POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Apr 26, 2011
LONDON >> When Prince William was born, Britons rejoiced at the sight of him in his mother's arms. He was heralded as a king in waiting who would take the Windsor dynasty into the next generation and the next century.
When Princess Diana died, and William and his younger brother Prince Harry trudged behind her funeral cortege, much of that outpouring of grief was transformed into affection for the young princes, with many around the world hoping the boys could somehow transcend their loss and find happiness.
So it's no surprise that William — now an earnest Royal Air Force helicopter search and rescue pilot — enjoys the public's goodwill as he prepares to marry Kate Middleton and begin the next phase of a journey that is expected to see him follow his grandmother and his father to the throne.
With the April 29 nuptials at Westminster Abbey fast approaching, William has few enemies and many admirers. Some here are tired of the royals, of course, and certainly there is anti-monarchist sentiment among those who would prefer Britain be a republic, but there are few who harbor an open dislike for William, who seems genuinely enchanted with his bride-to-be.
Britain's intense feelings for Diana spilled over onto William — who bears a resemblance to his mother — and now envelops Middleton. William has made clear he wants to honor the memory of Diana as much as possible during the wedding, a desire symbolized by his giving Middleton his mother's diamond-and-sapphire engagement ring.
But for someone who has been in the public eye literally since his first days on Earth, when he was photographed in his mother's arms as they left St. Mary's Hospital, little is really known about William, who at times seems to want nothing more than to be allowed to live a normal, sane, pleasurable life with the woman he loves.
In a 2003 interview to mark his 21st birthday, one of the few to which he's agreed, the young prince said that he saw becoming king as his destiny.
"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," William said. "Sometimes I do get anxious about it, but I don't really worry a lot."
Patrick Jephson, who was Diana's private secretary, said Diana had told William when he was young that being king would give him a chance to help people in need.
"She told him he had been born to fulfill a duty, that it would be a heavy burden, but that it would also be an opportunity to use his enormous influence for the good of those less fortunate than himself," he said.
No one knows how William really feels about his own wedding being turned into a global media event. Many royal experts believe he secretly yearns to get married in a small country church, with a handful of friends and family present. And he's under constant scrutiny by the small cottage industry of writers, photographers and hangers-on who crank out a living by acting as if they know everything about the Windsors.
He has made no public pronouncements about how he sees the future of the British monarchy. Does he want the royal household to downsize, jettison much of the pomp, be more like the "bicycle monarchs" of Scandinavia and the Netherlands?
And he has not spoken about the traumas that might have been caused by the messy divorce between his parents, Diana and Prince Charles.
He did say, in a 2007 interview, that he thinks of his late mother constantly.
"Not a day goes by when I don't think about it once in the day," William said of the 1997 car crash that claimed Diana's life.
William has built a trusted inner circle of friends and confidants, mostly school chums or military mates, and unburdens himself only in their company, with the strict understanding that if they talk about him, or about Middleton, they will be exiled.
He is a private person in a very public position, and it is widely assumed that he is at the very least suspicious of the tabloid press and the paparazzi because of the role they played in hounding his late mother in the difficult years before her death.
William was educated at elite schools, including Eton College, and he has taken his fair share of posh vacations at the world's most exclusive retreats. But he seems less distant than most of the senior British royals, including his father, Charles, and his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II.
Some believe this is partly because of the way he talks. In a country where accents still give clear indications of social status, experts say William sounds somewhat posh but not excessively so.
"William's accent is less hidebound and old-fashioned," said professor and columnist Roy Greenslade. "Charles still has the accent of the aristocracy while William has much more of a middle-class accent."
William, 28, also seems to have the likable quality of being able to laugh at himself. He often seems bemused by the more absurd trappings of royal life — as when he recently showed his pancake-flipping abilities in Northern Ireland — but he does not belittle the interest of the crowds at charity events that give him a chance to introduce his fiancee to the public.
To some degree, William was able to enjoy a typical student life at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he met and fell in love with Middleton. The news media had agreed to give him some distance during his university years, giving him space to date several women without being tailed by photographers, and, crucially, he was able to develop his relationship with Middleton out of the public eye.
By the time they emerged in public as a couple, they had an easy way with each other, suggesting that the years of privacy had paid off.
There was one crisis in his freshman year when William wanted to drop out of university, but his father and Middleton persuaded him to stay. He did manage to move off-campus, and the fact that his private house had to be bombproofed and protected by discreet security guards only emphasized his stature as a king-in-waiting that set him apart from fellow students.
Despite such restrictions, he has followed his mother's advice and tried to connect with people from all walks of life, traveling the world on his "gap year" before university and doing charity work in London, as well as Africa and Chile.
William has largely avoided scandal, not easy in a country where tabloid reporters pay for incriminating information, and sometimes even hack into voicemail messages. He was criticized, however, after landing his military helicopter at Middleton's parents' house, which was seen as taking advantage of his royal status.
Still, he must have made a spectacular entrance.