Exhausted and chilled, with a hard wind blowing up from the Thames, William of Wales curled tighter in his sleeping bag to fend off the -4° C cold. He wore a wool hat and grey hoodie, but this was a world away from his bedroom at Clarence House, his official residence near Buckingham Palace. Only a length of cardboard, laid amid dumpsters and ventilation grates near London’s Blackfriars Bridge, protected him from the icy sidewalk.
It was a stunt, of course. Prince William “slept rough” in an alley last December to gain an understanding of the plight of the homeless, and to raise money for Centrepoint, a charity supporting poverty stricken youth once patronized by his mother Diana. But the event spoke eloquently to the prince’s defining traits: his doggedness, his sense of civic duty, his resolve to gain enlightenment through adversity. “I cannot, after one night, even begin to imagine what it must be like to sleep on London’s streets night after night,” he said later in a statement.
The storybook prince who will meet Kate Middleton at the end of the aisle next spring will represent a mere facade of the sovereign-in-waiting William has become. Against considerable odds, he has achieved the rare equilibrium that evaded both of his parents, maintaining reserve while projecting himself as having both feet in the real world. Rescue pilot, partygoer, scholar, sportsman, dutiful son: William has played all of these parts in his 28 years, gaining what publicists might call “positives” in each role. It is hard, then, to imagine someone better suited to the mantle of prospective king. “William’s copybook remains unblotted,” wrote biographer Peter Archer in 2003, in a line that rings as true today. “And while his popular image as a handsome young prince in touch with the people provides the royal soap opera with a genuine hero, William remains the monarchy’s hope and future.”
Keeping that clean record cannot have been easy. William was born, after all, into a marriage that would soon break down, notwithstanding outward images of a happy royal household with a twinkling, blond boy-prince at its centre. By his first day of primary school in 1987, his parents’ relationship had hit choppy waters, and William was 10 when news of his father’s infidelity became public, precipitating his parents’ official separation. In the great British tradition, life went on. He and his little brother Harry navigated their bizarre world of prep school, velvet ropes and paparazzi, and in 1995 William entered Eton College, where he would become a prefect and achieve A-levels in geography, biology and art history.
How the death of their mother on Aug. 31, 1997, influenced William’s outlook on his world is a matter of great debate. The enduring image of that period is of a lanky teen keeping a stiff upper lip as he followed Diana’s funeral cortège through the streets of central London. He showed few signs of misery and for years avoided public comment on the loss of his mother. Yet in 2007, in an interview on the BBC, he was moved to offer a heartfelt tribute. “She was wonderful, and there’s no amount of words Harry or I could tell you now that would portray that,” he told interviewer Fearne Cotton. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about her and miss her influence.”
Both Buckingham Palace and William himself fought to protect the boys’ privacy after Diana’s death. But the global appetite for fairy-tale princes would not be denied. On a tour of Canada in 1998, he and Harry were mobbed by screaming girls in a scene that appeared to embarrass them both. Even then it was clear William was uneasy in the role of teen idol. By then, he was showing increasing affinity for his grandfather the duke of Edinburgh’s more conventional, if politically incorrect, mode of royal deportment. Rugby, polo, fishing and hunting filled the time William didn’t spend at his studies or in minor ceremonial duties for the palace. In 1999, he rankled animal activists (and endeared himself to traditionalists) when he was photographed participating in a fox hunt in the Gloucestershire countryside. In 2004, the British government banned the sport.
That’s not to say William is hidebound, or unable to cut loose. During his gap year after Eton, he allowed himself to be filmed, dishevelled and under-rested, as he helped build walkways and outbuildings in remote Patagonia. He played soccer with fishermen on the beach, and salsa danced late into the night. He shrugged off the ribbing of his fellow workers, who nicknamed him “Little Princess.” And at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, he left chums with more than a few memories of princely partying in the process of obtaining a geography degree. Back in London, staff at a Mayfair nightclub called Mahiki divulged William and Harry’s affinity for a treat known as the Treasure Chest—a wooden box filled with ice, chopped fruit, a half-litre of vodka and a bottle of champagne.
It was at St. Andrews, of course, that he met his fiancée, Kate Middleton, with whom he shared a quad-style cottage along with several other students. Their romance budded despite William’s increasing focus on his studies, and a sense of duty that by this time clearly ran in his veins. “Received wisdom has it that William is quieter and more guarded than his younger brother, who grew up unburdened by the pressure of having to one day assume high office,” wrote the journalist Guy Adams three years ago. That sense of tradition and duty led him to enrol at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Today, he’s flying Sea King helicopters on search-and-rescue missions from a base in Wales.
It is not so much a pastime as a full-on career, the sort of thing chosen by a man for whom the ceremonial duties and notional powers of a modern British monarch simply won’t be enough. That ambition may give rise at times to stage-managed hokum (how much, really, did he learn from his Blackfriars sleepover?). Still, a willingness to consider what he doesn’t know seems no small virtue in a prospective monarch. At the very least, it is a valuable trait in a future husband.