By Catherine Mayer
February 12, 2015

In April 2013 Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate, known since their marriage as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, attended the opening of the Tamar Manoukian Outdoor Residential Centre on the Dumfries House estate in Scotland. The project, named for a member of the prominent Armenian family that funded it, is one of a number of initiatives that William’s father, Prince Charles, has founded to encourage youth leadership in Britain. As Charles cleared his throat to begin his speech, William spoke to the heir to the throne in a way few people can get away with. “Make it brief,” he said.

He spoke in jest, but the light moment reveals much about the journey Charles and his family have undertaken since the painful end of Charles and Diana’s marriage and her subsequent death in a car accident in Paris in 1997. Such events could have created chasms of resentment between a father and his children, but Charles and his sons display a closeness and loyalty to one another that is cemented both by a traditional sense of duty and the deep, complicated love that keeps together many modern families. William and his brother Prince Harry have grown up the subjects of permanent fascination–to be royal is to be a celebrity for life–but their appeal lies in the sense that they have experienced great sadness and privilege and have emerged as respectful young men who see their father not as a source of blame but as an ally.

William tends to be as clipped as his father is expansive. Still, he has given a few interviews in which his emotions broke through, answering questions about Diana and once visibly choking up as he watched footage of a rhino injured by poachers bleeding to death. The segment was filmed soon after his son George’s birth in 2013, for a documentary aimed at raising awareness of the plight of endangered wildlife. “The last few weeks for me have been a very different emotional experience–something I never thought I would feel for myself,” said the new father. “I find, even though it’s only been a short period, that a lot of things affect me now–when I see a clip like that, there’s so much emotion and so much feeling wrapped up into conservation and environment. It’s just so powerful.”

For the most part, William reveals little to journalists, radiating a contempt at least as heartfelt as his concern for rhinos. The reporters who regularly cover the royals assume this is because William blames the press for Diana’s death–several photographers on motorcycles were pursuing her when the car she was in crashed–forgetting that he surely remembers enough of his boyhood to blame the press for what it did to her life. Yet William’s terseness is also a function of a process Charles went through. In defining himself against his staunch, silent parents, Charles became the man he is. In defining himself against his father, William has become more like his royal grandmother, closed and cautious, comfortable with actions rather than words.

William has also become his own man. Until recently, royal advisers clung to a vision of transition that would see Charles pass his charitable empire to his sons when he assumed the Crown. The Prince’s Trust, founded by Charles in 1976 to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth in the U.K., would simply move its apostrophe one space to the right. “It would be nice to see the continuum,” says an insider. But neither of “the boys,” as the 30-something William and Harry are known among palace staff, shows an inclination to get involved with the trust or take on the rest of the sprawl. They dutifully turn up for trust events, and joined Charles at a February 2014 conservation conference, but are otherwise focused on their own careers and establishing their own organizations. William and Harry set up a new foundation in 2009 and were joined in their endeavors by Kate after her marriage to William. The young royals’ charitable vehicle focuses on opportunities for young people, the welfare of veterans and serving members of the British military, and the conservation of natural resources; Harry also co-founded the Lesotho-based children’s charity Sentebale.

They are demonstrating their independence in other ways too. This spring, William is set to embark on an experiment that will see the second in line to the throne trying to hold down a civilian job, as an air ambulance pilot, albeit with flexibility in his schedule so that he can continue to carry out royal duties. He plans to donate his full salary ($61,000) to charity, illustrating the larger anomaly of a royal seeking a slice of normal life. Kate, meanwhile, has started flying solo in her own way, representing the Queen. She was supposed to undertake her first overseas engagement without William in September 2014, a trip to Malta, but William stood in for her after severe morning sickness temporarily clipped her wings. (The couple are expecting their second child in April.)

Royal Flush

In September Harry celebrated his 30th birthday in the afterglow of the Invictus Games, a competition for injured service personnel from 13 nations that he staged at London’s former Olympic Park. Media coverage was benign. The British tabloids like Harry–for now. “He’s the Sun readers’ favorite royal,” says the paper’s royal photographer Arthur Edwards. “They think he’s like them, and that’s the highest compliment.” Yet the event’s success doesn’t solve Harry’s existential conundrum any more than his popularity will shield him against a future narrative of redundancy, as one of the spares, not the heir. Nor has Harry yet solved the problem of how to find a partner who is grounded and sane, yet not so sane that the prospect of life on Planet Windsor sends her in retreat. It took William almost a decade and a public rupture with Kate before he felt secure in making the decision to marry. It took Charles far longer to find contentment. Diana never did.

