Prince William's role is changing - what does he really want to do with it?

Prince William, Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales during a visit to SportsAid at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre on World Mental Health Day, October 2023
[Getty Images]

When Prince William presented the men’s FA Cup trophy at Wembley last weekend, he’d have been forgiven for thinking how life can come at you fast - compared with when he appeared at the same fixture last year.

A year ago he was still in the summery afterglow of the Coronation, in which the Prince of Wales had played a central role, rather tenderly supporting his father the King. The pair had been seen joking together during rehearsals.

Fast forward to summer 2024 and there have been massive unexpected pressures. Within the quartet at the heart of the monarchy – King Charles, Queen Camilla, Prince William and Catherine – both the King and Princess of Wales have had cancer diagnoses.

"There can't be too many people whose wife and father have been diagnosed with cancer so close together. It must feel as if he is in a lonely place at times," says royal commentator Richard Palmer.

It’s meant that Prince William has focused much of his attention on looking after his wife and young family, understandably putting many of his other engagements on hold.

The need to avoid the politics of the UK’s general election has meant even more of his plans being curtailed, including a visit that would have focused on tackling homelessness.

King Charles III and Queen Camilla, accompanied by The Reverend Canon Alan Gyle, attend a memorial service in May 2024
The King began to return to public duties at the start of May [Getty Images]

While the King has returned to work with a burst of energy, it’s unavoidable that there will still need to be adjustments for his health. That’s going to mean Prince William being pushed ever more clearly into the role of heir, sharing the burden.

"It must feel like the weight of the world is on him. The future of the monarchy rests on his shoulders," says royal author Prof Pauline Maclaran.

It doesn’t help that there’s an ocean-wide gap between Prince William and his brother Prince Harry.

And swirling around the Princess of Wales’s illness, as she continues with cancer treatment, has been a toxic swamp gas of social media gossip and crazy speculation.

It must have felt as though the royal world, used to travelling at the sedate pace of a carriage, had turned into a white-knuckle ride.

At the centre of this storm, what does Prince William himself want to achieve? If you turn off all the background noise about the royals, what does he want to do with his role?

The key word, according to sources close to the prince, is “impact”. Rather than ribbon-cutting, photo opportunities and easy gimmicks, he wants to deliver projects that make a tangible, measurable difference.

“He’s asking: ‘How can I use my platform for good, to create positive change,” says a royal source.

“He has big ambitions for what he can deliver.”

Prince William and Catherine during a visit in Hereford to meet partners of The Duchy of Cornwall
Prince William and Catherine during a visit to Hereford [Getty Images]

In practice that means his projects to reduce homelessness, promote mental health issues and support environmental business through his Earthshot project.

Prince William has described his role as “social leadership” and his visits have been labelled as “community impact days”.

It’s a millennial vision of monarchy, taking off the tie and actively promoting a social agenda, with language that wouldn’t be out of place in a campaigning charity.

A microcosm of his approach was seen last month, when the prince, now responsible for the Duchy of Cornwall, helped with the breaking of ground for a new health centre on the Isles of Scilly.

He’d worked with the local council to get this project at St Mary’s Community Hospital under way.

“He's rolled up his sleeves and played a fundamental role in ensuring the work begins as soon as possible,” says a royal source, with the impact being that “people don't have to go to the mainland for care”.

There’s also a new housing project in Nansledan near Newquay intended to reduce homelessness.

It’s not particularly glitzy. Campaigners against the monarchy once described the royals as “state-funded reality television” – but the type of projects Prince William has been backing are often much less glamorous or even media-friendly.

Maybe that fits with another part of his character. He doesn’t always take the easiest path.

It’s like his football team, Aston Villa. He’s described supporting the team as a deliberate decision not to back the boringly predictable usual winners. He preferred the “emotional rollercoaster moments” of teams that went down as well as up.

Mind you, his father has gone a step further with this philosophical footballing ethos, supporting Burnley, who were relegated this year.

Prince William’s approach also risks criticism.

The anti-monarchy group, Republic, called his homelessness projects "crass and hypocritical... given the excessive wealth we gift him".

There's also the accusation that any ambition to tackle housing problems will always ultimately depend on political interventions which are outside his remit.

“It’s a tall order and it’s not entirely clear how he’s going to achieve it. But many people will think he should be applauded for trying,” says Richard Palmer.

Prince Harry at the Invictus Games
There remains an ocean-wide gap between Prince William and his brother Harry [Getty Images]

Another nagging friction is the tension between Team William and Prince Harry and Meghan, who can almost seem like a rival Californian court. While William was digging away in Cornwall, they were getting the rock star treatment in Nigeria.

Prince William has the challenge of getting serious ideas across, when he’s caught up in an improbably scripted soap opera.

There’s another generational pressure for Prince William that is only likely to increase.

A significant part of the public popularity of the monarchy now depends on the Prince and Princess of Wales. They’re like politicians who are more popular than their party.

There was a revealing survey from YouGov this month that showed Prince William and Catherine as having approval ratings of over 70%, while support for the monarchy as an institution was at 56%.

Among younger people support for the monarchy is only 34% - and it’s not until the over-50s that a majority see it in a positive way.

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The significance of Prince William and Catherine’s popularity is that it stretches across age groups and different regions, at a time when a significant minority are sceptical about the monarchy.

“The monarchy has to be relevant and he wants to modernise it,” says Prof Maclaran.

As heir to the throne, he will also have to look in the longer term to his own reign.

“The next few years will see him thinking through what kind of monarch he wants to be and what kind of monarch the country will need to have in the mid-21st Century,” says historian Sir Anthony Seldon.

“He has been defining his own agenda, much of it overlapping with his father’s interests and passions,” says Sir Anthony.

But it’s at a time of so many unknowns for Prince William, who has such a big public platform but now has to find his own voice.

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