The dust is starting to somewhat settle. The official mourning period for Queen Elizabeth ended on Monday night, which means that engagements are beginning to be added back to the calendar – some are related to the new normal and some are traditional commitments. I don’t generally cover one-off engagements anymore; however, I do want to chime in on The Prince and Princess of Wales’s visit to Wales yesterday and take a moment to zoom in on this couple and family in light of this month’s rather seismic events.
The nature of the succession is such that we all know what’s going to happen – what we don’t know is when. As such, we have all known that at some point William would succeed his father as Prince of Wales, and in due course, he will succeed him as king. Those are, of course, two very different roles. While King Charles has assumed the top job, he is now both empowered and hampered by his new responsibilities. On the one hand, he is going to be visible and relevant on a global stage in a way that even as the much-discussed heir, he never has been before. These next years are his in the history books. This responsibility – from carrying out his constitutional duties to ensuring that the monarchy remains apolitical – means that he also has less freedom to pursue the work that may be of more personal interest to him. He is no longer a philanthropist or activist – he is the sovereign.
William’s task is also weighty – much like Queen Elizabeth left large shoes to fill, so too did King Charles as Prince of Wales. He provided that role with unprecedented definition and meaning that William will now need to continue and evolve. What he does in these next years not only informs his own reputation but continues carving a path that will eventually be picked up by his own son, Prince George.
Put another way, William and Catherine are about to have a busy few years. That’s worth considering because the vast majority of the conversation around these two has been shaped in reaction to The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Recently, William and Catherine have fared better in the court of public opinion for the simple fact that they have stayed quiet and, well, remained. That hasn’t always been the case, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of the full trajectory of the Cambridge years.
For the first two years of their married life, 2011-2013, William and Catherine lived in Anglesey, Wales (and in fact, for a year or two prior to that – I can’t remember if they moved in 2009 or 2010). William was only working part-time as a royal – the rest of his time was spent working as a pilot with the Royal Air Force. Catherine, likewise, wasn’t working full-time for the Royal Family either. She took on a slew of patronages and carried out engagements, yes, but she was given considerable downtime.
2013 was a turning point that brought not only the arrival of George, but also the move into Kensington Palace proper. Before that, when in London, they had lived in Nottingham Cottage while waiting for their apartments in KP to be renovated – a very similar timeline and dynamic to what Harry and Meghan faced a few years later. Many expected that at that point, the couple would now live full-time in London and begin picking up the pace of their royal duties. In fact, no, William announced that he had accepted a position as a rescue pilot with the East Anglian Air Ambulance and when Princess Charlotte was born in 2015, the couple in fact moved full-time to Anmer Hall in Norfolk.
What I think sometimes get lost in the narrative is the extent to which the next couple of years saw some significant bad press for William and Catherine. While Queen Elizabeth turned 90 in 2016 and then-Prince Charles and Princess Anne carried out the lion’s share of engagements, William and Catherine, the two stars and the next generation, were often out of the public eye, living in a mansion in the countryside, and demanding privacy for their children.
With hindsight we can better see the argument put forth by William at the time – that these years were unique in that he *wasn’t* first in line to the throne and, with the permission of his grandmother, he was taking time with Catherine to focus on establishing their marriage and growing their family. This is a dynamic that Queen Elizabeth briefly had with The Duke of Edinburgh from 1947-1952, and which King Charles never had with Diana, Princess of Wales. And you can understand why, post-1992, the Royal Family would have an appetite for working with a young royal couple to ensure stability, if not happiness.
Now, all of this was a part of the narrative at the time – it’s not that commentators and the media didn’t understand that argument, it’s that it just didn’t look great, regardless. When your 90-year-old grandmother is doing more tangible work than your 30-something-year-old self, it’s not ideal optics.
