Few remember it, but it was an instant that captured the whole story. It happened at Buckingham Palace after the 1986 wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson—a great beginning to a sad union. William, four years old and dressed as a 19th-century sailor for the occasion, had run after the newlyweds, tottering dangerously close to their carriage’s big rear wheels. Then the Queen spotted him and scrambled after her grandson, running for several metres before pulling him back. “It was an incredible sight,” one palace employee later said. “Many of us have worked here for years and we have never seen the Queen run before.”
In the tightly scripted world of the British royals, such rare unstudied moments—a brief sprint to collect a beloved boy in danger—are all we have to go on. Everything else lies rich and hidden. And so it is with that most private of relationships, the one between William and Elizabeth II—the second in line to the throne and the Queen herself. The pair are said to be close, yet we have just the slightest of hints to suggest that that’s the case: unlike the pyrotechnics of his mother Diana, princess of Wales, William has somehow managed to lead a life largely sheltered from the prying eyes of the press, and the Queen is a study in circumspection.
Although it’s often Diana who’s cited as the main proponent behind giving William and his younger brother Harry as normal a childhood as possible—lunches at McDonald’s, visits to Disney World—the Queen also encouraged the boys to behave as normal boys do, but in her own way: against the rustic backdrop of her beloved Balmoral Castle, in rugged northeastern Scotland. There, William was free to explore the private 20,000-hectare estate and, under his gruff grandfather’s tutorship, learn to fish for salmon.
When William was 13 years old, he left his parents’ apartments at Kensington Palace to begin at Eton, the prestigious boys school a short walk from Windsor Castle—his grandmother’s favourite residence—that’s educated 19 British prime ministers. Every second Sunday or so, after chapel, the prince would make the 20-minute walk to see his grandmother, telling his Eton fellows he was “off to the WC”—a pun on the British “water closet,” or washroom.
That toilet humour may well have been used to deflect attention from William’s deepening relationship with the Queen, to whom this new proximity suddenly allowed sessions of tea and conversation. Actually, they were the informal beginnings of William’s princely education—where Prince Philip schooled him in the finer points of fishing, the Queen stressed the art of reigning as a constitutional monarch. “Apart from socializing with his grandmother, she’s also given him some very subtle lessons in geography—the countries over which he’ll be one day reigning, hopefully, and all constitutional history,” says royal biographer Brian Hoey. Indeed, his growing closeness to her provided the Queen with the opportunity of moulding William into a link between the royal traditions that she represents—of duty, responsibility and pomp—and the more modern, populist leanings of the mother he so resembles.
“Thank goodness he hasn’t got ears like his father,” the Queen is supposed to have said after first seeing the infant William, a day after his birth—just one of many small indications that the Queen recognizes Diana’s imprint on the boy. The Queen early on knew Diana’s influence extended not just to matters physical, but also to William’s sensitivity and occasional inclination to stubbornness. Out of this raw stuff, the Queen has shaped her grandson into a future monarch with a grand vision of how a king should live—to maintain perspective and stay above the fray.
Nowhere was that personal education more in evidence than in the days following the death of Diana in August 1997. That morning, the Queen informed prime minister Tony Blair that no member of the royal family would speak publicly on the tragedy. Diana’s boys would remain under her protection outside the public eye at Balmoral. “Caught between the private and the public, the Queen’s response was to fall back on what had always been her defence in times of stress: routine and protocol,” writes Ben Pimlott in The Queen.
Yet Windsor tradition gave no guidance in the case of Diana, whose divorce from Charles a year earlier left her status uncertain. At Balmoral, the flags stayed at full mast; the masts were altogether flagless at Buckingham Palace (custom says the sovereign’s standard flies only when she’s in residence). Public reaction was swift. Writes the Mail on Sunday’s royal correspondent, Katie Nicholl, of the Queen’s move to shelter and comfort the boys and shun the public: “It was the first time in her reign that she put her family before duty and it cost her dearly.”
