LONDON — The world has watched Prince William grow from a disheveled schoolboy to a heroic sea and air rescue pilot to a bald father of three.
But as he turns 40 on Tuesday, William is making his biggest change yet: an increasingly important role in the royal family as he prepares for his eventual ascent to the throne.
This was evident two weeks ago when William took to the stage at a gala concert marking the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, praising his grandmother as an environmental trailblazer in his call for action on climate change.
“Tonight was filled with so much optimism and joy – and there was hope,” he said, as images of wildlife, sea and jungle projected on the walls of Buckingham Palace behind him. “If we come together to use the best of humanity and restore our planet, we will protect it for our children and grandchildren for generations to come.”
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Due to age and health issues, the 96-year-old queen is gradually handing more responsibilities to her son and heir Prince Charles. This, in turn, gave his eldest son William a bigger role and more opportunity to leave his mark on a new generation of the monarchy.
“William has always been very keen to show how he would have approached things differently,” says royal expert Pauline McClarland, author of Royal Mania: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture.
“So we’re seeing more and more that the future of the line is highlighted and Charles is put more in William’s place. We’re always reminded that William is following Charles,” she added.
William’s status as eventual heir to the throne was of course established when he was born on June 21, 1982, the eldest son of Charles and the late Princess Diana. He was in the public eye from the moment Charles and Diana showed him to TV cameras outside the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London.
The world has watched William, from his student days in London, to his courtship with Kate Middleton at St Andrews University in Scotland, to their lavish wedding at Westminster Abbey.
When he graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he marched in front of the camera again before going on to serve in the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force. He eventually became a civilian air ambulance pilot before taking on a full-time royal role five years ago.
His philanthropy and career – from mental health to the environment – has hinted at what kind of monarch he might one day be.
But events just before and during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations are starting to make clearer William’s vision for the future.
In March last year, William and Kate represented the Queen on an eight-day visit to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, three of the 14 independent countries where the British monarch still serves as head of state.
They were met with brass bands and dinners, but there were also protesters demonstrating to demand compensation for Britain’s role in enslaving millions of Africans. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness has told members of the royal family that his country intends to become a republic, severing ties to the monarchy.
After the trip, the young royals were criticized as “dyphonic” because they perpetuated the image of British colonial rule.
But instead of returning to the Windsor family’s traditional “never complain, never explain” response, William took the unusual step of issuing a statement reflecting what had happened.
“I know this tour brings sharper focus questions about the past and the future,” William said. “In Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, the future is up to the people.”
“Katherine and I are committed to service,” he continued. “For us, it’s not about telling people what to do. It’s about serving them and supporting them in the way they think is best.”
Maclaran said this willingness to be approachable was crucial for Windsor Palace as it sought to connect with young people and cement its role in British society.
“It was important that William showed that the monarchy was going to change,” she said. “Otherwise, you know, I doubt it’s really going to survive.”
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