SEPTEMBER 9, 2022
LONDON — With the queen’s death, the pressure-cooker role of heir to the British throne moves to Prince William, a largely popular royal whose sober and straight image is more in line with that of his grandmother than his father, and now king, Charles III.
Like both father and grandmother, Prince William has moved headlong into the traditional royal role of public visits, causes and ceremonies and bolstering Britain’s image abroad. The 40-year-old has followed his father in developing more personal causes, like the environment, than his famously neutral grandmother.
But Prince William also cuts a less opinionated and eccentric figure than the wisecracking King Charles, whose popularity suffered a lasting dent from public perception that he was a poor husband to Diana, Princess of Wales, William’s mother.
Prince William’s popularity as heir could be pivotal for the royal family as it navigates the end of the reign of the widely respected Queen Elizabeth II at a time when Britain’s influence in its former colonies continues to recede and in some instances is overtaken by a groundswell toward becoming republics. With Charles taking the throne at the age of 73, he will also likely have to wait less time than his father before becoming king.
“Prince Charles might have waited for 70 years to finish the world’s longest apprenticeship, but in reality he won’t be King for long,” said Duncan Larcombe, the former royal editor of Britain’s the Sun newspaper.
“Once the dust settles, we will see Charles’ role as one of a holding monarch, for when Prince William comes to the throne,” Mr. Larcombe said.
Prince William’s journey to global attention came at an early age, when his mother was killed in a car crash in August 1997. William, then 15, was staying at Scotland’s Balmoral Castle, the royal residence where his grandmother died on Thursday. With a striking physical resemblance to Diana, and the same shyness, William soon became a popular royal, even if he lacked what appeared to be his younger brother, Harry’s, scene-stealing common touch.
William remains popular, even as the British public has turned from his brother, who with his wife, U.S. actor Meghan Markle, has been critical of the royal family.
In May, Prince William polled as the second most popular member of the royal family, behind his grandmother, with 75% of those asked saying they had a positive opinion of him, according to pollsters YouGov. That was ahead of his father with 54% and Harry, who had 32%.
Prince William, now styled the Prince of Wales, followed the well-trodden path of male British royals for much of his life. He went to a top fee-paying school, a prestigious university, completed service with the military for a period and often socialized with aristocrats.
The prince, though, differed in important respects, marrying a middle-class woman, Kate Middleton, and talking openly about personal issues, in particular mental health. In a 2019 interview, Prince William talked of “pain like no other pain” after the death of his mother and last year did a podcast where he spoke about falling into a deep depression after seeing the effects of a car accident on a young boy while working in air ambulances.
Prince William also avoided the more scandalized social life of British heirs of yesteryear, or his brother, Harry, and uncle, Prince Andrew. While his brother was a frequent source of British tabloid stories, for a stream of glamorous partners and antics that included a game of strip poker, William largely abstained from such behavior.
While that has led some Brits to dub him bland, it might also serve him well for a life in which his grandmother showed how diplomacy and neutrality were the most essential attributes.
In his sense of public duty, William mirrors King Charles and the late queen, commentators say. But he differs in other ways from his father, with whom these commentators say he has a very close personal relationship.
“Charles has very firm views on everything affecting his future subjects and the world. He is a more quizzical and introspective figure than Prince William, who plays his cards close to his chest,” said Robert Hardman, who has written several books about the royal family.
Mr. Hardman said, for instance, that Charles gets moved by art, culture and music, which William hasn’t displayed signs of doing.
His father’s brand was badly tarnished over what some people see as poor treatment of Princess Diana, including an extramarital affair with his now wife, Camilla, Queen Consort. Prince William, however, benefits from being the son of Princess Diana, who remains mainly popular in the U.K. and whom he physically resembled as a boy and younger man.
Despite his sober image, Prince William also follows his mother in seeing the benefits of connecting with a younger audience.
As a teenager, he exchanged emails with Britney Spears. He talked about mental health with Lady Gaga. And in 2013, he was dragged on stage by Taylor Swift to sing the Bon Jovi song “Living on a Prayer,” a moment he later described as excruciating. Mr. Larcombe said that in his experience of dealing with William as a royal reporter he found him a fun character who was notorious for his practical jokes, a lighter side he believes that will gradually come out again.
Like his father, Prince William has also always been acutely aware of the multiethnic nature of modern Britain and how the global landscape is evolving.
A tour earlier this year of Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean didn’t go well for the then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Some locals demanded an apology for Britain’s role in the slave trade and the prime minister of Jamaica told the future king his country would be “moving on” and becoming a republic.
Prince William also faces continuing tensions with Harry and his wife, Meghan, which could spill into the public again. The once-close relationship between the brothers has been all but destroyed by the now U.S.-based couple’s criticism of the royal family, which hurt the institution’s image abroad, royal commentators say. A spokesperson for the Prince of Wales didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
Still, Michael Howard, the former leader of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, said that while King Charles and William will differ somewhat in their approach to being monarch from the late queen and each other, their essential role remains the same.
“They will be different within the essential hallmarks of the [modern] monarchy, such as duty and neutrality,” he said. “It is a crucial part of the sense of continuity which we have as a nation.”