That history still shapes her sons’ decisions. “William seems to have chosen to live up in Norfolk [as his country retreat], and yet his father has spent so long building [Highgrove] that I’m sure he would love one of his sons to inherit. It’s a father’s expression of immortality,” says an insider. Highgrove, in southwestern England, was one of the family residences of Charles and Diana and remains a favorite retreat for Charles, who has lavished attention on its gardens for over 30 years and potters there happily, sometimes under the affectionate gaze of his second wife, Camilla. William and Kate’s home, Anmer Hall, lies more than 200 miles (320 km) away, to the northeast. Highgrove “embraces [Charles’] commitment to sustainable farming and to the world of the botanical, the natural world,” the insider says.

The house also carries echoes of a difficult past. This is where the boys spent some of their best times and the most confusing. Charles was ill-equipped to cope with his first marriage, its collapse and the challenge of parenting children whose resentment at his rejection of their mother was layered with grief and anger at her death. Yet he made a miraculously good job of the last of these. At Diana’s funeral, her brother delivered a eulogy that included a barely disguised swipe at royal parenting. “I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned,” said Earl Spencer. One of the prince’s biographers, Anthony Holden, judged that Diana’s influence had already been erased when, less than three months after her death, Harry stood alongside his father at a charity concert in South Africa attended by Nelson Mandela and featuring the Spice Girls. In balmy temperatures, listening to pop, Harry, age 13, wore a suit and tie.

There is no question that Charles raised his sons to an awareness of duty and tradition–and an appreciation for a well-cut suit, though the boys tend to prefer single- to double-breasted–but he nurtured them too. He has always been keen to give them, in place of the tough love favored by his own parents, something more enveloping; he determined with Diana that they should be as protected from the public gaze as possible and spend as much time with their parents as possible, and when the time came they would not attend Gordonstoun–a Scottish boarding school that in Charles’ time might have been judged spartan even by Spartans–but the cosier Eton College, on the doorstep of Windsor, one of the Queen’s homes. He resisted the temptation to denigrate Diana while she lived and afterward encouraged the boys to think and talk about her and maintain contact with her friends. The relationships between father and sons are not without stresses and complexities, but they are stronger as a result. Unsurprisingly, these bonds are most easily visible in a shared sense of humor, says Camilla’s nephew Ben Elliot, “them ridiculing him, him ridiculing them, that joshing that often goes with good relationships. Not just about a lack of hair or those kinds of things. I’ve seen with his younger son them almost just frolicking with one another in a really lovely way.” Actress Emma Thompson, an old friend of Charles, agrees. “They are so, so loving,” she says.

When he married and started a family, William shifted the dynamic, presenting the idealized family unit that used to be monarchy’s specialty. Yet in appearing to secure the future of the Windsor dynasty–a future King happily married to his future Queen and already blessed with an heir, unblemished by scandals, unburdened by failures–the Cambridges have attained a popularity that threatens to undermine the first in line to the throne. “People admire the Queen so much because she’s impeccable–she shows no emotion–and they also say Prince William is a modern royal, but somehow Prince Charles is in the middle and gets criticized from both sides,” says Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust and a longtime adviser to the prince on sustainability issues.

Happy and Harmonious

Patrick Holden says the media narrative of princely jealousies is overdone. He has heard Charles comment ruefully on his sons’ and daughter-in-law’s ability to draw crowds and headlines but has witnessed far more often the prince’s boundless pride in the younger generation. He is always learning from his children, the prince remarks during predinner conversation at Dumfries House. He is constantly amazed by what they know about the world–and what he doesn’t. In return, he has tried to do as the Queen Mother did for him, introducing them to art and culture, or at any rate those corners of art and culture that resonate with him. (Charles’ 2010 book Harmony sets out a philosophy that will never tolerate anything that smacks of modernism.)

The birth of Prince George has drawn a close family closer. The boys not only accept Camilla but are affectionate toward her, seeing how much she lifts their father’s spirits. Diana has not been forgotten, but she no longer divides and conquers. “His Royal Highness said something in connection with his grandson the other day, which I thought was incredibly revealing, about how the most important thing is to have a heart that’s open,” says Patrick Holden.

Hearts are open. Harmony reigns. The question remains: Will Charles, William and, eventually, George? Part of the answer lies beyond royal control, in social and economic developments that could either enhance the residual value of the monarchy or shred it. But a larger responsibility for their fate lies with the royals themselves. The Queen has kept the throne safe, if not warm. Should her son live long enough to succeed her, he is unlikely to have time to secure his legacy through the kind of slow, careful change management that served her so well. Charles’ greatest challenge will be to stand for continuity while redefining the monarchy, remaking it in his own image while strengthening it for his son and grandson.

This is an edited extract from Born to Be King: Prince Charles on Planet Windsor, by Time editor at large Catherine Mayer, to be published by Henry Holt on Feb. 17. Copyright © 2015 by Catherine Mayer.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

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