The sight of the floppy-haired teenager walking so solemnly behind his mother’s coffin is one that few will ever forget. But that same boy, Prince William, will be 40 in June. It’s an age that is in the foothills of middle age, the prime of a man’s life – a good time to assess what Britain’s monarch-in-waiting is really like.
As a royal author and reporter for more than 30 years, I’ve met William many times. I’ve watched him develop from a slightly awkward young man into one who’s decisive and self-confident.
And I’ve also made contact with numerous Royal aides and courtiers, who have mostly spoken about him off the record.
The first thing to be said is that there’s little doubt that William will be a very different sort of monarch from his father or grandmother.
He changed his son George’s first nappy, still plays five-a-side football (in Aston Villa socks) and believes it would be ‘absolutely fine’ if one of his children told him they were gay.
Like many of his generation, William is passionately concerned about climate change and about those far less fortunate than himself. Once he inherits the vast Duchy of Cornwall from his father, he says, he’ll look into using Royal property to house the homeless.
Year by year, the personality of this very modern prince is slowly emerging. Even so, he remains an intensely private man who guards most aspects of his personal life jealously.
William’s relationship with his father has at times been strained. In fact, until the painful fallout of Harry’s departure from the Royal fold, Prince Charles was much closer to his younger son than his heir. While Harry used to talk with his ‘Pa’ for hours, William was more stand-offish.
The sight of the floppy-haired teenager walking so solemnly behind his mother’s coffin is one that few will ever forget. But that same boy, Prince William, will be 40 in June
Occasionally, it has needed his wife Catherine’s deft diplomatic touch to smooth things over between father and son.
Even their mutual passion for the environment has somehow managed to lay bare their differences.
According to one aide: ‘The Duke of Cambridge has done a brilliant job, injecting hope into the debate over climate change, instead of always saying we’re at the cliff edge. His initiative [the Earthshot Prize competition] is about finding ways to stop and slow the damage. The Prince of Wales, while passionate, offers a doomsday scenario.’
To this day, Charles admits he often finds it difficult to gauge both William and Harry’s occasionally unpredictable moods.
‘They both have quite extreme mood swings, just as Diana did,’ said a former courtier. ‘She could be your best friend one minute and the next your worst enemy.’
In private, the Duke of Cambridge has a notably short fuse. His fiery temper can blow up at any time – usually when he’s frustrated or when it comes to issues regarding his family.
Even senior members of his circle will ‘check which way the wind is blowing’ before becoming too self-assured in his presence or raising problematic issues that might be better addressed at another time. Other insiders confide that William can be an emotional character who is, on occasion, ‘difficult to handle’.
In common with many other established couples, he and Catherine – whom he married in 2011 but has been dating since around 2003 – are known to have heated exchanges from time to time.
The Duke and Duchess with their three children Prince George (left), Princess Charlotte (right) and Prince Louis at Anmer Hall in Norfolk in December 2020
The Duke of Sussex at the Invictus Games closing ceremony at the Zuiderpark, in The Hague, Netherlands
‘He can be a bit of a shouter when he loses it,’ one close aide admitted. ‘It’s fair to say the Duke and the Duchess give as good as they get if their disagreement results in raised voices.
‘But they know each other so well, it usually blows over quickly – and she is, on the whole, a major calming influence on him.’
Catherine has certainly helped him mature, and her middle-class roots have helped keep him grounded. When they lived together for three years before their marriage, for instance, she did all the cooking and employed no domestic help. Even now, she shares the morning school run with William.
It’s also largely down to Catherine that William has changed his view of the media, accepting that the Royal Family rely on it for their existence. That’s why the birthdays of their children are marked with photos – frequently taken by the Duchess of Cambridge herself – and they’re often photographed at public events.
As the couple approach their 11th wedding anniversary next Friday, friends say the key to the marriage’s success is that it’s an equal partnership – even if that involves the occasional blistering row.
‘They’ve got a solid relationship and she gives him confidence,’ one says. ‘There is no jealousy, no friction – they are happy for each other’s successes.’
Sometimes, the level of William’s belligerence has shocked his father, who’s always loathed confrontation. The result is that Charles tends to tread carefully when dealing with his heir, and fails to pull him up on his lack of respect.
This is a peculiarly Royal problem. Charles has always been a stickler about showing deference to the Queen and her office, while his sons have rarely shown proper deference to him as King-in-waiting.
As a senior former member of the Royal Household explains, William sometimes appears to forget that there’s a hierarchy in which he ranks below his father. ‘When it comes to his father, it is as if William thinks they are, as direct heirs to the throne, on a level.’
