IT WAS THE SORT OF RITE-OF-PASSAGE MOMENT THAT most families play out in private. Last month, en route by train to an Ireland-Wales rugby game in Cardiff, Prince William picked up the Daily Express’s This Week magazine, which featured racy shots of Playboy centerfold twins Shane and Sia Barbi. Giggling and nudging a school friend, the 12-year-old summoned his bodyguard. As William’s detective surveyed the steamy pictures, the Princess of Wales leaned in for a look. Snatching the magazine away, she startled other passengers by ripping out the page showing the buxom Barbis in the near buff—tearing it down the middle and handing one half to William and the other to his friend According to a report in London’s The Mail on Sunday her son deadpanned “It was only the top halves we wanted.” The princess collapsed into giggles.
Less than three months shy of his 13th birthday, the boy who seems destined to be king is leaving childhood behind. A rambunctious toddler who grew into a reserved primary-schooler, William is learning to cope with the peculiar demands of royal life—which include having one’s hormonal awakenings trumpeted in the tabloids. Like brother Harry, 10, he must prepare for a role that will become more public over time, and one that will expose his every misstep. The Barbis aside, he has displayed a remarkable composure of late: On a January ski vacation with Prince Charles, William, along with a confident Harry, shepherded Prince Andrew’s daughters Beatrice, 6 and Eugenie then 4, before the press on the slopes at Klosters. With only bodyguards standing by, William calmly stage-managed the photo call as Charles 46 watched from a window at the Hotel Walserhof.
Although William and Harry are hardly ready to abandon food fights and water guns, their poised performance left no doubt that the age of innocence is behind them. With Princess Diana, they tour historic sites in Wales and visit homeless shelters in London. With Charles, they practice chatting up strangers before holiday church services near Sandringham and Balmoral. William, who scored near the top of his Ludgrove School class in last month’s mock entrance exams for public schools, has asked to receive updates during vacations with Charles from the same top-level staffer who briefs his father. Says a palace aide: “I now treat him as an adult.”
Mastering ribbon cutting and small talk, however, isn’t the biggest challenge for the princes. In the past year, William and Harry have been, bombarded with a seemingly endless stream of embarrassing revelations about—and by—their parents. Since last May, Diana has been photographed when her bikini top slipped in Spain, accused of making anonymous calls to married art dealer Oliver Hoare (who some said, was her lover) and betrayed by former Life Guards officer James Hewitt who claimed that he had a five-year affair with the princess Charles of course publicly confessed that he was an adulterer and in an authorized biography, implied that he had never loved his wife. The divorce of his mistress Camilla Parker Bowles fueled Britons’ fears that he intends to make her his queen and backstairs gossip has continued to embarrass both of the Waleses. (In January, former valet Ken Stronach told reporters that Charles’s pajamas were stained with grass after al fresco trysts with Camilla.)
For the moment, at least, the princes seem to be weathering the tempests fairly well. Brash and exuberant, Harry “takes everything in stride with a smile—nothing fazes him,” says one palace watcher. For his part, William (whose head now reaches the shoulder of his 5’10” mother) has grown into a thoughtful young man with a strong sense of duty and little of the Windsors’ emotional detachment. Says another Wales watcher: “He’s a very gentle, nice boy.”
Still, in the wake of the Waleses’ upheavals, there has been no shortage of outrage on the boys’ behalf. Critics assert that, by broadcasting their misery, Charles and Diana, who are expected to divorce by year’s end, have put their sons in an impossible position. “It must be quite horrendous for them to have to cope with [all of this] at such a tender age,” Marina Mowatt, daughter of Princess Alexandra, said recently. “[They’ll] have to shoulder the burden of their parents’ actions.”
William and Harry are “growing up in the school of hard knocks,” according to Anthony Holden, one of Charles’s biographers. Although newspapers are banned and TV broadcasts are monitored at their $14,000-a-year school in Berkshire, William, one of the class monitors selected by teachers, is allowed a radio. Embarrassing leaks, says Holden, are inevitable. According to Majesty magazine editor-in-chief Ingrid Seward, “In May, when Diana got back from Spain where she was supposedly sunbathing topless William rang her up and said ‘You didn’t do that did you?’ And she said ‘Of course not.’ If he’s alerted to that he must have been very Upset about all the rest.”
Still, as other insiders point out, some of the more complicated aspects of their parents’ lives come as no surprise to the boys. Although Diana reportedly has said that she wants to keep them away from Camilla, the princes have known her and ex-husband Andrew, both friends of the royal family, for years. As one palace watcher notes, the two would hardly need to read the tabloids to learn that their father keeps a photo of Camilla by his bed. And Hewitt—who gave Diana riding lessons—claims to have spent time at Kensington Palace with both boys.
According to one palace insider, “They’re quite sophisticated in these matters. People talk to them, and [minder Tiggy Legge-Bourke] most likely tells them, ‘How sad it is between Mummy and Daddy, but these things happen in life.’ ”
When bombshells do hit, it is often Diana who tries to cushion the blow. In December 1992, she met her sons in Ludgrove headmaster Gerald Barber’s office to break the news about her separation from Charles. (William wept, while Harry said little.) She visited them again last October, when Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography of Charles appeared. According to Andrew Morton, author of Diana, Her New Life, William asked, ” ‘Is it true…that Daddy never loved you?’ ” Her well-meaning reply, Morton said, was, “When we first got married, we loved each other as much as we love you today.”
More sensitive than his brother, William seems to have been more disturbed by his parents’ travails. Before the separation, says Seward, he “became so stressed that he locked himself in the bathroom for hours.” His grades slumped, and a concerned Diana had a conference with Barber.
