British Royal Family

As King Charles is treated for cancer, Prince William's role comes into sharper focus

Author: Editors Desk, Royal Fascinator Source: CBC News:
February 25, 2024 at 06:53
Prince William listens as he visits the British Red Cross at its headquarters in London, England, on Tuesday. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)
Prince William listens as he visits the British Red Cross at its headquarters in London, England, on Tuesday. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)
Prince of Wales visits British Red Cross headquarters as he calls for end to fighting in Gaza

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For a few weeks, Prince William was keeping a low profile as his wife, Catherine, Princess of Wales, recovers from surgery.

But that changed over the past few days, with an announcement of plans to build homes for homeless people on his Cornwall estate in southwestern England. William also called for an end to the fighting in Gaza, in a statement that instantly garnered widespread comment.

As much as those actions relate to pressing issues of the day, there is also a sense they may offer insight into how William is defining himself in the role of Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.

"This has certainly been the most active and engaged [William has been] on events of this scale that we have ever seen, and we can attribute that to his role as heir apparent," said Justin Vovk, a royal commentator and a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton who specializes in the history of the monarchy, in an interview.

"William really seems to be stepping out and looking to establish his own identity as Prince of Wales in a way that he's never had the opportunity to before, and one that supports causes that are important to him but are also still in line with the overall values of the monarchy at the moment."

At the same time, William's father, King Charles, has retreated temporarily from the public duties of the monarch, as he undergoes treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer.

A person talks with another person shown on a video link in front of a damaged building.
Prince William listens to Pascal Hundt, senior crisis manager for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was dialling in from Gaza, during a visit to the British Red Cross headquarters in London on Tuesday. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

"The crisis with King Charles threw the role of Prince William into sharp focus because we now really could begin to see him as the King in waiting and not just the Prince of Wales," said Chandrika Kaul, a modern British, imperial and media historian and professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, in an interview.

"Everything he chooses to now talk about and highlight is necessarily resounding with a different echo because there is an absence — the absence of the King."

That said, there is also a sense that whatever William has said publicly will be done after consultation with his father.

"I have no doubt that he has discussed it with Charles," Kaul said.

The housing project will see 24 homes built on Duchy of Cornwall land, along with "wraparound support" for people experiencing homelessness, the duchy said in a news release.

Several people stand around as someone cooks on a barbecue.
Prince William visits a charity working to prevent homelessness in Sheffield, England, on June 27. Las year, the Prince of Wales launched Homeward, a five-year program delivered by the Royal Foundation that aims to demonstrate the possibility of ending homelessness. (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Development is due to start in September, with the first homes expected to be completed in the fall of 2025.

Vovk said direct commentary on matters such as social housing and social welfare is not something typically seen in quite this way from members of the Royal Family.

"But there have been statements from the Royal Family even in recent weeks that they are looking to create a more socially relevant monarchy that's actually involved in caring for all the people of Britain in a non-political way," he said.

The housing plan sparked criticism from the anti-monarchy group Republic, which described it as "spin over substance."

"The public are well aware of the housing crisis because, unlike William, we are all dealing with the consequences of it. For William to trumpet this very limited scheme as a response to that crisis is nonsense," Republic CEO Graham Smith said in a release.

A person standing talks with several people who are sitting at a table.
Prince William talks to employees of the British Red Cross in London during his visit Tuesday. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

William's statement on the war in the Middle East came the same day he visited British Red Cross headquarters in London.

"I remain deeply concerned about the terrible human cost of the conflict in the Middle East since the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October. Too many have been killed," he said in the statement.

"I, like so many others, want to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible. There is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support to Gaza. It's critical that aid gets in and the hostages are released."

The statement garnered considerable attention, with various media outlets describing it as an "unusually direct intervention for a member of the Royal Family" and a "rare and bold foray into the complex world of international diplomacy."

Vovk saw the statement as William attempting for the first time to get used to making "apolitical or nonpartisan statements condemning loss of life and atrocities" — in a way that perhaps his father as King can't.

An adult leans down to speak with children.
Prince William, second from left, speaks with Jewish and Arab children at the Neve Golan Stadium in the Israeli Mediterranean coastal city of Jaffa on June 26, 2018. The trip marked William becoming the first member of the Royal Family to make an official visit to the Jewish state and the Palestinian territories. (Heidi Levine/AFP/Getty Images)

And in that there is perhaps an echo of Charles's own time as Prince of Wales.