He changed his son George’s first nappy, still plays five-a-side football (in Aston Villa socks) and believes it would be ‘absolutely fine’ if one of his children told him they were gay
Harry, 37, was speaking to breakfast show Today (pictured above, with presenter Hoda Kotb) from the Invictus Games in the Netherlands, where he is spending the week after flying in from California with wife Meghan
Prince William, Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Meghan Camilla and the Duchess of Cambridge follow the Queen during the annual Commonwealth Service in London on March 9, 2020
Another well-placed source agreed: ‘Deference doesn’t appear to be in his vocabulary when it comes to his father.’
The Duchess of Cornwall, however, is not as accommodating as Charles is towards William, nor as conciliatory as Catherine.
She’s also quite prepared to put William in his place when she feels he’s abusing his father’s generosity and kindness.
‘The truth is the Duchess feels it is her duty to protect the Prince of Wales from himself sometimes. He is going to be King, and she doesn’t mind reminding others in the family of that now and again – and that includes his son and heir,’ said a courtier.
Like Charles, Camilla avoids outright confrontation, preferring to drive home the message by subtler means.
Another courtier recalled: ‘I remember one occasion when they were leaving Windsor Castle after a joint event, and the Duke of Cambridge had learned that his father had police outriders from the Special Escort Group for a journey, as his Royal status warranted.
He asked his father if he and Catherine could tag along behind in convoy, making it easy to get through the traffic.
‘The Prince of Wales agreed. But when the Prince and Duchess of Cornwall were kept waiting several minutes by Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall insisted they go without his eldest son in tow.
As William and Catherine emerged, all they could see were the blue flashing lights of the motorbikes disappearing in the distance.’
It’s often assumed that Catherine played the role of mediator when tensions began mounting during the run-up to Harry’s wedding. Not so, says a source close to both brothers: in fact, William himself put the most effort into bridge-building.
‘Every time there was a drama, or a member of staff was on the verge of quitting, William would personally try and sort it out,’ says the source. But even the Prince had his limits, and he reacted rather differently after Meghan was apparently told she wouldn’t be able to wear the tiara she’d picked out from the Queen’s collection.
It was around then that Harry erupted, telling the Queen’s dresser and confidante Angela Kelly: ‘What Meghan wants, she gets.’ When reports of this reached the Queen’s ears, she addressed the issue of Harry’s tiresome behaviour with him personally.
Prince Harry and Meghan visit the sitting volleyball section of the fifth edition of the Invictus Games in The Hague on April 17
The deterioration of relations between the brothers is now well known. It had started when Harry took umbrage at William’s advice to be cautious and take time to get to know his American girlfriend before committing himself.
Later, Meghan had been piqued to find the Cambridges living in far more grandeur than Harry.
After the wedding, there’d been a series of resignations from Meghan’s team, and allegations – which she strongly denies – that she bullied staff. As yet there has been no word of any finding from the inquiry Buckingham Palace subsequently launched.
The stories alarmed William, who has always tried to be polite and cordial to those who work for him. On the rare occasions he’s exploded, he’s always apologised afterwards.
Then, during an official tour of Southern Africa, Harry spoke publicly for the first time about his strained relationship with his brother. At the time, William kept silent but staff were aware of his simmering resentment.
‘To say William felt deeply let down would be an understatement. He wasn’t sure if he could ever fully trust his brother again,’ said one member of his circle.
At the start of 2020, after the Sussexes had announced they wanted a semi-detached Royal role, there was a summit at Sandringham involving William, Harry and Charles to discuss their proposal.
Presumptuously, the Sussexes had seemed to think that the Queen would back their idea, but Harry walked away with very little that had been on his wish list.
William, meanwhile, was said to be seething. After the summit, he went for a long walk with his brother to try to clear the air – but they did not part friends.
Buckingham Palace was left reeling after the prince said in the US TV appearance that his ‘special’ relationship with his grandmother (both pictured in 2019) meant she told him things she would keep from others
What had upset William the most was Harry and Meghan’s surprise launch of their ‘Sussex Royal’ website, which featured their wish list for a part-time, commercial, Royal future. Later, when the Queen decreed they could no longer use the word ‘Royal’ in future ventures, the Sussexes announced on their website: ‘While there is not any jurisdiction by the Monarchy … over the use of the word “Royal” overseas, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex do not intend to use “Sussex Royal” … or … “Royal”.’
‘That was it for William – he felt they’d blindsided the Queen in such an insulting and disrespectful way,’ said a source close to him.
Worse was to come. In the Sussexes’ televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan claimed that Harry, in a conversation with a member of the Royal Family while Meghan was pregnant, had been asked how dark his son’s skin might be. Given that his wife was bi-racial, the implication was that this was a racist remark.
So who said it? The couple subsequently ruled out the Queen and Prince Philip, and I can also rule out Prince Charles. I’ve been told who was responsible, and I’m convinced the remark was made during a light-hearted exchange. As one source told me: ‘It was not meant to be taken seriously, and the entire situation has been taken out of context. What followed is frankly unfair and appalling.’
Not surprisingly, Harry’s remarks infuriated William. ‘We are very much not a racist family,’ he told reporters afterwards.