By all accounts, classmates—many of whose parents are divorced—are sympathetic to the princes. When William became painfully withdrawn last fall and was seen pacing Ludgrove’s lawns with his head down, they said little to outsiders. Notes one royal watcher: “They think he and Harry have had a tough time, and they don’t tell their parents anything about them.”
The school, where the princes spend 38 weeks a year, is, in fact, an oasis of normality for the boys. Their lives there are much like their schoolmates’: They sleep in a simple dormitory, bathe in a communal washroom and are allowed to go home just once a month. Still, they are assigned a rotating team of 18 bodyguards, and a detective is posted outside their respective classrooms.
Sibling rivalry has never been a problem for the princes; Harry adores his brother, who makes it a point to look after him. For all of that, the two are hardly alike: William is a superior student who could read at 5, while Harry is average. An accomplished rider, William excels at team sports, whereas Harry, a fearless skier who loves speed, is a terror on the go-cart track. Though William is sensitive to criticism, it has little impact on the cheeky Harry. “If he is reprimanded, his usual ploy is to mimic his [accuser] and run off laughing,” according to Seward, who spoke to a source at Highgrove.
Surrounded by separate sets of friends, the two reflect different aspects of their parents. William, who loves fruit salad, pasta and eggs from his father’s hens, has inherited the Waleses’ healthy eating habits; his brother favors burgers and “eats chocolate until he is sick or stopped,” Seward reports. Teachers say that Harry has acquired his father’s fascination with flowers and could be a first-rate botanist while William shares Charles’s love of literature. “He reads poetry quite beautifully,” Charles has said.
But the biggest differences between the princes are the roles for which they must prepare. A second son like Prince Andrew, Harry will have a kind of freedom that William will never know. Already, Harry has the relaxed aspect of a playboy prince, says one insider, while William is showing signs that his responsibilities are beginning to weigh quite heavily. Says Seward: “William is very, very aware of his future.”
On Jan. 15, a Sunday Express poll found that 54 percent of Britons hope that William, not Charles, will succeed Elizabeth II. “William must be aware that public opinion is [turning in that direction],” says Holden. “And at the ripe old age of 12, this must add enormously to the pressures on him.” Although royals aren’t expected to take on official engagements until age 18, “William is being taught how to behave in public,” says author Brian Hoey. His mother often pushes him forward to shake hands in a crowd and the training is beginning to show. “He’s quite good at asking questions ” says Hoey. “I’ve seen him going to people and saying, ‘Where do you come from?’ They say, ‘Glasgow,’ and he says ‘How interesting.’ It’s the sort of thing royalty says that means absolutely nothing.”
Diana, too, has observed that her oldest son has acquired a kind of political savvy. According to Morton, William, a fox hunter like his father, urged her not to become patron of an animal-rights charity because “every time I kill [an animal], they’ll blame you.”
If the princes’ lives are more complex these days, they have also become more stable. No longer pawns in the war between the Waleses, they spend precisely half their free time with each parent and, according to close observers, are happy to be with either. While both boys are close to Diana, it is William who seems most in tune with her. “He calls her at any excuse,” says Seward. The two share private jokes, and in public “they exchange eye signals on things which make them laugh,” she adds. Aware of Di’s volatility (demonstrated in Lech Austria last month when she told royal watcher James Whitaker that being ambushed by photographers was like being “raped”), the princess have become “immensely protective,” in the words of one friend. “They love it when she’s feeling on top of the world because there’s less pressure on them.”
“They think their mother has had a very tough time, and they adore her, but they also think she’s a little loopy,” adds a palace insider. “Harry, in particular, thinks she needs looking after. Last year, when she had a screaming match with a photographer in Lech, Harry just shrugged his shoulders very exaggeratedly and rolled his eyes as if to say, ‘What can I do if she’s nuts?’ ”
When they are with Diana at Kensington Palace, the boys make forays to casual restaurants including the Chicago Rib Shack, take in plays such as Oliver! and get outfitted for jeans at Marks & Spencer on Kensington High Street. When Di is occupied, they are supervised by 60ish nanny Olga Powell and, of course, a bodyguard.
Although the exuberant Legge-Bourke (now in the throes of a romance with ex-army major Tim Reeve) is the official caretaker while the princes are with Charles, their father spends a fair amount of time with them. Together, they read (Kipling’s Just So Stories is a favorite), ride, fish or watch videos. (Both princes loved “the gory bits” in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Charles has said.) In November, Charles was on hand at Balmoral when William led his first pheasant shoot—a milestone that (as Wills himself might have predicted) drew howls from anti-blood-sports activists.
For their part, the Queen and Prince Philip—”Granny” and “Grandpapa” to the boys—enjoy communing with the princes. At holidays (including Easter, which was to be spent at Windsor) they ride and have barbecues en famille. “They see the Queen at Christmas, and Diana takes them to tea at Windsor,” says Seward. “The Queen would like to see more of them.”
She undoubtedly will: Eton, which William will enter in the fall, is just a 10-minute walk from Windsor Castle. There, he not only will take up English history, math and French but also will continue his professional training at the hands of the Windsors. Says Hoey: “I think it will be easier for the Prince of Wales, the Queen and Prince Philip to influence him when he’s close by.”
Of late, though, commentators have wondered whether William, in particular, may turn his back on the family as he matures. “Realizing in his teenage years that he is surrounded by emotional head cases…[and] followed, as his sex and drinking life begins, by a press more intrusive than anything his father suffered—[he] might understandably decide to go backpacking in Nepal and not come back,” Independent columnist Mark Lawson wryly observed not long ago.
In the meantime, though, both William and Harry are on course to join the family firm. As they are beginning to discover, it is a position infinitely trickier than it may look to those who have the luxury of making their mistakes—and savoring their victories—without commanding the world’s attention.
LYDIA DEWORTH in London