Any grandmother would be generous on her grandson’s 40th birthday, but every move the Queen makes is surrounded by landmines.
The Duke of Cambridge turned 40 this week, and the extent to which the Queen has singled out her grandson has the potential to really ruffle some royal feathers.
What do you give a future king for a birthday present? A small island off the coast of Nova Scotia? A Fabergé egg to accompany your Xbox? A half-share in his beloved Aston Villa football team?
Her Majesty could probably spare one of her Fabergé pieces or find a spare Commonwealth piece to entrust to her grandson, instead she took an even more frugal route.
There was his amusing pressie, one that will require a small army of footmen going to the cellars and churning up case after case of Bollinger and Pol Roger, the Queen’s favorite fizzy drinks.
The mirror reported that the 96-year-old had offered to host a combined birthday party for William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge (who turned 40 in January) at Windsor Castle or Sandringham in the months to come.
The royal kitchens probably already have a head start on the battalion of cocktail quiches and venison sausage rolls they’ll need for the Turnip Toff crowd.
Then came William’s real birthday on Tuesday when Buckingham Palace marked the big day by sending out congratulations on social media. However, what sets this year’s post apart is the Palace’s clear change of course, sharing a Twitter thread that was a pretty blunt marketing exercise of William as King-in-Waiting.
Even for a man who will one day sit on the throne, these two palace moves represent a stepping up treatment of William’s golden boy. And therein lies the problem.
First, there is the party. While Her Majesty, who is only a handful of years younger than her century, may have been a bit spent popping the bubbles until midnight and hitting the dance floor with Bobby Daran, over the years she has proven to be an enthusiastic host.
In 1990 she organized the famous Dance of the Decades at Windsor Castle, launched to mark the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday, Princess Margert’s 60th birthday, Princess Anne’s 40th birthday and Prince Andrew’s 30th birthday.
(Better not to mention that in 2006, Windsor Castle was the setting for Princess Beatrice’s 18th birthday celebration, and that saw Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell and Harvey Weinstein all on the guest list.)
William and his cousins Zara Tindall and Peter Phillip were all recipients of 21st birthday parties in Windsor.
However, by singling out William and Kate with that straight royal knee, the Queen risks putting a number of noses out of place.
As far as it has been reported, she has not offered similar offers to her other grandchildren who are already in their 40s.
What seems clear is that Her Majesty’s generosity here reflects the high regard in which she clearly holds the Cambridges. They have been very good HRHs over the past few years, proving not only to be diligent monarchical foot soldiers, but also to have a clear vision of what it will take to keep the royal house functioning in the decades to come.
This includes big projects that tackle the most pressing issues, such as climate change and mental health, rather than piecemeal charity visits that involve wooden speeches and handshakes.
William and Kate smiled, procreated, and generally avoided creating their own scandals. This party is very much like a reward for all that good work; the gold star to end all gold stars.
But how will this windfall play out in other royal quarters?
The fate of William and Kate, ending up on thrones, stamps and limited edition coins, is very obviously a world apart from that of their cousins, the majority of whom have jobs, mortgages and don’t have to clear time in the schedule for portrait sessions.
Inequity – the fact that some Windsor descendants receive vastly different treatment than others – is ingrained in royal life, but that doesn’t mean seeing it big might not grate or ruffle feathers.
The Queen has six other adult grandchildren besides William, how must they feel seeing her party’s largesse only extend so far?
Then there are the William Buckingham Palace Twitter posts, postmodern idolatry at its finest.
Social media birthday wishes from all royal households – Buckingham Palace, Prince Charles and Camlla, Clarence House from the Duchess of Cornwall and the Kensington Palace outfit from Cambridge – generally follow a standard stock format.
Shots of the birthday boy or girl and a picture or two showing them with the manager(s) of that home. The Palace has generally stuck to this formula.
In 2021, for his 39th birthday, we received a series of images featuring William the soldier, William the dad and William the benefactor par excellence.
In 2020, the Palace shared an image of the Queen and William smiling together.
In 2019, we had a shonky collage of images of the Prince, several of which showed him with the “Top Lady”.
Did someone just teach a corgi how to use Adobe?
You get the drift.
But this year ? A lengthy Twitter thread which, after the usual good wishes, read “As the second in line to the throne turns 40, learn more about His Royal Highness” and then covered his major achievements such as birth, earning a geography middle degree, graduating from Sandhurst and becoming an air ambulance pilot.
It all ended on a high note, plugging in his current royal gig – trying to change the world between two swordsmanship for investitures.
It was all part resume, part LinkedIn profile, and all the social media love. Translation: It was Buckingham Palace going into hype man mode, a clearly more forceful attempt than we’ve seen before on his birthdays to really get the message across that William is a future ruler.
Someone has clearly read all about branding.
Again, this decision carries the risk of upsetting the various competing egos that make up the royal family.
Charles and Camilla are in Rwanda this week for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the first royal visit to the once war-torn country. On Wednesday, the couple visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial and then the Nyamata Church, where 10,000 Tutsis were murdered in just two days in unspeakable violence.
The Prince of Wales’ sensitivity to his son’s popularity eclipsing his own and William’s royal work surpassing his has been widely reported. Too much focus on what an overwhelming King William will be and too much aggrandizement of his future reign carries with it the potential to upset the delicate balance of princely egos.
When Charles celebrated the milestone birthday, his young sons gave him a badge that read “Life begins at 40”. Hopefully the best is yet to come for William and Kate – the monarchy may well depend on it.
Daniela Elser is a royal pundit and writer with over 15 years of experience working with a number of top media titles in Australia.
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