The Monarchy's Best Hope

The nation embraces Diana's sons

RAE CORELLI September 15 1997

The Monarchy's Best Hope

The nation embraces Diana's sons

RAE CORELLI September 15 1997

He is too young to vote, too young to drive legally, years away from completing his schooling. For a third of his life, he and his younger brother have been part of a broken home, unwilling extras in a drama of repudiated vows and forgotten dreams.

But last week, in the wake of sudden and immeasurable loss, he found himself wrenched from the wings to centre stage. As millions around the world shared Britain’s mourning for the Princess of Wales, palace-watchers had already begun speculating that Diana’s 15-year-old son, Prince William, may be the last best hope for a monarchy battered by decades of acrimony, lurid divorces and adulterous affairs. Two weeks before his mother’s death, London’s Daily Express editorialized: “William showed the qualities which single him out as the Royal Family’s potential savior.”

Britons grieving for Diana embraced William and his brother Harry, 13 next week, in an outpouring of compassion and protectiveness—which initially appeared to deepen a growing hostility towards their father, Prince Charles. “He’s really hated now,” said Anthony Holden, author of several books on the Royal Family. “It’s unbelievable.” The widespread ill feeling towards Charles has led some commentators to suggest that he yield the front of the line for the throne to William. Diana herself said she hoped William, not her adulterous ex-husband, would become king.

Royal biographer Sarah Bradford says, however, although the teenager seemed to have withstood his parents’ breakup with “remarkable strength,” the “burden of the monarchy is still a long way from falling on his shoulders.” Nor is it likely that Charles, 50 next year, would easily forgo something he has waited his whole adult life to attain. At the same time, the shy, studious William—a worlds-apart contrast to rollicking, fun-loving, irreverent Harry—has exhibited no enthusiasm for the job.

But the nation clearly has unbounded enthusiasm for him. That growing affection has been shaped by stories that, ironically, are often more revealing about his parents. In June, 1991, William was taken to hospital after being hit on the head by a golf club at boarding school. While he was waiting for an operation to reduce a skull fracture—the task would take surgeons more than an hour—Charles got up and left to host a visiting European delegation. A friend of Diana’s told biographer Andrew Morton: “She wasn’t surprised. It merely confirmed everything she thought about him.”

After the marriage collapsed in 1992, William and Harry travelled back and forth between their parents. Diana hugged, patted and laughed with them in public, a demonstrativeness frowned on by the palace. Charles frequently greeted them by solemnly shaking hands. (Wrote London Sun columnist Deirdre Sanders last week in an open letter to Charles: “Please, give them a cuddle.”) When the boys spent time with their father, he talked of royal history and tradition and hiked with them in the countryside near Balmoral. Sometimes they went fishing or hunting.

Diana, on the other hand, took them on rafting expeditions, to movies, fun fairs and fast-food restaurants. “I will fight for my children on any level in order for them to be happy and have peace of mind,” she once said. Because she wanted them to “have an understanding of people’s emotions, distress and dreams,” they visited the homeless and talked with AIDS victims. Yet William was no stranger to emotion at home. He once pushed paper tissues beneath the bathroom door when he heard his mother crying after a quarrel with Charles.

Media interest in blond, blue-eyed William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor rose sharply when he was enrolled at 500-year-old Eton college (annual tuition: $26,000 a year) in the fall of 1995. In October, the teenage magazine Smash Hits included a full-color pullout picture of him in a blue blazer—and sales soared. “We’d been sitting around thinking ‘he’s quite a goodlooking lad and has potential as a pin-up,’ ” said editor Kate Thornton. Sales boomed again the following May when Smash Hits included “I love Willy” stickers. The tabloid Sun proclaimed William “a smasher.” Another teen magazine, Live & Kicking, published the ‘Top 10 reasons why Prince Wills is cool!” Wills, as Diana called him, was embarrassed, friends said. Still, shadowed by Scotland Yard detectives, he danced at a London night club and is reported to have told Diana afterward: “Lots of girls tried to kiss me, but I didn’t do anything because the cameras are everywhere.” He soon stopped going to parties.

That experience likely increased William's profound distaste for the media, particularly photographers and TV crews, partly because of his innate shyness and partly because of the way they hounded his mother. After the Queen Mother’s tea party for Eton boys in June, William walked backwards to his father’s sports car to avoid having his picture taken. On a holiday in Spain, he hid behind a beach towel. When the family gathered to celebrate the Queen Mother’s 97th birthday earlier this year, he tried to hide in the rear of the group. Ordered to take his place with Charles and Harry, he turned his face away from the camera.

But palace insiders say the brash, energetic Harry has never feared the cameras. Said one: “He takes everything in stride with a smile, nothing fazes him.” While William prefers to ride or play team sports, Harry—who worships his older brother—has become an intrepid skier and, at a younger age, a reckless go-cart driver. A more frequent target of reprimands, Harry would mimic his critic and run away giggling. When family members joked that Harry, a playboy prince in the making, should be given the role that William finds so unappealing, his younger brother laughed: “I’d love it!”

For years, according to intimates, Diana saw her sons living vastly different lives. “She was very conscious that both had a role to play,” said Rosa Monckton, a close friend. “She was grooming Prince Harry to be of support to his brother.” But William perhaps saw that relationship the other way around. Only hours before her death, Diana got a phone call from William, upset that a palace command to be photographed at Eton would place him unfairly in the spotlight by excluding Harry, a student at Ludgrove school in Berkshire.

William’s hostility to the media worries the palace—and the media. London Daily Telegraph columnist Robert Hardman wrote early last week that if photographers were eventually shown to have contributed to Diana’s death, “few would blame him for turning his back on them forever.” However, added Hardman, “for a future king to harbor such a loathing for the public eye could damage the monarchy.” In an editorial, the newspaper said that if William feared the media and sought revenge, “all this misery will carry on into another generation with great harm to the country we hope he will rule.” Meanwhile, the government-appointed committee that monitors the conduct of Britain’s newspapers served notice that it would not tolerate intrusive media-tracking of William and Harry. Newspapers agreed among themselves to refrain from the aggressiveness with which they had pursued Diana.

But if the princess never fully accepted that endless encounters with reporters and photographers went with the job, she had learned to handle them skilfully—and hoped William would do the same. In a June 23 interview with New Yorker magazine editor Tina Brown, she said she wished her elder son could acquire the media savvy of John Kennedy Jr. “All my hopes are on William now,” she told Brown. “I think he has it, I think he understands. I’m hoping he’ll grow up to be as smart about it as John is. I want William to handle things as well as John does.” Next week, William will start his third year at Eton while Harry enters his final year at Ludgrove. They will be consoled by classmates and counsellors and clergymen. One day, they will need to acknowledge and accept their own celebrity and perhaps employ the polished media know-how of JFK Jr.—or their own mother. But for the time being, what they will need most of all is each other.