Prince William Coming of Age

In keeping with the majestic standards of the House of Windsor, the celebrations are expected to be lavish. Windsor Castle has already been selected as the site. The date is June 21, the 18th birthday of Prince William, future heir to the British throne, certainly the best and probably the last hope for the continuing survival of a millennium-old monarchy. If that were not occasion enough to rejoice, the affair will also commemorate four other royal landmarks - Princess Margaret's 70th birthday, Princess Anne's 50th, Prince Andrew's 40th and, not least, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the most beloved royal of all, the Queen Mother.

But when Britain's royals, and their 500 invited guests, assemble next month in the castle west of London that bears the family name, one prominent member will be missing - William himself. "The prince will not be attending the celebrations at Windsor," affirms Colleen Harris, a member of the Prince of Wales's staff at St. James's Palace, William's London residence. "He will be studying for one of his A-levels that he has to write the very next day. He's decided to commemorate his birthday later in the summer, after he graduates from Eton, probably with close friends."

As a measure of the mettle of the youngster who may someday be King, that development is telling, even more so as a gauge of the direction in which the British monarchy is currently heading. There was a time, not so very long ago, when it would have been unheard-of for the second-in-line to the throne to skip an event as momentous as the one planned for this coming June 21 for reasons as mundane as a school exam. William's grandparents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, were once hailed as modern monarchs for deciding to even send their children to school. When William's father, Prince Charles, chose to set a royal precedent by enrolling in classes at Cambridge University, there was a furious debate within the court over whether Charles should actually deign to sit for examinations. He did and eventually won an honourable, if not exactly sparkling, degree in history.

By all accounts, William is cut from a far different cloth than either his father or his doomed mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. If the record he has compiled at Eton is any guide, he may in fact be emerging as something of an intellectual among the hunting, fishing and shooting crowd favoured by most of the Royal Family. In that sense, younger brother Prince Harry, 15, is cast more in the traditional House of Windsor mould. The tousled, freckled teen with the ready grin is a better, more naturally gifted athlete than his older brother, and destined in all probability for a military career. But Harry is an indifferent student. William is not. He sailed through his classes at Eton and is likely to do the same this spring on his A-levels, the demanding British secondary school graduation examinations that also determine university entrance. "I expect he'll do well," confides the older sibling of one of William's Eton classmates. "I'm told that, unlike either his brother or his mother, he takes his studies very seriously indeed."

Precisely where William is headed after Eton remains unknown, at least officially. "There has been no announcement" is all that St. James's Palace staffer Harris will disclose. It is an open secret, however, that the prince is determined to take a year off before attending university, to engage in some ecologically oriented endeavours, most probably far from the prying eyes of the media in the Australian Outback, maybe even Canada's wilderness. After that, he seems intent on setting another royal precedent by spurning both Oxford and Cambridge universities, where virtually all of Britain's upper crust go. Instead, William is understood to be contemplating taking a difficult degree in the history of art at the University of Edinburgh, a decision that may reflect either his independent streak or the Royal Family's determination to project a less aloof, more democratic image.

Both of those factors may well be in play in the decision to choose Edinburgh, if in fact the prince does eventually wind up studying in the Scottish capital. But whatever the reasons, it does seem clear that in William a more contemporary version of a British royal is emerging. And for that, most veteran royal watchers credit William's father. "Prince Charles appears to be trying to raise both of his sons in a modern upper-class way," argues Harold Brooks-Baker, publisher of Burke's Peerage, the authoritative guide to the British aristocracy. "Some might wish that it was in a classless way, but I suppose you can't have everything. Still, I think Charles has done well in taking a leaf from the book of his continental cousins, where the monarchies are more secure and more popular simply because the local royals are more ordinary. You can bump into them riding bicycles, doing the shopping, going to the office. The European monarchies are moving into the 21st century. This one in Britain is still trying to get into the 20th."