As such, 2017 was a watershed year. William and Catherine announced that they were moving to London full-time and, crucially, beginning full-time work as royals. It was the same year that Prince Philip retired and where you really began to see an unambiguous focus on the line of succession – over the next five years, as we have seen, much emphasis was put on King Charles, his two sons, and, increasingly, George.
Unfortunately, that pivot wasn’t executed seamlessly for two reasons: 1) the announcement of Catherine’s third pregnancy and 2) the arrival of Meghan on the scene. With regards to the first, again, a facet of the conversation I think missed by many newcomers to the royal scene is the extent to which Catherine’s pregnancy with Prince Louis wasn’t warmly embraced – in fact, many saw it (offensively) as a strategic way to continue shirking work. Her reputation on this front wasn’t helped by the fact that being “work shy” was a part of her narrative even prior to her engagement to William – she struggled to find her professional footing in her 20s and spent a few years working for her parents, which wasn’t taken very seriously by the public.
Combine that, then, with the launch of Meghan, who had a track record for global humanitarian work and a public career as a working actress. In 2018, while Catherine was on maternity leave, Meghan was launching her royal work, putting out a cookbook with the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and taking on the hugely laborious Oceania tour. She was also new and shiny and the recipient of the newlywed phase of press coverage – glowing, “breath of fresh air,” etc.
To an extent, all of that was to be expected. The issue, of course, came down to the fact that from the Palace’s perspective, with a sovereign approaching her last years, an heir with a controversial reputation, and William and Catherine now trying to re-establish themselves as more senior members of the family, the Sussexes’ popularity and dazzle wasn’t a non-issue. As much as it benefited them, it was also something to closely track because Harry and Meghan couldn’t outshine William and Catherine – not when it was the latter who would eventually take the top jobs.
I think it’s fair to say that dynamic caused a lot of nervousness. Hell, I remember commenting on it at the time. As such, the implosion of the Sussexes has been a bit of a double-edged sword – their departure has become a huge professional and personal wound, but it has also elevated the reputations of William and Catherine. Suddenly, there is a renewed appreciation for their slow and steady approach, and, importantly, their adherence to tradition. To put it more bluntly, every time Harry and Meghan attempt to make a blow against the institution, they are in fact reinforcing good will for William and Catherine – and King Charles – in the monarchy’s core audience, which it bears repeating isn’t Americans.
So, what now?
We’re still in a honeymoon phase with King Charles’s reign and much of the warmth with which he’s been embraced is informed by global mourning for Queen Elizabeth. In the coming weeks and months, some of that is going to shake off and the 24/7 performance review will begin. That will encompass the work of William and Catherine, who have now begun a new phase of their careers. There’s no stopgap anymore – their number of engagements will increase, the pressure for impactful work will rise, and the time they spend abroad will expand. That means less time with their children, a much more precarious balancing act with the public, and, likely, more frequent negative press. The latter, of course, is just a reality of the job.
With regards to Wales, this is a tricky position. There is a messy history attached to William’s new title that is separate and apart from what it means in the line of succession. The first Prince of Wales was Edward II, who held the position from 1301 to 1307 during the reign of his father, Edward I. The right of the English to assume that title was debatable in the 14th century and seems hugely wrong to modern eyes. After all, Wales was not some voluntary Commonwealth realm – they were effectively invaded, raided, and then persecuted, their rights legally quashed through military and political force over centuries.
That’s also how the Middle Ages – and subsequent eras, quite frankly – worked. The question then becomes, how do we address this today? There are certainly some, in Wales and throughout the UK, who find the title problematic. There are others who believe it has evolved into a sign of respect and prominence for Wales within the UK pecking order. In other words, unless Wales wishes to become independent, then having the heir bear responsibility for Wales specifically is a pretty good deal.
