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Tragedy, Grief, and Watchful Eyes: The Story Behind Prince William’s Difficult Childhood

Growing up under the world's microscope. 


As the son of the most famous woman in the world, Prince William’s childhood took place in the spotlight. However, he hasn’t always been comfortable in its glare. His Royal Highness Prince William Arthur Philip Louis made his first public appearance 20 hours after he was born on June 21, 1982, at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. A glowing Princess Diana, 20 at the time, emerged from the hospital wearing an eye-catching blue polka-dot dress. She held her newborn son alongside her husband, Prince Charles. People lining the street outside the hospital erupted in applause as the future monarch made his debut, and cameras flashed as photographers yelled to get the new mom’s attention.

Although the Princess of Wales — a former kindergarten assistant — couldn’t have been happier to become a mother, her relationship with Queen Elizabeth II’s eldest son was not going well just one year into their marriage. From the time William was born, the pair clashed over how to raise their children, among other issues. Charles had been reared by nannies. His monarch mother, Queen Elizabeth, and her husband, Prince Philip, took a hands-off parenting approach. Diana, who also grew up a privileged child, was determined that her children would not be raised by other people.

Princess Diana’s Nonconformist Approach to Motherhood

Diana broke royal protocol as a mother, breastfeeding William and his brother, Prince Harry, who arrived two years later. She arranged her schedule around her boys. She even insisted that 9-month-old William accompany her and Charles on a royal visit to Australia and New Zealand, rather than leaving him behind in the UK. As they grew, Diana also made sure to show the boys what the lives of others looked like. This included visits to homeless shelters and taking the Tube (London’s subway).

“She very much wanted to get us to see the rawness of real life,” William recalled in 2012 to ABC. “And I can’t thank her enough for that, because reality bites in a big way, and it was one of the biggest lessons I learned, just how lucky and privileged so many of us are — particularly myself.”

An Attempt at Normalcy

Described by her boys as a big kid at heart, Diana also ensured that William and Harry had fun. She took them to get burgers at McDonald’s, went to amusement parks (where the princes were made to stand in line for the rides), took ski trips (on one occasion Diana told off the paparazzi for intruding on her private time with her sons), and enjoyed horseback riding. At Diana’s insistence, William became the first heir to the throne to attend a public school.

The prince attended Wetherby School in London and Ludgrove School near Berkshire. At Ludgrove, he became immersed in athletics including basketball, soccer, swimming, and cross-country running. At age 13, he was admitted to Eton College near Windsor. The choice to send him to Eton was a controversial one. This was because past royals — including Charles, Prince Philip, and William’s uncles and cousins — had attended Gordonstoun in Scotland. However, both Diana’s brother and father had gone to Eton. By the time William enrolled, Diana and Charles had already split. They went their separate ways in 1992 following allegations of infidelity on both sides. However, the tension between them continued to grow.

His Mother’s Protector

Both William and Harry were painfully aware of their parents’ troubled relationship, and William was very protective of his mother. “Both boys lived through what was going on on a daily basis,” Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton said in 2017. William was his mom’s confidant and comforter, “to the point where William was pushing tissues through the bathroom door when Diana was crying.”

At age 9, he’d even booked a table at his mother’s favorite restaurant just to cheer her up. Five years later, he advised Diana to agree to be stripped of Her Royal Highness title — a sticking point for the royal family — so that she could finalize her stalled divorce proceedings. “You’ll still be Mummy,” he reportedly said.

As he watched what his mother went through, William also developed a lifelong hatred for the paparazzi. Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, described her as “the most hunted person of the modern age.” “I believe she cried more to do with the press intrusion than anything else in her life,” William said in the 2017 BBC documentary Diana, 7 Days. “She was subjected to treatment that frankly nowadays people would find utterly appalling.”

Although the tabloids and the palace came to an agreement to give William privacy at Eton, he couldn’t be protected from other students. So, in 1996, when a UK newspaper published photos of Diana sun-bathing topless in Spain, students began teasing William. The 14-year-old prince called his mother upset, Condé Nast Britain chairman — and longtime friend of Diana’s — Nicholas Coleridge wrote in his 2019 memoir, The Glossy Years, Diana. According to the book, other boys were making fun of the size of her breasts. Despite the teasing, William stayed focused and had a successful tenure at the school.

