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Sunday 21 November 2010

William learns from heartbreak of royal past

The British prince is all too aware of the importance of choosing the right consort, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE most famous British royal consort came close to destroying the monarchy. The beautiful and charismatic Princess Diana was so emotionally needy that at times -- like an angry child -- she forgot everything except her hurts and a desire for vengeance for often imagined wrongs.

She loved her two boys fiercely, yet she was careless of the damage she did them in her public humiliation of their father and her undermining of the House of Windsor.

Prince William was only 15 when his mother was killed and the royals were subject to unprecedented hostility and excoriated around the globe because their natural public reserve made them seem uncaring. Millions indulged in hysterical outbursts of recreational grief. Walking behind his mother's coffin with his father, his grandfather and his 12-year-old brother Harry, William helped in beginning the slow process of mending the breach between throne and subjects.

He is a thoughtful young man who -- as he said in the interview marking his engagement last week to Kate Middleton -- tries "to learn the lessons from the past". And one of the most important lessons he learned was about the importance of choosing the right spouse.

His paternal family has made good choices who -- through strength of character, a sense of duty and loyalty to the institution itself -- have helped at difficult times keep the monarchy popular and respected. Princess Mary of Teck was bred to be queen. After her fiance, the heir to the throne, died, she married his brother, who would become King George V in 1910.

Much more intelligent than her dull, decent and conscientious husband, her advice and support kept him steady through war and civil unrest until his death in 1936: a propos a speech he made at their Silver Jubilee, he commented: "I cannot trust myself to speak of the Queen when I think of all I owe her."

This regal icon helped navigate the monarchy through the constitutional crisis when her son, Edward VIII, put love before duty and the throne went to his brother. George VI was terrified of being king, but his wife Elizabeth was as redoubtable as Queen Mary. Affability and charming but with steely determination, Queen Elizabeth kept her husband going and won wide-spread respect and love during the war as she connected to the suffering public. Famously, during the Blitz, when the Cabinet told her to leave London and to send her children to Canada, she responded: "The children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave."

Her daughter chose wisely, too. Prince Philip's naval career was torpedoed when his wife Elizabeth unexpectedly succeeded to the throne at only 26. Steadfast, at 89, he continues to work full-time in support of the queen and ignores all the spiteful comments from people who have no understanding of his intellect, his achievements and his absolute loyalty.

So how did the monarchy get it so horribly wrong with Diana? Mainly, it was because the public pressure for Charles to marry was becoming irresistible, and courtiers of rigid minds and little imagination focused on finding an aristocratic young virgin who could be moulded into a royal shape. No thought was given to her disturbed childhood and jealous disposition and the inability of the family into which she married to understand someone who didn't know how one behaved. And so they ended up with a consort who competed with, rather than supported, her husband.

William adored his mother, yet deeply loves his tormented father, and has seen how the enduring relationship with Camilla has brought Charles happiness and security. "Being friends with one's lover is a massive advantage," he said in the engagement interview.

Over the seven years of his relationship with Kate Middleton ('Waity Katie', as the press woundingly christened her), William thought long and hard about how someone from an ordinary background could cope with the goldfish bowl in which he swam and concluded that she had the necessary qualities to be a good consort. From a secure and loving family, she has the requisite emotional stability; they know, trust and love each other deeply; and additionally she has the looks, the strength, the intelligence and the serenity for the job. The interview reflected his determination to protect her from the worst aspects of her new job.

Although the British press has made much of class differences, the Palace has learned lessons from the Diana disaster and doesn't. True, Kate has to become Catherine, but otherwise she can be herself: no one cares that the Middletons are self-made. In giving his fiancee his mother's engagement-ring -- so he could feel Diana was a part of the celebration -- William has declared forcefully that he is his own man, and a unifying force in the family and the nation. It's a bad week for republicans.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards