How Prince William keeps Diana's memory alive

The memory and influence of Diana, Princess of Wales, who would have been 50 on July 1, 2011, lives on in her son, Prince William

Princess of Wales would have celebrated her 50th birthday on July 1

Diana, Princess of Wales, enjoys a ride on the Maid of Mist in Niagara Falls, Ont., in this October 1991 photo, with Prince William, then nine. Seven-year-old Prince Harry was also along for the ride. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

He doesn't talk about her much publicly.

In fact, in the 14 years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, her elder son, Prince William, has said little about the woman who in many ways shaped his life.

"With William, when it comes to his mother, and speaking about his mother, he really has remained very quiet on it," says royal expert and CBC commentator Ciara Hunt.

Diana hands Prince William his diving mask after she adjusts the strap at Banana Bay Beach in St. Kitts on Jan. 4, 1993. ((Richard Drew/Associated Press))

That's not to say, however, that the memory of Diana is far from his mind. What's more, it's bound to be there — even if he doesn't draw public attention to it — as he steps onto the stage on Parliament Hill on July 1 to help Canadians celebrate the country's 144th birthday.

July 1 could also have been another birthday in his life: Diana's 50th.

"I find it poignant and fascinating that [William] has chosen on such a significant day in his life to continue with duty and to celebrate Canada's birthday," says Hunt, who was in London for William's wedding to Kate Middleton in April and is in Ottawa for their first overseas visit as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Still, Hunt expected William will reflect on his mother and celebrate Diana and her birthday in his own way.

That reflection would fall in line with some of the other unique ways in which he has honoured her memory, whether it was by helping organize a concert and memorial service for the 10th anniversary of her death, following in her footsteps with his charitable work, giving Kate his mother's engagement ring or taking his fiancée to visit his mother's grave shortly before their wedding.

Ring 'very special' to William

His decision to give Kate the sapphire-and-diamond ring raised eyebrows at the time. Why give his bride such a visible symbol of another marriage — that of his parents — that imploded and ultimately ended in such a disastrous fashion?

"For so many people, the ring signifies so many bad memories," says Hunt. "But actually, for Diana, in so many ways at that point in time, the engagement ring signified many good memories."

Kate Middleton wears her engagement ring that once belonged to Diana on the day her engagement to Prince William was announced in London on Nov. 16, 2010. ((Arthur Edwards/Pool/Associated Press))

On the day the engagement of William and Kate was announced, in one of the rare moments when he has specifically addressed the memory of his mother, he said the ring is "very special" to him.

"It's my way of making sure my mother didn't miss out on today and the excitement and the fact we are going to spend the rest of our lives together."

In that decision to marry Kate, Hunt sees a particularly significant way in which William has been influenced by Diana.

"I think the most poignant thing that she would be very proud of is the fact that she always wanted William to marry for love, never for duty," says Hunt. "She was so adamant about that that I think she'd be very happy of the fact William did marry the girl he loved."

Observers also see Diana reflected in the way William carries out his royal role.

"I think Prince William has a lot of Princess Diana in him in the way he behaves," says Robert Finch, chairman of the Monarchist League of Canada.

Yes, William, second in line to the throne, is dutiful. "He understands his role and can be very serious," says Finch.

"But at the same time, he's been known to relax protocol, to get out and enjoy life."

Breaking protocol

In any breaking of protocol, he can probably be seen as his mother's son. 

Diana chats with a young boy at a dedication ceremony in Burnaby, B.C., on May 6, 1986, when she and her husband, Prince Charles, dedicated a special park for handicapped children. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

The Princess of Wales made three trips to Canada. On her first, she took the unprecedented step of moving away from a formal greeting line to talk to someone in a wheelchair. She was equally known for bending down to talk with children.

"She had a real way with the children, the elderly, and engaging with them," says Carolyn Harris, a PhD student at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who is studying British and French royalty.

Hunt sees much of his mother in William, whether it's in some of his small gestures, his blush or the way he can relate to others.

"He very much has that emotional attachment to people that a lot of the royals do not have."

Diana's interests in charity work — and the way he carries it out — also reflect his mother.

"It's really in the charity work where he is following in the footsteps of Diana," says Hunt, noting his hands-on, interactive approach and his interest in the Centrepoint organization, which supports homeless young people.

Diana took William and his brother Prince Harry for private visits to Centrepoint. William, who is the charity's patron, also slept rough in the London streets one night.

In this image made available by the charity Centrepoint, Prince William and Centrepoint CEO Seyi Obakin prepare for a night sleeping rough in freezing temperatures in central London on Dec. 15, 2009. ((Centrepoint/Associated Press))

Speculation and retrospectives

That July 1 would have been Diana's 50th birthday has set off a series of "what if" speculations and retrospectives. Newsweek magazine Photoshopped a cover of an aged Diana walking with Kate, which set off a firestorm of comment and controversy.

In Britain earlier this year, the publication of a book by noted author Monica Ali that was clearly based on Diana encountered notably mixed reviews. (The novel revolved around a British princess faking her own death and then settling in a small U.S. town, and was published in Canada in June.)

Writing in the Daily Mail, Ali said Untold Story is her salute to Diana, a woman she describes as the "supreme icon" and "supreme iconoclast."

"When the Princess of Wales spoke openly about her bulimia, when she shook hands with an AIDS patient, when she went on television and revealed what lay inside the high-walled palace grounds, she was railing against convention, against an entire institution," Ali said.

"They were acts that took courage. She broke down barriers. If the barriers are now down and we fail to use our new freedoms wisely, that, surely, is not her failing but our own."

Prince William waves as he walks on stage to introduce the first act in the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium in London on July 1, 2007. The concert was held to mark what would have been the 46th birthday of Diana. (Stephen Hird/Pool/Associated Press)

But many commentators, including Hunt, considered Ali's book somewhat tacky.

"There's so much out there that really you've just got to let it rest," says Hunt. "Let sleeping dogs lie.

"That's all William and Harry want. They just want to remember their mother the way that they remembered her."

For Finch, the greatest legacy Diana has left for William is the way he approaches his role.

"There is that Diana factor that Prince William has about him and I think that's to his advantage because I think of people like that. People refer to Diana as 'the People's Princess.' I think people look at Prince William as 'the People's Prince.'"