A Thriving Student

William became the captain of the soccer team, competed in water polo, and made excellent grades. He especially excelled in geography and art history. He lived in one of the 25 houses on campus with about 50 other students. Like all of his classmates, he had a private room, which he decorated with blue and white curtains. The kitchen at the institution was communal, and William spent time learning to cook with his peers. It was clear in photos of the prince released when he turned 18 that he had learned from his mom to embrace the normalcy of life while he could.

When he graduated, however, the princess was not there to witness the milestone. Three years earlier, on August 31, 1997, a 36-year-old Diana died in Paris after the car she was riding in crashed while trying to escape the paparazzi. (Diana’s driver, Henri Paul, and her boyfriend, Dodi al Fayed, were also killed.) William, 15 at the time, and Harry, 12, were at Balmoral Castle in Scotland with their father when they heard.

The Tragedy That Shook the World

“Life is altered as you know it, and not a day goes past without you thinking about the one you have lost,” William later wrote in the Daily Mail about the loss. The tragedy not only changed William’s life forever — it also sent shockwaves through the monarchy. The public blamed Prince Charles for Diana’s death. They simultaneously craved comfort from the queen, as she didn’t publicly speak about the tragedy for six days. On September 5, 1997, she finally addressed the nation and referred to herself as “a grandmother” for the first time. This allowed the world to see a more human side of the usually stoic figure. Meanwhile, the UK’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, famously dubbed Diana “The People’s Princess.”

At St. James’s Palace, William and Harry, their father, grandfather, and Diana’s brother walked in a procession behind Diana’s casket to London’s famed Westminster Abbey, which was draped in the royal standard and topped with white flowers from her sons. William later described the experience as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Diana was not given a state funeral, but was memorialized in a royal ceremonial service. It was watched by 2.5 billion viewers worldwide.

Following in His Mother’s Footsteps

William described the impact of losing his mother at such a young age as being a “pain like no other.” The grief, however, allowed him to open up about his own mental health struggles and encourage others to do the same. “I could feel it brewing up inside me and I could feel it was going to take its toll and be a real problem,” he revealed in 2019. “We can all relate to mental health: We see it day-to-day all around us. We’ve just all got to go, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ We’ve got to make that one bit of time to deal with it before moving on.”

And move on he did. After his graduation from Eton in 2000, William took a gap year. He was determined to follow in Diana’s footsteps, doing humanitarian work. “I wanted to do something constructive,” he said. “I thought this was a way of trying to help people out and meet a whole range of different people.”

During his year off, William visited Belize. Here, he slept in a hammock and ate army rations alongside the Welsh Guard. Back in the UK, he worked on a dairy farm. He also went to Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana to do charitable work, and he toiled for the sustainable development charity Raleigh International in Chile for 10 weeks. He spent his spare time hiking, kayaking, and even lived in a tent on a remote beach for days at a time. While in Chile, he taught children English and did manual labor.

Making a Difference

“Here you are actually making a difference to other people’s lives,” he said of his trip. “At the same time, they invite you into their houses. It’s the idea of getting along with someone even though there’s a language barrier. Everyone here is so friendly, we all get on so well, and you don’t need words.”

William took on any task — no matter how big or small — without question, working efficiently and as a leader. “William coped very well, and what struck me about him was how normal he was,” said expedition logistics manager Graham Hornsey in Katie Nicholl’s book, Kate: The Future Queen. “He said he wanted to be treated like everyone else, and he was. When you saw him cleaning the toilets, it wasn’t for the cameras, he really did clean the lavatories.”

In the fall of 2001, the prince enrolled at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This broke 150 years of royal tradition. Most members of the family had attended Oxford or Cambridge — including Prince Charles, William’s uncle Prince Edward, and great-grandfather King George VI. However, William chose the historic university for its prestigious arts program (although he would later change his major from art history to geography). Little did he know that he would soon meet the love of his life.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Kate.

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