The 'Other' Prince William
We all know who Prince William is, yet before the Duke of Cambridge there was another Prince William, who's impact on the Monarchy was just as profound.
AUGUST 30th, 2021
hen the name Prince William is mentioned most will instantly refer to the Duke of Cambridge, second-in-line to the British Royal Throne. Yet long before the current Prince William, there was another whose impact on The Royal Family was just as profound. Adventurous, handsome, complex and whose life was marred with intrigue and, ultimately, tragedy, Prince William of Gloucester set the blueprint for what a royal prince could be, and how duty to the monarchy was paramount above all else.
Born to Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester and Alice, the Duchess of Gloucester, William was the grandson of George V and Queen Mary, and upon his birth he immediately became fourth-in-line to the throne. His cousin was Princess Elizabeth - later Queen Elizabeth II, of whom he fulfilled the role of pageboy at her wedding to Prince Philip in 1947.
William was a unique prince, noted for his good looks and striking blue eyes (“reminiscent of the Caribbean ocean,” as described by the media at the time), his adventurous spirit and appetite for thrills was a founding element of his character. They were characteristics which endeared him to many, especially within his own family. A close friend and confidant of the Queen and Princess Margaret, William was extremely fond of his uncle, George VI, who was also his godfather. The relationship between king and Prince was one which extended to mutual respect. Prince Henry, William’s father, was away on military duties at the time of his son’s birth. With the uncertainty of conflict, George VI wrote numerous letters to his sister-in-law promising that if anything should happen to his brother, then he would proudly take the role of William’s guardian. The offer cemented the close relationship between William and the King as well as the Queen and young Princesses.
Besides the physical attributes which made him the object of many women’s affections, he was remarkably intelligent. His thirst for knowledge was renowned, and after graduating from Eton, the Prince attended Magdalene College, graduating with a BA degree in 1963. Afterwards, he swapped Cambridge for a post-baccalaureate year at Stanford University, studying political science, business and American history. “Knowledge is power, it really is,” he told a journalist in 1971. “It’s what truly makes the world go around.” And yet the world of academics wasn’t where his passions ended.
His adventurous streak sent him across the world finding thrills in all manner of places. Piloting aircraft, many of which he personally owned, exploring, sports and hot air ballooning, William filled his life with risk - and he loved it. But where did that love of adventure stem from? For the Prince, his health was a major factor.
After a request by his mother to be examined by a doctor, he was diagnosed with porphyria - an hereditary disease which affects the skin’s sensitivity to light. For the Prince, it would mean his skin would frequently erupt in a blistering rash when exposed to sunlight. This wasn’t unusual for the Royal Family. As far back as Mary, Queen of Scots and George III, members of the Royal Family had suffered with the disease, yet it was thanks to Prince William that historians could confirm the hereditary theory as fact. His ill health would eventually ease and by the time he was stationed in Tokyo in 1968 as Second Secretary of the British Embassy under the Commonwealth Office, he was officially in remission from the disease.
“It never held me back, or at least I never let it. I would wear sunscreen, cover up as much as possible. There was always a way of getting things done,” revealed Prince William in an interview in 1970 when asked about his health.
Although the Prince enjoyed much freedom and was able to form large parts of his life in his own image, there was always the understanding that as the next Duke of Gloucester his commitment would forever be embedded within the constraints of monarchy. And as his father, Prince Henry’s health began to wane after multiple strokes, Prince William stepped into the role of a full-time royal prince. He would consistently represent the Queen throughout the Commonwealth, having built up strong relationships with the “family of nations” as a civil servant. It was a role he enjoyed and one which brought his relationship with his cousin, the Queen, even closer.
As with many members of The Royal Family their work within the public world wasn’t as interesting to the masses as their private lives, and it was no different for Prince William. Whilst a long-running relationship with model and stewardess Zsuzsi Starkloff sparked much rumblings of marriage, a betrothal never materialised. The reasons for William’s reluctance have never been confirmed, yet in 1970 in an interview with the Daily Mirror he alluded to the reality of forming relationships whilst a member of The Royal Family.
“There is a process,” he declared. “Of course love is the most important, but this is a unique position for any woman to marry into, not only into royalty or even a family, but an understanding of duty to a singular figure - the monarch. If I were to ever marry, I will do so to a woman not only right for me, but right in the eyes of other members of the Family”.
Sadly, marriage would never become a reality in the Prince’s life, neither would a family of his own. Two years after his interview, in 1972 tragedy struck in the most brutal and devastating way. Competing in the annual Goodyear International Air Trophy at Halfpenny Green, near Wolverhampton, William, alongside his co-pilot and friend Vyrell Mitchell, shortly after takeoff, lost control of their Piper Cherokee aircraft. Banking abruptly, the plane’s wing struck a tree, ripping it from the fuselage. Crashing into an earthen bank, the plane erupted into flames engulfing both men inside.
In front of 30,000 spectators, and after two hours of firefighters attempting to douse the flames, the news emerged that Prince William had died alongside his co-pilot. He had been killed instantly and due to the inferno his remains were too badly damaged for identification. Dental records would be used instead. For his friends, the reality of his death was tragic, but not surprising. His adventurous nature and thrill-seeking attitude had become a macabre joke amongst the group, that William would never make it past thirty, eventually the thrills and spills of life would catch up with him. William was laid to rest at Frogmore in the Royal Burial Ground, and whilst the devastation of his death left a lasting impact on the Royal Family, his legacy would form in a surprising way.
Almost ten years after the tragic accident which claimed his life, another Prince William would arrive on the royal scene. Named, in part, after the Prince of Gloucester, the future Duke of Cambridge would unexpectedly follow in the similar footsteps of his equally regal relative, and one way was through the very mantra that both men actively looked upon their lives.
In 1971, almost a year before his death, in what would be Prince William’s final interview, the 30-year-old was asked about how he looked upon life. His answer, once lost to history, was rediscovered after its similarity to an interview conducted by the Duke of Cambridge in 2017. “I’m not so sure how to answer that,” he said, “except for the understanding that, for me, life has two choices - it will either make you, or break you and essentially you don’t strive for the latter.”
In the Duke’s 2017 interview on the death of his mother, Princess Diana, those words would poignantly remerge, as if echoed through history from the Prince who at the time of his death was ninth-in-line to the British throne. “When you have something as traumatic as the death of your mother at fifteen, as very sadly many people have experienced, and no one wants to experience, it can either make or break you, and I wouldn't let it break me. I wanted it to make me, and wanted her to be proud of the person I would become.”
Prince William of Gloucester was a figure within the monarchy who helped reestablish the idea of a royal Prince. He was, in many ways, one of the first royals to actively and successfully find a balance between being a royal and a person. How tragic that his life was cut so short, and that he could never witness the similarities between his counterpart William of today.
Throughout history William has always been known as the “other” Prince William, yet perhaps upon reflection, it would be more appropriate to label him the “original” one. After all, the blueprint he left behind is still actively seen and felt today, not just by today’s Prince William, but one destined for kingship.
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