"William has a little bit more wiggle room, and we saw this with Charles speaking out on things that his mother couldn't when she was on the throne," said Vovk.

As William has been in sharp focus of late, his wife, Catherine, remains out of the public eye recovering from abdominal surgery. She is not expected to return to public duties until after Easter.

"Let's not forget that apart from being a King in waiting … [William is] also flying solo at the moment," said Kaul. "Therefore the focus again becomes very much on him as opposed to them."

That matters, she said.

"I think what we're seeing with William is … a maturity that is to some extent not new, but … is refreshing, is significant and is marking him out as his own man, too."

A person walks down a red carpet with other people in the background.
Prince William, who is also the president of BAFTA, arrives for the 77th British Academy Film Awards in London on Feb. 18. (Jordan Pettitt/The Associated Press)

Of course, it's not always smooth sailing for anyone in the public eye. William made what was variously described in the media as an "unfortunate blunder" and an "awkward" gaffe at the BAFTAs on Sunday night. While talking with an actor from a film that tackles sexual assault, William said, "I haven't yet watched your film — I think it looked like you had a lot of fun all the way through it."

Kaul saw in that a contrast with his other high-profile moments this week.

"He revealed in tackling the gravity of the situation in Gaza a side to his personality that bodes well for the future. Here is a man who is responding to the crises on an international stage … in a meaningful and timely fashion," she said.

"But his … throwaway comments at the glamorous BAFTA awards also reveal that … there is some maturing to do and that also makes him, I think, a little more human."

No trip to Canada for now

Even though it hadn't been officially announced, there was every reason to think King Charles and Queen Camilla had a trip to Canada marked on their spring calendar.

Charles himself had hinted at making a trip to this country in 2024 when he met a delegation from the Mississauga Nation in southern Ontario during a garden party at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh last summer.

Reports in some British newspapers over the past few months had indicated a royal visit to Canada was on tap for sometime in May.

Two people exit from an airplane as a person saluting stands in the background.
Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, disembark their plane in Yellowknife on May 19, 2022. Plans for their first trip to Canada as King and Queen have been delayed after his cancer diagnosis. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

But given Charles's recent diagnosis and ongoing treatment for cancer, any plans for a trip to Canada are on hold.

"Following the announcement of a cancer diagnosis for His Majesty the King, there are no more tours planned in Canada for 2024, nor are there any tours planned with other members of the Royal Family," a Canadian official wrote in response to a CBC News access to information request.

As observers see it, any delay in a visit from the King was to be expected. That other members of the family might not be coming for a royal tour this year isn't unexpected, either.

"It's no surprise that with a smaller Royal Family … there are limits on what they can do," said David Johnson, a political science professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, in an interview.

"And certainly … tours outside of the United Kingdom take a long time to organize."

Last year, Princess Anne visited Canada twice, Prince Edward was here in the spring and Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, came in November. None of those trips was an official visit, and each involved time with various patronages and particular interests of the royal.

A woman wearing a dark blue coat walks alongside a uniformed member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Princess Anne talks with RCMP Commanding Officer DeAnna Hill in Moncton, N.B., on May 19, 2023. (Ron Ward/The Canadian Press)

It's not clear if similar lower-profile visits might occur this year.

"Someone coming to check in on or fulfil a patronage responsibility is a whole lot different than a state visit in which the whole red carpet is rolled out," said Vovk.

"It's a much more complex and taxing experience than just popping over quietly for a few days."

Waiting for a Canadian portrait

While an official portrait of King Charles that will be displayed in public buildings has been unveiled in the United Kingdom, an official Canadian portrait is not yet available.

In response to a query from our CBC Politics colleague J.P. Tasker, Canadian Heritage said it had no updates on the matter.

"The portrait will be made available in due course," the federal department said.

The portrait will be available in two formats — a downloadable print format on the Royal Portraits page of the department website and a physical print through third-party distribution by mail. 

In the meantime, the last official Canadian portrait of Queen Elizabeth, which was taken at Windsor Castle in 2019, remains available on the website, along with the last official portrait of Elizabeth with her husband, Prince Philip, which dates from 2005.

Shoring up the Invictus Games — and themselves

Prince Harry during a Invictus Games preview of wheelchair curling at Hillcrest Community Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, February 16, 2023.
Prince Harry watches during an Invictus Games preview of wheelchair curling at Hillcrest Community Centre in Vancouver on Feb. 16. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, were in British Columbia last week to help mark one year until the next Invictus Games.

