The world has seen Prince William go from being a child with a towed head to an air and sea rescue pilot to a bald father of three.
But when he turns 40 this Tuesday, William is making the biggest change so far: taking on an increasingly central role in the royal family as he prepares for his eventual accession to the throne.
That became clear two weeks ago when William took center stage at the extravagant concert commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s 70th year on the throne, praising his grandmother as an environmental pioneer as he called for action on climate change.
“Tonight was full of such optimism and joy, and there is hope,” he said, as images of wildlife, oceans and jungles behind him were projected on the walls of Buckingham Palace. “Together, if we make the most of humanity, and restore our planet, we will protect it for our children, for our grandchildren, and for future generations.”
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Slowed down by age and health problems, the 96-year-old queen is gradually handing over more responsibilities to her son and heir, Prince Charles. That, in turn, gives William, his eldest son, a more important role to play and more opportunities to put him in a new generation of the monarchy.
“William has been very interested in showing how he will treat things differently,” said royal expert Pauline Maclaran, author of “Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture.”
“And so we see that more and more, where the future of the line is emphasized, with Charles it puts more in a kind of holding position for William. We always remember that William is behind Charles,” he added.
William’s position as heir to the throne was sealed, of course, at his birth on June 21, 1982, the first son of Charles and the late Princess Diana. That put him in the public eye from the moment Charles and Diana presented him to the television cameras outside the Lindo wing of St. Paul’s Hospital. Mary’s of London.
The world watched William from his school days in London to his courtship with Kate Middleton at St. Paul’s University. Andrews in Scotland and his spectacular marriage at Westminster Abbey.
He paraded in front of the cameras once again when he graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, then moved into active service in the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force. He eventually became a civilian air ambulance pilot before moving on to full-time actual assignments five years ago.
His charities and causes, from mental health to the environment, gave clues as to what kind of monarch he might one day be.
But events just before and during the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations began to give a clearer indication of William’s vision of the future.
William and Kate represented the Queen last March on an eight-day tour of Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, three of the 14 independent countries where the British monarch still serves as head of state.
They met with bands and gala dinners, but also with demonstrations by protesters demanding reparations for Britain’s role in enslaving millions of Africans. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the royal family that his country intended to become a republic, severing ties with the monarchy.
After the trip, the royal youths were criticized as “deaf” for perpetuating images of British colonial rule.
But instead of resorting to the traditional Windsor House response to “never complain, never explain,” William took the unusual step of issuing a statement in which he reflected on everything that had happened.
“I know this tour has focused even more questions on the past and the future,” William said. “In Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, that future is up to the people.”
“Catherine and I are committed to service,” he continued. “For us, that’s not about telling people what to do. It’s about caring for them and supporting them in the way they think is best.”
That desire to be accessible is critical to the House of Windsor, as it seeks to remain relevant to young people and consolidate their role in British society, Maclaran said.
“It is important for William to show that there will be changes in the monarchy,” he said. “Otherwise, you know, I suspect he really can’t survive.”
William at 40: A Birthday Marked in a Life Under Scrutiny
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