London’s Wembley stadium has played host to some historic gigs: Queen’s iconic 1985 Live Aid appearance, the Spice Girls’ 1998 concert that saw 150,000 fans squeeze in for some ziga, ziga ahhhh and the time in 2011 a freshly-reunited Take That turned up on an enormous mechanical elephant. (Don’t laugh – their eight night run was the highest grossing residency the stadium had ever boasted.)
Overnight, a new superstar stepped into the spotlight inside the hallowed ground in what was a milestone moment in Windsor history.
Welcome to the stage – aka official royal life – Prince George. Like it or not.
While the UK might have outlawed child labour in 1880, that edict doesn’t seem to quite extend to the palace and overnight the seven-year-old joined his parents William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for an official outing. Kitted out in a suit and tie, the tiny HRH joined 22,500 fans at Wembley to watch England beat Germany in the UEFA EURO 2020 in London.
This engagement is a clear departure from previous events which have seen the three Cambridge tots wheeled en masse, for example, when they all walked the red carpet for a charity pantomime last year. The very conspicuous absence of Charlotte and Louis at Wembley, and the visibility of a besuited George for the first time, represents the firing of the starting gun on the decades-long exercise to ready him – and the British public – for his ascension to the throne.
The Windsors are a family business that traffic in signs and symbolism and the meaning of George’s appearance is crystal clear. The sight of the future King George VII in the stadium, while the crowd belted out God Save the Queen, was all about sending a very blatant message: Here be the line of succession. Now, who wants a pint and a bag of pork scratchings while we watch the Germans being trounced?
Timing is everything, both on the pitch and in the palace, and William and Kate’s decision to trundle out their oldest son, and future king, into the harsh glare of the public eye this week was no coincidence.
The outing comes after William joined his grandmother, the Queen, in Scotland earlier this week for a series of joint events which all seemed in service of projecting a reassuring sense of monarchical continuity. (That and trying to gin up unionist favour among the Scots with a possible independence referendum in the offing.) Now we have the adorable, if slightly befuddled looking George being trotted out for public consumption in what reads like the second act of this very same palace production.
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The coming years will be the most dangerous for the monarchy in decades, if not since King Edward VIII decided a life of dissipated beaujolais drinking in Paris with his wraithlike paramour Wallis Simpson trumped ruling an empire. When Her Majesty passes away and King Charles III is crowned, his reign will undoubtedly bring with it an unprecedented wave of disenfranchisement and a vast public existential questioning of the role and purpose of the monarchy in the 21st century.
With a weather eye on this brewing storm on the horizon, it would seem to be that the palace is trying to get ahead of the crisis that the ascension of Charles III will trigger by firmly cementing in the public imagination that while the jug-eared monarch will rule for a bit, there are much more interesting regal options coming down the pike.
Or, to put it another way, the underlying message of both William and George’s outings this week has been, ‘Look! We have some lovely future kings waiting in the wings if you can just all put up with Charles for a bit. Please ignore whatever he says about homoeopathy.’
What makes this sudden rush to very firmly and publicly reiterate the line of succession in the public mind so interesting is the timing. For only the second time since he sensationally quit royal life nearly 18 months ago, Prince Harry is back on British soil having landed last Friday.
The sixth in line to the throne is back in the mother country ahead of Thursday’s unveiling of the statue he and William had previously, during happier times, commissioned of their mother Diana, Princess of Wales. The Kensington Palace ceremony, which will see William and Harry have to stand side-by-side, will be about as relaxed as a fresh round of Middle East peace talks. (Thank god neither prince has access to mortar rounds.)
Harry’s status as the spare to William’s history book-starring heir role is one that has reportedly long chafed. Even stretching back to their childhood, it was the elder prince who was singled out for one-on-one afternoon teas with their Gan Gan so he could start to pick up the finer points about ruling. In adulthood, that second-tier billing and the treatment that came with it rankled Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, according to last year’s biography Finding Freedom.
According to authors Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, in 2019, “Harry … was growing frustrated that he and Meghan often took a back seat to other family members’ initiatives and priorities.
“It was difficult when they wanted to focus on a particular project and were told that a more senior ranking family member, be it Prince William or Prince Charles, had an initiative or tour being announced at the same time — so they would just have to wait.”
The decision, reportedly instigated by Prince Charles, that the Queen and the three future kings should pose for a historic portrait together in December 2019, was “was enthusiastically supported by Prince William, who was not saying anything for the record – but who wanted to send his younger brother a message,” biographer Lacey has written.
For the Sussexes, being relegated to a lowlier position in the hierarchical palace pecking order played a part in their decision to exit royal life and try their luck in California. (Palm trees! Sunshine! Netflix deals! Always getting top billing!)
George’s appearance with his parents this week is a stark reminder of how little Harry now matters in a strictly hierarchical sense. It’s hard not to wonder if the decision for the tyke to attend the game, wedged between the future king and queen, was not driven in part by a desire to underline this particular fact.
For George, no less than the future of the monarchy now rests on his very young shoulders. No pressure now or anything.
If the boy looked a tad bewildered during the outing it might have something to do with William and Kate having reportedly explained to their son about a year ago that he will be king.
“Sometime around the boy’s seventh birthday in the summer of 2020 it is thought that his parents went into more detail about what the little prince’s life of future royal ‘service and duty’ would particularly involve,” royal biographer Robert Lacey has written in the new edition of Battle of Brothers. Motivating the Cambridges’ decision, according to Lacey, was “William’s unhappiness at the haphazard fashion in which the whole business of his royal destiny had buzzed around his head from the start.”
The pressure and the weight of that destiny must be immense.
The overlap of Harry’s return with George’s public appearance carries with it some painful lessons about royalty. George now faces a life which will be entirely dictated by the demands of duty and service to the crown; Harry has cleaved himself, for better or worse, from those strictures and responsibilities.
Looking at the photos of George at the game is a reminder of one of the points that Harry has been making all along: That to be royal demands exquisite personal sacrifice.
However, with that sacrifice comes a platform to lead and effect change that is unsurpassed globally, no matter how many Netflix deals one might snag – a lesson that George’s uncle does not seem to have fully grasped.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare’s King Richard IV famously says.
For better or worse, George will learn all too well what that means, and Harry never will.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
Originally published as Subtle Harry message in new George photo