The adaptive sporting event for wounded, injured and sick soldiers and veterans that was founded by Harry will hold its first winter competition next February in Vancouver and Whistler.

"The Invictus Games are not just a competition; they're a way of life, a celebration of the human spirit," Harry said during a speech, according to a report in the Daily Mail.

"The games provide a platform for us to showcase your abilities, to inspire the world and honour the sacrifices of those we have lost."

Beyond promoting the competition, there was also the sense that Harry and Meghan's three days in B.C. were part of an attempt to shore up their own brand.

"There's no doubt it was planned meticulously as this … rebranding, repromotion, I won't say relaunch, but nevertheless [it] gave them an opportunity on an international … stage to come out in a good light, not just Harry, but both of them," said Kaul.

WATCH | Promoting a winter version of the Invictus Games:

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are in Whistler, B.C., to promote the inaugural winter Invictus Games set to start in one year. Royal watchers say it's a good PR move for the couple, whose popularity has significantly dropped in recent years.

The visit came as Harry and Meghan relaunched their website, which is made by Article, a Toronto digital creative agency. Meghan has also struck a new podcast deal with Lemonada Media, after their multimillion-dollar deal with Spotify ended.

Since Harry and Meghan stepped back from the official duties of the upper echelons of the Royal Family four years ago, some observers have seen their brand struggling, particularly in the wake of criticisms levelled at the Royal Family through their Netflix docuseries and Prince Harry's memoir, Spare.

"They have been quite low in terms of a brand for quite some time," said Vovk.

"I think they are struggling to figure out where their brand fits and I think they are probably a little bit adrift, because there don't seem to be the opportunities coming to allow them to create the brand that I think they had always dreamed of and believed would … coalesce after they left the Royal Family."

A person rides a skeleton sled down a track.
Prince Harry rides a skeleton sled down the Whistler Sliding Centre track on Feb. 15 in Whistler, B.C., during a training camp for the 2025 Invictus Games. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)

During their time in B.C., headlines swirled around comments Harry made in an interview with U.S. broadcaster ABC. He said he loves his family, and has trips planned that will see him return or pass through the U.K. On the question of whether he has considered seeking U.S. citizenship, he said it has crossed his mind but is not a high priority.

Speculation also swirled around whether any return to royal duties might be possible for Harry, along with reconciliation within the family, given the current rift, particularly with his elder brother, Prince William.

"Never say never," said Johnson. "The future is a long time and families do heal. Some do, and some don't."

Two people greet two other people in front of a wood wall.
From left, Squamish Nation Coun. Wilson Williams, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Jen Thomas and Prince Harry exchange greetings after being given blankets during the 'One Year to Go' Invictus Games dinner in Vancouver on Feb. 16. (Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press)

In the shorter term, significant reconciliation appears unlikely.

"It's certainly been a huge schism and personally, I think Harry has a lot of work to do," said Kaul.

She also doesn't think it's on Harry's immediate agenda.

"Otherwise the feelers to William would have been made. The fact that that relationship is still as frosty — well, it's non-existent — I think that's a problem."

WATCH | Invictus Games inspire hope for soldiers back home in Ukraine:
The upcoming Invictus Games in Whistler, B.C., have brought two Ukrainian soldiers from the front lines to the slopes, aspiring to give hope to their fellow soldiers still fighting back home.

Royally quotable

"I've had so many wonderful messages and cards, it's reduced me to tears most of the time."

— King Charles, as he was seen back on official duties for the first time since revealing his cancer diagnosis. During the meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Charles also spoke of his admiration for cancer charities.

Two people shake hands while standing in a sitting room with upholstered furniture.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, left, shakes hands with King Charles during their meeting at Buckingham Palace in London on Wednesday. (Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press)

Royal reads 

  1. Prince William has appointed a former diplomat as his private secretary. [The Guardian]

  2. Schoolchildren told Princess Anne about their knife crime fears when she visited a group that works to combat stabbings. [BBC]

  3. The Bank of England says banknotes carrying the portrait of King Charles will begin circulating on June 5. [ITV]. 

  4. King Charles will have plenty to keep him occupied at Sandringham House in the coming days and weeks while he retreats there during his treatment for cancer. [Daily Mail]

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