He was also staggered by his brother’s claim that William and Charles were ‘trapped’ by their roles, and ‘don’t get to leave’. Far from feeling trapped, William told friends, he now fully embraced and understood the path laid out before him.
A senior figure said: ‘He was furious. He thought it was not only bad manners, but frankly bloody rude to make those claims on his behalf, with no authority, and made worse because it was total nonsense.’
The Oprah interview had, in short, destroyed any remaining trust in his younger brother. As far as William was concerned, say friends, Harry had ‘totally lost the plot’.
Harry also risked further fuelling the rift with his estranged brother by stating that their mother Diana beyond the grave because she had ‘done her bit’ with William and his family
In the immediate aftermath, William decided he had to take the lead in helping the Royal Family to form a clear strategy and action plan on how to deal with the renegade Royals. He was, therefore, a key figure in ongoing conversations between the Queen and Charles on how to counter Harry and Meghan’s verbal attacks.
William was also key when it came to dealing with the fallout from the Duke of York’s friendship with the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein – and the civil case being brought by one of his victims, Virginia Giuffre, who alleged Andrew had sex with her while she was under-age.
‘In many ways William was able to take the emotion out of the situation,’ a Royal aide told me.
‘The decision over the Duke of York was very difficult for the Queen and the Prince of Wales. They were obviously closer to Andrew than his nephew was. He could evaluate just how damaging his uncle was to the long-term future of the Monarchy.’
For William, the way ahead was clear: he’d never been particularly close to Andrew, had little sympathy for him and felt that the enduring reputation of the Monarchy was paramount. He was also incensed when he heard his uncle had told a senior female member of the Royal Household to ‘f*** off’ when she offered what she thought was constructive advice on how to deal with the growing crisis. She’d been left close to tears.
The Duke of Cambridge, Prince Charles and Prince Harry looking at a mobile phone during day two of the Invictus Games at Lee Valley Athletics Centre in London
In January, when a federal court judge ruled that Giuffre’s civil case against Andrew had to proceed to trial, William showed he could be ruthless when required.
Until then, Charles had erred on the side of caution. He’d had heart-to-hearts with his brother after the scandal blew up, and believed it was wrong to pre-judge him because everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
So William went straight to the Queen, telling her calmly and clearly that Andrew’s role in the Royal Family had become untenable. She would have to strip him, he said, of his military titles, patronages and use of ‘His Royal Highness’.
Although the Queen continued to believe Andrew was innocent, and was funding his hugely expensive legal team, she agreed – as did Charles. Andrew was out.
Unlike his father, William has cut off all contact with his uncle. A senior source said: ‘There will be no public role or comeback for York, if the Duke of Cambridge has any input on the matter – and let me assure you, he does. He should be banished, as far as Prince William is concerned.’
Friends note that there’s recently been a ‘renaissance’ in Charles and William’s personal relationship – a direct result of having to work together on decisions involving the Monarchy.
Yet many believe that father and son have long had a great deal in common. ‘At William’s wedding, there was a gag in one of the speeches that he was more like his father than he’d ever admit, which made a lot of us laugh,’ said one.
During the interview the prince, who is still sixth in line to the throne, also made clear that he was planning to remain in the US for the foreseeable future and did not see the UK as his ‘home’. Pictured: Harry and Meghan on April 17
‘Part of William’s evolution is that as he’s become closer to his father; he sees their similarities. As their respective destinies get closer, they weigh more heavily on them and strengthen the bond.
The rift with Harry has also brought them closer.’
In the meantime, William has been thinking deeply about his future role. While he hugely admires his grandmother, he’s unlikely to be quite as passive – when his time comes – as Britain’s head of state. He is promising to be ‘more private’, and more likely to be robust in challenging advice.
His last three private secretaries have all worked in government departments, helping William to keep his finger on the political pulse. His latest one, Jean-Christophe Gray, previously served as David Cameron’s spokesman.
Last year, the former Conservative leader Lord Hague was appointed chairman of the Royal Foundation to develop William’s work on mental health, the environment and a raft of new support programmes for key workers.
‘People internationally and nationally respect his credibility and knowledge on these issues,’ said Hague. ‘He’s very persuasive – you only see that behind the scenes. He knows what he wants and he goes out to get it.’
At 40, William has emerged as steely, decisive – and, as I have learned, quick to lose his temper. Importantly, he’s also a devoted family man and a hard worker who takes his responsibilities seriously.
As he’s said himself: ‘The Royal Family has to modernise and develop as it goes along, and it has to stay relevant. And that is the challenge for me: how do I make the Royal Family relevant in the next 20 years?’
© Robert Jobson 2022
lAdapted from William At 40: The Making Of A Modern Monarch by Robert Jobson, published by Ad Lib on May 5 at £20. To order a copy for £18, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before May 7. UK P&P free on orders over £20.