In the opinion of many, Charles also deserves praise for the way he has protected his sons in the wake of their mother's death. He continues to jealously guard their privacy, limiting their appearances in public to nothing much more than controlled photo opportunities. In this, he has received the co-operation of Britain's vigorous media, especially the rowdy tabloid press. The media, still stung by the criticism of the role they played in the events that led to Diana's death in the fatal Paris car crash on Aug. 31, 1997, have generally respected a gentleman's agreement to leave William and Harry alone, at least as long as they are in school. Now that William is turning 18, however, there is widespread anxiety in royal circles that all the restraints may be lifted, particularly concerning William's future love life. In an effort to control events, Charles is in the midst of reinforcing the four-member press office at St. James's Palace to help ease William's gradual assumption of more public duties. "Certainly, the goal posts are going to move a little as far as Prince William is concerned," says Harris. "But we hope that the basic agreements are going to remain in place."

In the end, it may not matter much. Neither William nor Harry are betraying any of the telltale signals, in public at least, that might be expected from a pair of teenagers who have suffered broken homes and childhood trauma. On the contrary, both appear to be relishing their public appearances. Last month in Klosters, Switzerland, during their annual ski trip with their father, William and Harry obligingly posed for photographers, joking and ruffling their father's thinning hair. When William was asked to remove his cap, he willingly complied. When asked his thoughts on turning 18, he replied with a smile and a wry Diana-like riposte: "It will be interesting."

Earlier in April, William astonished the guests at the Crossways Hotel lounge in the village of Thornley in rural Durham by mounting the stage to take part in a karaoke competition, delivering a lusty version of the Village People's hit YMCA, complete with arm movements. On a field trip with 40 Eton classmates, William approached hotel owner John Hudson, offering to pit his fellow students in a challenge against the locals in a singing contest. "We were gobsmacked," Hudson later recalled. "Before long, William grabbed the microphone and was singing his heart out. He really got into the swing of things. He had a whale of a time. It was great to see him enjoying himself. He got a huge cheer from everyone when he finished."

Clearly, William has inherited something of his mother's ability to connect with a crowd, even if his contacts with Diana's family have dwindled. Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, sees the boys occasionally, but is welcomed by few other royals, not surprising in view of Spencer's anti-Windsor speech at Diana's funeral. Much the same applies to Diana's erstwhile soul mate Sarah Ferguson, divorced from Prince Andrew but still, bizarrely, sharing a home with her former husband in Berkshire's rolling hills. William is known to be fond of Fergie. Much to the Queen's displeasure, he has even been known to drop in on his aunt and her two daughters - Beatrice, 11, and 10-year-old Eugenie. Alone among the royals, William may even welcome the stunning news, disclosed last week, that Andrew and Fergie are contemplating remarriage.

Increasingly, however, Charles's circle is becoming William's. The young prince is very close to Princess Anne's children from her marriage to Capt. Mark Phillips: her sometimes rebellious daughter, Zara, 19, and her sports-mad son, Peter, 22. During Zara's recent extended stay in Australia, William reportedly corresponded regularly with his feisty cousin. Two other close companions are Tom Parker Bowles, 25, and his sister, Laura, 22, the son and daughter of Diana's old nemesis and Charles's current consort, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Queen still refuses to even meet Camilla - who, pointedly, has not been invited to the June 21 festivities at Windsor Castle despite her relationship with the Prince of Wales.

William, however, has made his peace with Camilla, choosing to bury whatever enmity may have existed between her and his late mother. That, too, may be another measure of the young prince's independent mind. And for some, there are hidden perils in this. "The danger is that William may be given too much say in what he is doing," says Brooks-Baker of Burke's Peerage. "I hope the young man does the right thing because he is going to have the freedom to do the wrong thing. He is going to make mistakes, any one of which could resurrect the cry for an end to the monarchy. That, to me, is going to be the great difficulty." Those fears may be exaggerated. But they are certainly not likely to make the spectacle of watching the young prince mature any less intriguing.

Maclean's May 22, 2000