Prince William, the heir to the British throne, stepped back onto the public stage Wednesday, trying to project a steely sense of normalcy, three days after the announcement that his father, King Charles III, had been struck by cancer.
But as William carried out an honors ceremony at Windsor Castle and attended a charity fund-raiser in London, a shadow of uncertainty hung over the 41-year-old prince. Nobody, aside from Charles and his wife, Queen Camilla, faces more lingering disruption from the king’s cancer diagnosis than his eldest son.
The advocacy work, family life, and zone of privacy that William has carved out for himself is very different than that of his father, when he served as the Prince of Wales. Whether William will be able to preserve those qualities while stepping in for his father during his treatment is, at best, uncertain.
“William has tended toward less of the day-to-day routine work of the monarchy, compared to his father, instead focusing on bigger, glitzier engagements,” said Ed Owens, a royal historian. “But now he’ll be expected to fill in on many of these more mundane public outings.”
It is not just question of managing a calendar: William’s professional focus, members of his staff say, has been about pouring his energy into a couple of high-impact social issues — most recently, climate change and homelessness — where he believes he can make a tangible difference.
The scope of William’s ambition is evident in a looming shake-up at his office in Kensington Palace. He and his wife, Catherine, are expected to appoint, for the first time, a chief executive. Using a corporate title rather than the traditional title of private secretary, a person with knowledge of the office said, is calculated to attract candidates with business credentials and to reinforce the office’s professional nature.
Among the prince’s marquee projects is a five-year program that seeks to end homelessness in six towns and cities in Britain. While Charles had a similar attachment to pet issues like organic farming and architecture, he pursued them on more of an ad hoc basis. Much of his time, as for other royals of his generation, was eaten up by ribbon-cuttings and other ceremonial duties.
Now, some of that burden will fall to his son.
“William was trying to explore the boundaries of what he could do as heir that he couldn’t do as king,” said Peter Hunt, a former royal correspondent for the BBC. “The tension is how to pursue his own activities while supporting the monarch. William is going to feel that at an earlier stage than his father did.”
A spokesman for William, Lee Thompson, said Kensington Palace was conferring with Buckingham Palace about how to parcel out the king’s public commitments (William’s events on Wednesday were in his diary before the disclosure of his father’s illness).
In the meantime, Mr. Thompson said, William continues to drop off and pick up his children from their school in Berkshire, west of London. That is another break from the more remote parenting style of the royal family in previous generations.
It is a ritual William and Catherine usually share but that he took on as a solo parent when she was unexpectedly hospitalized last month (he had suspended his public engagements until Wednesday to take care of her).
The zeal with which William has thrown a cloak of privacy around his family was dramatized by his wife’s medical treatment. Kensington Palace offered scant information on her condition, beyond saying she was undergoing abdominal surgery. There were no photographs of the couple’s children — George, Charlotte, and Louis — visiting their mother in the hospital. Nor were there any images of her going home almost two weeks later.
The contrast to Charles was striking. Buckingham Palace disclosed that he would be undergoing a procedure for an enlarged prostate. Camilla was photographed visiting her husband, and the couple left the hospital together, waving to cameras as they walked to their car.
Some of those differences can be explained by history. While Charles has taken his share of lumps from Britain’s tabloid press, he has continued to work with those papers in what is essentially a transactional relationship.
William, however, still bears the scars of the pitiless coverage of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, which ended with her death in a car accident in Paris in 1997, pursued by the paparazzi. In 2021, the prince bitterly criticized the BBC for a sensational interview it aired with Diana in 1995, during which she discussed the marital infidelities of her ex-husband, Charles.
The BBC apologized for the report after an outside investigation concluded that its correspondent, Martin Bashir, had used deceitful methods to obtain the interview and the BBC’s management had covered it up.
“It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia, and isolation that I remember from those final years with her,” William said in a video statement.
The prince’s younger brother, Harry, has claimed that William was not above dishing dirt about family members to the tabloids. William has also not hesitated to use lawyers to go after press, winning a “huge sum of money” in 2020 from Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper group to settle claims that its journalists had hacked his cellphone, according to a legal filing submitted by Harry.
Not surprisingly, William’s emotional scars extend to his brother. The two fell out after Harry and his wife, Meghan, moved to California in 2020, and there are no signs of a rapprochement. Harry flew to London this week to visit his father, but the brothers did not meet, according to a person familiar with their schedules.
As the ranks of the royals have thinned, William’s family has come to the foreground at events like the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of Charles. That has inevitably drawn the camera’s glare. The couple’s 5-year-old son, Prince Louis, has become a latter-day version of a young Harry, squirming and making faces at solemn occasions.
A charming image for the papers, to be sure, but also a reminder that William and Catherine still have a young family.
Charles had to wait decades to become king. If his health deteriorates, his elder son may confront the opposite problem, thrust into a job before he gets a chance to explore his social and philanthropic ambitions, and exposing his children — especially his eldest son and heir, George — to unwanted attention.
“That will be quite an issue for him,” Mr. Hunt said. “George is only 10. You can imagine William saying to himself, ‘How can I create a buffer for him?’”