LONDON — He’s been famous since Day 1, a tabloid staple as the firstborn child of Prince Charles and the glamorous young Princess Diana.
Since then, Prince William has lived his life in public. The world watched as he carried a tiny thermos on his first day at school, somberly walked behind his mother’s coffin at 15, learned to fly in the Royal Air Force, married Kate Middleton in a lavish royal wedding and became a father of three.
Now, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, William, 40, is the Prince of Wales and the heir to the British throne.
His has been a life lived largely without the controversy, and occasional scandals, that have engulfed his relatives; as a result, William has ranked high in popularity polls about the royal family.
Indeed, many royal watchers and historians look to the prince and his wife as the real future of the British monarchy, thanks in part to the family’s own careful image construction around the pair, casting them as a symbol of the next generation.
“This is a very transitional monarchy,” Arianne Chernock, a professor of history at Boston University and an expert on the modern British monarchy, said of the new reign of King Charles III, who is 73. “I think we’re going to have to wait honestly until William and Kate, until we see more significant updating. But always, of course, also attuned to and mindful of tradition.”
In the days since his grandmother’s death, William has exhibited a respect for royal tradition as well as an instinct for positive imagery. Last Saturday, he issued a personal statement honoring his grandmother, emphasizing not only their personal relationship but also the impact she had on shaping his and Kate’s view of what the monarchy should be. He also took a very visible walk that day with his brother Harry and Harry’s wife, Meghan, projecting a sense of comity between two siblings whose relationship has been tense since last year.
Laura Clancy, a lecturer at Lancaster University and the author of the book “Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages Its Image and Our Money,” said there had been a clear effort by the palace to put forth the image of William and Kate as relatable, with a focus on their family life.
“I think you get an image that is more intimate probably than what Charles offers,” Dr. Clancy said. “That kind of staging of that very nuclear family, you can still see that with Kate and the children and him as this hands-on dad.”
“We don’t really know what their personalities are like — we don’t know that much about Kate at all really, or William,” Dr. Clancy added. “But you think you do, and that’s important.”
In one online survey from the British polling company YouGov, William ranked as the third most popular royal, with a 66 percent approval rating; he trailed only the queen, who had 75 percent popularity before her death, and his wife Kate, with 68 percent. Charles rated seventh, with 42 percent.
William and Kate’s popularity comes as a package deal, driven in part by a carefully curated social media presence that seems to offer a behind-the-scenes look at their life.
On their highly choreographed joint Instagram account, many of the photos focus on their family life, some of them taken by Kate, who is interested in photography.
Pat Sellar, 71, Mary Williams, 73, and her husband Nigel Williams, 73, who joined the crowds laying flowers in Green Park this week, said they admired the royals as they felt the entire family had a real sense of service. “The queen is gone, but I am glad to see that being carried through to the younger generation with William and Kate,” Ms. Sellar said.
That popularity at one point extended to the issue of succession. In a May survey, YouGov asked Britons who should become king after the death of Elizabeth; about 37 percent said it should be William, while 34 percent believed it should be his father, Charles.
Many experts say William is unlikely to fundamentally shift the monarchy when his time on the throne comes.
“One thing the royals are really good at is always changing, so that they can stay the same, so they can maintain what they’ve got,” Dr. Clancy said. “I think William is the next generation of that.”
Inheriting his father’s titles — the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cornwall — isn’t just symbolic. It will also mean inheriting the Duchy of Cornwall, which Charles turned into a lucrative business empire worth an estimated £1 billion, or $1.17 billion.
He will also likely inherit some of the causes that Charles has championed, including the fight against climate change, which the king will no longer be able to advocate for in his role as head of state.
William has already begun to dedicate time to the issue — the prince and his royal foundation launched the Earthshot Prize, which will present five £1 million awards to creators of climate-change solutions each year for a decade.
Charles himself hinted at William’s evolving role in his maiden speech to the nation last week, offering clues to how the royal family is thinking of William’s role.
Charles said that as his own role changed, it would be impossible “to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply,” but he added, “I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”
“I took this to be a message directed squarely at William and Kate,” Dr. Chernock said. There may be some room for evolution in this area, she added: “William and Kate can use this period before they become king and queen to engage in some of the work of modernizing.”
She expects the pair to also take on issues that resonate with the public, including “addressing the challenges within the royal family” and “perhaps even offering more public apologies for British slavery and imperialism — along the lines of what Charles started to do last year in Barbados.”
Both may prove to be challenging. Prince Andrew has mostly been excluded from royal life after accusations of sexual assault. William and Kate had a turbulent royal tour in the Caribbean this spring, and while they were greeted warmly, the tour was riddled with missteps and criticized as out of touch.
The highly scrutinized and meticulously scripted public appearances around Elizabeth’s funeral also offer an opportunity for the family to present a mending of divisions between William and Harry.
Harry and Meghan stepped back from royal life in early 2020 and relocated to the United States. In a sensational interview with Oprah in 2021, they detailed how royal life left Meghan suicidal and revealed how a family member had expressed concerns about how dark the color of their baby’s skin would be.
Days later, asked by a reporter whether the royal family was racist, Prince William said it was “very much not a racist family,” the only direct comment he has made on that issue.
The images of the brothers greeting mourners alongside their wives outside Windsor Castle last week harkened back to the days before the drama when the foursome had, for a short time, been portrayed collectively as the future of the royal family.
But the British press were quick to report that the apparent reconciliation was only about mourning their grandmother, and might not last.
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