Tuesday 21st June will be an exciting day in the Cambridge household, as Prince William celebrates his 40th birthday. We know that his youngest child, Prince Louis, loves a party, and the Cambridge children also showed off their baking skills during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations – so no doubt William will be in for some surprises!
However, if we reflect on the new photo of The Duke of Cambridge and his three children released to celebrate Father’s Day this past weekend, or William’s obvious pride as he watched his family during the recent Jubilee celebrations, it’s worth considering just how much the second-in-line to the throne has changed in recent years.
Having grown up in the spotlight, it’s unsurprising that the public opinion of the Duke has changed throughout his lifetime. As the first child of Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, it seemed inevitable that the young Prince – the future King – would be a Golden Child, beloved by the British public, and even those further afield.
However, despite his privileged lifestyle, William’s young life was marred by troubles. He was an active witness to the implosion of his parents’ marriage, often serving as a shoulder to cry on for Diana during her struggles. Further tragedy was yet to come when he lost his mother at the age of 15; the sight of her two teenaged sons walking behind the coffin is one that has stayed with the public, and will continue to endure.
In the last few years, William has spoken about the grief he felt after losing Diana, most recently during the opening of the Manchester Bombing memorial, which the Duke attended alongside his wife Catherine. In the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death, the young Prince finished his school years under his father’s care and largely remained out of the spotlight when possible.
In addition to coming to terms with his mother’s unexpected death, the young Royal faced a new challenge: alongside the intense media scrutiny that William was learning to accept as an heir to the throne, the press went wild over his good looks. The frenzy over the “heartthrob” Prince, which began during a 1998 tour to Canada, began to spiral: when it was announced in 2001 that he would attend St Andrew’s, applications to the University rose by 44% in what was dubbed the ‘Prince William effect’.
While both of Diana’s sons blame the paparazzi for playing a significant role in her death, the press scrutiny rose to new heights when it was revealed that the young Prince was dating a fellow student, Catherine ‘Kate’ Middleton. Now the target was not just William himself, but extended to the Middleton family.
As well as being hounded by paparazzi in the streets, they faced cruel headlines, mocking Carole for working as a flight attendant, and eventually dubbing the future Duchess of Cambridge as ‘Waitey Katie’ as she and William dated for eight years before announcing their engagement.
During the televised engagement interview, they both seemed excited but nervous, with William watching protectively over his future bride.
The 2011 wedding of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge marked a clear change in William. Members of the public were entranced by the young couple, with huge crowds flocking to London for the occasion and millions watching all across the world.
We watched the Cambridges take their first steps in royal life, during tours, the London Olympics and The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. The UK rejoiced when they welcomed their first son, Prince George, back in 2013, and celebrated when his siblings Charlotte and Louis joined the family in the following years.
During their early years as Duke and Duchess, the couple largely focused on William’s career in the RAF, completing royal duties when necessary, but enjoying their time as a ‘normal’ family – just as The Queen and Prince Philip did in Malta during the early years of their marriage.
When undertaking engagements, Prince William’s focus appeared to be on protecting his wife, who was finding her way in the royal world, and avoiding unnecessary interactions with the press. To the public, while obviously in love with Kate, William appeared to be quite cold, and unemotional – a distant figure reminiscent of previous generations of Royals.
However, in the past few years, we have seen a radically different side to The Duke of Cambridge. We’ve seen William crack jokes during engagements, often when Catherine spots a baby in the crowd and he tries to distract her before she gets broody. Both Cambridges have shown their fiercely competitive sides on numerous occasions, during sailing regattas, rowing races, and even while making a roulade with TV chef Mary Berry!
The Duke has stepped out of the traditional themes for royal duties and created impressive initiatives, which will no doubt have a long-lasting impact on society, including his work with football clubs on Heads Up, or the Earthshot Prize Awards. William has helped to carry out his mother’s legacy, mostly recently selling Big Issues newspapers incognito on the streets on London, and has also furthered a cause close to both his father and late grandfather, Prince Philip, with his environmental initiatives.
As well as his own causes, William has watched proudly as Catherine has shaped her own pathway in the Royal Family, whether at the Chelsea Flower Show or 2021’s Christmas Concert at Westminster Abbey, ten years after their wedding at the same venue.
From the glimpses of family life that the public have seen, it’s clear William is a hands-on father: he’s celebrated with George at football games, played with balloons with Charlotte and arranged for Louis to sit on his grandfather’s lap during the Platinum Jubilee Pagaent. Whenever anyone gives the Duke with presents for his children during royal visits, William seems to be genuinely delighted – especially if it’s football-related!
The shy, reserved young Prince has grown into a confident, passionate husband and father-of-three, who is not afraid to defend his family in public, whether he’s fielding difficult questions from the press (who can forget the “We are very much not a racist family” after Meghan and Harry’s explosive Oprah interview?), placing a protective hand on Catherine’s back, or comforting his small children. Many have speculated that Catherine herself is the reason behind the change in William, and while there’s no doubt that he appears to be reassured and comfortable in her company, I truly believe it goes beyond that: it’s simply his time.
Recent changes in the Royal Family set-up have led to William and his immediate family unit taking on a more prominent role, while The Queen’s fragile health is highlighting the shifts we will see in the not-so-distant future. We’ve already had our first glimpse of William as The Prince of Wales, as he accompanied his father to the State Opening of Parliament earlier this year. Just like his grandmother, we’ve also seen hints that The Duke is not afraid to prioritise his duty over family ties: he was a key player at the Sandringham Summit, helping to decide on the future roles of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and it’s reported that William was strongly against The Duke of York attending Garter Day last week (Andrew later pulled out of the public events).
What exactly does the future hold for The Duke of Cambridge? Will we continue to see him evolve? Let’s wait for the next few years to see what lies ahead…