So, let’s (finally) turn back to yesterday, which saw William and Catherine in Wales for the first time as Prince and Princess. Shortly after they left, news broke that a march for independence will be held in Cardiff this Saturday. Per Wales Online:
“On Saturday, October 1, the Cardiff march will see the likes of House of the Dragon actor Julian Lewis Jones, actress and novelist Ffion Dafis, former Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Wigley, singer Eädyth Crawford, and Irish comedian Tadhg Hickey taking part in the rally. Also speaking at the rally will be Gwern Gwynfil, the new CEO of YesCymru. Ahead of the march he said: ‘Having just been appointed as YesCymru’s first CEO I’m looking forward to a loud and joyful celebration where we can all raise our voices together for independence in Cardiff this Saturday. It is very clear that Westminster will never, can never, put the priorities of Wales first. The only solution for us is to take our own path through independence.’”
Even so, opinion polls show that the majority of the Welsh people – though not by overwhelming margins – remain in favor of the title’s use within the British Royal Family. Investiture ceremonies garner less enthusiasm, so let’s focus in on that.
The investiture is treated like a mini-coronation, which in itself can be offensive since taking the highest Welsh title is seen as by far less prestigious than that of England and Scotland. The practice of bestowing such a title and ceremony on the heir has ties to other continental Medieval practices – for example, the establishment of a junior king, which was famously tried by Henry II. As for the set Welsh ceremony, the regalia bestowed on each prince was quite literally stolen by Edward I in 1282. The ceremony is essentially the symbolic passing down of English dominance over Wales. Likewise, for centuries, any ceremony that invested or named a new Prince of Wales usually didn’t take place in Wales, but rather London.
What Wales did receive, on occasion, was the physical presence of the heir, but even that was less about honor and more about dominance. Ludlow Castle on the Welsh marches was sometimes the seat of the King’s eldest son – specifically on three occasions: the future Edward V during the reign of Edward IV, Prince Arthur during the reign of Henry VII, and (briefly) the future Mary I during the reign of Henry VIII. The practice fell away with the dynastically-challenged Stuarts and by the time the Hanoverians showed up in the 18th century, the military necessity of a physical presence had faded away.
Flash forward to 1911 and the new King George V held an investiture ceremony for the future Edward VIII in Wales. This was considered a modern take on the role – a way of recognizing the Welsh and a healthier relationship between countries within the United Kingdom. To an extent, yes, but it also underscored the darker history behind the practice.
There wasn’t another Prince of Wales until King Charles, who was named such by his mother in 1958. At the time, the news was almost universally welcomed. However, his investiture didn’t come until 1969, again held in Wales, and it was about two things, really – the first being a coming of age for the Prince. The second was a way of mollifying growing angst in the Anglo-Welsh relationship and ambivalence about the monarchy was a whole. It didn’t really work. Instead, I think a fair argument can be made that the 1969 investiture put a visual to the independence movement and galvanized fresh protestors.
It has been signaled that William won’t have an investiture ceremony – in Wales or otherwise. While I had taken for granted a couple weeks ago that he would, I think that’s the right call. Instead, it’s been stated that William and Catherine are focused on deepening their relationship with the country, work that is not only underway, but I think has been for a while now. It’s worth remembering that William and Catherine did an away day in Wales during the Platinum Jubilee, taking with them George and Charlotte. And while I don’t think the couple lived in Wales in light of William’s coming inheritance, that fact certainly doesn’t hurt. Wales then became the site of Catherine’s first formal engagement as William’s betrothed, and the site of her first public appearance after the birth of George. In other words, there’s a long and personal history there that means William and Catherine aren’t starting off on their back foot.
Now, this isn’t set in stone. Some are reporting that the ceremony won’t be “big” (Charles’s was certainly big), while others are saying none at all. And then again, there hasn’t been an official statement. One possibility is that the Palace – as King Charles’s team is wont to do – is testing public opinion. Another is there will be a moment wrapped into the coronation festivities that can be overshadowed as deemed necessary.
Either way, this is a huge period of transition for the couple and no matter how you slice it, the training wheels they enjoyed for so long are fully off the bicycle.