The Queen’s grandsons soon helped right the course of the house of Windsor’s listing public relations tack. On Sept. 4, five days after Diana’s death, the Queen, the two boys, Charles and Prince Philip left Balmoral to view the flowers placed by mourners outside the gates, their first public admission that something unspeakable had happened. The following day, they all returned to London, where the Queen stopped outside Buckingham Palace with her husband to take in the offerings left by the grief-stricken. That same day, William and Harry greeted mourners at Kensington Palace, and the Queen delivered a live television address on the subject of Diana’s death: “What I say to you now as your Queen, and as a grandmother, I say from my heart…”
That night, the Queen arranged for a family dinner. William, then 15 years old, had been reluctant to follow his mother’s coffin on that long, public walk to Westminster Abbey. It was Prince Philip who convinced William to walk behind his mother’s coffin. “Philip said, ‘If you walk, William, I’ll walk with you.’ William said, ‘Okay, we’ll go together.’ And that’s what happened,” Hoey recounts.
Despite a pledge by Charles Spencer, Diana’s brother, during her funeral that, as their “blood family,” the Spencers would “continue the imaginative way” Diana had been rearing her boys, so their “souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly”—William’s relationship with the Queen only deepened. According to Nicholl, he continued his habit of writing letters to her during his gap year, travelling in South America, beginning them, “Dearest Grandmama,” but this time leaving them with fishermen along the way to mail on his behalf—a romantic gesture worthy of his mother. Somehow all the letters reached her.
Now 28 years old, William is three years older than his grandmother was when she became Queen. He has been permitted more of a private life than she or even his father Charles were allowed. Still, he has not been without oversight. The Queen is said to have been irked by William and Harry’s high-octane clubbing and to have kept close tabs on “the girls in William’s life”—why not, after a lifetime of embarrassing headlines with the likes of Diana and Fergie. Yet it’s a relationship not without a sense of fun. In 2006, as the Queen inspected cadets during the passing out ceremonies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, she and William—one of the graduates that day—nearly dissolved into giggles.
With his upcoming wedding and, in a few years, his departure from the military, William will emerge more and more as a public figure—as the future king. Many believe the architect of his emergence as a public, adult royal is his grandmother, one of the few in his universe that William, who has a reputation for stubbornness and keeping his own counsel, heeds. “William respects her opinion enormously,” a courtier told one British reporter. The feeling remains mutual. Hoey, in his biography of Zara Phillips, Princess Anne’s daughter and William’s cousin, notes that few people can just pick up a phone and get hold of the Queen, but that in “palace circles it is said that Her Majesty has given strict instructions that only three people are allowed to be connected to her at any time”—one is her horse-racing manager, the others Zara and William.
At 85—her birthday is this week—the Queen has slowed down noticeably, with Charles picking up more and more of what were traditionally her engagements. William, too, will play a role. The wedding, which the Queen is said to have offered to pay for, signals his departure from the cloistered world of childhood and his entrance into the public one of royal responsibility. “She very much believes that the future of the monarchy lies in William,” one source told Nicholl. The Queen will very likely start the process by giving William a new title—reports have suggested she will give him a dukedom.
But many believe his duties will grow to the extent that he becomes a sort of shadow king—not eclipsing Charles as the Queen recedes, but certainly taking on a larger role than other Windsors. William will not balk; he has learned too much from his grandmother. As Peter Archer, the British Press Association’s royal correspondent, once told Vanity Fair, William has “come to terms with his destiny. The whole family is about duty. And William’s duty is to become king.”
Years ago, in a rare in-depth interview, William focused on these questions head-on; his comments serve to show how much his love for his grandmother intertwines with his sense of himself as future king. “You only have to look at my grandmother and see the amazing things she’s done. That to me is a huge inspiration…She’s a huge role model for me—she’s incredible—and in the family she’s one of the biggest role models I have, along with my father.” He added of himself: “All these questions about, ‘Do you want to be king?’ It’s not a question of wanting to be, it’s something I was born into and it’s my duty. Wanting is not the right word. But those stories about me not wanting to be king are all wrong. It’s a very important role and one that I don’t take lightly.”
When, earlier this month, William showed the Queen and Prince Philip around RAF Valley, in northern Wales, where he is based as a search and rescue helicopter pilot, he made no attempt to hide his affection for his grandparents—and especially the Queen.
And for the Queen, it must have been a nostalgic trip. Kate Middleton will soon join William as his wife at RAF Valley, much as the Queen had done in 1949 when she joined Philip on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where he was serving on HMS Chequers and later commanded the Magpie. The Queen has said her time there with Philip was one of the happiest periods in her life—a most normal time. No doubt she could hope for nothing less for her William.