to the late queen, said the “unprecedented” message was powerful, brave and dignified. “We now know why they wanted to wait until now, because the children are out of school,” he said on the BBC’s Today programme . Lewis added that people in public positions should not be forced to reveal details of their private lives, but David Yelland, the former Sun editor and Lewis’s co-host of the When It Hits the Fan podcast, said it was not so simple for the royals.

“A vacuum of months went by and it was filled by social media,” he said. “If we go forward six, nine months, that vacuum will open up again and social media will very quickly come in again, so we will need to be updated in some way.” Being in the thoughts of millions of people was tough, Yelland said. “The palace needs to think about how to gently fill that vacuum without putting any pressure on Kate.”

Her illness and treatment mean that the bulk of public-facing royal duties will continue to fall to Queen Camilla, the Princess Royal and the Duke of Edinburgh. They face the challenges of distracting those determined to conjure up drama online and inspiring a new generation of royal devotees.

At Windsor Castle, Ann Anderson, from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, said the princess’s video message had been “absolutely tremendous”. “How can you sit on a bench like that at that age and just talk about your health?” she said. “My heart goes out to her, my heart goes out to William. Hasn’t he been through enough? He really doesn’t need any more.”

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